It’s huge, it has a a ridiculously bad title, and it’s a feast for a Heinlein fanatic like me.
Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better tells the story of the second half of the life of the most influential science fiction writer since H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.
Volume 1 of the biography came out in 2010. I found it to be a fascinating portrait, not just of Heinlein as a boy and young man, but also of the nation he was raised in. That nation was far away and distant from our own. It was America, 1907-48. Heinlein dreamed of the stars at a time when you kept in touch with your friends by mail if they lived outside of driving distance. If you wanted to take a long-distance trip, you drove or took an overnight train.
I loved the second volume almost as much as Volume 1. I read most of it over Memorial Day weekend. And the Tuesday after Memorial Day, I was up at 4:30 in the morning thinking about Heinlein. I’ve been struggling with some big life decisions for a while; the example of Heinlein’s life helped me find answers.
Heinlein is one of my heroes. He has been since I was a boy. The very first novel I read was a slim paperback of Heinlein’s Red Planet. I was captivated by the story of two boys in a boarding school on Mars and their pet Martian bouncer Willis (who turns out to be more than just a pet), getting caught up in a revolution as they skated across the frozen canals of Mars.
And Heinlein stayed with me for more than forty years since. Not all his books are great. Some of them aren’t even very good. The books he wrote in later life are his most popular — from 1961’s Stranger in a Strange Land to To Sail Beyond the Sunset, publishedin 1987, the years before he died. But I don’t really care for those (not even Stranger, his most popular book of all). I like his earlier work, in particular the “boy’s books” he wrote in the 1950s: Citizen of the Galaxy, which I wrote about here a short time ago; Starman Jones, Tunnel in the Sky, The Star Beast, and a couple of the adult books he wrote in the same period, including Double Star and Methuselah’s Children.
I re-read Heinlein every couple of years. His novels are like visiting a favorite uncle. I love the language. Heinlein’s narrators and characters spoke a mid-20th-Century vernacular; the voices when I read his books are Stewart, Hepburn, Tracy, and Grant. Methuselah’s Children is set 200 years in the future; the men wear kilts, carry blasters, and pilot spaceships, but they also smoke cigarettes. I imagine they wear fedoras and the cigarettes they smoke are Luckies. Lazarus Long, the hero, calls people “Bub.” Just about all of Heinlein’s novels are like that. That’s part of the charm for me.
Almost none of Heinlein’s heroes are supermen. They’re ordinary men and women, highly competent, educated, and skilled, called on to perform heroically. They’re likable — even the villains are just guys trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances.
Heinlein’s greatest skill was sketching out whole worlds in a few words. Doors dilate, cigarettes are self-lighting, one character’s alarm clock chirps “Better look at me boss— I’ve got troubles,” over and over until shut off — seemed very futuristic when I read the book 40 years ago; now you can easily set your iPhone to do something like that.
Heinlein was married to Virginia Heinlein for 40 years, until his death. As described by Patterson, theirs was a great love, a marriage of two great minds and spirit. The section of the biography describing the period after Heinlein’s death is extremely sad; Virginia writes a letter to Robert describing how she misses him and hopes to be reunited with him soon. Both Heinleins were rationalists and materialists, but they kept the door open to the possibility of the occult and life after death.
Volume 2 of Patterson’s biography lacks the wonderful worldbuilding of Volume 1, because the world of America 1948-88 (Heinlein died that year), is more familiar. I found this volume of the biography slow going at times, consumed with the details of Heinlein’s chronic illnesses and the very complicated business dealings of a bestselling novelist. (Spoiler alert: many people in the movie business were unscrupulous then, as were many people in publishing).
The book seems one-sided — not surprising, since this is a biography authorized by Heinlein’s widow and later their estate. I’m sure Patterson was scrupulous in trying to be objective, but I presume he was selected because of his admiration for Heinlein. Heinlein got in disagreements, with fan Forrest Ackerman, the national blood bank organization, science fiction critic Alexei Panshin, and — in a particularly tragic turn — his second wife, Leslyn, who seems to have descended into alcohol and madness. I would have liked to have heard their side of the stories.
Also, Patterson seems to agree with Heinlein’s politics, and at times appears to be apologetic for them.
Still, it was a fine biography and I found it well worth reading.
I interviewed Patterson, the author of the biography, for more than two hours on a podcast I was then producing called Copper Robot. (I don’t have a link — sorry. Maybe I can find something and re-post if there’s sufficient interest.) Patterson and I were both regulars at LosCon, the Los Angeles sf convention held over Thanksgiving weekend, and we got in a few conversations, sat on a couple of panels together, and had lunch there. We corresponded on Facebook — our politics were different but I enjoyed our disagreements, and he seemed to as well.
Then in late April of this year I got bad news and good news in the same message. The bad news overshadowed the good: Patterson was dead. And the Heinlein biography was due out June 3.
I’m sorry that Patterson is gone, but he’s left a fine legacy behind him.