Despite an already long and cumbersome title, William H. Patterson, Jr., could have included still an additonal subtitle to the second volume of his mammoth, authorized biography of Robert A. Heinlein, something along the lines of “The Most Influential American Science Fiction Writer of the 20th Century.” Even Philip K. Dick — the current darling of hipsters and academics — regarded Heinlein as the master.
Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) possessed an astonishing gift for fast-paced narrative, an exceptionally engaging voice and a willingness to boldly go where no writer had gone before. In “— All You Zombies—” a transgendered time traveler impregnates his younger self and thus becomes his own father and mother. The protagonist of “Tunnel in the Sky” is black, and the action contains hints of interracial sex, not the usual thing in a 1955 young adult book. While “Starship Troopers” (1959) championed the military virtues of service and sacrifice, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961) became a bible for the flower generation, blurring sex and religion and launching the vogue word “grok.”
Like his fascinating but long-winded first volume, the second half of Patterson’s biography is difficult to judge fairly. Packed with facts both trivial and significant, relying heavily on the possibly skewed memories of the author’s widow, and utterly reverent throughout, volume two emphasizes Heinlein the husband, traveler, independent businessman and political activist. Above all, the book celebrates the intense civilization of two that Heinlein and his wife created. There is almost nothing in the way of literary comment or criticism.
Though Heinlein can do no wrong in his biographer’s eyes, if you use yours to look in Patterson’s voluminous endnotes, you will occasionally find confirmation that the writer could be casually cruel as well as admirably generous, at once true to his beliefs and unpleasantly narrow-minded and inflexible about them. Today we would call Heinlein’s convictions libertarian, his personal philosophy grounded in absolute freedom, individual responsibility and an almost religiously inflected patriotism. Heinlein could thus be a confirmed nudist and member of several Sunshine Clubs as well as a grass-roots Barry Goldwater Republican.
Throughout his life he regularly exhibited an almost feudal sense of gratitude and loyalty: Because transfusions saved his life during a difficult surgery, he actively lent his name and time to local and national blood banks. The day that Americans landed on the moon, he declared proudly, should be the first day of a new calendar; it was to him the greatest achievement in the history of humankind. When biographer Thomas Buell wrote for information about Adm. Ernest J. King, under whom Heinlein had once served, the novelist replied that he considered King a nearly perfect military officer and then produced 59 typed pages of anecdote and reminiscence.
Reviewer Michael Dirda says Heinlein’s last novels, from I Will Fear No Evil on, are “generally regarded as bloated, preachy, cutesy and dull.” I find them that way, and so do many fans, but I’ve read that they were Heinlein’s most popular books. I suspect Dirda, like me and many Heinlein fans, regard Heinlein’s so-called “boy’s books” of the 1950s as his best work.
Dirda also notes that the blurbs on the back of the Patterson biography include both uber-macho spy novelist Tom Clancy and gay African-American writer Samuel Delany, which sums up the scope of Heinlein’s work.