Tag Archives: Robert A. Heinlein

How Robert A. Heinlein went from socialist to libertarian

Jeet Heer discusses Heinlein’s political transformation in a 2014 essay on the New Republic. Heinlein was a socialist in the 1930s who flirted with the John Birch society in the 1950s, and became a Goldwater supporter in the 60s and a staunch libertarian thereafter.

As a young man, Heinlein supported himself through government assistance after being discharged from the Navy with a disability. In later life, he spoke out against “loafers” and the welfare state.

(What is it about prominent libertarians receiving government assistance? Heinlein, Ayn Rand, and I believe there were one or two others.)

The turning point came in 1957. After that year, Heinlein’s books were no longer progressive explorations of the future but hectoring diatribes lamenting the decadence of modernity. A recurring character in these books—variously named Hugh Farnham, Jubal Harshaw or Lazarus Long—is a crusty older man who’s a wellspring of wisdom. “Daddy, you have an annoying habit of being right,” runs an actual bit of dialogue from Farnham’s Freehold (1964). In the worst of Heinlein’s later books, daddy not only knows best, he often knows everything….

Heinlein described some of his books as being “Swiftian” in intent. Regrettably, Heinlein lacked the rhetorical control of the Gulliver’s Travels author. Aside from a 1941 Yellow Peril novel, Heinlein had a strong record as a critic of racism. But in Farnham’s Freehold, Heinlein wanted to use inversion to show the evils of ethnic oppression: he took a middle-class white family and, via a nuclear explosion, threw them into a future where Africans rule the earth and enslave whites. So far, so good. Yet Heinlein’s Africans aren’t just a master race, they also castrate white men, make white women their concubines, and eat white children (white teenage girls being especially tasty). Preaching against racism, Heinlein resurrected some of the most horrific racial stereotypes imaginable. Farnham’s Freehold is an anti-racist novel only a Klansman could love.

Heer doesn’t fully explore the weird sloppiness of “Farnham’s Freehold.” One of the characters in “Farnham’s Freehold,” which came out in the 1960s, is a young African-American working as a house-servant to the hero’s family, the Farnhams. The young man is working his way through college and an accounting degree. Farnham lectures the young man on racism; the young man tells Farnham to STFU until Farnham has ridden a bus through the south as an African-American man.

And the African civilization of the future is a highly advanced, highly technological civilization. The Farnhams’ master always speaks respectfully to the hero and treats Farnham kindly — by the standards of his day. Heinlein knew that some brutal civilizations were also highly advanced; the Romans and Spartans were certainly no pussycats.

But yeah cannibalism stealing white men’s wives WTF?

There is a streak of American ethnocentrism, which is central to today’s culture, that holds that all races and ethnicities are genetically equal but Anglo-American culture is the pinnacle of civilization. Asians, Africans, Jews and other non-Europeans can become good Americans if their cultural heritage is overwritten with the proper Anglo-European model. In its extreme form in the 19th Century you saw American Indian boys kidnapped from their parents and put in military schools designed to make them white; the motto was “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

In its extreme form this is deplorable behavior — and yet it’s isn’t that the way the American melting pot works? I myself am a product of this process; my grandparents were Eastern European Jews who spoke Yiddish as their first language and heavily accented English. I’m an American who speaks only a few words of Yiddish, most of which I picked up from Neil Simon plays and such. And I am entirely pleased with that outcome.

Melting pot culture holds that everybody talks and acts the same, with a slight bit of variation for ethnic heritage. If you want a visual image, think of a Sikh man serving in the military: Turban, beard, and otherwise standard American uniform.

Heinlein and other science fiction of that period definitely corresponds to that school of ethnocentrism. In midcentury science fiction, Earth-people mapped to white Americans, and alien races were stand-ins for other races and nationalities of Earth. You see it in Star Trek too; the Federation and Starfleet are American-like institutions; other races, both human and alien, are free to participate so long as they act like white Americans. Even the aliens wear uniforms that look like human clothes.

“Shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young”

Rodger Wilton Young [Wikipedia]

In the Robert A. Heinlein novel “Starship Troopers” and the movie loosely based on the book, the starship that carries hero Juan Rico’s Mobile Infantry platoon is called the “Rodger Young.” In the epilogue to the novel, we learn a little about Young.

Young was a real person; Wikipedia has more:

Rodger Wilton Young (April 28, 1918 – July 31, 1943) was a United States Army soldier during World War II. An infantryman, he was killed on the island of New Georgia while helping his platoon withdraw under enemy fire. For his actions, he posthumously received the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

Young is remembered in a song, “The Ballad of Rodger Young” by Frank Loesser, most famously recorded by Burl Ives, which extolled his courage and willingness to die to protect his comrades in arms.

Born in Tiffin, Ohio, in 1918, Young was “a small-statured boy” but a “keen athlete.” Knocked unconscious during a high school basketball game,  the injury led to significant hearing loss and damage to his eyesight. He dropped out of school when he could no longer hear lessons and see the blackboard.

Still just 5’2″, Young joined the Ohio National Guard in 1940 for extra income, and because he believed his medical problems would disqualify him for the Army. His unit was activated during World War II. Young was a sergeant, and feared that his disabilities might make him a less effective combat commander. He asked to be reduced in rank to private, which request was granted, though Young’s commanding officer initially suspected Young of trying to get out of battle.

A week later, with Young’s patrol under fire by a Japanese ambush, their lieutenant ordered withdrawal. Young, wounded, ignored the order and advanced on the Japanese position, lobbing hand grenades at the enemy machine gun. Young was killed, but his actions allowed his platoon to withdraw without further casualties.

In the novel, the captain of the Rodger Young plays “The Ballad of Rodger Young” as Rico’s platoon goes into battle. Here it is, performed by the West Point Cadet Glee Club.

Star Trek and Heinlein in one headline. My ultimate clickbait.

Roddenberry’s Star Trek was “above all, a critique of Robert Heinlein” [Manu Saadia – Boing Boing]

I recently came across a definition of socialism (which I can no longer put my fingers on), that said it’s an economic system where the means of production is owned by the the workers, with the state as their proxy. It said that socialism is a stepping-stone on the way to Communism, when goods would be so plentiful that there would be no need to pay for them. And I said to myself, holy crap, that’s Star Trek.

Star Trek is a Communist society where everybody worthwhile serves in the military and wears a uniform.


12 Novel Adaptations That Should Get a Do-Over Reboot

Starship Troopers is at the top of this list by Andrew Liptak at io9. It’s a tough one to do right. Much of the book consists of classroom lectures being received by the hero, and the hero’s thoughts on those lectures. I found them fascinating reading, but they wouldn’t translate well to the screen.

On the other hand, the novel also contains scenes of soldiers preparing for battle, and stirring battle scenes, which would film very well.

The movie has very little in common with the book. Indeed, the underlying philosophy of the movie, to the extent that it has one, is the opposite of the book. In the novel, Earth is subject to an unprovoked attack by monstrous aliens, and fights back. The novel is a celebration of that fight. In the movie, it’s never clear whether the aliens had provocation, and the Earth government is clearly corrupt.

Director Paul Verhoeven has said in interviews that the theme of the movie is that government is corrupt and betrays the nobility and sacrifice of its soldiers. Which sounds like a fine political sentiment, and one that any reasonable politically aware 21st Century American can support, until you realize that was pretty much exactly one of the themes that drove the Nazis to power in Germany.


The Washington Post has a really nice review of the second and final volume of William Patterson’s Robert A. Heinlein biography

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.

‘Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century,’ by William H. Patterson, Jr.

Volume 2 of William H. Patterson’s Massive Biography of Robert A. Heinlein is here at last! Here’s my review

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.

Robert and Virginia Heinlein in Tahiti, 1980. Photo by Hayford Peirce.

Robert and Virginia Heinlein in Tahiti, 1980. Photo by Hayford Peirce.

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.

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“‘Lot ninety-seven,’ the auctioneer announced. ‘A boy.'” Re-reading Robert A. Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy”


Citizen of the Galaxy might be my favorite of Heinlein’s novels, which makes it a good candidate for my favorite novel, period. It’s one of Heinlein’s “boy’s books,” or “juveniles,” which would be called a YA book today. It was intended for 12- and 13-year-olds. Not just boys; Heinlein was well aware that girls were a big part of his audience. Like the best YA novels, it makes good reading for adults, too.

Rereading it recently, I was delighted by how quickly I got pulled back into the world Heinlein creates, its story and characters. Science fiction often has a short shelf-life, but Citizen is nearing 60 years old and still going strong.

The novel starts at a slave auction.

“Lot ninety-seven,“ the auctioneer announced. “A boy.“

The boy was dizzy and half sick from the feel of ground underfoot The slave ship had come more than forty light-years; it carried in its holds the stink of all slave ships, a reek of crowded unwashed bodies, of fear and vomit and ancient grief. Yet in it the boy had been someone, a recognized member of a group, entitled to his meal each day, entitled to fight for his right to eat it in peace. He had even had friends.

Now he was again nothing and nobody, again about to be sold.

Robert A Heinlein_Citizen of the Galaxy_DELREY_DKS 2

We know this is the distant future because of the presence of starships. We know the technology is oddly mixed, with starships and slaves coexisting. But we don’t know where we are or any other details. We’re seeing things from the perspective of the slave boy Thorby, half-animal from a life of brutality.

A crippled old beggar named Baslim buys Thorby. We and Thorby soon learn Baslim is not what he appears to be. Baslim adopts Thorby as a son, and teaches Thorby to be a man.

We follow Thorby to an interstellar trading ship, the Sisu. Then we go with Thorby to a naval vessel of the Hegemonic Guard. And finally, we’re on Earth. Thorby learns who he really is. He learns Baslim’s real identity. And Thorby takes on Baslim’s life work as his own, to fight the interstellar slave trade.

Here we see all of Heinlein’s strengths at their best: Heinlein could build worlds and societies in the reader’s mind with a few words. Even though the world of Jubbul, where Thorby is a slave, has interstellar travel, it’s a highly stratified society. The wealthy travel through the city on sedan chairs borne by slaves. It’s an Asian society, and yet all the characters speak mid-20th-Century colloquial English. And why shouldn’t they? They’d be speaking perfectly colloquially to each other; their language wouldn’t sound exotic to their own ears. Heinlein was a master of that language. Reading him is like being transported into a movie starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.

Heinlein could be a master of economic storytelling. Not in his later career — his later books were sprawling messes. But here Heinlein is lean and muscular; we’re transported through four complete societies and across the galaxy in less than 300 pages.

Citizen strikes the right balance between action and ideas, showing and telling. Heinlein had a tendency to lecture that made his later novels bloated, but it works for the novel here.

The theme of Citizen of the Galaxy is one Heinlein wrote about through much of his career: The conflict between freedom on the one hand and, on the other, the restrictions of duty and of a person’s need to fit in to society. People need somewhere they belong. The society of the trading starship Sisu is highly restricted and regimented, but its people, including Thorby for a while, are free.They have chosen that life. It’s their home, their family, where they belong. Same for the space navy Thorby joins later. As Thorby faces his duty to fight slavery, he loses his freedom to make choices.

The ending of the novel is surprisingly adult. Thorby doesn’t beat the slave trade. He isn’t ever going to beat it. A wiser character tells him that the best they’re ever going to be able to do is stifle it in 200 years, and by that time it will have cropped up elsewhere. Nonetheless, minimizing suffering is a worthy fight, even if you can’t make a lot of difference by yourself. A little difference is enough. The ending is satisfying despite its inconclusiveness — maybe even more satisfying for its realism.

Citizen was first published in 1957, but it holds up surprisingly well, even though a big part of the story involves computer technology. I had a chance to visit the bridge of a nuclear submarine in 2010, and it was easy to imagine Citizen in that environment. The shipboard scenes are particularly vivid; Heinlein was an Annapolis grad; he spent years on ships, and it shows in his writing.

Citizen also holds up surprisingly well in its depiction of gender roles. An important supporting character in the first part of the book is a woman who owns a tavern. A woman anthropologist is an important supporting character on the Sisu. Men and women have different roles in that society. At first, as junior officers, they’re equal. After that, men run the ships, but women run the society within the ships. They are equal but different and in many contexts men take orders from women.

In the third and fourth parts of the novel, women play about the roles you’d expect in a book published in 1950s America. Overall it works.

As for ethnic roles: I mentioned that Jubbul seems Asian. WASP Americans seem to run the Earth, but we actually don’t know that. We only know their names. The ship’s doctor in the navy is named Krishnamurti. The trading ship Sisu is descended from Finns.

The theme of slavery is, regrettably, still current. Slavery just keeps cropping up in the world. Here in the US, its legacy bounces back like a ballpark hotdog. One character tells Thorby that some foolish people think slaves are actually happy with their lot, that some people are natural slaves and thrive when others make decisions for them. That same odious sentiment was in the news even as I was rereading Citizen.

I read Citizen this time around as an audiobook, the Audible edition. Narrator Lloyd James does a fine job with the voices. He gives Baslim a Scottish accent, which is fine, because Sean Connery should have played him in a movie.

Here it is on Amazon: Citizen of the Galaxy.

The illustrations in this blog post are the cover of the edition I read as a teen. It’s one of the better book covers I’ve seen.