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Jul 4, 2000

Out of This World: A Biography of Robert Heinlein

A pioneering master of speculative fiction, Robert Heinlein captured the imagination of millions for liberty. Five of his novels chronicle rebellion against tyranny, other novels are about different struggles for liberty, and his writings abound with declarations on liberty.

Heinlein is the world’s most celebrated science fiction author. In June 1969, as Apollo 11 astronaut Neil A. Armstrong set foot on the moon, Heinlein was a guest commentator with CBS-TV anchorman Walter Cronkite, speaking to millions around the world. “When the Science Fiction Writers of America began to hand out their Grand Master Awards in 1975, Heinlein received the first by general acclamation,” noted Isaac Asimov, himself the respected author of more than 300 books, including much science fiction. Heinlein is the only author to have won four “Hugo” awards for best science fiction novel — Double Star (1956), Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). He was the first science fiction author to make the New York Times bestseller list (Stranger in a Strange Land), and his last five books made it, too.

Heinlein’s work—56 short stories and 30 novels—have been variously translated into Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish. They’ve sold over 30 million copies in the U.S. and 100 million worldwide.

Isaac Asimov, whose astonishing career began at the same time as Heinlein got underway, disagreed with many of Heinlein’s views but declared: “From the moment his first story appeared, an awed science fiction world accepted him as the best science fiction writer in existence, and he held that post throughout his life.” Bestselling fantasy writer Stephen King wrote that “Following World War II, Robert A. Heinlein emerged as not only America’s premier writer of speculative fiction, but the greatest writer of such fiction in the world. He remains today as a sort of trademark for all that is finest in American imaginative fiction.”

The New York Times Book Review hailed Heinlein as “One of the most influential writers in American literature.” Gene Roddenberry, creator, writer and producer of the hugely popular Star Trek TV series, acknowledged that Heinlein was among the few authors “at whose feet I’d gladly sit.” Robert Silverberg, author of over a hundred science fiction books, explained: Heinlein’s “belief that a story had to make sense, and the irresistible vitality of his storytelling, delighted the readership of Astounding, who called for more and even more of his material. John Campbell had found the writer who best embodied his own ideals of science fiction. In one flabbergasting two-year outpouring of material for a single magazine Heinlein had completely reconstructed the nature of science fiction, just as in the field of general modern fiction Ernest Hemingway, in the 1920s, had redefined the modern novel. No one who has written fiction since 1927 or so can fail to take into account Hemingway’s theory and practice without seeming archaic or impossibly naive; no one since 1941 has written first-rate science fiction without a comprehension of the theoretical and practical example set by Heinlein.”

Added bestselling thriller writer Tom Clancy: “What makes Mr. Heinlein part of the American literary tradition is that his characters do prevail. His work reflects the fundamental American optimism that still surprises our friends around the world. As Mr. Heinlein taught us, the individual can and will succeed. The first step in the individual’s success is the perception that success is possible. It is often the writer’s task to let people know what is possible and what is not, for as writing is a product of imagination, so is all human progress.”

Heinlein holds a special place in the hearts of millions who discovered him during their teenage years. Before he emerged as a bestselling author of adult books, he had established his reputation with more than a dozen classic “juveniles”—Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), Space Cadet (1948), Red Planet (1949), Farmer in the Sky (1950), Between Planets (1951), The Rolling Stones (1952), Starman Jones (1953), Star Beast (1954), Tunnel in the Sky (1955), Time for the Stars (1956), Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958) and Starship Troopers (1959). Author J. Neil Schulman spoke for many when he confided that “If Robert Heinlein hadn’t written the books he wrote, and I hadn’t read them, I doubt very much that I would have had the intellectual background necessary to climb out of the hole I was in between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. He wrote about futures that were worth living for. He wrote about talented people who felt life was worth living and made it worth living, no matter what the breaks that fell their way. His characters never had an easy time of it, but they persevered.”

Heinlein’s work has inspired readers around the world. For instance, Tetsu Yano: “I had lost all my books during the war and had little money then to buy new ones. I wanted to and had to read something. Despite my lack of proper education in English, I found science fiction magazines quite readable. I became particularly inspired by the stories written by Robert Heinlein and Anson McDonald [one of Heinlein’s pseudonyms]. His exhilarating tales gave me the will, hope and courage to go on living in the devastations of the post-war Japan. Robert Heinlein was my teacher and benefactor. I learned English reading his stories and became a translator. It has been an honor to translate many of Heinlein’s books into Japanese.”

Science fiction critic Alexei Panshin described Heinlein as “about five feet eleven inches tall, with brown hair and brown eyes. He is solidly built and carries himself with an erect, almost military bearing. He has worn a trim mustache for years and is reputedly the sort of man who would always dress for dinner, even in the jungle…His voice is a strong, very even, somewhat nasal baritone with a good bit of Missouri left in it.” As Isaac Asimov remembered, “In some ways, my most important friendship was with Robert Anson Heinlein…a very handsome man…with a gentle smile, and a courtly way about him that always made me feel particularly gauche when I was with him. I played the peasant to his aristocrat.”

Robert Silverberg recalled Heinlein as “a delightful human being, courtly, dignified, with an unexpected sly sense of humor. I met him first…at the 1961 World Science Fiction Convention in Seattle, where he was Guest of Honor. He amazed everyone there by holding an open-house party in his suite and inviting the entire convention to attend. That would be unthinkable today, when five or six thousand people go to such conventions. The attendance in 1961 was only about two hundred, but it was still a remarkable gesture: Heinlein in his bathrobe, graciously greeting every goggle-eyed fan (and a few goggle-eyed writers) who filed into the room…I remember telling him that I had already published seven million words of fiction…to which he replied, ‘There aren’t that many words in the language. You must have sold several of them more than once.’”

Robert Anson Heinlein was born July 7, 1907 in a two-story frame house at 805 North Fulton Street, Butler, Missouri, about 65 miles south of Kansas City. His father Rex Ivar, the son of a plow salesman, was a clerk and bookkeeper. His mother Bam Lyle was a doctor’s daughter.

In 1910, his 10-year-old brother Lawrence took him to see Halley’s Comet streak across the sky, and it was a sight he would never forget. He became fascinated with astronomy and built himself a small telescope. He became an avid reader of adventure stories, science fiction in particular. He relished authors like Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard.

He spent a year at the University of Missouri, then transferred to the U.S.Naval Academy where he became a champion swordsman. He graduated in June 1929 as a mechanical engineer. Soon afterward, he married Leslyn McDonald – not much known about her. He served in destroyers and aircraft carriers until he contracted tuberculosis and was discharged from the Navy in 1934, a Lieutenant J.G. He enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, for graduate study of physics and mathematics, but frail health forced him to drop out.

“The beginning of 1939 found me flat broke,” Heinlein recalled. “About then THRILLING WONDER STORIES ran a house ad reading (more or less): GIANT PRIZE CONTEST — Amateur Writers!!!!! First prize $50 Fifty Dollars $50. In 1939 one could fill three station wagons with fifty dollars worth of groceries…So I wrote the story LIFE-LINE. It took me four days — I am a slow typist. But I did not send it to THRILLING WONDER. I sent it to ASTOUNDING, figuring they would not be so swamped with amateur short stories.” His story was about the inventor of a machine which told people how long they would live. Editor John W. Campbell, Jr. bought it for $70 and published it in the August 1939 issue. “There was never a chance that I would ever again look for honest work,” he quipped.

At 32, he appeared on the scene as science fiction was bursting into the modern era. The month before his debut, Astounding Science Fiction had published the first story by an emerging star named A.E. Van Vogt, and the following month it published the first story by Theodore Sturgeon, another emerging star. Earlier that year, Thrilling Wonder Stories published the first story by Alfred Bester, and Amazing Stories magazine had introduced the world to Isaac Asimov.

Heinlein’s second story to be published was “Misfit,” in the November 1939 Astounding Science-Fiction. His first work aimed at young readers, this was about a teenage troublemaker who, relocated by the government to an asteroid, saves a spaceship.

One story after another affirmed Heinlein’s belief in liberty. In January 1940, Astounding Science-Fiction published “Requiem.” The hero, an entrepreneur named Delos D. Harriman, develops communities on the moon. He fights “damn persnickety regulations” and fulfills his dream. “If This Goes On—” (Astounding Science Fiction, February, March 1940) is the story of the Second American Revolution, against 21st century tyranny. “Coventry” (Astounding Science Fiction, July 1940) shows how a reasonably free society might be based on a voluntary social contract called the “Covenant.” In “Sixth Column” (Astounding Science Fiction, January, February and March 1941), resourceful scientists develop a secret weapon which helps repel conquerors. Jefferson Thomas is a hero. “Logic of Empire” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1941) tells how Sam Houston Jones fights slavery on Venus. “Methuselah’s Children” (Astounding Science Fiction, July, August and September 1941) chronicles the adventures of Americans who interbred to achieve longevity three times greater than average and, persecuted by envious people, find a place where they can be free. “Beyond This Horizon” (Astounding Science Fiction, April and May 1942) offers a vision of a libertarian society where private individuals do just about everything that needs to be done.

Rejected by the Navy because of his near-sightedness and prior tuberculosis, Heinlein spent the war years as an engineer at the Naval Air Experimental Station’s Materials Laboratory, Philadelphia. Meanwhile, he thought about ways to expand his horizons as an author. He began working with literary agent Lurton Blassingame who helped him sell “Green Hills of Earth” to the Saturday Evening Post which paid the highest rates for fiction. That weekly magazine appeared on newsstands throughout the country, it was famous for its Norman Rockwell covers, and it was the premier market for short stories as well as serialized novels.

In 1946, Heinlein decided to write a book for young readers. The result was Rocket Ship Galileo, about three boys who cobble together a rocket, fly to the moon and encounter a nest of Nazis determined to win back the earth. This was published by Scribner’s, which had published work by mainstream novelists like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

Heinlein got divorced in 1947, and the following year, on October 21st, he married Virginia Doris Gerstenfeld whom he had met in Philadelphia. “My wife Ticky is an anarchist-individualist,” he exulted. She was, explained science fiction author Poul Anderson, “his full partner, as strong and intelligent in every way as himself. He remarked once with a grin that during World War II, when they were both in naval service, she was his superior officer.”

The Heinleins honeymooned in the Colorado Rockies and decided they’d like to live there. They bought property between 1700 and 1800 Mesa Drive, Colorado Springs and picked the address they wanted: 1776. Out front, they had a brass house sign which evoked the famous Archibald Willard painting Spirit of ‘76—three marchers, a man playing a fife and a man and a boy with drums. The Heinleins were to live in Colorado Springs for the next 17 years. Among their friends was Freedom School founder Robert M. Lefevre.

Heinlein turned to motion pictures. In 1948, he adapted Rocket Ship Galileo into a script for a movie, Destination Moon. It showed how private entrepreneurs might arrange the first trip to the moon and handle all the things that might go wrong. Destination Moon was the first modern science fiction movie, and it was reasonably successful.

Heinlein continued to turn out books for young readers. For instance, Space Cadet (1948) is the story of boys who train for the most important mission in the solar system, to keep the peace and protect the liberties of the peoples.” Red Planet (1949) is about people on Mars who resent being exploited by absentee rulers on earth. There’s a revolution, beginning with a Proclamation of Autonomy modeled on the Declaration of Independence. Between Planets (1951): teenager Donald Harvey becomes embroiled in a struggle for independence. He lands on Venus, a colony controlled by the Earth-based Federation dictatorship, and joins freedom fighters rebelling against the Federation. Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) is perhaps Heinlein’s most outstanding juvenile. It’s about a ragged boy named Thorby who, brought in chains to Sargon, is sold as a slave. He gets free and struggles to stop the slave trade. Starship Troopers (1959): Juan Rico volunteers for the Terran Federation’s Mobile Infantry which defends freedom against collectivists. Rico reflects on the teachings of Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Dubois, his revered high school instructor who denounces the “turgid, tortured, confused, neurotic, unscientific, illogical, pompous fraud Karl Marx.”

Fellow science fiction author Jack Williamson marveled that “Juvenile science fiction, as a labeled category, begins with Heinlein…The Heinlein series was a pioneer effort, quickly imitated…Heinlein never writes down. His main characters are young, the plots move fast, and the style is limpidly clear…” Heinlein reflected, “I’ve taken great pride in these juveniles. It seemed to me a worthwhile accomplishment to write wholesome stories which were able to compete with the lurid excitements of comic books.”

Besides juveniles, Heinlein wrote The Puppet Masters (1951) which tells how the earth is invaded by flying saucers loaded with collectivist slugs. They get on people’s backs, gain control of their bodies and minds, wiping out their individuality. In the name of fighting these slugs, government assumes enormous power to monitor the population. Fortunately, a way is found for people to regain their liberty.

Double Star (1956): Lorenzo Smythe discovers the principles of natural rights and helps the native populations of Venus and Mars to enjoy the same liberties as earthlings. “If there were ethical basics that transcended time and place,” he reflected, “they were true on any planet.”

Stranger in a Strange Land affirmed Heinlein’s capacity to extend the frontiers of science fiction. He told the story of Valentine Michael Smith, an earthling who was brought up by Martians and returns to earth. He establishes a religion which involves “grokking” (empathizing with others) and free love. Stranger in a Strange Land made national bestseller lists and sold some 2 million copies. Heinlein won his third Hugo Award for the book.

Glory Road (1963) is a “sword-and-sorcery” adventure. The hero “Oscar” Gordon denies that government had any moral justification for taxing people. “What had Uncle Sugar done for me? He had clobbered my father’s life with two wars—the privilege of staying alive is subject to tax—and delinquents are killed out of hand by the Department of Eternal Revenue…”

By 1965, Virginia Heinlein had begun to suffer the effects of high altitude in Colorado Springs, and they moved to Bonny Doon, a lovely rural area about 16 miles north of Santa Cruz, California. He described their place to interviewer J. Neil Schulman: “It’s circular because Mrs. Heinlein wanted a circular house—Got a big atrium in the middle of it—twelve feet across, open to the sky—which has a tree and flowers. And it has all sorts of things I put in to make housekeeping easier.”

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), Heinlein offered his most well-developed libertarian vision. The moon, referred to as Luna, is a colony of the Earth, used to keep convicts and political dissidents. They cherish individual initiative and enterprise. They tolerate other people’s lifestyle choices and mind their own business. They resolve to take charge of their own destiny and declare Independence on July 4, 2076. The conspirators recruit Mycroft Holmes, or Mike, the computer who runs Luna, to help the revolution.

Wyoming Knott, an individualist feminist, says: “Here in Luna, we’re rich. Three million hardworking, smart, skilled people, enough water, plenty of everything, endless power, endless cubic. But…what we don’t have is a free market. We must get rid of the Authority!” And Professor Bernardo de la Paz (“Prof”), revolutionary philosopher replies: “You are right that the Authority must go. It is ridiculous—pestilential, not to be borne—that we should be ruled by an irresponsible dictator in all our essential economy! It strikes at the most basic human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace.” Prof adds, “In terms of morals, there is no such thing as ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress sounds one of Heinlein’s favorite philosophical themes: “ ‘tanstaafl.’ Means ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’…anything free costs twice as much in long run or turns out worthless…One way or other, what you get, you pay for.” The Moon is a Harsh Mistress depicts a free society where private individuals, not government, provide education, insurance, security and conflict resolution. The book sold almost a million copies.

I Will Fear No Evil (1970) is the story of a terminally-ill 94-year-old multi-billionaire named Johann Sebastian Bach Smith who’s determined to survive a dictatorship rife with violence. He arranges an operation to transplant his brain into the first healthy young body available, which turns out to be that of his black female secretary. He maintains free will and explores the meaning of sexuality.

The same year, Heinlein nearly died of peritonitis. His life was saved by many blood donations. He was especially appreciative because he had a rare blood type (A2 negative). He urged people with rare blood types to make donations and soon realized that all types of blood were badly needed. He promoted blood donation at science fiction conventions.

*Time Enough for Love (1974): Lazarus Long becomes his own ancestor. The book includes his many wise sayings. For instance: “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire…The greatest productive force is human selfishness…Of all the strange ‘crimes’ that human beings have legislated out of nothing, ‘blasphemy’ is the most amazing…Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people.”

Heinlein, approaching 70, continued to travel as he and his wife had done for years. “We went around the world four times,” recalled Virginia. In late 1978, while traveling near Tahiti, Heinlein experienced double vision and had trouble walking—warning signs of a stroke. Back in the U.S., he had an operation to relieve blockage of the carotid artery to the brain.

In The Number of the Beast (1980), Zeb and Deety, Jake and Hilda fight alien Black Hats out to vaporize them. The book features individualist Grandpa Zach. He “hated government, hated lawyers, hated civil servants…public schools…supported female suffrage…split his time between Europe and America, immune to inflation and the confiscatory laws.”

Friday (1982): heroic courier Friday carries out dangerous missions throughout North America, a tangle of oppressive states. She says: “there is a moral obligation on each free person to fight back wherever possible—keep underground railways open, keep shades drawn, give misinformation to computers.”

In Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), Heinlein explores the shocks of moving suddenly from one era to another. Among other things, he talks about money. “I had figured out,” the narrator says, “that while paper money was never any good after a world change, hard money, gold and silver, would somehow be negotiable.”

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985): philosopher/rogue Colonel Colin Campbell embarks on whirlwind adventures and among other things explores the free enterprise zones of the moon. One dreary character is described like this: “Bill has the socialist disease in its worst form; he thinks the world owes him a living.”

Heinlein’s farewell work was To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987) which tells how the father of narrator Maureen Johnson loved Mark Twain’s work and corresponded with him. She affirms the principles of personal responsibility and individualism.

During the fall of 1987, Heinlein’s frail health forced him and Virginia to move away from Bonny Doon. They had to be closer to a major hospital—twice in 1987 he suffered hemorrhages and was rushed to San Francisco. They bought a home at 3555 Edgefield Place, in the hills above Carmel, with a spectacular view of the Pacific.

Heinlein radiated optimism even as his health declined. “I believe in my whole race,” he declared. “Yellow, white, black, red, brown. In the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability, and goodness of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I believe that we always make it just by the skin of our teeth, but that we will make it.”

Overwhelmed by heart ailments and emphysema, Heinlein died of heart failure, in his sleep at home, Sunday, May 8, 1988. About ten days later, Virginia Heinlein boarded a U.S. Navy ship in Monterey, sailed into the Pacific and committed his ashes to eternity.

Tributes came from all over. Isaac Asimov: “He had kept his position as greatest science fiction writer unshaken to the end.” Tom Clancy: “We proceed down a path marked by his ideas.” Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: “Goodbye, Bob, and thank you for the influence you had on my life and career. And thank you too, Ginny, for looking after him so well and so long.” Long-time friend Catherine Crook de Camp: “The last telephone call I made to Robert Heinlein was about a month before he died, while he was at home between two hospital stays. His voice seemed resonant and almost young that evening as we recalled the many happy times we’d shared. He described the splendid vistas from the windows of his new home as he looked towards his beloved sea. Finally, Bob and I said how much we’d always loved each other and always would. It was a heart-to-heart recap of forty-six years of tender friendship. And when there was nothing left to say, I sat beside the silent phone and wept.”

Today Robert Heinlein inspires young people much as he inspired their parents and grandparents, an extraordinary phenomenon. His books continue to sell over 100,000 copies a year. Tunnel in the Sky is a popular CD-ROM game. In 1994, Disney released the movie Puppet Masters. Then came the movie Starship Troopers. Major studios currently have movie options on Glory Road, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Orphans of the Sky and Stranger in a Strange Land. Robert Heinlein, now and forever—a great spirit for liberty.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.