Heinlein, Robert (1907-1988)
Robert Heinlein, author and social critic, was born in 1907 in Missouri. He was one of the century’s most important writers of science fiction. J. Neil Schulman said it best in his Reason article (later reprinted in “The Robert Heinlein Interview”) when he drew this picture of Robert A. Heinlein’s eclectic followers:
His devotees range from freaked-out astrologers to coolly rational astronomers; from Goldwater-country conservatives to Greenwich Village anarchists; from atheists such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair to members of the Church of All Worlds who proclaim him a prophet and his novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land, a holy book.
Heinlein’s award-winning science fiction spanned five decades and paved the way for a new era in the genre. Indeed, his works constitute some of the most commercially successful libertarian fiction of all time.
Writing science fiction was not Heinlein’s original career goal. He served in the U.S. Navy, where he stayed until his health forced him into retirement at age 27. Engineering, politics, and other pursuits followed. He did not set pen to paper until 1939, when he wrote his first story and sold it to Astounding. After that, his ascent was all but immediate. Dozens of novels, novellas, and short stories followed, bringing Heinlein multiple awards, including the very first Grand Master Hugo Award. He continues to hold the record along with Lois McMaster Bujold for the most Hugo Awards won for science fiction novels. Chief among these works was The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, written in 1966. Heinlein here offered a loose retelling of the American Revolution, with the revolt against tyranny set on the moon. The “Loonies” rebel against the iron control of the authorities on Earth and in the process learn the lesson that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” or, as Heinlein states it in the novel, TANSTAAFL. Ultimately, the Loonies, like the colonials after whom they were modeled, achieve an independence of sorts, but not without great cost.
Other works, such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Revolt in 2100, also carried similar messages centering on individuality, liberty, and sacrifice. Some of his most famous writings were aimed at a juvenile audience. Starship Troopers was one of these writings and one of his many works later adapted to film. Heinlein also scripted a few movies in the 1950s, including Destination Moon, the story of a privately funded space mission.
Heinlein also wrote nonfiction. His book, Take Back Your Government, bemoaned the runaway state and the uninvolved citizens that allowed it. Articles such as “The Last Days of the United States” and “How to Be a Survivor: The Art of Staying Alive in the Atomic Age” called for an end to nuclear proliferation. “The Happy Days Ahead” warned of “the cancerous explosion of government” and exhorted citizens to be active and vigilant. His works are pervaded by a concern for government bankruptcy, dictatorship, and a nuclear holocaust in the United States. His confession in “The Happy Days Ahead” was typically wry: “I don’t claim to be altruistic. Just this pragmatic difference: I am sharply aware that, if the United States goes down the chute, I go down with it.”
At different times, Heinlein was criticized for his ideas about politics, gender, race, and the military. The 1973 Time Enough for Love: The Lives of Lazarus Long, which was built on his 1941 novel, Methuselah’s Children, was even touted by certain groups as pornographic. The author expanded on these themes in his new stories, and his calls to action continued even after death. His posthumous Grumbles from the Grave in 1989 carried on this tradition in Heinlein’s most irascible manner.
Before his demise, Heinlein was interviewed by classical liberal author J. Neil Schulman about his publications and his overall philosophy. During this discussion, Heinlein boasted of the libertarianism embedded in his writings, remarking:
I would say my position is not too far from that of Ayn Rand’s; that I would like to see government reduced to no more than internal police and courts, external armed forces—with the other matters handled otherwise. I’m sick of the way the government sticks its nose into everything, now… . It seems to me that every time we manage to establish one freedom, they take another away. Maybe two.
In his 1980 collection, The Expanded Universe, Heinlein joked that “either I or this soi-disant civilization will be extinct by 2000 A.D.” After more than a decade of poor health, Robert A. Heinlein died in 1988. His works continue to be reprinted and to find their way to the screen.
Heinlein, Robert A. The Expanded Universe. New York: Ace Books, 1982.
———. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Schulman, J. Neil, and Brad Linaweaver. The Robert Heinlein Interview and Other Heinleiniana. New York: Pulpless.Com, 1999.
Originally published .