Robert A. Heinlein: Love Him or Hate Him, He’s Still One of the Best

My interest piques when it comes to famous authors’ backgrounds. I consider it one of the best ways to understand what makes them “tick.” After all, it is our life experiences that shape our worldview. Robert A. Heinlein is known as one of science fiction’s best authors. He received numerous Hugo awards and three of his novels are considered among the best in sci-fi. Let’s learn more about Heinlein and what made him tick.

Life

Pre-WWII

Heinlein was born on July 7, 1907 in Butler, Missouri, as the third of seven children. His family settled in America six generations ago and fought in every American war. The author referred to the region where he grew up as “The Bible Belt” and influenced his writing. Supposedly Heinlein discovered his life-long interest in astronomy in 1919, when Halley’s Comet made its pass by Earth.

Inspired by his family’s background of military service, after Heinlein graduated high school in 1924, he pursued a career as an officer in the US Navy. His time in the Navy soon influenced his writing. Heinlein eventually graduated Naval Academy and received a commission as an ensign. During his time serving aboard the USS Lexington, he advanced to lieutenant.

To Heinlein’s great dismay, he was discharged from the Navy in 1934 due to pulmonary tuberculosis. He worked a few random jobs but none seemed to stick. Soon he found himself short on money. The author became active in politics and worked on Upton Sinclair’s successful campaign for Governor of California. He even ran for office himself but lost the bid.

Living solely on his small disability pension from the Navy, the author struggled during this height of the Great Depression. Heinlein began writing to earn additional income. He quickly found success and his first published story Life-Line appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1939. Heinlein followed this success with another story called Misfit which appeared in the November edition.

The author’s early success happened astonishingly fast. His first story was praised by members of the literary world and he became a leader in the new “social” science fiction.

During WWII

After the Great Depression, Heinlein, like most Americans of the time, found work due to the US entering World War II. He worked for the Navy as a civilian aeronautical engineer at the Navy Aircraft Materials Center at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. It was there that Heinlein met Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. When 1942 came around, Heinlein had nearly thirty stories published. Unfortunately, the author took a break from writing to focus on his service during the war.

Post-WWII

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed Heinlein’s perspective again. With the start of the Cold War, the author felt motivated to write nonfiction political works. He found success in his new path and published four short stories for The Saturday Evening Post magazine. These short stories also made him one of the first science fiction authors to have published works in a reputable magazine. Back then, sci-fi writers were considered pulp-fiction creators unworthy of true literary praise. In 1950, Heinlein eyed Hollywood and wrote the story and co-authored the script for the movie Destination Moon. His biggest success with the film was when it won an Academy Award for special effects – most of which Heinlein invented.

Heinlein focused on writing YA novels from 1947 through 1959, including articles for Boys’ Life magazine. During that time, he also began writing The Heretic (the title later changed to Stranger in a Strange Land). Eventually he put The Heretic down to write Starship Troopers which explored ideas of civic virtue. His current publisher, Scribner, found the book too controversial. They were also the reason Heinlein wrote YA fiction.

The author then turned to Putnam to publish his book and it was a match made in heaven. Now free from the requirement to write YA novels, Heinlein found his stride.

The 1970s were rough for Heinlein, as he experienced a few health-related emergencies. During this time, he would trade his autograph with fan for their commitment to donate blood. He hosted blood drives and donors’ receptions. Heinlein died on May 8, 1988, from health-related complications at the age of 80 years old.

Works

Heinlein published 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections.

Short Stories

As previously mentioned, his first story, Life-Line, was published in the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. He wrote many more stories for Astounding until 1942, when he stopped writing during WWII. Heinlein began writing again in 1947, this time focusing on more sophisticated themes. After the 1940s he stopped writing short stories and focused on novels.

Early Novels

Heinlein’s first book was Rocket Ship Galileo written in 1947. He continued writing a large number of novels and story collections, including works for children and young adults, into the 1950s. Some books that the author found success with include The Green Hills of Earth (1951), Double Star (1956), The Door into Summer (1957), Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), and Methuselah’s Children (1958).

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers cover

The authors work began focusing on civic duty and the military. In 1959, Heinlein published Starship Troopers to critical acclaim, despite it’s then-controversial tone. The authoritarian book included flogging and the execution of mentally disturbed criminals. Despite that, he won a Hugo Award for the novel. I recently read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land cover

Following the success of Starship Troopers, Heinlein published Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961 which many sci-fi fans consider his crowning achievement. The book was seen as a counter-culture Bible. Messages of free love abounded, similar to the culture change of America in the 1960s.Stranger in a Strange Land brought Heinlein his peak of fame. It’s his bestselling novel, his best-known work, and his most influential.

It was so influential at the time that the US Library of Congress numbers it among the 88 books that shaped America.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress cover

Heinlein published the last of this “big three” novels that shaped his career in 1966. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress brought the author praise from libertarian’s like Milton Friedman. Thus, his political views shifted once again. The book is about an anti-statist rebellion on a lunar colony against Earth’s government. Heinlein evoked themes similar to the American Revolution and used libertarian terms like “TANSTAAFL”, or “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is considered one of Heinlein’s greatest works (including Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land). The book leapt well beyond the science fiction genre and joined the ranks as a classic work of fiction. It’s viewed as one of the best teachers of personal responsibility and political freedom and continues to have relevance to this very day.

Complete Works

The books in bold font are those I consider my favorite of all Heinlein’s work.

Accomplishments

Heinlein received numerous awards throughout his lifetime, and some he received posthumously. He won Hugo Awards four times, plus seven more Retro Hugo Awards. He was named the first Science Fiction Writers Grand Master. Very few authors can claim a sci-fi pedigree like Heinlein’s.

Predictions

This is always a fun section for me to write about. Sci-fi authors come up with fantastic ideas of what a future society will be like. Often they think up technology that doesn’t exist for another forty years but ultimately comes to fruition. It’s as if the best sci-fi authors have a certain level of prescience and can see into the future.

Check out some predictions associated with Heinlein’s works.

Cold War

In 1941, Heinlein wrote a short story called Solution Unsatisfactory that showcases the escalating tension that would eventually develop between the United States and the USSR in the decades after WWII. The author’s version of a cold war included a nuclear weapons arms race and the fear of radioactive fallout.

Computer Aided Design

In 1957, Heinlein wrote the novel The Door Into Summer. In the book, he thought up early Computer Aided Design (CAD) systems, just before they became prevalent in the 1960s. The technology eventually developed into widely-used modern architectural and 3D design software.

Speech-to-Text

We’re not quite done with The Door Into Summer, yet. In it, Heinlein wrote of the possibility of natural language recognition and speech-to-text technologies. Both technologies have existed for quite a long time, however they only recently became sophisticated enough for widespread use.

The Internet

Heinlein is merely one among many visionary science-fiction writers who though of a large accessible information network. In the author’s posthumously-published novel For Us, The Living, written in 1938, Heinlein imagines a national information network, albeit a very basic, analog one.

Motion-Activated Lights

Similar to the Internet, Heinlein wasn’t alone in considering the use of motion-activated lights. In his 1950 novella The Man Who Sold The Moon, Heinlein wrote about a better way to control light switches. In only a few sentences, the author captures the perceived benefit from a motion-activated light: “‘George, how about a light switch that turns off automatically when you leave a room?’ ‘Hmm but suppose someone were left in the room?’ ‘Well. . . hitch it to stay on only when someone was in the room key the switch to the human body’s heat radiation, maybe.'”

Waterbed

Heinlein supposedly came up with the idea of a waterbed when he was bedridden just prior to being discharged from the Navy. He described a waterbed in his 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon, and then again in Double Star in 1956. I had a waterbed in the 1990s and am glad that fad went away. You’d agree if you ever slept in one, only to wake up freezing because of a power outage.

Conclusion

Let’s be honest with ourselves – Heinlein is one of the main forefathers of science fiction. He, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, brought the genre to mainstream culture. His prolific career continued well after he passed away and continues to thrive today. If you mention Starship Troopers, Strangers in a Strange Land, or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to any sci-fi enthusiast, no matter their age, they’re likely to recognize the titles.

Perhaps Heinlein’s success hitches on his use of political themes, well developed characters, fast-paced plots, or a combination of all three. Regardless, he had a magic formula to write books people love to read. If you haven’t read any of Heinlein’s books yet, I recommend doing so, soon. Even if you don’t enjoy his books, you’ll still get a glimpse into the mind of one of Sci-Fi’s best.

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