End of "Slow Boat"; What 07-07-07 Means to Me
I’ve posted Chapter Five (“On the Beach and Deck 17”) and Chapter Six (“Tributes, Thefts and Oblique References) of A Slow Boat to Shippers’ Hell, if anyone’s interested.
Robert Anson Heinlein, the Dean of Science Fiction, the Grand Master, was born on July 7, 1907. Today, 07-07-07, is the centenary of his birth. There’s a huge party going on in Kansas City, where Heinlein was born. I’m sorry I’m not there. So I have this tribute to make:
For me, Heinlein was like my first bicycle – something that you love to death when you’re young, that gets you started on years of enjoyment later in life, but something that you ultimately outgrow. But you never outlive your initial affection for it, and you take it out now and again to remember how it felt.
Heinlein published his first story, “Life Line,” in 1939 when he was just 32; it was recognized as a work of remarkable talent, and Heinlein became a prominent author within a very few years. By the time I was old enough to read whole books on my own, I’d noticed that my father (who was four when “Life Line” was published) had a ton of books by the one author. (My dad had the biggest science fiction collection in the state, probably, but there was more Heinlein in it than anything else.) There was a whole shelf of books that were specifically written for young adults – these were the classic “Heinlein Juveniles,” which are now sitting on the shelf in my office at home; I can see them from where I sit.
I plowed through those “Juvenile” novels before I was twelve; they include some books that remain wonderful reads for adults, such as Citizen of the Galaxy and Have Space Suit--Will Travel. I must have read his masterpiece, Stranger in a Strange Land, while I was only 13 or 14, and I’d read pretty much everything he’d written by the time I entered high school. It set me on a path of reading science fiction and fantasy to this day, and some of his ideas remain with me, although heavily annotated. I read each new book that came out as an adult, until Heinlein died in 1988 (I'd been married for less than a year); my father died less than five years later.
Heinlein had the knack of describing the future “down to its shoelaces,” as one reviewer put it, and making you feel that the world he was showing you was absolutely real. He also had a way of making his thought-experiments seem like acts of conviction. Thus, Heinlein was derided as an anarchist for what he wrote in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, hailed as a prophet of the sexual revolution for Stranger in a Strange Land, and harshly condemned as a fascist for Starship Troopers. In fact none of these books corresponded with his actual beliefs, but he portrayed people who did believe them so well that many of his readers took them to be his creed. (They were, of course, mutually contradictory, and no single person could have believed all of those things at the same time.) He was also a tremendous optimist in the future of humanity and the basic sanity and decency of most people.
When I was in college (at the beginning of the decline of Second Wave feminism), it was popular to deride Heinlein as a sexist. This is a bit over-simplified – First Wave feminists would certainly not have viewed him so, since he was portraying intelligent, courageous, professional women at a time (the 1950s) when popular culture was going in the opposite direction. Second Wave feminists didn’t like him because of the personalities (especially the sexual personas) of his female characters, and they had a point. Third Wave feminists, who insist that they must have all voices and all personas available to them, probably wouldn’t object so much. But ndanukiwiwould be able to discourse on that topic better than I. I suspect that the members of this Flist (based, anyway, on the way y'all write) wouldn't object too much either.
Sometime around the age of 20 or 21, when I was reading a lot of LeGuin and Irving, I realized that I had become “better read” than Heinlein, and his philosophical, political and economic ideas no longer appealed to me. I’d also begun to see the similarities between many of his characters, and longed for a bit more imagination in that department. I longed for the sort of literary complexity and perplexity that LeGuin provided.
But after all these years, I can still go back to these novels and stories and find them fresh. He wrote two of the four best time travel stories ever: “By His Bootstraps” and “All You Zombies –”. One can read Stranger in a Strange Land over and over again without getting tired of it, as is also true for many of his other works. I love Glory Road (the only sword & sorcery novel he ever wrote), Methuselah’s Children (a meditation on extreme longevity), and even the rambling Time Enough for Love.
I’m pretty sure that there’s a short fiction contest that’s supposed to be announced this weekend to celebrate his centenary. I think I’ll enter it.