Thursday, July 26, 2007

Happy birthday Mr. Heinlein

Taylor Dinerman writes a tribute to Robert A Heinlein on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Science fiction at one time was despised as vulgar and "populist" by university English departments. Today, it is just another cultural artifact to be deconstructed, along with cartoons and People magazine articles. Yet one could argue that science fiction has had a greater impact on the way we all live than any other literary genre of the 20th century.

When one looks at the great technological revolutions that have shaped our lives over the past 50 years, more often than not one finds that the men and women behind them were avid consumers of what used to be considered no more than adolescent trash. As Arthur C. Clarke put it: "Almost every good scientist I know has read science fiction." And the greatest writer who produced them was Robert Anson Heinlein, born in Butler, Mo., 100 years ago this month.

The list of technologies, concepts and events that he anticipated in his fiction is long and varied. In his 1951 juvenile novel, "Between Planets," he described cellphones. In 1940, even before the Manhattan Project had begun, he chronicled, in the short story "Blowups Happen," the destruction of a graphite-regulated nuclear reactor similar to the one at Chernobyl. And in his 1961 masterpiece, "Stranger in a Strange Land," Heinlein--decades before Ronald and Nancy Reagan moved to the White House--introduced the idea that a president's wife might try to guide his actions based on the advice of her astrologer. One of Heinlein's best known "inventions" is the water bed, though he never took out a patent.

Heinlein brought to his work a unique combination of technical savvy--based largely on the engineering training he'd received at the U.S. Naval Academy and a career in the Navy cut short by tuberculosis in 1934--and a broad knowledge of history and foreign languages. Bemoaning the state of U.S. education in the 1970s, he wrote that "the three-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages and mathematics . . . if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots." Heinlein was certainly no ignorant peasant.

Though he later became well known for his anticommunism, Heinlein in the late 1930s indulged in both leftist and isolationist politics. He sold his first science-fiction story in 1939 for $70, "and there was never a chance that I would ever again look for honest work." After Pearl Harbor, to his great disappointment, he was not called back into uniformed service. He ended the war at the Philadelphia Naval Aircraft Factory, working with fellow writers L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov.

From the late '40s to the late '50s, Heinlein mostly wrote adventure stories aimed at boys. Some, such as "Citizen of the Galaxy" (1957) and "Starman Jones" (1953), examine social and economic status with as jaundiced an eye as Tom Wolfe's. Others are comedies like the delightful "The Rolling Stones" (1952), which helped inspire the famous Star Trek episode "The Trouble With Tribbles."
[They were called "flat cats" - LC]

In 1958, in response to what he saw as a liberal effort to weaken America's military, he set aside the "Sex and God" book on which he had been working and wrote "Starship Troopers." This was probably his most controversial book. In it he imagines a future society in which the right to vote must be earned by volunteering for service, including service in the military. In response to claims that the book glorifies the military, he wrote: "It does indeed. Specifically, the P.B.I., the Poor Bloody Infantry, the mudfoot who puts his frail body between his loved home and the war's desolation--but is rarely appreciated."

Afterward, he finished the work he had set aside, and it became his second and possibly greatest masterpiece, "Stranger in a Strange Land." The book tells the story of a human child raised by Martians who is brought to Earth and discovers religion, lust and love, as well as politics, interplanetary diplomacy, legal shenanigans and life in a traveling carnival. The novel introduced the word "grok" into the vocabulary of the 1960s counterculture and seduced many of its members into reading some of Heinlein's other works--writings that, in some cases, helped them to rethink the assumptions of hippiedom.

His next book was "Glory Road," another novel on the subject of duty, heroism and love. The first chapter not only sets up the story but includes one of the most eloquent and witty denunciations of military conscription ever written. In "Glory Road," his protagonist is magically transported from Earth, where he had been fighting "pragmatic Marxists in the jungle," to a fantasy universe where, armed only with sword and bow, he would rescue a priceless treasure. His guide and mentor is a woman of "ageless perfect beauty" who later turns out to be the Empress of the Twenty Universes. She explains to the hero that "so far as I know, your culture is the only semicivilized one in which love is not recognized as the highest art and given the serious study it deserves."

Heinlein's political beliefs were moving more and more toward the libertarian side of the spectrum. He supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, and in 1966 he published what many considered his greatest book, "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," the tale of how penal colonists and their descendants on the Moon successfully revolt against their Earthly masters. The core of this book, which keeps it near the top of the libertarians' reading lists, is the speech by an old professor, Bernardo de la Paz, to the rebels' constitutional convention: ". . . like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have your freedom--if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant."
[As Mel Gibson's character asks in The Patriot "is it better to have one tyrant 3000 miles away or 3000 tyrants 1 mile away?]

The professor explains: "The power to tax, once conceded, has no limits; it contains until it destroys. I was not joking when I told them to dig into their own pouches. It may not be possible to do away with government--sometimes I think that it is an inescapable disease of human beings. But it may be possible to keep it small and starved and inoffensive--and can you think of a better way than by requiring the governors themselves to pay the costs of their antisocial hobby." As they say on the Moon, "TANSTAAFL!": "There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch!"

Heinlein's later novels were overshadowed by his failing health, and he often wrote on medical themes such as brain transplants and cloning. He was a strong supporter of blood drives and a big supporter of NASA's medical research projects. In the '70s, in a speech to the midshipmen at the Naval Academy, he said he thought that "patriotism has lost its grip on a large percentage of our population. . . . But there is no way to force patriotism on anyone. Passing a law will not create it, nor can we buy it by appropriating so many billions of dollars."

Robert A. Heinlein, who died in 1988, lived a life inspired by two great loves. One was America and its promise of freedom. As one of his characters put it: "Your country has a system free enough to let heroes work at their trade. It should last a long time--unless its looseness is destroyed from the inside." And he loved and admired women--not just his wife, Virginia, who provided the model for the many strong-minded and highly competent females who populate his stories, but all of womankind. "Some people disparage the female form divine, sex is too good for them; they should have been oysters."

In another hundred years, it will be interesting to see if the nuclear-powered spaceships and other technological marvels he predicted are with us. But nothing in his legacy will be more important than the spirit of liberty he championed and his belief that "this hairless embryo with the aching oversized brain case and the opposable thumb, this animal barely up from the apes will endure. Will endure and spread out to the stars and beyond, carrying with him his honesty and his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage and his noble essential decency."

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was much better than Atlas Shrugged . In fact Heinlein knocked Rand down and took her lunch money. While Heinlein did become more libertarian he never became an ass-clown by denying that the American ideal deserved to be aggressively defended.