Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 2: 1948-1988: The Man Who Learned Better by William H. Patterson, Jr (book review)

Here, at last, is the long awaited second volume of the authorised biography of Robert A. Heinlein. ‘Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 1: 1907-1948: Learning Curve’ told the story of his boyhood, his time in the navy and the beginnings of his writing career. ‘Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 2: 1948-1988: The Man Who Learned Better’ starts in 1948, by which time he was selling short stories to high paying magazines like the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ and had an arrangement with the publisher Scribner to write one juvenile novel a year, timed for the Christmas trade. Soon, he was working on the screenplay for ‘Destination Moon, the film version of ‘Rocketship Galileo’ and also got a job as a technical advisor on the production.


‘Volume 1’ also covered his personal life: the first brief marriage, the second longer one to Leslyn and the advent of Virginia, who became his third wife. Ginny moved in with Robert and Leslyn under their open marriage arrangement and ‘when the Snow Maiden got her skate in the door, things were different’ according to one correspondent. ‘Leslyn slept in the studio whilst Bob and the femme fatale cavorted in the master bedroom.’ Later, Ginny casually mentioned to Bob’s old friend, Cal Lanning, that they had lived together before they were married. Heinlein was furious. He was always very keen on keeping his private life private.

As well as being a private man, Heinlein was also rather madly patriotic and could not abide anyone speaking against his country, even natives. He told Asimov off for complaining about the food when they worked in the navy shipyards and, much later, he fell out badly with Arthur C. Clark when that worthy opined that the so-called ‘Star Wars’ missile defence system might not be a good idea. When I read ‘Grumbles From The Grave’, the posthumous collection of Heinlein’s grumpy letters, I had the impression that he had cut off all contact with John W. Campbell, Jr., following criticisms of the navy by Campbell during World War II. In fact, contact with the editor of ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ continued, usually in letters about L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics system, something Heinlein wisely avoided. No one was messing with his brain. He needed it. However, he certainly counted Hubbard as a good friend in 1948 because he loaned him $50 at a time when the Heinleins were pretty hard up themselves.

Many examples of his generosity are cited in the book. He gave money to Theodore Sturgeon when he was broke and also handed him a few plot ideas. He was generous to Sturgeon’s widow when she was in financial difficulties. He bought an electric typewriter for Philip K. Dick and loaned him money. He quietly supported the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) through hard times, even though a few of the other authors were highly critical of his political views. He really didn’t seem to care about money for its own sake. As soon as it was earned, he and Ginny would go off and spend it, usually on travelling around the world if they weren’t building a house. Later, a lot of it went on medical expenses.

The above examples of how nice Heinlein was highlighted the main enigma about him. He didn’t practice what he preached. The latter books seem to advocate selfishness, greed, looking after number one, etc and to sneer at altruism as pure foolishness. Lazarus Long regards lesser mortals – nearly everyone – as stupid and deserving of their Darwinian fate: poverty, famine or death. But Robert A. Heinlein wasn’t Lazarus Long or Jubal Harshaw or even Valentine Michael Smith. He spent a lot of time and money on recruiting blood donors. He went out and campaigned for political causes he believed in, though they were usually right wing. As mentioned above, he was generous with his money. In real life, he was more like the teenage idealist in a Heinlein juvenile than he was like the sour old heroes of the later novels. That is to his credit.

Heinlein always wanted his works to speak for him and avoided as much as possible any delving into his private life. That was quite interesting in ‘Volume 1’: political campaigns, marriage and breaking into the Science Fiction field and rising to the top. In ‘Volume 2’, the life is really a bit boring. Many squabbles with Shasta Publishing and Hollywood finance men over his share of loot for the products. There’s a lot about house-building and trouble with contractors. There are family visits, family squabbles and loads of world travel. ‘Volume 1’ concentrated more on Science Fiction writing as he was learning his trade and to an extent on the Science Fiction fraternity of the time. As he became popular in the slicks and book publishing, Heinlein largely left hard-core SF fandom behind. Forrest Ackerman played a large part in this by being a pain in the neck, acting as ‘agent’ for Heinlein properties when he had no right to do so, this despite repeated attempts to make him stop. By this stage, Lurton Blassingame was the agent for virtually everything and was doing a very good job of making his client richer, obtaining foreign sales for the Scribner’s juveniles and getting good rates for serialisations of them in ‘Boy’s Life’ magazine. These had to be cut considerably and slightly amended to make the instalments more fitting but getting paid twice for the same novel was a good gimmick. The adult novels were usually serialised in the top SF magazines of the day so they also paid off twice.

Heinlein’s fame comes from his work as a Science Fiction writer. This biography reveals that he didn’t spend a whole lot of time writing. The very successful run of ‘juveniles’ for Scribner, one a year, were usually knocked out in a month. For example, he started writing ‘Star Beast’ on August 26th 1953 and had it finished by September 26th. The adult books didn’t take much longer. He wrote ‘The Puppet Masters’ in about five weeks beginning October 1, 1950. ‘Glory Road’ took three weeks. However, the time spent bashing out the first draft isn’t the whole story. Heinlein kept a large file of index cards on which he constantly made notes when he had an idea. Furthermore, he seems to have spent almost as much time cutting the first draft for publication as he did writing it. Certainly, this was the case with ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’. He also spent a lot of time and emotional energy arguing with Scribner’s editor Alice Dalgiesh about her ‘censorship’ of his work, though it seems to me that she knew the restrictions of the time and her cuts were designed to get the book safely past spinster librarians and other guardians of public morals in fifties America.

Of course, the time taken to write a work is no reflection of quality, for by now he had become a master of his art. All of Heinlein’s juveniles are intelligent, exciting adventure stories, easy to read and still popular today. The literati may criticise the lack of similes, metaphors and deep Freudian meaning but that stuff isn’t necessary to the average reader. The adult books of the fifties still had to be mostly about plot and characters. By 1960, Heinlein was fairly secure financially and ventured to include a bit more lecturing in ‘Starship Troopers’. That won a Hugo and his course was set. Thereafter, the books were more about his views than about plots and character. There were honourable exceptions, notably ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ but, in general, the adult novels from ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ onwards are the thoughts of Chairman Heinlein.

It should be noted that as Heinlein is an intelligent, witty writer and the books are very charming and readable. I like them all, even though I don‘t agree with his politics. It’s worth pointing out, though, that his reputation was mostly built on the fifties work and I believe that is what will stand the test of time. ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ remains a classic and marks his zenith, the equivalent of ‘Sergeant Pepper’ for The Beatles. After the fact, people may argue about its worth but no one doubts its importance. The comparison is apt, too, because like that popular beat combo, Heinlein was at the top of the field and had sufficient clout with the men in suits to experiment. They could be sure that any Heinlein book would sell. It was also like ‘Lord Of The Rings’, very much a part of sixties pop culture.

There is a theory, backed up by information here, that with the later works, especially the very latest, he was not interested in melodrama and the usual stuff of adventure but more in ideas and social satire. That being so, criticism of ‘I Will Fear No Evil’ or ‘The Cat Who Walks Through Walls’ for not being like ‘Starman Jones’ is futile. They weren’t meant to be. Heinlein knew what he was doing and if some people in the so-called SF community didn’t like it, he didn’t give a damn.

The main thing lacking in this authorised biography is any definite opinion by the author about his subject. The general tone is reverent, which is okay, but many biographies are extended essays which put forward a particular point of view. Sometimes the biographer may not like his subject. That’s okay, too. Patterson has done wonderful research as evidenced by the extensive notes accompanying each chapter, but doesn’t have a conclusion or any analysis of what Heinlein was about. The two books might be called ‘What Heinlein Did’ and ‘What Heinlein Did Next’. On the other hand, there are plenty of opinions about Heinlein and his work out there and the facts assembled here are useful in their own right. ‘Volume 2’ contains some interesting stuff but, probably because the life of a struggling artist is more precarious than that of a successful rich one, the first book was better.

Eamonn Murphy

November 2014

(pub: TOR/Forge. 671 page indexed illustrated hardback. Price: $34.99 (US), $39.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1961-6)

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Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His works are available on Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited.

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