The Heritage Of Heinlein: A Critical Reading Of The Fiction by Thomas D. Clareson and Joe Sanders (book review).

Having read all of Robert A. Heinlein’s Science Fiction and most of it twice over the years, I am at least familiar with the background material to this volume. As a mere book reviewer, as opposed to a literary critic, I may not be best qualified to judge its worth as an analysis of Heinlein but I can assess its entertainment value. Coincidentally, I recently read Damon Knight’s ‘love letter’ about Heinlein in ‘In Search Of Wonder’ so this may be a good contrast. I have also read Alexei Panshin book ‘Heinlein In Dimension’.


An interesting foreword by Frederick Pohl sets the stage. Pohl was a friend to many authors when he was involved in the early days of Science Fiction magazines. He even edited a couple of cheap ones and bought the stories of both Heinlein and Asimov that were rejected by John W. Campbell over at ‘Astounding Science Fiction’. Later, he edited ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Worlds Of If’ and bought a few Heinlein novels to run as serials prior to their book publication. He is also a well respected Science Fiction author in his own right (write?). As I recall from his memoirs, Fred is a registered Democrat and took some part in politics. Like many early associates of Heinlein, he did not appreciate that author’s shift from left of centre to far right political views after he married Virginia Gerstenfeld. They remained friends, however.

A preface by author Joe Sanders explains that much of the original work for the book was done by Thomas D. Clareson (1926-1993) and he finished it up at the request of Clareson’s wife, though he had an interest in Heinlein already. Then follows the main text of the book, which first considers ‘For Us The Living’, Heinlein’s unsold novel.

It goes on to look at the early professional work, the Scribners juveniles then the classics of the fifties. ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ gets a chapter all of its own and an analysis of the final period is followed by a summing up.

Heinlein started writing for money. Pensioned off on half-pay from the US Navy with tuberculosis, he had to earn a living. He never lost sight of this objective and always wanted to be a professional but he had other aims, too. He wanted to write fiction that was better than the standard action /adventure pulp stories then appearing in magazines. He wanted to sell to more general markets and he was always ambitious, declaring he was going to go up in the business but never down and out. He quit writing for a while when Campbell rejected ‘Goldfish Bowl’. So he was never a hack, contented to bang out thousands of words a day of trash as long as he got paid.

Certain themes emerge in his fiction right from the start but they are all related to one central issue: what makes life worthwhile? What’s the point of it all? Felix Hamilton asks the question in ‘Beyond This Horizon’. There’s no one answer but several possible options are explored in Heinlein‘s work. Live a long time and see what turns up, like Lazarus Long in ‘Time Enough For Love’. Devote yourself to some duty you see as worthwhile like the heroes of ‘Double Star’, ‘Space Cadet’, ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘Gulf’. All these questions are raised in regard to intelligent, superior humans as Heinlein didn’t write about any other kind. What do the competent men do about the common herd? Ignore them or take care of them? In the earlier works, the superior man definitely had a duty of care. Later, Heinlein seems to think that the best course of action was for the elites to look after number one, make themselves rich and have lots of sex while being smug about their superiority. It’s a point of view.

Everybody loves the Heinlein juveniles in which optimistic, competent clean-cut American lads enthusiastically get involved in space travel and colonising new worlds. One ‘gag’ Heinlein pulled a couple of times was to reveal somewhere near the end, usually by a bit of conversation, that a lead character was not of white Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. In any case, they struggled through adversity in the name of a worthwhile goal and more than one reader of those books went on to join the space race in real life. The adult novels of the fifties have also stood the test of time, such titles as ‘The Man Who Sold The Moon’, ‘The Door Into Summer’, ‘Double Star’ and ‘The Puppet Masters’. Interestingly, the definitive text for ‘The Puppet Masters’ was not published until 1990. Horace Gold mangled the version published in ‘Galaxy’ and the first book version wasn’t the original manuscript neither.

The later books are generally seen as less worthwhile but Clareson and Sanders have a different take on them. Solipsism is present in much of Heinlein’s writing, most obviously in the short stories ‘They’ and ‘All You Zombies’. The authors think that Heinlein saw himself as more intelligent than those around him and wondered about how to relate to them. He was certainly an enthusiast for sex and decided that it’s the best way for people to get acquainted. This is the reason for all that talk about it in many books, though the act itself is never described. Carson and Sanders also believe he was experimenting with narrative techniques in the later books and having fun, too, which is why they depart from conventional plot driven storytelling. Their main point is that he knew exactly what he was doing whereas other critics think he had lost control.

It’s all very interesting. Heinlein hated critics and valued engineers much more highly than professors of literature, as the authors admit. However, they seem to like and admire his work, unlike some, who take the position that it’s simple-minded because it’s easy to read. Certain New Age Science Fiction writers, arts graduates who revelled in pessimism and opaque prose, often lambasted Heinlein and the scientist authors of the Golden Age. Clareson and Sanders don’t do that so the analyses and ponderings here indubitably enhance one’s enjoyment of the works.

Of course, reading the stories is the main thing. Personally, I’d recommend the early short stories, the juveniles and the ‘classics‘, both of which were written in the fifties. From the sixties, ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ is interesting, ‘Farnham’s Freehold’ is open to misinterpretation, ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ is a masterpiece. Any Heinlein book is extremely readable because his chatty prose voice is so alluring, which is why he sold so much. This criticism is also very readable and usefully thought-provoking. Worth getting if you’re a Heinlein enthusiast and want a bit more insight into the work.

Eamonn Murphy

March 2014

(pub: McFarland. 227 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $45.00 (US) £38.95(UK). ISBN: 978-0-78647-498-1)

check out websites: www.mcfarlandpub.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com

Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His eBooks are available at all good retailers or see his website: https://eamonnmurphywriter298729969.wordpress.com/

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