Thursday, October 30, 2014

Not To Be Robert Heinlein

How do you not be a “right-wing fascist?” As a writer, I mean.

I ask this because such is a judgment “against” my favorite author, Robert A. Heinlein.

Alternately, Heinlein is known for being a “long-haired liberated type” after writing the college student cult classic Stranger In A Strange Land. Still, the shorthaired fascist image is the one that seems to stick. In fact, according to the Internet, when that Dutch director who made Robocop made the feature Starship Troopers, based on the novel of the same name, he couldn’t, due to his distaste, finish reading the book. Hence, says the web, his film had a satirical tone.

I dimly recall the 1950’s Starship Troopers being written when the public felt baffled and helpless before a new unprecedented rise in juvenile delinquency. I’m not sure if delinquency has since returned to pre-war levels or if we’ve merely learned to normalize it. At any rate, I think Heinlein, emphasizing social values, had intended to be earnest, not satirical. Or had he?

It was Heinlein who said that sf, written science fiction, (not Hollywood sci-fi) could be more broadly known as “speculative fiction.” To me this means an author could take opposing ideas, mutually exclusive ideas, and then speculate on each idea with various novels. For example, write one novel where people are informed self-reliant Boy Scouts in a sort of stern Roman republic, then another where people say, “What’s the use?” in a wimpy Roman empire, and yet another where they are truly wimps, screwed if ever The Machine Stops. (E. M. Forster 1909) None of her novels would necessarily represent the belief of the writer.

Of course, life is more fun if both literary critics and eager readers like me can pretend to discern the beliefs and philosophy of a writer from just his or her writing—but we can’t, of course.  I really want to believe we can, but— Recently Orson Scott Card has created controversy by his actions against gays; people are saying everyone should boycott the Superman comics he is scripting. I am surprised at Card because I really like his Ender series, especially the books where Ender is gentle middle-aged man. I even underlined parts. I thought Card’s writing suggested a likeable writer of deep psychological insight and compassion, which would rule out his being cruel to gays. (Note: Scientists say being gay is not a choice… then again, the same scientists believe in the theory of evolution)  

I know of another male writer, who shall be nameless here because the public hasn’t twigged yet, a man who has written of very Loving characters—in fact, his straight males can say the “L” word—but his nonfiction essays show him as a jerk… Now I wonder if maybe another nice writer, Paul Gallico, back in the 1960’s, had anticipated the Card controversy. A best-selling author in his day, Gallico wrote a short novel where a lonely orphan girl joins a traveling one-man puppet show. The puppet master is pathetically cruel to her, and he controls his puppets to be very nice to the girl… Truly, people are a mystery.

As for Heinlein, his private life he kept private, so presumably people who judge him fascist do so from his work in general. I generally like his stuff. So what could I or another writer do, to avoid the same right wing fascist label? What could Heinlein have done differently? The question, invoking his book titles, makes an interesting thought experiment.

Thought Experiment

In Red Planet, subtitled A Colonial Boy on Mars, the teen hero is present at a town hall meeting: This was my first exposure to Robert’s Rules of Order. Part of the meeting involved “What should be the age of majority?,” (Voting) a theme returned to in Starship Troopers. It seems Heinlein believes in participation, as in his novel Double Star (which surely inspired the 1993 film Dave) where the characters, none of whom are politicians, all enjoy being party members and participating in democracy.

What is the opposite then, for me, to avoid being labeled fascist? Better to write of a hero in a “what’s the use?” society without public meetings, a society where only an elite participate and the average guy, to paraphrase me at work, thinks, “I only live here.” Like in some sci-fi empire or the Earth in the movie Elysium.

In Rocketship Galileo the teen friends, because of one boy’s father, learn to be properly scientific, keeping careful notes for their hobby of rocket experiments. In Have Spacesuit—Will Travel the hero, thanks to intervention by his dad, takes better, harder courses in high school after deciding to become an engineer. In Space Family Stone the brothers plan to become asteroid prospectors until their grandmother convinces them there is more money in selling to the prospectors: They become entrepreneurs. It seems Heinlein believes older competent folks are responsible to help younger folks have goals and to then become competent in their turn. Maybe that’s elitist. And fascist.

The opposite of this would be all the young adult novels of my formative years—or almost all. One man wrote about an ambitious boy, on the high school school wrestling team, without even saying whether or not the student wins his tournament at the end of the book. The point of the novel was to show the boy making an effort. It was made into a movie, but the title escapes me. The author said he wrote it as a protest: As he noted, all the other teen characters of my formative years, the  longhaired 1960's and 70's, were non-ambitious. (Even the ones who "wanted" to be rock'n roll stars would never take lessons, certainly not lessons from anyone with serious music training) Maybe not losers, but certainly non-winners. Maybe to write about plain non-winners is to be safely non-fascist.

In Starman Jones a passenger starcruiser, a “love boat,” is marooned. Responsible civilians, as well as the crew, are armed with pistols and rifles from the weapons locker. In Red Planet (1949) pistols are commonplace to fend off wildlife. Readers see ordinary colonists, family men, use their pistols to revolt, forcing Earth to give them independence. In Between Planets a teenager who feels orphaned and displaced eventually finds some sense of belonging... by joining the army. Surely Heinlein is comfortable with guns.

The opposite? To write about an unarmed population, about city folks who have never seen any guns except for handguns, who by default find guns icky, disturbing and not-nice—something for big city criminals. Being afraid of guns, I guess, is normal and non-fascist. I could write of such a society, I suppose, even though in real life my sister coaches biathlon and my brother-in-law is the volunteer armorer for the local cadet corps.

I have no idea whether Heinlein, now deceased, (1988) was ever as nice in person as my helpful brother-in-law. Still, I’ve enjoyed this small thought experiment.

Robert Heinlein remains my favorite author.

I'm a writer. I don’t think I’ll write about characters who don’t vote or participate, have no difficult hobbies, no competence, and no sense of responsibility to the next generation. And who are not liberated about guns. No, if such characters were normal and middle-of-the-road, if it’s more enlightened to write about protagonists and civilians rather than about heroes and citizens, well, I’d rather just write like a “fascist.”

Sean Crawford
~I'm reading Heinlein's Double Star, "an easy and enjoyable read" according to the new forward by Ken Macleod, who notes the work is "(Heinlein's) only book that is centrally about politics … idealizes parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy." In other words, a non-fasciest book. 

~ Thinking about whether writers, who have to "act their characters," are nice or not: The November Cineplex Magazine, in the editor's note Feeling It by Marni Weisz begins—and the words could apply to writers—"Here's a question. Do you need a heightened sense of empathy to  be an actor—to put oneself in someone else's shoes and pull off a convincing performance?" No, not according to research by Thalia R. Goldsein. She found that, in comparing acting students and psychology students, "the psychology students had a slight edge it their ability to empathize." 

I am surprised. Maybe the study sample wasn't big enough.


  1. I ordered the "War of Art" today. Delivery date? Next week! Woo hoo!

  2. I have no doubt you will read it all in one sitting. So don't start it at bed time.

    1. Good to know! I'll let you know what I think. If it isn't good, then it might get awkward for us on here. Kidding! Thanks for recommending it.

    2. My book is M.I.A. It has been in Mississauga, ON since Nov. 1st. Someone in the mail office thought "Hey! That book was on my list and I'll borrow it for a bit". Waiting.........

  3. Grrr!

    ...I wonder what the morale, community spirit and leadership is like in that town. You never hear of anything good coming out of there.

    1. That town has my book! Maybe the person reading the book also reads your blog and thought "Coincidence? I think yes! That book has come my way and I'm going to give it a quick read! That gal in Calgary can wait."

      The way I look at it is...."if they skim, they are dim". Hee hee hee!

      (How are the t-shirts coming along? You could expand the business to bumper stickers......endless possibilities! I could be the think tank? Dragon's Den one day?)


    2. Woo hoo! Canada Post delivered the slip today and I'm going to pick it up tomorrow. The Mississauga guy must have given it a thumbs up and now it's my turn. Stay tuned.....

    3. That does it—I won't let you have all the fun: I am going to pick up something to read on Saturday too!
      Of course, it has to be something I can rationalize buying, because I "really should" refrain from new books until I have de-clutterred the books I already have.
      Yes, but—if you can buy, then I can buy. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

    4. Sounds good to me! I support your book buying habit. I can't wait to dive into my new book tomorrow. I'll enjoy a hot cup of Joe while I read my brand new book. Life is good!

  4. I know what you're doing to say. I know what you are thinking. You're going to say "Remember my advice? Don't start the book before bed?".

    I'm on page 48 and I need to sleep. My bed is calling my name.

    More tomorrow!
    What did you end up buying?

    1. You see? I can't even spell properly. "going to say"


  5. Page 48? That's (almost) right where Pressfield has his turn-the-corner moment that I can so identify with.

    My new copy is so thin! I went out and bought it again because my old copy is wavy and triple in width from being too near my bathtub, and right now I think it's lost behind the particle board in my ikea billy book cabinet and I just don't want to dig it up, so I bought it again.

    I also bought a 25-year-old splendid book I had never heard of with a new forward, called Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer. I think it's not more famous because it requires work to learn the lessons, but I am ready and willing.

    The other day I was driving down the highway when I realized that it had been ages since I had a frustrated can't-win conversation with the old "committee-in-my-head," so that was a blazing example of personal growth being real for me. I wonder what else is in store?

    The other prose I bought, was I went to the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office, although I'm not a member and I have wine at home (in an imported box with a spigot) I bought issues of the Grapevine, "our meeting in print" because I like the return to sanity that the members talk about.

    Also I saw a matinee for Interstellar. I had avoided the trailers and reviews so I had a better experience than most. It was a nice long drama. To save time I went to an earlier show which had imax seating. To me all it meant was more rumbling for the rocket scenes.

    I don't know much about movie-going, but I will avoid imax from now on because many other patrons streamed in late, and had to squish past narrow seats, which to me defeats the purpose of imax which is supposed to put you "there" without distractions. I'd have been less distracted in a normal theatre with people on time, or at least entering where I couldn't see them.(you see the whole theatre in imax)

    I will be off-line until late tonight. And W of Art? Some people on the web are disturbed because they think they are (insert child's voice) "s'posed to" do the mystical stuff in the last part. I don't think so. It will always be there if/when I am ready to be mystical like him, but I don't have to be a carbon copy of Pressfield, and I really don't think he expects us to… and besides, I am semi-mystical already.

  6. Yes, Homer. Back in January I was moved to write an essay on the people of his war, an essay that, come to think of it, I could re-post one year for Remembrance Day.

  7. I wonder why my post didn't work on here the other day? A glitch with the system!

    Is there a maximum # of posts that this site will accept?

    Remember when I used to comment and there would be a couple of posts for a topic? Now, we're up to 14!
    Let's see if this comment goes through. *click*