Thursday, May 4, 2017

Heinlein and Me

Hello reader,
May I write about myself today? And Heinlein too?

Here’s a quote, with documentation, from the blog
of science fiction writer John Scalzi:

MarkO: What do you make of Robert A. Heinlein?

John Scalzi: I’m a fan! Will be all the rest of my life, too. I also recognize he’s in the process of slipping out of the day-to-day conversation of the genre, and becoming someone we discuss like we discuss Jules Verne and H.G. Welles. All things considered, this is not a bad thing for Heinlein, although I suspect it distresses some of his fans.

  • Ah, Heinlein. My favorite sf writer, the fellow some folks despise and love to label a fascist. Maybe that’s because his characters are too intimidating for them, characters that, as role models, changed my life. ...maybe for the worst.

Critics and readers alike assumed that Heinlein’s left-brain practical characters reflected Heinlein the man. Hence the oft-repeated scenario that Heinlein was a fascist. Maybe he was, in his private life—how would I know?

But maybe, in his commercial life, he was secretly trying for a brand, a trademark, a marketing schtick. He was well known to be a graduate of Annapolis naval college who had left the navy as a young man only after being invalided out for tuberculosis—Sounds so prim and practical. People forget that in my parent’s day, before the G.I. Bill, (and later, student loans) the service colleges were about the only way for a poor boy to get a university education… (Note for Canadians: Of course the bill applied to the navy and air force too; G.I. is a an informal word for U.S. soldiers, rumored to mean Government Issue. The G.I. Bill, from WWII, means a wartime or peacetime veteran can go to college on the public’s dime) 

Heinlein’s fictional characters were likely to be unafraid to handle a gun; they were unlikely to be social workers. Back when I was as old as those returning G.I.s I considered going to university. My brother, on the phone long distance, guessed, “To be a teacher, or to be a social worker?”  (Neither) I felt foolish, because I had heard so many bad things about both professions from my relatives and other people. Once, when I read that certain evening seminars were mainly attended by those two sorts, I felt uneasy, since I like such classes too. I can laugh at my old discomfort, because now I attend a Free Fall Friday writing class where many of us are retired teachers, and all of us have a keen interest in people, just like a social worker. Ha-ha! Maybe I took the wrong major, way back when.

Ah Heinlein, a name evoking nostalgia. I will always treasure his rip-roaring space adventures for boys, published yearly in the late 140’s and through the 1950’s, timed for the Christmas market.

I remember walking past the shelves of my junior high (middle) school English class and going “Wow!” For there on the shelf was a stack of paperback copies of Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel, the last YA book he wrote. Cool! —That’s the one where a boy from a mediocre mid-west high school, a not-good-enough school, voluntarily seeks extra learning to upgrade himself, to be able to get into an engineering faculty, to have a chance of following his dream of going to the moon some day—

Hey, if only my English class could take that book too! How lucky that other class was, how excited they would be—and then I remembered… how sadly dull my peers would be. No, they wouldn’t like the novel—not at all. As a grown up, in the 21st century, I was to read how fortunate children are: The Harry Potter books have “witchcraft,” meaning they would never be allowed in the schoolroom, meaning the kids would never “have to” take Harry Potter and thereby end up hating the lively young lad.

In contrast to the dull kids I knew in my everyday life, the juveniles in Heinlein’s stories were not afraid to show enthusiasm and be involved. Various heroes were in Boy Scouts, attended a serious town hall meeting, learned school subjects they didn’t “have to” take, learned an alien language, tried their luck at being an entrepreneur, conducted rigorous rocket experiments with proper notes, had a demanding hobby…

How alien, because during my youth, back when boys had long hair, the shaggy protagonists in the YA novels were rebels, anti-heroes, anti-establishment, slouched around street corners, did everything except become competent at anything. To be fair, one writer had his hero on a school wrestling team and competing for good school marks but, as that same writer noted in his forward, his novel was written as a protest against all the non-accomplished heroes of the era. (It’s as if the 1960’s value of “freedom” meant “freedom from self-discipline”)

Even Heinlein’s female supporting characters were strong and competent, even the ones in the stories written decades before certain feisty elements of society taught the rest of us about “women’s liberation.” A critic once pointed out we don’t know what sort of females Heinlein valued in easy everyday life (limp wristed trophy wives?) because the stories were always about a society, or a family, under stress.

As for Heinlein’s characters in general, his stories set a hard example to live up to. Fine by me. His boys and men? Often they learned algebra and enjoyed it for it’s own sake—in one novel a crippled beggar tutors his ragged son in quadratic equations. Heinlein’s characters would casually mention using their slide rule (calculator) to solve a curious problem they had set for themselves. Sometimes they were involved in politics—“the only game for adults.” Often they were engineers or wore a uniform. We are talking practical left-brain people. Heinlein’s novels seldom featured a writer, an artist, or anyone being part of a thriving artistic community. Once, in an adult novel, an English teacher was briefly onstage—as a pathetic villain.

I took Heinlein’s stories to heart. I can remember, in junior high, smelling fresh cookies from boys in cooking. This while other boys were taking chorus. Not me, I took serious courses like chemistry and physics. Not mere biology. Never art. Had we a junior reserve officer training corps (JROTC) with a firing range in the school basement, I would surely have been involved. But alas, I lived in Surrey Canada, not Kent Washington.

What if Heinlein’s authorial public image, as seen through his characters, was all a mask?

I first absorbed the word “mask” after I heard a radio interview of an ex-girlfriend of singer Bob Dylan. She suggested Dylan’s singing style was a put-on. She even imitated him for the listening audience. And here I’d been so angry at Bob Dylan, angry because he had bales of money and yet, while other poor artists were busting their guts to work on their craft, he seemed too blanket-blank lazy to take lessons in proper speaking and singing. As it happens, my college offered speaking lessons for a full semester, but you had to major in theatre or broadcasting to get in: That’s why today people ask me where my accent is from—I never did get to “polish my articulators.”

Heinlein’s image is that he is brilliant and Knowledgeable. Creative too, yet mainly a practical guy to have on your naval ship or space station. How brilliant? Besides doing algebra for fun? The legend goes that after the navy he tried various jobs. One day he saw a short story contest with a cash prize, so he wrote his first short story. But then he ended up submitting his story to a science fiction magazine instead, as it offered more money. It sold, and he continued to sell each new story he wrote. He even had to use a pseudonym sometimes, so his name would not be in too many issues. The rest of us? We average ten years, writing around our day job, before we break into print. I doubt the legend.

My doubts arose from a young student I volunteered with at university who claimed he had a collection of Heinlein stories from before the “first” one. No way would he sell his collection to me! I believed him. Common sense tells me “no artist paints just one picture.” There is surely a trail, a learning curve. If Heinlein suppressed or failed to submit his earlier manuscripts right up until the legendary first one, entitled Lifeline, then maybe that was part of building a brand. (I too have been a “dark horse” at times, beginning with surprising my school cross-country team: I’m never in a hurry for fame)

During university, in a lecture theatre class, we took a lengthy aptitude test. The purpose was to find our dominant vocational “scheme.” I’m not positive what the schemes were, but let me guess a few: A person could be Realistic, such as a mechanic or naval officer, Enterprising, such a businessman, Investigative like a scientist, or be Social or Artistic, and at least one more. 

Our teacher no doubt thought we would be distracted if she handed us our lengthy results right away. So before she did so, she had us leave our seats to congregate in on the floor at the front, in our scheme groups, to discuss. Well, I’m in the human services, so I went to be with the “social” ones, to compare how our lives were social. Bad idea. Because when I returned to my seat I discovered I was artistic… Me? Artistic? Suddenly a lot of my embarrassing life made sense. Too bad, to quote the oracle at Delphi, that I didn’t “know thyself” until that very day.

A year later, at a staff meeting, my peers were to label me as being the creative one on the team—the only reason I didn’t dismiss my creative contributions as “coincidence” or “from having knowledge” was from my awakening after that test. Now I would ask: What if Heinlein’s dominant scheme was “artistic” too? What if he was faking his carefully crafted brand of merely writing “for groceries” and knowing what a slide rule is for?

Being artistic would fit with how he could “invent” things like Waldos, waterbeds, and army armored power suits. It would explain how he was, like Shakespeare’s group of players staging Merchant of Venice, without prejudice against people of another other race, religion or creed. In his Tunnel In the Sky the student hero is Black! In the 1950’s! But ver-r-r-y few readers ever noticed. I never did, I only learned from a Black English teacher. 

As an artist, Heinlein could step outside the ethos of his day, and see that, say, brawny football players didn’t have to be C-minus students and women, well, they didn’t have to be less-than-male, trapped by a Feminine Mystique, dependent on their intuition. (Yes, I’ve read ½ of Germaine Greer) His keen perception, I think, was not from his brilliant I.Q. but from his artistic eye. Artists always stand apart from their society; that’s why they’re able to reflect it back to us… I’m still learning to say “we,” not “they,” as in “we artists.”

Like other great artists, he was devoted to his craft. A secret (secret to prevent him from being inundated with requests for help) has been revealed: He helped two already successful authors, Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, with their thick novel The Mote in God’s Eye. If he was going to blurb their novel as being “possibly the best science fiction novel I have ever read,” then he was going to make sure it was: He gifted them with a line by line rewrite. How could he do that unless, regardless of any inborn talent, he had taught himself, after many, many self-disciplined lonely man-hours of painful revisions, what a classic sentence looks like?

I do believe the legend that he would write only one draft. (Isaac Asimov recalls Bob shaking his head saying, “Isaac, Isaac, why do you write two drafts?”) Sure, one draft, but only because he had previously labored for years to learn to craft his words. That’s art.

I once did a line-by-line study of his unrevised edition of the Puppet Masters, now in paperback as “the original uncut version.” I compared it to my old hardcover. My findings? I think he would quickly write his “one draft,” then cut it down, and then submit the manuscript. This would be an efficient use of his man-hours. Somebody once told me, while explaining income taxes on fiction, that a fiction writer has to write two pages per hour in order not to lose money. “You need to be efficient.” 

Ah Heinlein... like him I too have tried to be devoted to my craft. I used to revise in pencil until my pages were so cluttered I could no longer make out my manuscript. Then I’d re-type it. Then I’d start revising again… I’m as lazy as the next person, honestly I am, but in my writing I would hope to one day be as excellent as one of Heinlein’s characters. I’m still learning, from the writer and the man.

Sean Crawford
(still lazy at writing)

~My favorite line (from memory) from The Puppet Masters was the spy chief rebuking his agent who had expressed ignorance about recent events in Russia, “If you would take a grown up interest in the newspapers you would know.” A citizen should be informed.

~Heinlein’s belief the common people can handle their own affairs is expressed in the book Red Planet, where colonists have a town hall meeting. His belief that democracy is, as Churchill noted, the best alternative to all other forms of government, is expressed in the Hugo Award winning book Double Star about the greatest statesman in the solar system. Heinlein himself, in the days before the distraction of television, was a hard-working volunteer for a political party.

~In Double Star, I liked how a character observed you may judge a party leader by the folks around him.

A certain female provincial premier had folks around her who would give the “go-ahead” to secretly build her a big fancy penthouse atop the legislative buildings, folks who would lie to people that her government plane was full so she could travel almost alone. For pleasure. With her daughter. Now the word about her people is out: Her Progressive Conservative party can’t get back into power in Alberta, even though we are traditionally Canada’s most conservative province, not unless the party merges with a party still further to the right. The crazy party we elected as our protest might not be a one-term wonder after all… even though they’re socialists! (Ah, the only game for adults)  

For my fellow writer-nerds:
~Other authorial “trademarks,” or schtick, would include Canadians such as Farley Mowat and Leonard Cohen, one wearing a kilt, the other wearing a fedora indoors. A published writer I know tried wearing Hawaiian shirts but then he gave it up after nobody noticed.

~My favorite lesson of my line study was when Heinlein cut out the comma after said, and before creatures in a bite of dialogue, to show urgency. The published uncut version, although grammatically correct, was wrong to put the comma back in. The following is mostly in my own words, but not the words in italics:  
The agency chief is repeating word for word an agent’s report by radio, about a landed flying saucer, that was cut off: “They’re coming out now, little creatures—”
Excited: “Little men?”

Sharply: “He said “creatures!” 
The chief was a stickler for accuracy, just like Winston Churchill, and the fictional chief of secret agent Matt Helm.


  1. Loved this post Sean. I learn something new about you every time I read your work. I hardly think you are 'lazy' though if you are keeping up with your blog. Excellent writing!

  2. That's nice to hear Cindy, especially as I had been self-doubting, consoling myself that my piece was worth doing as an experiment.