Locus Online Features: Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Robert A. Heinlein
An interesting review of several of Heinlein’s books, and his influence on the SF genre.
Heinlein’s stories are arguments about what shape the new Americas might take and about the kinds of virtues that the men creating those new Americas should have: independence, determination, scientific knowledge, distrust of dogma. And just as American exceptionalism argues that the USA has a special place in the community of nations because of its people’s relationship to history, so you can see Heinlein arguing in this quotation for a kind of human exceptionalism. Unlike some of the alien species encountered in “Methuselah’s Children”, we humans shall not cease from exploration. We’ll want, like Stevenson, to be buried under alien skies.
It’s fair to say that the stories in The Past Through Tomorrow showcase Heinlein’s strengths and weaknesses in ways that were not to change much throughout his career. He was always a dialogue-driven writer, for instance, and one can see that influencing a contemporary writer like Connie Willis. He was not much given to depicting reflection divorced from action or action not resulting in progress. So he doesn’t show much of characters’ inner lives. (He would have said, I guess, that nothing matters about a character except what they say and do.) You feel that his stories are always on the side of the future, that whoever lives or dies in them, the future he wants to talk about will win. So he can feel like a bully if you don’t accept the terms of the debate he knows he’s going to win. And — the flip side of bullying — he can also be sentimental, as for instance he is in “Requiem”. He tells you that you’re supposed to feel sad on being told about certain events; and if you don’t, you’ve failed to read the story properly. But that trait and others are far less pronounced here than they would be later. I don’t think there’s any book more central to the creation of genre SF than The Past Through Tomorrow, and I’m simply astonished that it now seems to be out of print in the UK and the US.
I disagree with the author about The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (he thinks that it’s bogged down by aphorisms, and an unrealistic view of how people act, and it’s politics) I think the politics are central to the plot, and that while, yes, the aphorisms get a little much, they help move the story at a faster pace. As for the views on human nature, I feel they are quite appropriate, and seeing that Heinlein based the structure of the story on penal colonies (like Australia) that they are plausible. (But, then, maybe I have a less cynical worldview than the author of the article–which is hard to believe 😀 )
I also disagree that the later books, lke The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, and, the Number of the Beast, where “savage solipsisms”. Solipsistic, yes. Savage, no. I believe the Heinlein was having fun and tying up the loose ends of his future history.This period was, arguably, not his best (although I’d put Friday, and Number of the Beast up against any of his earlier books, and any other SF author’s books), and that he was past his prime as a writer, but I say he did pretty well considering age, and brain surgery, wouldn’t you?