Robert Heinlein: One Sane Man?

By John Kessel

(first published in Short Form, 2, 3, October 1989)

My fifth grade teacher Mr. McNally, cleaning out his desk on the last day of school, pulled out two paperbacks and offered me my choice: Starship Troopers or King Solomon's Mines. The cover painting of a man in a spacesuit, futuristic rifle clutched in his hand, slogging through knee-deep alien muck, was enough for me—to this day I still haven't read Rider Haggard's novel.

From the time I turned ten until the time I turned twenty, no writer captured my imagination more than Robert Heinlein. For the sf reader of 1960, of whatever age, Heinlein was science fiction in the way that John Ford was the film western and Elvis Presley was rock and roll. Not that you couldn't make an argument that, by some reasonable standard, others had done better or more essential work—but in order to do that you'd have to make an argument, whereas to make the case for Heinlein, you had only to speak the name. Heinlein felt central. In 1960 maybe Bradbury was better known to the general public, and maybe Pohl or Dick or Sturgeon or Bester was more daring, but nobody in sf would say Bradbury wrote better science fiction, and the others could not command the attention Heinlein could.

I loved The Puppet Masters, The Door Into Summer and his other novels for adults, but for now let's talk about his short stories. The Green Hills of Earth. Revolt in 2100. The Man Who Sold the Moon. The Menace from Earth. Written in the 1940s, these were the works through which Heinlein established his mastery so quickly that by 1941, two years after the publication of his first story, Heinlein was guest of honor at the World SF Convention. He did it not so much by the quality of his ideas but by the quality of his writing. Heinlein brought modernism to sf.

Here's the last page of Heinlein's first published story, "Life-line":

No one spoke at first. The committee members glanced around at each other. No one seemed anxious to be the first to comment

Finally one spoke up. "Get it out."

"Get what out?"

"Pinero's envelope. It's in there too. I’ve seen it."

Baird located it and slowly tore it open. He unfolded the single sheet of paper and scanned it.

"Well? Out with it!"

"One thirteen p.m.?today."

They took this in silence.

Their dynamic calm was broken by a member across the from Baird reaching for the lock-box. Baird interposed a hand.

"What do you want?"

"My prediction?it's in there?we're all in there."

"Yes, yes. We're all in here. Let's have them."

Baird placed both hands over the box. He held the eye of the man opposite him but did not speak. He licked his lips. The corner of his mouth twitched. His hands shook. Still he did not speak. The man opposite relaxed back into his chair.

"You're right, of course," he said.

"Bring me that waste basket. Baird's voice was low and strained but steady.

He accepted it and dumped the litter on the rug. He placed the tin basket on the table before him. He tore half a dozen envelopes across, set a match to them, and dropped them in the basket. Then he started tearing a double handful at a time, and fed the fire steadily. The smoke made him cough, and tears ran out of his smarting eyes. Someone got up and opened a window. When he was through, he pushed basket away from him, looked down, and spoke.

"I'm afraid I've ruined this table top."

Compare this with the conclusion of Ernest Hemingwav’s "The Killers."
  Nick walked up the dark street to the corner under the arc-light, and then along the car-tracks to Henry's eating house. George was inside, back of the counter .

"Did you see Ole?"

"Yes," said Nick. "He's in his room and he won't go out."

The cook opened the door from the kitchen when he heard Nick's voice.

"I don't even listen to it," he said and shut the door.

"Did you tell him about it?" George asked. .

"Sure. I told him but he knows what it's all about."

"What's he going to do?"


"They'll kill him."

"I guess they will."

"He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago."

"I guess so," said Nick.

"It's a hell of a thing."

"It's an awful thing," Nick said.

They did not say anything. George reached down for a towel and wiped the counter.

"I wonder what he did?" Nick said.

"Double-crossed somebody. That's what they kill them for."

"I'm going to get out of this town," Nick said.

"Yes," said George. "That's a good thing to do."

"I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful."

"Well," said George, "you better not think about it."

Except for some overheating in his descriptions—the business of "dynamic calm," the "interposed" hand, too much mouth twitching and lip licking—I would say Heinlein stands the comparison pretty well. The stylistic similarity reminds me that both Hemingway and Heinlein read popular fiction, and both were admirers of Mark Twain. Now I'm not saying that Heinlein got his style by imitating Ernest Hemingway, but rather that what Heinlein brought to sf, from whatever origin, was what Hemingway was bringing to mainstream fiction: the paring down of style and characterization to essentials, and a hard-headed belief in letting the materials of the story speak for themselves without mediation by the author.

In the beginning, Heinlein showed enough respect for his reader's intelligence to describe without editorializing. He treated the sf reader like an adult, and it's hard not to respond warmly to this. Even characters who more or less represent Heinlein's position on an issue—such as Joe-Jim Gregory in "Universe" or Lazarus Long in Methuselah's Children—don't come off as spokesmen. Heinlein presents dispassionately their strengths and weaknesses. Maybe he wasn't quite James Joyce's ideal artist, standing outside and above the work like God, paring his fingernails, but he wasn't sucked in by his own creations, either. It's clear that by and large Heinlein likes these characters, but he doesn't like them unequivocally and he often lets them make fools of themselves.

This early Heinlein is just as passionate about his political beliefs as the later one, but even in his most political stories ("Logic of Empire," "Coventry") he trusts the reader more. He pokes fun at his heroes, lets them exhibit ignorance, act wrongheaded, change, if only a little, from the beginning to the end of the story. He is capable of a wholesome irony. In a book like Beyond this Horizon, he can even allow more than one character to be right.

This was heady stuff for the magazine sf of 1940. Not that other writers didn't occasionally approach this mature tone, but Heinlein hit it consistently. Those early stories in which he maintained his distance, and the later, less political short stories, like "By His Bootstraps," "Sky Lift" and All You Zombies," are destined, in my opinion, to be his lasting legacy .

You can't read much sf today that doesn't owe its debt, consciously or unconsciously, to early Heinlein and the techniques he developed and popularized: the "lived-in" future, in which change exists on every level from the magazine on the table in the space station to the structure of society and the character's assumptions of what is natural. I'd point out that at least Aldous Huxley had done this earlier, In Brave New World.1 But Heinlein made the method widespread, and it’s bearing fruit in Gibson and Sterling and countless others today.


In 1960, Damon Knight, in In Search of Wonder, titled his chapter on Heinlein "One Sane Man." Meaning, I suppose, that there might be some other sane men writing sf, but no one was saner than Heinlein. I don’t think anyone at that time would have thought of arguing with this characterization: the Heinlein of the 1940s and 50s seemed breathtakingly level-headed. Yet despite the many ready to leap to Heinlein's defense today, you could not use that title in 1989 without hearing a few snickers from the bleachers.

In his last twenty years Heinlein had greater financial and popular success than he ever did in the first twenty. But when I read his last books I get the feeling I’m reading somebody who has spent too much time in a house of mirrors, where no image appears to his vision that isn't a reflection of himself. I don’t want to get into a political argument, though my politics and those of the late Heinlein are not the same. What I'm talking about is a hermetically self-reflexive quality that is independent of his politics (though I think it has its reflection in them). A solipsism that any writer, especially one as phenomenally successful and admired as Heinlein, runs the risk of falling into.

It was there in the beginning, The early stories I admire often end in speeches, as if Heinlein, having held himself back throughout, can't resist having some character—often one he has treated equivocally up until then—step forward to deliver the story's message. By the time of his last books this desire to put his point across overwhelms his story. Instead of respecting his readers, Heinlein alternately flatters and hectors them.

So Lazarus Long, who started out being a character in a novel by Robert Heinlein, thirty years later becomes Heinlein's alter ego, spouting libertarian homilies so divorced from his fiction that they are collected in a separately published, right-wing New England primer. In Methuselah's Children (1941) Long is most definitely the hero, a competent man who knows how things work and isn't afraid to do what's necessary to survive. But he doesn't come off as a font of unquestionable social wisdom. He is put in a context of a society that, if not perfect, at least has things to recommend it, and among people who, if not perfect, at least are capable of intellect and honor. The Lazarus Long of Time Enough for Love (1973) is the one sane man in a world of fools. Other characters are good or bad only insofar as they reflect the political opinions that he represents.

Heinlein's late novels become a dialog with himself. They take place on a stage in his mind, sealed off from disturbing influence. This airless self-reflexiveness appears as early as the last scenes of Stranger in a Strange Land, where for pages we have a party attended by all the characters who agree with Mike and Jubal. They sit around and talk at each other and screw and the rest of the mad world is sealed out (except for selected forays outside to "discorporate" people identified as enemies). By the time of The Number of the Beast, this party has taken over the entire book, the outside world is beyond cleansing, and the only answer is escape from fictional universe to fictional universe.

From such a beginning as he had, Heinlein might just as easily have grown in a less self-indulgent direction. Why didn't he?

I think he was not well served by his audience, or by his editors. In an earlier Short Form, Scott Card praised certain writers for "telling Americans the stories they want to hear." Heinlein had that ability, and I think it did him in as a writer. He had his hands on the hot buttons that made readers—especially young boys—jump. Decorous romance between men and women that works out easily (after Stranger in a Strange Land decorous romance becomes decorous sex), the idea that life is a matter of mastering a few simple rules, a clear-cut line between the white hats and the black. Images of power and acceptance, fantasies of extermination of those who don't agree with you. All of these are irresistible notions to a fifteen-year-old. A fifteen-year-old has no defense. Accordingly, Heinlein overpowered a lot of fifteen-year-olds, including me. But there are—or ought to be—a lot of adult readers who can't be taken in so easily.

But isn't telling Americans the stories they want to hear the way to get to them? Doesn't it work?

I'm reminded of W. H. Auden's response when someone challenged him to deny that behaviorism works. "Of course behaviorism works," he said. "So does torture." Of course telling people the stories they want to hear makes you loved and admired. It's the time-honored method of politicians, salesmen, seducers, and others who don't give a damn for the autonomy of the people they're trying to persuade. But it won't make you a good writer.2

Popularity doesn't mean a work is bad. We all want to be read by as many people as possible: a story that isn't read is of no use to anybody. But popularity is the beast that ate Robert Heinlein, mortared him into narratives divorced from real life and into a house in California surrounded by wall, closed in behind an electronic gate. Popularity kept Heinlein from being edited. It kept him from having to listen to any criticism; it kept most people from voicing any. So the end, when the emperor stood unclothed before us, nobody who cared for him was willing to say that he was buck naked.

Knight's "One Sane Man" rings horribly ironic today. Yet Heinlein's last books were best sellers, and his readership, which was confined to sf fans like me in 1960, by 1988 included millions of average Americans. God help the United States of America if this hermetic power fantasy is the story that Americans want to hear. If we needed any other evidence that Americans are living in a world of delusion from which any harsh reality is excluded by the mechanisms of cognitive dissonance, this will serve.

1. It's seemed to me for some time that Heinlein might have been influenced by HuxJey's Brave New World, both in his development of the incidental exposition of futuristic background details, and in many aspects of Beyond This Horizon, which is full of echoes of Brave New World.

2. Incidentally, Card has cited Huckleberry Finn as proof that the most popular books are often the greatest. But during Twain's lifetime and for forty years afterward, Huck Finn was far from being Twain's most popular book—Tom Sawyer was. Huck Finn was the "companion volume," full of disturbing language and disturbing satire of genteel society and that disturbing relationship between the white trash boy and the nigger slave. It was the Twain novel most admired by highbrow writers like Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and, heaven forbid, James Joyce. It wasn't until the 1950s, after T. S. Eliot gave his approval in an essay and liberal college professors' sensitivity to civil rights issues brought attention to the book's racial themes, that academic critics got on board, Huck Finn became Twain's "best book," and numerous editions were published popularly.