Robert Heinlein
Monday, February 28, 2011


Robert Heinlein, pictured above, was a major influence on many people, including, in some ways myself. One of my friends, an emigre from the Ukraine, told me that she stayed in the back of the room and read science fiction, including Heinlein, during the mandatory Young Communist meetings of her youth.

William H. Patterson has produced the first of what is supposed to be a two volume biography of Heinlein.

Now the writing life of most authors is actually pretty dull. In the days before computers it might go something like this: “He sat down at the typewriter, and inserted a sheet of paper. As he stared at the blank paper he felt a sudden urge for a cup of coffee. So he went to the kitchen and prepared multiple cups of espresso. Upon his return he felt the urge to relieve himself, thanks to all the coffee. Upon his return he felt better, and typed the first paragraph. He looked at it, and realized that he’d made some mistakes. He took a pencil, and delicately, precisely, made small marks on the typescript.” Nobody wants to read that. So the literary activities, the least important parts of a writer’s life are what get written up. Fortunately writers are a bunch of manic-depressive, paranoid, philandering, gay, lesbian, hetero-, omni-, sexual, alcoholic, drug addicted guys and gals of dubious political and religious inclinations, so they often make good copy.

Heinlein grew up in a family that was conventionally religious for its day, but soon rejected religion and became an atheist. It should, however, be noted that while he may have described himself as an atheist, his beliefs tended more towards an inchoate oceanic feeling of the sort that Freud describes in either The Future of an Illusion or Civilization and its Discontents. We’ll get to “spiritual but not religious” aspect of Heinlein in a moment. It’s been observed that when a person loses faith, such as faith in Christianity, or more generally in God, that they will pretty much believe any damned fool thing. That was also the case with Heinlein.

He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1929, got married right away, and served on board the Lexington (CV-2). He came down with tuberculosis in the 1930s. Current treatment of TB is through antibiotics (isoniazid and rifampicin) over a period of 6 months to 2 years. In Heinlein’s day treatment, such as it was, consisted of rest, and frequently pneumothorax. Pneumothorax, as a treatment for TB, is the forced collapse of one lung to allow it to “rest.” Heinlein is not the only famous author to suffer this barbaric treatment. Albert Camus also suffered from TB, and was treated by pneumothorax. The interested reader can find a gruesome description of Heinlein’s treatment under the VA regime on pages 159-66.

As I said he came to believe in a lot of foolish things. After his naval career ended he took part in Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor. Sinclair, a famous muckraker, led a movement called End Poverty in California (EPIC), and Heinlein took part in this. The program was vaguely socialistic, and eventually Heinlein would renounce socialism. He was, however, anti-communist even while taking part in the EPIC movement. Sinclair, based on the little that I’ve read about him, seems to me to be a pretty odious person with repellent ideas.

In the run-up to the start of WW II Heinlein made a series of notes on the cause of the war. Patterson doesn’t mention if he read Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace, but he makes the argument that the war will be a result of the Treaty of Versailles. He also makes an argument that sounds vaguely like it comes from the fever swamps inhabited by such paleo-conservatives as Pat Buchanan that the war was about British imperialism.

The paragraph below is even more troubling. Here we can see the “spiritual but not religious” theme.

“Heinlein was a deeply spiritual person, but he had never had any attraction to the creeds and dogmas of any church, Christian, Buddhist, Shinto, or Pagan—none of them. Churches did not stir him to religious awe, the monkey antics they—some of them—allowed themselves were revolting to him. This is a much more common attitude than is generally realized; for a goodly segment of the spiritually aware, churchgoing is what you do instead of religion. There can be an aesthetic appreciation of the theater of ritual and ceremony and the feel of historical ‘depth’ one gets from attending a Latin mass and sharing an experience that goes back for nearly two thousand years, to a time when the Roman conquerors let the Sanhedrin cruelly execute a Jewish dissident and reformer—highly moving, but it is the aesthetics of theater and not religion” (238).

There is so much that is wrong with that paragraph I’m not sure I can do it justice. First off, is he giving his (Patterson’s) attitude, or Heinlein’s? Is he saying that he or Heinlein is genuinely religious, and the rest of us aren’t? Then the whole bit about the crucifixion. I’m not sure that I really want to go there because I might offend someone whose friendship I treasure, but lets take a stab at it. The question of who is responsible for the crucifixion is complex, but the theology that’s accepted by Catholics and most, if not all, Christians is that we are all responsible for the crucifixion. It’s also generally accepted, and it is recorded in all four Gospels, that it was the Romans who performed the actual crucifixion. The Sanhedrin would have used stoning. Crucifixion is a Roman method. As to the political relations of the Roman and Jewish authorities there are probably any number of books on the topic by people such as Raymond Brown and others. Whether they’re any good I can’t say, if you have any questions talk with your religious adviser for recommendations.

The idea that the Romans authorized the Sanhedrin to execute Jesus seems to point toward anti-Semitism, but Heinlein doesn’t give any indication of that in either his writing or in what’s revealed in this biography. Patterson may simply be projecting his own beliefs onto Heinlein at this point.

Heinlein wasn’t a particularly good prophet, but he did anticipate the Japanese attack coming on a Sunday (292).

Another disturbing bit in the book is that Patterson seems to take L. Ron Hubbard at face value. If the information on Wikipedia is accurate, and it is supposedly based on Naval records, Hubbard lied about his service and his wounds. Patterson makes no attempt whatever to evaluate the things that he records. He seems to take the hagiography of the Scientologists as gospel.

Some passages suffer from an excessive amount of unnecessary detail:

“…on December 22, 1944, Germany began a massive push—its last—that came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge,’ because on the hundreds of thousands of pushpin maps used to follow the European Theater of Operations (ETO) war news as it was reported, Germany’s positions suddenly bulged out in the Ardennes forest” (337).

Aside from the factual inaccuracy, the Ardennes campaign started on December 16th, and the Bulge, if you look at a map, was in the American lines, not the German ones, the passage is notable for the excessive detail. Why do we have that bit about the pushpin maps? It would have been better if he had simply said “…on December 16, 1944, Germany began a massive push—its last—that came to be known as the the ‘Battle of the Bulge.’”

There’s a similar bit of nonsense later on. He mentions a Marjorie Cameron, and says,”She was going by the name of ‘Candy,’ short for ‘Candida’ (the yeast that makes candidiasis yeast infections” (387). Now his source does make that attribution, but he fails to evaluate whether that claim is plausible. Granted that practitioners and believers in Aleister Crowley’s brand of religion aren’t the most well balanced people in the world, isn’t it more likely that somebody going by Candida would choose the heroine of Bernard Shaw’s play rather than a yeast infection.

I said earlier that Heinlein wasn’t a straight atheist. If you’re familiar with Stranger in a Strange Land, you may recall that Jubal rejects both the “just happened” atheistic explanation, and Biblical fundamentalist explanation as unsatisfactory. Heinlein puts it this way:

“I don’t know the explanations of this world, but, to my mind, blind chance and materialism are nonsense. As for myself, I think that I have lived a very long time and I do not think that any catastrophe, not even the destruction of my body, can destroy me.” So we have someone who has rejected the conventional. A bit later he describes himself as a “mystic.” (368, 369) Now my understanding of a mystic, in the West, is someone who believes that union with God is possible, and who attempts to achieve that union. It’s not vague, oceanic feelings.

Patterson takes Heinlein up to the dissolution of his second marriage and the start of his third and last marriage.

Despite its inelegancies, and getting some facts wrong, it is interesting reading, and a decent portrait of a good writer.

Next up is a history of MI-5 the British intelligence agency.