Rereading Heinlein

This showed up on my timeline recently.

Many science fiction fans – me included – probably have a small soft spot buried away somewhere in their adolescent memories for Have Space Suit – Will Travel. Give Heinlein credit: It’s not only a cracking read, it’s also a pluralist warning against the dangers of fanatical conservatism, and a terrific Young Adult title before the category even existed. Kickstarter backers clearly thought so: The campaign has breached its $9000 target as at the time of writing (albeit with just 266 backers), with 25 days still to go.
According to the Trust’s blurb, “Eric Gignac is the lead artist for the Have Space Suit graphic novel project. Gignac was an artist for the graphic novel Citizen of the Galaxy. He has worked in the aerospace industry as a concept illustrator for 30 years and is internationally recognized for his space mission/flight patch designs for NASA.”
Now, I’d hesitate to snark about such a fun thing, but … This is only the second of Heinlein’s novels to see graphic form? From a story first serialized in 1958? And you wonder how much latitude the adapters are going to have to tweak the result into something remotely relevant, as was done, for instance, with the film version of Starship Troopers. Yes, Heinlein was one of the science fiction Golden Age authors most ahead of the curve when it came to issues like multiculturalism and the impact of the Sixties, as in Stranger in a Strange Land. And Heinlein’s own political evolution, “from New Deal left-liberal to Goldwater conservative to anti-statist radical” is not necessarily in line with any Sad or Rabid Puppies script.
Lest anyone feel that the culture wars in science fiction are over, we now have a – swiftly airbrushed – post by Barry N. Malzberg (no stranger to controversy), which according to reliable and widely substantiated reports, originally claimed that Judith Merril campaigned to “destroy science fiction” in the late 1960s. I’m trying to run down an actual screenshot of the original post, but it presumably will resurface somewhere via the Wayback Machine. Malzberg reportedly instanced Merril’s feminism as one factor in her supposed mission to bring down sci-fi.
Heinlein is indubitably one of the “white boys’ club” that has dominated science fiction for so long. And perhaps the Trust should be pushing hard to get more and better instances of his work out in graphic form, in newer and more fascinating adaptations, lest that entire legacy be monopolized by the Sad and Rabid Puppies. Because there’s certainly far more interesting and radical graphic work out there right now to overshadow it.

It’s amazing how, in typical puppy kicker fashion that Mr. Mackintosh can only see the negatives.  It escapes him that anybody, in these advanced times would even want to reread Spacesuit.  Never mind the fact that all too many younger fans have never actually heard of Heinlein.  It’s all too easy to forget for those of us of a certain age that things are different now and the easy access that we had to the Heinlein juveniles and other books from that time that we enjoyed doesn’t necessarily apply today.  I suspect that most of the copies of those books have been culled from the school and public libraries simply because they were worn out. So maybe this is a good time to get a new edition out after all.

I recently found one of my copies of Expanded Universe in my space books bin and took the opportunity to reread the book. Expanded Universe was an expansion of an earlier anthology that Heinlein had done in the 1960’s.  The book was produced by Jim Baen in the late 1970’s when Baen was at Ace Books. By building on the earlier anthology and including a lot of material that was outside the typical Heinlein science fiction Expanded Universe is a very good look at the deeper depths of how Heinlein was thinking.

One thing that’s fairly obvious is that Heinlein thought of himself as a mercenary.  He was writing for money, in the beginning, for whatever John W. Campbell would buy.  When Heinlein started writing, the goal was to pay off the mortgage on his house.  A goal which he accomplished in a remarkably short time.

Fortunately for us, once the writing bug was in, Heinlein didn’t stop once the house, the car he bought with E. E. smith and a bunch of other stuff was paid for.  Indeed he expanded himself into a bunch of different markets.  He published mysteries and pieces in Boy’s Life.  All of this was great stuff.

Where Heinlein failed though, was when he tried message fiction.  Apparently, nuclear weapons terrified him.  A lot.  Now this was something that affected a lot of people in the late 1940’s.   In the midst of the panic Heinlein wrote and attempted to publish a bunch of blatant message pieces, some of them published in Expanded Universe.  Apparently, message didn’t sell then. You can’t save a world that doesn’t want to be saved

He did much better with Starship Troopers.  He learned that the message goes better with an entertaining and well crafted story and that the entertaining and well crafted was the important part.  Reading a Heinlein story is reading a story that is as well crafted as it gets.  It’s amazng how tight a typical Heinlein story is. In this day of Weber infodumps we forget just how powerful that can be. Heinlein kept descriptions to a few words and left most of it to the readers imagination.  Heinlein was willing to work for days to get a detail right and then make it disappear into the story, as story moved along. He understood that the reader didn’t need the details as long as they were consistent and story wasn’t clogged up to the point that the story stopped.

Expanded Universe is not a happy book.  Heinlein includes two articles on predicting the future and the future did not look like a happy place to Heinlein in 1980.  He did get some things wrong and as is typical of almost all the science fiction types completely missed the internet. Sort of the same sort of thing as the horse manure in NYC just before the automobile.  Worrying about a information collapse while Arpanet was toodling away running email servers.

Add to predictions, the  proselytizing, and the wonderful travelogue of the Soviet Union and Expanded Universe is one of those books that is more likely to make you think rather than let you  relax.  That doesn’t mean that the stories, even post apocalyptic message stories, aren’t well crafted. Heinlein’s genius was in crafting readable and well written stories that draw you into the world that they live in.  Even when the future doesn’t look bright.




  1. penneyvanderbilt · October 1, 2016

    Reblogged this on Ancien Hippie.


  2. feralplum · October 3, 2016

    Did Heinlein consider himself a mercenary? Or did he just disdain the saccharine virtue-signalling which so cloys our senses today?

    I am not really a Heinlein fan; his voice does not arrest me the way Zelazny, Niven, or Piper did. But, man, he threw off ideas like a grinding wheel throws sparks. The best part of Expanded Universe was, to me, the interstitial matter. The discussion of Starship Troopers was worth the entire price.


  3. wheels · October 4, 2016

    Actually, Heinlein did consider himself a mercenary. His autobiography says, IIRC, that got started when he saw an advertisement for a writing contest with a cash prize, and when he realized that he could make more money selling any such story to a magazine, that’s what he did. He stated that writing was a much easier way to earn a living than handling a shovel.

    Getting to Mr. Mackintosh’s article, what I find telling is the line, “And you wonder how much latitude the adapters are going to have to tweak the result into something remotely relevant, as was done, for instance, with the film version of Starship Troopers.”

    I realize that the title screen of that film states that it’s “Robert Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’,” but ever since I saw it in the theater, I’ve been calling it “Paul Verhoeven’s rebuttal to Robert Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’.” The book was set in a society in which the franchise to vote was looked down on by many, and military service was widely considered to be a government service of last choice. The movie gave us a jingoistic, militaristic society run by fools and incompetents at every level. The book gave us an intelligent race and its allies as adversary. The movie gave us a stock “Hollywood movie monster” that apparently started attacking us before we evolved.

    It is obvious that Mr. Mackintosh approves of those changes, and feels that similar “tweaking” ought to be done to all of Heinlein’s output.


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