Robert Heinlein is rightly regarded as one of the giants of Science Fiction. He and a select few others transformed SF from the generally poorly written shockers of the 1920s and 30s to a mature literary genre. His longevity as a writer was borne home to me a few weeks ago when I picked one of my Heinlein novels off the shelf and realised that I have been reading and rereading his books for almost 50 years. Clearly I have continued to find something of value in that period, but reflecting on it, I realised that both what I found in them and my reaction to that has changed significantly since those early days. I think this change began with “I Will Fear No Evil” (see also) which I found rather disappointing. I enjoyed the basic premise, but I didn’t really swallow the metaphysical stuff about the survival of the soul after death and found the treatment of male/female relationships rather silly.
I cannot remember which of his stories I read first. I suspect it was “Starman Jones”, which for some reason I can remember discussing with a school friend in about 1959 . Early on I also read “By His Bootstraps” (online), “Orphans of the Sky” and “Methuselah’s Children”. I can be certain about this because I still have my British Science Fiction Book Club editions of the Robert Conquest/Kingsley Amis anthology “Spectrum” (containing “By his Bootstraps”) and of “Methuselah’s Children” and “Orphans of the Sky”. In passing I must point out that the SFBC published some cracking stuff then, by some giants of SF. In addition to those mentioned, I still have their editions of books by J G Ballard (“Four Dimensional Nightmare”, “Drowned World”, Poul Anderson (“Twilight World”, “Guardians of Time”),Algys Budrys (“The Unexpected Dimension”), John Brunner (“No Future in It”), Arthur Clarke (“Tales of Ten Worlds”, “Fall of Moondust”), Hal Clement (“Needle”), Walter Miller (“Conditionally Human”) and several others.
In my early days reading Science Fiction, and like most teenagers, I would have said if asked that I preferred the ‘hard’ SF – stories based I suppose on whizz-bang technology, with lots of action around gadgets and scientific gimmicks. I hadn’t discovered the ‘Lensman’ series by then but I’m sure I would have loved them. I remember for example reading huge numbers of the ‘Badger’ books, appalling as they were, so stories like those of Heinlein were a revelation, by incorporating technology in a much more sophisticated way than the stuff churned out by Lionel Fanthorpe for Badger Books .
I said that my reaction to Heinlein has changed with time. What that means is that I began to realise that he was more than just a writer of whizz-bang fantasies. As I read more I noticed that he has a number of themes in his stories that he returns to many times. He writes a lot about sex for example – at least in his books after “Stranger in a Strange Land” and it becomes an increasingly large proportion of any given novel as he grows older. That is not intrinsically wrong, but he generally doesn’t do it very well and the odd bit of more explicit stuff is simply embarrassing. I seem to recall he was nominated for the 'Bad Sex Award" but I can't find a link - something to do with nipples crinkling probably! He has also frequently tackled political themes or more specifically he is obsessed with the idea of liberty and personal freedom with the obvious example being “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, although “Farnham’s Freehold” also deals with it explicitly and the concept turns up even in his ‘juveniles’ – “Star Beast” for example where the character ‘Betty’ although a minor has divorced her parents! Time Travel is another favourite represented in my mind by masterpieces like “By His Bootstraps” or “All You Zombies” but also a key element in most of his later work and in earlier novels like “The Door into Summer”.
Alexei Panshin, in the article that appears to have triggered Heinlein’s feud with him, suggested that Heinlein had never really grown up in sexual terms – that he remained an adolescent. There is a degree of prurience about sex in some of the early stories that tends to support this thesis. However at the time Panshin was writing, most of Heinlein’s novels dealing with sexual matters were still to be published and I want to look at whether this conclusion is still appropriate..
I have to confess that I find Heinlein’s exploration of sexual themes in these later books disturbing. Although books like “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Stranger” allegedly promote an open attitude to sex and sexuality, his final series of books goes far beyond that, dealing extensively with incest and child sex. In “To Sail Beyond the Sunset” for example, his main protagonist Maureen Johnson (mother of Lazarus Long) connives with her husband to enable him to have sex with two of his daughters – one of them sixteen at the time. She also tries to seduce her own father and speculates on whether he has had sex with one of his granddaughters. Stripped of its SF elements and submitted without Heinlein’s name attached I wonder how easily such a sleazy tale would have found a publisher. A lot of the sexual element of the story is covered by misdirection about ‘Mrs Grundy’, but in real terms a significant element is about child abuse, justified moreover in terms that any paedophile would recognise. Positive representations of incest also turn up in “Job”, “Farnham’s Freehold” and “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls” and most explicitly in “Time Enough for Love” where Lazarus Long makes love to his mother Maureen – a sequence reprised in “Sunset” as part of the wider sequence of incest involving Long, Maureen and her husband, their two daughters and Maureen’s father.
The most explicit example of what I can only call a fixation on young girls – other than ‘Sunset’ - is probably ‘The Door into Summer’ where the hero Dan Davis uses a combination of ‘cold sleep’ and time travel to persuade the 11 year old daughter of his business partner to take cold sleep herself when she reaches 21 so that he can marry her, having gone back into cold sleep himself to come out at the same time. A similar situation arises in “Time for the Stars”, although in this case the hero has been in telepathic communication with the young girl since she was a baby as he travels on an interstellar expedition. The effects of relativity allow her to age so that when he returns to earth he can marry her.
Examples of this fixation can be found to a greater or lesser degree throughout his work. In “Moon” for example, describing the death of Ludmilla, one of Mannie’s wives, he writes, “An explosive bullet hit between her lovely, little-girl breasts”. In “Cat” there is an extended and sexually charged discussion of the delights of spanking a 13-year-old girl. In “Time Enough for Love” Lazarus Long marries a young woman he first meets as a very young child of about 6 years old, his longevity serving the same purpose as time travel and relativity did in “Summer” and “Stars”. Even in his so-called ‘juveniles’ there is a usually a strong dissonance between the actual behaviour and the calendar age of his female characters, all of them demonstrating extreme precocity.
While it is a measure of the way Heinlein can roll his stories forward that these elements do not immediately leap off the page, they still form such a substantial part of his later work. This is important, not only for what it might say about Heinlein the man, but also because this rather obsessive attention to incest and the sexual attractiveness of pubescent girls had I think a significant damaging impact on the quality of his work. According to Panshin, Heinlein said that “Stranger” was a deliberate attempt to challenge every tenet of western civilisation. One can be charitable and assume that this applies to a greater or lesser degree to all his work. Taking this at face value, we can therefore reasonably ask if he succeeds or if he simply titillates.
There are examples where the sexual content impacts directly on the story line. “Zombies” for example has incest at the core of the story – if impregnating yourself can be described as incest – but it does so without titillation and in the process wraps up in a dramatic fashion many of the paradoxes of time travel. In “Summer” however, it is not necessary to the plot development for Davis to arrange to marry an 11 year old child; the plot outcome of marriage could have been achieved in other ways without much difficulty. Given Heinlein’s undoubted skill as a storyteller, we must accept therefore that this was a deliberate plot choice.
Beginning with “Stranger” however, he begins to get increasingly obsessed by sexual matters in ways that do not contribute in any significant way to the plot – although one could perhaps argue that with “Stranger” it is the plot. With “Stranger” his books also begin to increase significantly in length and reading them again it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at least part of this is accounted for by extensive diversions into sexual matters. It has been suggested (I can't now find the link) that by the time he came to write these later books his powers as a writer were in decline. This seems probably to be the case, as evidenced by the way the plot line of “Job” falls apart after the Rapture and the generally rambling story lines in “Cat” and “Sunset”. Even “Time Enough For Love” is in practice no more than a series of short stories shoe horned into a novel format. It also seems likely that this decline allowed the adolescent nature of his approach to sex identified by Panshin to have an even greater impact on the quality of his output.
I do not want this conclusion to be taken as an ‘attack’ on Heinlein. The outrageous sexual elements in all the later novels could have had huge impact in the hands of someone like Heinlein at the peak of his powers. The many and varied stories in “Time Enough for Love” would on their own have kept many a lesser writer in employment for life. I am left with the impression that Heinlein himself recognised what was going on and was desperately trying to get down the ideas he had ‘in store’. The increasingly strained attempts to resolve the conflicting story elements in his output over the years into one coherent 'Future History' is perhaps another indicator.