Robert Heinlein across space and time

Starship Troopers

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn, Unbound, 2019, hardback £20

CHRISTOPHER G. NUTTALL reviews an unusually fair appraisal of a sci-fi pioneer

“Over a period of twenty years, Heinlein’s attitudes had shifted noticeably. Were one to include the twenty years previous to that, the word would be ‘dramatically’. This was not always (from my 1980s feminist point of view) a good shift, but it was there, and I was fascinated. Here was a person sometimes ahead of his time, sometimes crosswise, and, towards the end, in retrenchment. As a historian how could I not be entranced?” (Farah Mendlesohn, introduction)

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) is one of the founding fathers of modern science-fiction, responsible for such hugely popular and influential works as Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love, and Starship Troopers. It is therefore curious that his works been so rarely been given substantial analysis. Instead, many modern-day critics have judged Heinlein by 21st century standards and declared him to be sexist, racist and bigoted – while others have been completely uncritical of the man and his works. Indeed, to sci-fi devotees like me, attacking him can feel a little like treason. Farah Mendelsohn seeks to separate the man from monster or myth.

After a brief assessment of Heinlein’s life and career, Mendlesohn starts to assess the themes running through Heinlein’s works. One key theme is family. Although he is often branded an individualist, Heinlein talks often about the need for social support structures – familial, rather than governmental. Heinlein’s heroes are never true loners, but have support from their families and friends. Heinlein was very focused on the family, but the family one chooses rather than the family one has. This spans a range between the happy – and very 50s-typical – Stone Family (The Rolling Stones) to the family Lazarus Long built for himself in Time Enough for Love, which came out towards the end of Heinlein’s career. As Heinlein grew older, he grew more cynical; the Stones are an ideal family, in many ways, but the Farnhams (Farnham’s Freehold) are an utter disgrace.

Mendlesohn is quite adept at recognising the concealed racial markers encoded into Heinlein’s text (for example, an otherwise undescribed naval officer likes watermelons and other black-coded traits).  But it should be remembered that Heinlein was often quite limited in what he could come out and say, in the climate of his times. It is possible that Heinlein’s early books would have been rejected, outright, if he’d featured openly black heroes or black men in positions of power. But he gave himself enough room to deny it, if necessary. One may argue that this was contemptible, but it was a fact of life. Later, Heinlein made it clear that he had created a series of multiracial worlds. But most of his coloured heroes were still, culturally speaking, Americans. Heinlein’s heroes might have been multiracial, but not multicultural. One might accuse Heinlein of a lack of cultural diversity, particularly in the juveniles, but it should be noted that different cultures are not always better, and it can be hard to empathise with someone from a culture so different to our own that their actions make no sense to us or even come across as evil. Heinlein’s early heroes are Americans because Heinlein saw the American ethos as being the best.

Mendlesohn also raises interesting points regarding Heinlein’s female characters, both lead characters (Podkayne of Podkayne of Mars, and Maureen Smith of To Sail Beyond The Sunset) and secondary characters (Betsy of The Star Beast, Wyoming of Moon). Some of them – Maureen and Betsy – start their careers as second fiddles, held back directly or indirectly by social conventions – and other women. They grow and develop as their stories develop; for example, Maureen couldn’t go back to motherhood, when her estranged children re-entered her life. She had outgrown the parental urge. Podkayne, by contrast, was the victim of failed parenting. Her parents were unable to give her the tools she needed for adulthood; nor, for that matter, was she surrounded by women who would aid her. (Duke Farnham was a similar victim.)

In some ways, however, Mendlesohn is guilty of “interrogating the text from the wrong perspective” (a term infamously devised by Anne Rice).  Heinlein’s juveniles were written, first and foremost, for teenage boys – and teenage boys, by and large, are not interested in ‘feminine’ issues. Heinlein glossed over them because his audience would find it a turn-off. Successful female heroes – women, written by women – who appeal to men, do it, in a sense, by turning away from traditional femininity. They are either surrounded by men (Hermione Granger) or exist in male-shaped universes (like Elizabeth Moon’s heroine, Paksenarrion). They are rarely involved with female social groups; the only real exception, as far as I can tell, is Mildred Hubble (Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series). But her books are written in a manner that allows boys to pretend that she isn’t classically feminine. Heinlein did not set out to be all things to all readers – a good thing too, as it is impossible.

This explains, I think, some of the weaker moments in his earlier juveniles. The main character of Red Planet (1949)shows signs of sexism, as Mendlesohn points out, but his sentiments would not be out of place for a teenage boy (particularly one of Heinlein’s generation). Heinlein clearly evolved, as similar sentiments expressed within Tunnel in the Sky (1955)lead to an embarrassing case of foot-in-mouth syndrome when the hero badmouths girls, only to discover that his friend ‘Jack’ is in fact ‘Jackie’. Indeed, Heinlein would intentionally start writing his juveniles for girls as well as boys, but he kept boys as the core audience – a wise move, as girls will often read boy-books but not vice versa.

This has other effects on his writing. Mendlesohn points to problematic moments within the text – the failure of a father to admit, for example, that his daughter is more than just his daughter – but this is caused by the male mindset. Maureen argues, at one point, that men assume that a woman is subordinate until she proves otherwise. It would be more accurate to say that people (men as well as women) are pigeonholed very quickly and, once pigeonholed, have the greatest difficulty in climbing out of the pigeonhole. The male mindset leads to the same problems as female intuition; when it’s right, it cannot explain why it is right, when it’s wrong, it finds it hard to truly believe it’s wrong. Heinlein depicted this process quite accurately – and, in other books, argued that the only true way to counter it is to give the wrong person room to retreat. This does, of course, require a sensitivity that few people develop.

Mendelsohn’s comments on racism in Heinlein’s works, notably Sixth Column (in which the United States is invaded by “Pan-Asians”) and Farnham’s Freehold, are interesting.  Heinlein did not depict the Pan-Asians of Sixth Column very kindly, it is true, but the atrocities they committed are pitiful shadows of the atrocities committed by real-life Imperial Japan. To challenge Heinlein on this requires a certain willingness to ignore real-life atrocities, and Mendlesohn, to her credit, largely avoids it. She does point out that the ‘killing rays’ of the Sixth Column kill Asian-Americans as well as Pan-Asians, but this is an unfortunate – and logical – effect. The ray could not tell the difference between two different groups of Asians.

Farnham’s Freehold is one of Heinlein’s most controversial works, and perhaps his most sadly topical, in the light of recent bitter politics (see my 2018 Amazing Stories review here).  It centres around Hugh Farnham – a very atypical hero for Heinlein, being something of a failure at life – and his family; his drunkard wife, his resentful son, his carefree daughter and her best friend and his African-American houseboy Joe.  Following a nuclear war, Hugh and his family are pitched into the far future … a truth they only discover when they come face to face with the black masters of the future world, a world where whites are slaves.  The remainder of the story follows their attempts to come to terms with the new situation.

Mendlesohn describes Farnham’s Freehold as an ‘if this goes on …’ book, and concludes that the book is, indeed, racist.  To me, it is more of a ‘flipping’ book – an exercise in switching perspectives, and seeing things from another angle. Hugh Farnham and his family are slave-traders, starting in a position of ‘white supremacy’. Following revolutionary upheaval, they then go through a short period of ‘equality,’ followed by ‘black supremacy’ and ending with the ‘aftermath.’ In so doing, they are shown, time and time again, what it is like to be on the opposite end of the scale.

There is room for an entire essay here, but I’ll content myself with a handful of points. Heinlein, throughout his work, identified two different kinds of slaveowner – the thug, who treats his slaves as mere possessions, and the paternalist who tells himself that slavery is for the slave’s own good. When Farnham’s Freehold opens, it becomes clear that Hugh is a paternalist-type, while Duke – his son – is a thug. Their roles are so embedded within their personalities that neither of them really adapts to the period of equality. Worse, when they enter the period of black supremacy, they find themselves at the mercy of another paternalist-thug duo. They are to be denied everything, from freedom itself to the slight comfort of getting away with a little defiance. They may even be eaten alive – the slaveholders of Dixie did not practice cannibalism, as far as I know, but the slaves were certainly metaphorically cannibalised. By the end, Hugh has come to realise – perhaps – just what it is like to have a taste of his own medicine. He had all the answers … he could argue and browbeat his son into submission … but so could his ‘master.’ Farnham’s Freehold raised points that needed (and perhaps still need) to be raised. Mendlesohn judges that it was an overall failure, but it came as close as it could for a book of its time.

Mendlesohn’s assessment of Heinlein’s male and female characters may be pushing things a little too far. She notes that many of Heinlein’s main characters are less interesting than their supporting characters, although – again – this isn’t always a bad thing. Max Jones and John Thomas are bland, compared to Sam and Betsy (Starman Jones, The Star Beast) but that doesn’t mean they’re not heroes. Indeed, their simplicity may be part of the lesson. Max surpasses Sam and comes to safe harbour, at least in part, because he’s honest enough to admit to the deception they’ve pulled; John Thomas defends a friend because it’s the right thing to do, while Betsy, who over-thinks everything, makes things more complicated (and eventually worse). There is little to quibble with here.

Robert Heinlein

Her assessment of the underlying social structures Heinlein depicts is quite accurate – and, unlike some others, she refrains from blaming Heinlein for depicting them. Podkayne’s lack of support from other women has already been noted; Maureen’s financial dependency on her husband, in addition, was quite serious in a world where men controlled money. She also assesses the interaction between the public’ and ‘private’ lives of his characters, noting how they interact (and how things can go wrong.) She does, however, overlook a handful of contextual points. In Time Enough for Love, Lazarus buys and manumits two slaves – a brother-sister pair named Joe and Estrellita.  Finding himself responsible for them, he tries to turn them into free people … a difficult task, as they have been raised to be slaves and dependent on their masters to tell them what to do.

Mendlesohn notes that Lazarus treats Estrellita as property, denying her agency, but one can reasonably argue that this was for Estrellita’s (and Joe’s) own good.  He regards them both as children in adult bodies – a dangerous combination. Of course, this is also the argument that slaveholders made (as Mendlesohn notes) and, even though it is reasonably justified in this case it does leave a bad taste.

Mendlesohn demonstrates that Heinlein seems to have grown and evolved as he grew more confident, ranging from seemingly-trite adventures to pieces of literary merit. This may have been due to the influence of his second wife, who was a screenwriter and editor. She also makes it clear that Heinlein was very ‘woke’ for his era – he detested slavery, regarded rape as a great evil, created coloured and female characters in an era when no one would have noticed if he hadn’t. And she raises some interesting points about Heinlein’s relationship with guns, although I don’t agree with all of her conclusions. Unlike some modern authors, Heinlein did not fetishise guns, but regarded them as tools, to be used if necessary.

The author’s assessment of how Heinlein was influenced – and later, uninfluenced – by his life is also very good. Mendlesohn draws connections between his naval service and his wartime work and shows how it might have influenced his writing; Heinlein put female characters forward, at least in part, because he worked closely with women during the war. (He wasn’t blind, either, to the issues raised by women entering a formerly masculine sphere.) The influence of both his second and third wives on his career are also discussed, raising the issue of just how many of his issues Heinlein was working out on paper. She also notes that, in his later years, Heinlein lost (at least some) touch with the world around him. It is hard to know how seriously to take this, but it is an interesting point.

The Pleasant Profession is essentially an academic text, but it is well-written, and avoids many of the boredom-inducing pitfalls common to textbooks. But it does have weaknesses. It does not focus on each of the books, separately; it is easy to see how Heinlein evolved, but harder to place his words in context. In this, it is very like Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension; it runs the risk of assuming that his characters speak for him, rather than accepting that Heinlein preferred to show us their weaknesses rather than beat us over the head with them. It also notes Heinlein’s weaknesses – the moments we would call ‘problematic’ – without always acknowledging that most of these would not have seemed problematic to Heinlein.

Heinlein was famously not fond of critics, but nevertheless he might have liked this book.  Heinlein fans will not agree with everything Mendelsohn says, but in the end she does what few other critics do, and treats the great creator of deeply alien universes as essentially human.