Gimme shelter – the fall and rise of the 60s

Rites of Dionysus, by Tim Shaw

MARK GULLICK says the hyperbolised decade turned naivety into nastiness

“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. We’re at the end of the greatest decade in the history of mankind, and as Presumin’ Ed has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” Withnail and I

“At first sight, the whole period, the whole state of the world, seems to offer no more secure footing to an historical adventurer than the chaos of Milton – to be in a state of irreclaimable disorder…” Editorial introduction to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

If you can remember the Sixties, runs the rusted old adage, you weren’t there. For today’s political Left, most of whom weren’t there, it was the blessed decade, a time of liberation, sticking it to The Man, and sex and drugs and rock and roll. For those few Conservatives who remain, it was the fons et origo of the chaotic times in which we find ourselves.

The world-historical events of the 1960s centred around America. JFK’s assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Act and King’s killing, Vietnam, the Apollo moon landing – all these shook, rattled and rolled the country where, as de Tocqueville had claimed in 1835, the world’s first great experiment in democracy had begun. And if the Sixties were remade as a movie, for good or ill, then it would feature an Anglo-American soundtrack – rock music.

Defining musical genres is a mug’s game. With rock music, it defines itself on listening. As with the famous American judicial case requiring a judge’s clerk to define hard-core pornography, with rock music you will know it when you see it. And, in this case, hear it. The first band I saw, at the age of 14 in 1975 and for £2.50, was Led Zeppelin, themselves a product of the Sixties and its bequest of rock music. The man I was watching transfixedly, Jimmy Page, was inspired to pick up the guitar after hearing Presley’s Come On Baby, Let’s Play House. Zeppelin were shatteringly loud. This was a while before The Who forced legislation to reduce the volume at concerts following their 1977 gig at Charlton Football Stadium in south London. The band could be heard in Brighton. I couldn’t really hear anything, not with any clarity, for two days after Led Zeppelin. Quite simply, in Nietzschean terms, here was Dionysus.

But rock music grew not out of its father’s thigh, as did the mythical Dionysus, but out of electric pop and R&B. The details are unimportant, but The Stones began the Sixties as a Chuck Berry tribute band and ended it as Their Satanic Majesties. The Sixties – something happened out there. A number of tributaries flowed into one river, and the counter-culture got the music it required.

I’ll return to the schism which eventually separated rock music from rock and roll, R&B and pop music, but a mixture of youth rebellion, drugs hard and soft, and economic affluence produced a coat of arms for a culture-changing musical crusade which began at El Paso, the Marty Robbins single which was the first January Billboard number one of the Sixties, and ended at Altamont Speedway Stadium in December 1969.

Rock music itself took a broad base of blues, R&B and rock and roll and used it to weave the bands’ own designs, all amplified beyond old-school levels. Rock music is primal and it is Dionysiac. The Sixties’ alchemical mixture which became rock music was bubbling away before synthesisers, sequencers and computers (some experiments aside), and so was visceral, sweat-soaked and animalistic.

Certainly the electric guitar was the weapon of choice for the cultural skirmishes ahead, the staff adorned with pine-cones held aloft by the followers of Dionysus. Coming from the back row of the swing bands of the 40s and 50s, the electric version of the instrument became more prominent when people like Louis Jordan began cutting band numbers to save money on the road. It was Charlie Christian who first made the electric guitar talk through amplification (his famous original guitar was bought by Steve Howe of Yes), and the thread would wind through the guitarists of the Sixties – Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend – the last included as possibly the greatest rhythm guitarist of a crew best known for their solos.

It was the way in which the instrument was played rather than innovation in guitars themselves, with vintage guitars being prized as the age of mass-production began. The riff was born in the Sixties. When Townshend got back from an American tour in 1964 and turned on the radio, he heard the famous staccato barre chords of You Really Got Me by The Kinks. It certainly got Townshend. He sat down and wrote the equally famous chopped riff for I Can’t Explain.

John Entwistle of The Who

The Sixties also saw the rebirth of the often-forgotten bass guitar in rock music. As a bass player myself, I can say that the decade energised and freed the instrument. McCartney’s melodic scales on his iconic Hofner Violin bass, Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones’s rhythmic work in tandem with the mighty John Bonham, the blues scales of Free’s Andy Frazer, The Faces’ Ronnie Lane and Cream’s Jack Bruce set the instrument free, away from the straight rock ‘n’ roll runs and country plod of the Fifties, and no one more so that The Who’s legendary John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle, who brought the bass to forefront of the band’s tumultuous sound.

Rock music was banned in Yugoslavia in the Sixties as subversive, which was precisely its appeal to bored and affluent Western youth who were experiencing a relaxation of authority and discipline after the strait-laced Fifties. Todd Gitlin called rock music incoherent and primitively regressive, while Gerard Howard dubbed it the “Pied Piper’s tune of the new freedoms”. The children led by the Piper in the fairy-tale, of course, were free right up until they were slaughtered in the wood.

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix nut-shelled the Sixties in one performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He played the electric guitar in a way no one had ever seen or heard. Then he set light to it and smashed it to pieces. This was a sign, a pointer to where the American dream was heading. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud famously writes that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”. The dream-work becomes a text to be read off, and the signifiers relate to a signified which is never fully present (Derrida had much to say about this). What type of unconscious can be read off from, and thus lurks beneath, the American dream? In terms of rock music, the dream was interrupted.

Just as the first British invasion of the 18th century led to the Declaration of Independence, American pragmatism built on British conceptual guidelines (Locke and so on), so too it could be argued that the British invasion of the 1960s led to rock music as a progression of electric pop and rock and roll. Arguably, The Beatles began the metamorphosis, moving from covering R&B and Motown songs to writing their own, influenced by both but with something British layered on top. The list of British bands desperate to ‘crack America’ grew quickly. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Who, Herman’s Hermits… When The Stones recorded at blues HQ Chess Records, significant ground had been ceded by American forces.

There were, of course, two main offensives from Blighty, two very different bands who were attracted to America under different pretences. And, just as Coleridge claimed every man was born a Platonist or an Aristotelean, so too the Sixties had an ontological choice of its own: The Beatles or The Stones?

The Beatles had the shop-store mannequin look A&R men had been looking for, while The Stones always looked to be up to no good in publicity photos. After the amphetamine-crazed early Hamburg scene, The Beatles settled into a life, viewed in terms of narcotics, of marijuana and LSD, mostly. The Fab Four were not known for their live work, which were mostly exercises in young girls screaming themselves hoarse at a slightly animated version of Kraftwerk. The Stones were becoming notorious for their live transformation. Jagger had stopped hopping about like a small variety of garden bird and was now part-turkeycock, part infernal drag queen. Richards was becoming the troubadour. It has to be The Stones, for me, but debate is welcomed. In the end, The Stones couldn’t write Blackbird, but The Beatles certainly couldn’t have performed Midnight Rambler.

In the end, the British took coals to Newcastle (home of The Animals). American rhythm and blues made it to the record shops of the home counties, bands began emulating them, realised that with minor alterations they could cut the suit to fit them, and sold the result back to a willing American public. Perhaps America could have come up with rock music unaided, but then maybe it was too affluent, too shiftless, too relaxed in its hedonistic consumerism. It wasn’t getting over the effects of the worst war the world had even seen, it wasn’t rationed, it wasn’t austere and economically fragile. The British invasion added urban grit to rock music in its infancy, some gin in the baby’s bottle. For this tonic, we have the institution of the British Art College to thank, partly, for bringing Townshend and Clapton and others out from their artistic shells.

America tried to replicate the success of The Beatles with the manufactured Monkees, who actually went on to be a halfway-decent pop band. It is regrettable that the urban myth informing us that Charles Manson auditioned for the band proves to be untrue. Manson was in Rikers at the time, but how would the band have developed? Manson did actually write music; Guns ‘n’ Roses covered his Look at Your Game, Girl.

The rock music whose source lies in the Sixties would be a raging river in the 1970s, and one of its effects would be punk at the end of the decade. Psychedelic rock made its appearance in the 60s and was not confined to freakish one-offs like The Chocolate Watch band. The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who all had their flirtation with psychedelia, as did – more tellingly – the early Pink Floyd, waiting for the Seventies for ultimate fame.

One of the tributaries from the 1960s was garage rock. Determinedly lo-fi, garage was cheaply recorded electric pop music, a dress rehearsal for punk, and a genre only really defined after it was gone. But it must have stirred the sediment of the rock mix. The FBI investigated Link Wray’s 1958 classic Rumble. What were they looking for? Seditious lyrics? (Rumble was famously an instrumental.) (1)

Link Wray

The most obvious and influential off-shoot of garage rock was The Velvet Underground. In the context of the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s ethos of combining consumerism with multimedia with business was visionary. It is said of the first Velvet Underground LP that not many bought it, but everyone who did formed a band. The band combined raw garage rattle and roll with a Euro-gothic, dilettante style. Rock would always have more than a trace element of poison, which is where Velvet Underground came in, to attempt to puncture the homely sureties of, say, Crosby, Still, Nash and Young.

CSN&Y were a sort of anti-Velvet Underground, rural in feel as opposed to urban, harmonic not dissonant, lyrically upbeat, not dabblers in despair. But both of these elements would combine in the best rock music. America had two sides of its rock ball mask, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, perhaps, and they may as well be thought of as rural and urban. Rock music was far from being one monolithic creature as the Sixties ended. In the last two years of the Sixties, The Band released their debut studio album, Music From Big Pink,and Iggy and the Stooges released their eponymous debut album, featuring Now I Wanna be Your Dog.

CSN&Y also shared with The Velvet Underground a microcosmic tendency of America: internal rifts and splits, acrimony, self-induced problems, civil war. Rock music may have been formed by the coming together of many influences, both musical and cultural, but it was going to be its father’s son, part brilliance, part destructive self-hatred.

Warhol epitomised a big part of the Sixties’ cultural ethos: business. Further to this, rock music as business. This was the days of album and single sales and gigs, and that’s it. No brand association, no commercials in your videos, no many-headed hydra of internet hits and downloads. Now, everything is a hit record just like every book is a best-seller. You just tell people it is. Everyone’s a winner. Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. But he went on to write in his autobiography From A to B and Back Again, “…in 15 minutes, everyone will be famous”.

The two sides to rock music in the 1960s shows the same rift, the same oscillation between genius (or vast success) and madness (or a vast amount of drugs) as existed throughout America, with a metaphorical shift or two. Rock music, like its Anglo-American parents, would be born schizophrenic, presenting both the Apollonian spectacle of live rock music and its ornamental imagery, and the Dionysiac back beat, a music which could be exhilarating for a time, then change into something mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In the end, rock music might be the consolation for what the 1960s did to us. This Janus-faced god has returned to the woodland, true, and there is no real rock music to be found today. Entertainment has become wholly Apollonian and rock was always the herald of the Dionysiac, even when the harbinger was a fairly witless stoner like Jim Morrison.

“There is no real rock music to be found today…”

Rock music in the Sixties wore the reversible mask of tragedy and comedy, or at least light-heartedness. It aimed at Woodstock but it ended up with Altamont. And so did we.

Woodstock was the very model of how capitalism works in that it set up a huge venture, lost money partly due to the concert being half attended by people who had no tickets, then made its money back selling the film rights. The performances were legendary, and the counter-culture had a focal point, a quasi-religious event.

But what could counter the counter-culture? The other face of the mask, perhaps, the one shown at Altamont, a few months after Woodstock and an attempt to cash in on the idea. Students of popular culture will be familiar with received opinion. Promoters were beginning to realise in post-Woodstock 1969 that there was an awful lot of money to be made from the potent combination of rock music and the kids who wanted to hear it live. Altamont Speedway in Indiana was duly selected for a gig headlined by The Stones.

Their Satanic Majesties hired Hell’s Angels to see to security, and provided them with $500 dollars’ worth of beer. As things became increasingly fractious in front of the stage, and while the band were playing Under my Thumb, not the diabolic anthem Sympathy for the Devil as legend would prefer, a young black man named Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by one of the bikers. It was December, 1969.

The Sixties strove for Woodstock but it ended up as Altamont. Remind you of anything? The contemporary Western world, for example, forever telling us we are on the road to Woodstock, only to find we had the Altamont tickets. Front row. And the Sixties was not only music. Rock and roll was also an attitude. Hunter S. Thompson, Warhol, Lennie Bruce, the Beat – all of these acts were riffing on the same centre of gravity.

Rock music was the answer to a lot of questions, musical, social, political, aesthetic, and it had the broadest sweep both of influences and by what it went on to create. In the UK, among other genres, glam rock and punk were both waiting to see what the seeds of the Sixties would grow in a darker part of the garden.

One of Baudelaire’s collection of poems, Les fleurs du mal, is entitled Music, and contains lines Dionysian enough to serve as an epitaph, if it is that time, for rock music:

I feel the tremblings of all passions known 
To ships before the breeze; 
Cradled by gentle winds, or tempest-blown 
I pass the abysmal seas 
That are, when calm, the mirror level and fairy-tale 
Of my despair!

Editor’s Note

  1. Link Wray is No. 45 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists, credited with inventing the much-copied distorted “power chord”. A live version of Rumble may be found here

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.