Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 2- The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988 by William H. Patterson, Jr.

Robert A Heinlein Vol 2Back in the day, you wouldn’t dream of holding a genre author up alongside the literary greats. Spillane, Hubbard, and the like were considered pulp and pulp they shall ever be. But in crime fiction, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald refused to live in the ghetto. Literatti types grudgingly admitted Chandler to the club when they realized he had reinvented the way prose was written. MacDonald found himself some patrons in literary criticism circles who admitted he wrote the same novel over and over, but “It’s a very good novel.”

But that’s crime. Science fiction and horror authors need not apply. Right?

Wrong. Never mind Stephen King breaking through in the 1970s and 1980s. Before LeGuin and Butler were taken seriously in literary circles, Robert Heinlein launched himself from the realm of pulp science fiction to become one of SF’s Big Three (the other two being Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.)

William H. Patterson, Jr., wrote the first authorized biography of Heinlein, commissioned by the writer’s estate. The biography is a sprawling two-volume epic. Volume I traces Robert Heinlein from his birth through his “socialist youth” through his early pulp offerings and his war years to the end of his marriage to first wife Leslyn. I read Volume 2, and we discover why Virginia Heinlein was so indispensable to to Heinlein’s career. After Leslyn Heinlein’s unfortunate descent into madness and alcoholism, Virginia Heinlein took on the role not only of lover and potential mother of his children but one half of the business that was science fiction writer Robert H. Heinlein.

Patterson does an almost day-by-day account of Heinlein’s first days living in Colorado Springs, his transformation from ardent New Dealer to spokesman for libertarianism. At the beginning, Heinlein is known mainly for his juvenile novels, often fighting with his editors over seemingly arbitrary censorship. We get to see how Heinlein’s frustration led to leaps in his evolution as a writer, beginning with the oft-misunderstood Starship Troopers.

We’re also a fly on the wall to some of Heinlein’s relationships with other writers. He found L. Ron Hubbard to be largely silly with his Dianetics efforts, unwilling to invest the time (or money) into auditing. He had a particular conflict with uber-fan Forrest J. Ackerman, who had a bad habit of making promises on behalf of Heinlein the writer had no intention of keeping.

We also see how he bonded quickly with such notables as Jerry Pournelle, Philip K. Dick, and David Gerrold (over Gerrold’s plagiarizing Heinlein to sell a Star Trek episode, no less.) Heinlein had a love-hate relationship with fans, a waxing and waning flirtation with politics, and a passion for blood transfusion. Both Heinleins had rare blood types, and blood donation saved both their lives many times.

What’s interesting is seeing how the writing process has evolved. Heinlein fought with editors because reworking a manuscript in its entirety. The copies that Heinlein sent to publishers would be done over two months by a professional typist. And Heinlein dreaded having to hire a new typist. When, in the late 1970s, Ginny Heinlein purchased two computers, she became quite the programmer while Robert felt liberated by cutting and pasting text (long before you could do that on a Mac or in Windows) and by search-and-replace.

Throughout the book, Patterson describes how the Heinlein’s resisted authorizing a biography of Robert and scholarly criticism of his work. He created archives at a Bay Area university, but he also had to deal with attempts by writers with an agenda trying to cast Heinlein in their mold, either as something he wasn’t (in terms of the religion of Stranger in a Strange Land) or as a villain (usually over Starship Troopers.)

But Patterson is thorough, and it’s the voice of both Heinleins that comes through this tome. It’s easy to see him as science fiction god and a visionary. This lets us see a man of strong will create one of the greatest bodies of work in modern science fiction.

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