Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


        The question for debate here is that true locus of paradox and argument:  Robert A. Heinlein.

        Who was this man?  In what manner did he conduct his life?  What did he stand for?

        The plain truth is that neither you nor I know yet.   Heinlein took great pains to ensure that he not be accurately or completely known--reserving information, tailoring information, controlling access to information.  If there is a lot to be learned about him, the person most responsible for this situation is Robert Heinlein.  Second most responsible for the manipulation of information has been Mrs. Heinlein.  Why this should be so isn't clear, but there can be no question that it has affected our ability to assess his life and work.

        How many times was the man married?  Are you certain?  Did he really once attempt to join the Jesuits?  Why did he have no children?  Did he have no children?  Are you sure of that?  What were his political affiliations at different stages of his life, and how should we interpret his work in view of this?  Why was Heinlein so resistant to any discussion of his stories, and so contemptuous of all critics?  When did these attitudes start?

        There can be little doubt that Robert Heinlein was a person who was highly developed along lines that most people, even most other SF writers, are not, and this gave his fiction a power unique in SF.  Was this superiority unique to Heinlein, so that he ought to be given a degree of regard that we show no one and nothing else?  Was it innate, or was it something that he acquired along the way?  If Heinlein's abilities were learned from others, what were his sources?  Was his development a partial one, or was it complete?  Not least, what did Heinlein do with his unusual personal power?

        Did Heinlein write stories because he was lazy and found it easy to do, as he sometimes said?  Was his only purpose in writing to pay off his mortgage and buy groceries?  Was he telling the truth when he said that he saw himself as a kind of carnival barker, charming people off the streets, hypnotising them and relieving them of their loose cash, and then sending them on their way bemused and happy?

        Heinlein habitually spoke with the voice of authority.  What things was he right about?  What mistakes, if any, did he make?

        Was he correct about the relative value of people who can work a slide rule as opposed to those who can't, or was he patting himself on the back? Was he right about the necessity of building, stockpiling, and defending a personal fallout shelter?   Was he right about the decline of America, or did he just lose touch with contemporary culture?   Was he right in the position he took on the subject of patriotism vs. revolution?   (Okay, that's a trick question.)   Did he understand women?   Did he think that he did?   What other matters of importance did Heinlein not know diddly about?

        The utter confidence with which Heinlein wrote has been one of his great attractions.  Was this a clever narrative posture--a device to influence the weakminded and easily led--or did Heinlein actually have a personal hotline to truth?  Was he a straight speaker whose honesty and integrity are to be relied upon, or was he a conscious and deliberate trickster with a  disarming line?  Are all the fights that take place on  just some unfortunate coincidence, or did Heinlein set them up deliberately, and is he laughing about them still?

        How real were other people to Heinlein?  More than any other writer of SF, Heinlein was attracted to the theme of solipsism and the unreality of apparent existence.  How should this particular relativism affect our interpretation of him and his fiction?

        Finally, was there any point beyond mere entertainment to the work that Heinlein did?  Was he pointing and shooting all over the place, or did he have one focused purpose?  If so, what was it?

        My own feeling is that for better or for worse, Robert Heinlein was a deep 'un.  And if we knew enough and understood enough to take on Heinlein in the terms within which he was actually living and working, we'd not only have a better understanding of his time, we might also come across vital clues to the Whole Damned Situation.   So let's not dismiss any tool or frame of reference too readily, not even Leon Stover's Calvinism or H. Bruce Franklin's Marxism.  Instead, let's take a comprehensive look at Heinlein and the stuff he's made of, try out one perspective and another, and see what there is to discover.

        Now, if you are one of those Heinlein idolators who think that only a turd-turning literary Nazi could possibly pose impertinent questions like these or be willing to listen to people who are obviously wrong, wrong, wrong about the man and his stories, then this isn't the place for you.  You're likely to hear things you'd rather not hear.  And I'm really not out to hurt anyone's feelings.

        On the other hand, if you think that the questions I'm raising are valid and relevant--or if you have better ones--then find your way back here to The Critics Lounge from time to time, and hang out awhile.

Drawing by Boris Artzybasheff

Return to the Critics Lounge

Continue on to "Found in Space" by R. Monroe Weems

Take a Leap into the Unknown

Background courtesy of Eos Development