Photo by Dd-b, taken at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City MO USA, at which Heinlein was the guest of honor. Detail from the wikimedia commons image RAHeinlein.autographing.Midamericon.ddb-371-14-750px.jpg. Retouched by wikipedia us
Allow me to commit science fiction blasphemy: I have a problem with some of Robert A. Heinlein’s stuff.
First, the gushing praise
While I was growing up, I adored Heinlein’s work. In fact, Have Space Suit, Will Travel
may have been the first real sci-fi novel I read. In the years that followed, I thrilled to the exploits of The Cat Who Walks through Walls
, I thumped my chest with Starship Troopers
, hopped through causality loopholes in Time Enough for Love
, and explored this alien society of ours with Stranger in a Strange Land
Saying that the science fiction genre owes a debt to Heinlein is tantamount to saying that the surface of the sun is mildly warm. His speculative fiction (he coined that phrase, btw) is unbeatable in its portrayals of space travel and technological advancement. In fact, he mapped out a “future history” of when things would happen—the first moon colony, the first interstellar flight, etc. and countless other writers set their own stories along this timeline.
Sadly, in real life we’re behind his schedule in many ways, but that’s a different rant.
My trouble with the grandmaster
I hadn’t read one of his books in years, but I was sadly disappointed when I re-read one of my junior-high favorites, Glory Road
, in which a Vietnam vet is recruited for a fairy-tail quest. Along the way he slays enemies that resemble ogres and fire-breathing dragons, but what I liked best was that this man views everything through a scientific lens: those dragons are really just descendants of dinosaur-like creatures that evolved the ability to belch up their flammable digestive gasses. And that “magic” toolbox that’s bigger on the inside isn’t really magic, it simply folds its interior through extra dimensions.
So far so brilliant. But for me this novel falls on its face with its portrayal of female characters. I know, I know, it was a different era with different gender-based expectations, but it still seemed unrealistic to the point of breaking my disbelief.
All of the women were gorgeous, nubile, eager to please, submissive, and free with their love. In fact, at one point the main character accidentally gives offense to a powerful nobleman by refusing to bed his host’s daughter and/or wife. When, under threat of death, he corrects this faux pas I was left thinking “how far out of the way do we need to go to provide an excuse for such a juvenile fantasy?”
The Baby and the Bathwater
It is true that Glory Road is not the best representation of Heinlein’s great works, but free love and cardboard female characters seem to be mainstays, particularly in his later books. Call me a prude, but I get a little tired of reading it.
Still, I definitely don’t want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Heinlein’s novels are immensely good in every other way and are undeniably seminal. And I have to say that even though many of his female characters seem interchangeable, at least they are strong and intelligent, which was still in advance of many of the cultural attitudes of the time.
Back then, science fiction—and perhaps most of society—was seen as a boy’s-only club. Still, I’m glad to see how sci-fi is moving in new directions and featuring new kinds of characters. Maybe the shift started with Star Trek, which featured a variety of cultures (and genders) working in unison on an equal footing. Or maybe it was the Ender’s Game sequels, which questioned whether the “others” were truly different. Or maybe it was any number of other talented novelists and script writers who pressed boundaries and found new directions.
It’s good to see more diversity among sci-fi characters because it means more diversity among sci-fi fans. 25 years ago, if you had told me that Doctor Who would be popular among women I would have laughed, but now its majority viewership is female. It’s a different show now, but few would say that it hasn’t improved over the years.
We build the future on top of the past, and Heinlein gave us a heck of a solid foundation. For that, I am grateful. And now it’s up to us to keep building.