My problem with Robert Heinlein

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.

About Sechin Tower

Sechin Tower is a teacher, game developer, and author of MAD SCIENCE INSTITUTE, a novel of creatures, calamities, and college matriculation. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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8 Responses to My problem with Robert Heinlein

  1. Adam says:

    Great post. I recently re-read Stranger in a Strange Land and found myself thinking the exact same thing about the female characters. I’m a big fan of his work, too, and I wondered if I was the only one who noticed that pattern in his work.

  2. Kallen says:

    Before reading DoubleStar, I had never read any of Robert Heinlein’s books. I was surprised by how sexist his portrayal of women was in that book.

    As a unrepentant modern gal, I was quite annoyed, yet pleased by how far we’ve come. Sometimes its nice to have a 1950s view of women shoved in your face, if only to prove that progress has been made.
    The portrayal of women in Sci-fi has also come a long way, but I would argue that it hasn’t improved quite as much, probably just because Sci-fi was male dominated for such a long time. Progress still has to be made in that area.

    (My review of DoubleStar:

  3. Jim Cook says:

    I’ve thought that same thing about his later books. Even to the point of saying his writing sounded like that of a dirty old man. I still love many of his books, and he is one of the few authors whose books I’ve kept. Double Star is one of my favorites.

  4. Dwayne says:

    I do agree most of his work seems to target the maturity of a teenage boy. But that also means it targets the wonder and openness of youth. At least we can say his women are all strong and intelligent. Unlike the Twilight books; and that’s all I will say on that.
    The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is probably my favorite. I think it would translate to the big screen without much tinkering. But yes, it’s full of the same misogynistic themes, plural marriage, etc.
    The Number of the Beast had two strong female characters, but also skews to the free love themes. Something I don’t really think he meant to condone when writing the stories.

  5. Nestor says:

    It’s been my perception that the general quality of his works started a downhill slide at a certain point in his career.

    My list of favorite Heinlein books come mainly from his early works (e.g., Red Planet, Citizen of the Galaxy, Starman Jones, Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

    There was actually a point where I thought his later works (Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love and, yes, Glory Road) were written by a different fellow ghost-writing for him, since the style felt different to me.

    Makes me wonder whether the old fellow had some sort of nervous breakdown that caused a personality change. It’s been known to happen…

  6. K. Esta says:

    Nicely put. Even the most popular works should still be subject to fresh critiques.

  7. Gary Dicken says:

    I agree with you entirely. Whilst Heinlein has great imagination and he was definitely ahead of his time, he is a bit Right Wing and decidedly chauvinistic. I too enjoyed many of his works while I was a shallow 16 year old but as I got older I became more of a fan of Silverberg and others who created deeper characters and less contrived plot lines.

  8. Mike Tonge says:

    I think Heinlein was a bit conflicted on this subject.

    In ‘Have Space Suit Will Travel’, Pip and ‘The Mother Thing’ are strong characters, who take control in most situations. In ‘For The Living’, women are equal and do the same work as men.

    However, in both of these books, the misogyny of the age shines through. Men always take over when women fail and relationships are always controlled by men.

    I wonder how the writing of today will be seen in 50 years?

    BTW The first ‘proper book I read was ‘Starman Jones’

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