Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century, The Authorized Biography, Volume I: Learning Curve (1907-1948)

What a mouthful this title is: Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century, The Authorized Biography, Volume I: Learning Curve (1907-1948). And it's a hefty volume too, at 594 pages, including appendices and notes. Written by William H. Patterson, Jr. and sent to me as an advance reading copy by, who will be publishing it on August 17, 2010, this is a detailed biography that reads almost like a novel.

The introduction presents the point of view that "Heinlein's writing career spans the transformation of a subliterary pulp genre into a significant dialogue partner at the interface of science and public policy--a transformation for which he is in no small degree responsible" and enumerates the social movements Heinlein helped to engineer: "science fiction and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement."

As if that isn't enough to attract your attention, the details of Heinlein's life include little vignettes about human nature that remind me of listening to my southern relatives sitting around telling stories and speculating about peoples' motives, like this one:
A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch--a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another young man--the newspapers later said he was a tramp--stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly, the husband seriously injured.
Why did he do it? Not the husband, who was, after all, simply (simply!) doing his duty by his wife--but the tramp, who had no personal stake in their welfare and could have jumped aside, even at the last minute, to save himself."

Although any devoted reader of his fiction has probably absorbed some of Heinlein's philosophy and a few details about his life, I was most impressed to learn from this biography that he was a child who didn't even have a bed, much less a bedroom, that as an adult he had a veritable plethora of health problems, and that he moved around the country almost continually in his first forty years.

Reading about Heinlein's high school classmate Sally Rand goes a long way towards explaining the character of Patricia in Time Enough for Love, and finding out that a 1927 book entitled Companionate Marriage might have influenced his liberal views on marriage enlarges my picture of the man and the kinds of marriages he dreamed up in his fiction.

What Heinlein said after getting his first check for a story sounds a lot like what his character Jubal Harshaw would say: "How long has this racket been going on? he demanded rhetorically. "And why didn't anybody tell me about it sooner?"

The stories about Heinlein's relationship with Captain Ernest J. King before Pearl Harbor certainly help to explain why a writer would create so many characters who are authoritative but bend the rules when necessary, like Jubal Harshaw, Professor Bernardo de la Paz, Lazarus Long, and Kettlebelly Baldwin.

The list of writers Heinlein helped along (often inviting as houseguests) is a long one, featuring such well-known people as Sprague de Camp, Ray Bradbury, L. Ron Hubbard, C.L. Moore, and Isaac Asimov.

I love the way Patterson inserts letters written by Heinlein into his narrative, telling, for instance, about a period in which he was confined to bed and quoting from a letter describing this period years later, to show why he came up with the idea for the waterbed:
"Bothered by bed sores and with every joint aching no matter what position I twisted into, I thought often of the Sybaritic comfort of floating in blood-warm water at night in Panama--and wished that it could be done for bed patients...and eventually figured out how to do it, all details, long before I was well enough to make working drawings."

Patterson even manages to make the political campaign segment of Heinlein's life interesting by including phrases like the one Manny laughs at during his first political rally in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: "shoulder to shoulder."

As a writing teacher, although not a creative one (that is, a teacher of non-fiction writing), I particularly enjoyed this insight into "the most useful English Department course Heinlein ever got" in which
"each midshipman was given a tactical situation for which he had to write an operational order. Then everyone in the class would pick it apart, trying to find a way to misunderstand the order....if anyone could... misunderstand the order, the midshipman got a zero mark for the day."

And as a reader, I was both gratified and amused at the section about how Heinlein and his wife Leslyn, early in their marriage, used two particular books "as a measure the personal compatibility of any new acquaintance." My guess is that few, if any, of the people who read this biography will have read either of these two books, but one or two may decide to look them up and read them afterwards.

This volume ends with the marriage of Robert to Virginia. It was a revelation to me that it was she who converted him into a cat-lover, and--although you know I'm not usually a non-fiction reader--I will be waiting almost as anxiously for the second volume of this biography as I would for any second part of an absorbing story with well-delineated characters.


bermudaonion said...

The book sounds fascinating. I love the writing assignment he described!

edj3 said...

Although he is not one whose SF I enjoy, this biography sounds very interesting. Darn you, Jeanne, you keep expanding my horizons.

Unfocused Me said...

Looking forward to picking this up. Thanks for the alert & the review. Have you read Tramp Royale?

Lass said...

Ooh, I want to read this!

Jeanne said...

Unfocused Me, yes I've read Tramp Royale. Since even the early pulp stories have been collected, I don't think you can find anything by Heinlein that I haven't read.

Elizabeth, I am thrilled to be darned in this way!

Kathy and Lass, it is fascinating.

Care said...

And which Heinlein should I read first if I have not experienced this author?

Jeanne said...

Care, we started our children with a juvenile novel called The Star Beast. For an adult cat lover I would recommend The Door Into Summer. For anyone who can still get into the 60's I would recommend Stranger in a Strange Land.

As a person who has kept a lot of pets, one of my personal favorites is the short story Goldfish Bowl. Another favorite is the title story of a collection, The Menace from Earth. And if you like the weird stuff, try the long story The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.

My personal favorite of the novels is probably The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Trapunto said...

What kittiesx3 said.

Trapunto said...

Reading your comment, Jeanne, maybe my problem is that I started with Stranger in a Strange Land. It seemed prurient, which is also kind of how the sixties seem to me, on a bad day.

I haven't read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, Stranger in a Strange Land is a later work. The earlier works didn't have the same tone of prurience. I'd be pretty interested in your reaction to "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag."

Anonymous said...

Don't know whether this one was delivered to you -- That's exactly my background: southern (Missouri, actually) family late night grandmother gossiping with the aunts and parents.

Jeanne said...

Bill, I didn't get any information about you with the advance copy; I also grew up in southern Missouri (Cape Girardeau) with lots of relatives in Arkansas. I do enjoy the gossipy style!

Jenners said...

I agree that the title doesn't exactly make you want to read the book ... but your review does.

I love the idea of having touchstone books to judge the "worth" of potential friends ... though it does seem a bit cruel perhaps! HAHA!

And why did the lady in the train story just not remove her shoe?????

Bill Patterson said...

Why didn't the woman in Swope Park just remove her shoe? It's not mentioned anywhere, but they didn't wear slip-ons in 1912 when that story took place. The shoes worn at the time probably had a score of hooks to lace up all the way over the calf, making them form-fitting but very hard to get out of. Such lacings went out of fashion when ladies' maids became too expensive for the average middle-class household.