Does Heinlein Matter?

He used to.  He used to be the be-all and end-all of ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s SF.  This despite the fact that most critics think his later output is far inferior to his Golden Age writing and juveniles.  Even during the rise (and fall) of the New Wave, Heinlein’s star, no matter how scorned, never really diminished.

He was hugely important to me, but then how could he not be?  I was ten, exactly the right age for his juveniles, which are basically adventure stories for boys, six years after the last was published (Have Space Suit—Will Travel) in 1958.  You couldn’t go into a library in America in the ‘60s without finding every one of them in the children’s section.  I devoured them, and from them I jumped straight to Clarke, Asimov, Herbert, E. E. Smith, and the Golden Age.  A few years later I was reading Brunner, Ballard, and Delany. 

Without Heinlein, I might never have gotten to any of them.  Heinlein introduced me, and thousands of other readers (mostly boys, unfortunately, but that’s another post), to the language and ideas of true SF.  Andre Norton just wasn’t the same, though I loved her books as well.  Her SF was more lyrical and fantastic.  Heinlein’s was down to earth and full of common sense.  And he made the fantastic seem commonplace in a way that few writers have before or since, allowing the reader to go right to the heart of his characters and stories, but without losing any of the “WOW” so necessary for good SF.

A couple of years ago I had dinner with several other F&SF writers, half of whom were my age, and half of whom were younger.  For some reason the conversation turned to Heinlein, and we were all carping on the crap he turned out in his dotage, when one of the older writers said, “At least we have his juveniles.”

“Heinlein wrote YA?” asked one of the younger writers in stunned surprise.

Heinlein’s juveniles aren’t really YA, though you might make the case for Podkayne of Mars.  But the fact that this young writer writes YA and had never heard of, or read, any of Heinlein’s non-adult novels amazed her.  She’d read the later novels and hated them, and couldn’t believe Heinlein could write for a younger audience.  In fact, none of the other younger writers at the table had read any of Heinlein’s juveniles, or any of his Golden Age writing for that matter, basically because they detested his later books, the one’s that had come out when they were coming of age, so thoroughly.

They hadn’t needed to.  There is so much more SF available now, so many more writers applying the ideas and techniques developed by Heinlein and the other early greats, that I’m not sure it’s actually necessary to read them anymore.  Not to have a basic understanding of the genre, at least.  If you want to be well-read, then you certainly have to sample them.  And LeGuin, and Delany, and Tiptree, and Gibson, and Willis.  You don’t have to like any of them, but you do have to read them.

But if you want to be a writer or a fan rather than a scholar these days, then I don’t think you have to read Heinlein at all.  You only have to read what you like.

What do you think?  Does Heinlein still matter?

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  1. 1. NewGuyDave

    I went another route while growing up, reading Howard, Tolkien, Eddings, Lloyed Alexander (who I read after all these others), and Gemmell.

    Our school libraries didn’t have much for sci-fi, or maybe there was sci-fi and I just didn’t know what to look for. I read some moon exploration stuff by an author I know longer remember, but no big names. Thus, Heinlein wasn’t important to me, and although I recognize his significance to the genre, he doesn’t matter to me today. There isn’t enough time in the day to read all the good stuff being published today, so when I decide to read something older, it’s usually a must read.

    In staying with last summer’s Dumas Summmer Book, this year’s must read is The Three Musketeers. Partly because of October’s new Three Musketeers movie, which looks fun but different. (Zeppelins?).

    Cheers,
    NGD

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    An excellent topic, Mr. Butler. I must commend you on balancing enthusiastic advocacy with concession that Mr. Heinlein may not be everyone’s kind of party.

    Originally I was an English major, but Harold and Allan Bloom were swinging for the fences when I was in college. The academic battles and intellectual integrity based on reading the RIGHT or WRONG books offended me so much I changed majors. Really, I guess I should say I found my true major, once I saw that politics are everything. I’ve seen similar tones in the SF/F community.

    “Starship Troopers,” is the only Heinlein I’ve read and I thought it fascist. Since then, I’ve read of his groudbreaking work crossing gender and racial bariers not to mention his support for PKD. Still, I can’t shake the baggage from that first book. I mean if I had read “The 300,” first, I would’ve never read anything else by Frank Miller. In retrospect, I see shades of fascism, xenophobia, and homophobia in his earlier work as well.

    New to the SF party, I’d like to have a better understanding of the tropes and big ideas without a grad degree, (as if) and I like the idea of Heinlein’s juveniles as a primer. I’m reading Ms. Bujold’s “Young Miles,” right now but which of Mr. Heinlein’s juveniles would you recommend?

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    @NGD, I love Dumas. I look forward to the new 3M movie with equal parts hope, (Richard Lester’s film is still my favorite) and dread, (Charlie Sheen? Really?). It’s been a few years but it’s probably time I read it again. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. 4. carmen webster buxton

    I still think fondly of STAR BEAST and CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY. I do think Heinlein’s “juveniles” hold up much better with age. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND was a huge hit partly because of when it was published– it fit the 60′s mentality– but the themes in YA books (coming of age, thinking for yourself, etc.) are more timeless.

  5. 5. W C Casey

    You hit on the important point when you wrote, “his juveniles, which are basically adventure stories for boys”. Those stories are not, nor were they ever, relevant as science fiction. They are adventure stories with spaceships. That’s not to say that all early writers can be dismissed. If you care about science fiction, you have to read Wells, Verne, Bradbury and Asimov (minimum). I started reading all of those authors in pre-teen years, so there’s no reason they are not appropriate YA material today.

  6. 6. C12VT

    I’m rather surprised to hear that so few of the younger writers had read Heinlein’s juveniles – because my experience was that any sizable bookstore was still carrying them when I “came of age” in the 90s. In fact it was a lot easier to find Heinlein than most of the newer writers – most of the store’s shelf was “golden age” type stuff, not newer books. I find this to be true even today at my (rather small) local bookstore – to buy books from new authors that aren’t yet bestsellers, I have to use the internet.

  7. 7. Andy Thurman

    Well, Stranger in a Strange Land, the rage when we were in high school, pretty much stands by itself. But, even without that one, I’m still a Heinlein fan.

    Producing marginal work as you age is not unusual. My expertise is detective fiction, and you see it a lot there. In my opinion, Agatha Christie only wrote two decent books (Roger Ackroyd and, to use the politically correct title, Ten Little Indians), and the rest was dreck. But her later stuff descended from dreck to crap.

    So, back to Heinlein. Yes he wrote some bad books, particularly later in his production. But I still read Glory Road (and others) now and then to remind myself how a great writer can use S-F settings to powerfully render the “real” world. And at his best, Heinlein remains one of the best at that.

    And, for anyone wondering, yes, Asimov wrote both S-F and detective. Won’t comment on the S-F, but the detective stuff was usually a little too slapdash to be good.

  8. 8. S.C Butler

    NewGuyDave – Which translation of The Three Musketeers are you reading? A great one by a Richard Pevear (sp?) came out five years ago from Penguin. Much better than the old Victorian era versions.

    Elias – There are no right or wrong books, just right or wrong critics. Heaven forfend someone appreciate something they don’t. That said, I actually like Starship Troopers a lot. And I wouldn’t call it fascist as much as hardcore libertarian. Nobody has to be a soldier, after all. You just don’t get to vote if you don’t participate. But I can also see why you and a lot of other people hate that book. In many ways it was the beginning of Heinlein’s transition from superb storyteller to verbose crank.

    And the Richard Lester Musketeer movies are the greatest swashbuckler films ever made, aren’t they? Zeppelins? Bah, humbug.

  9. 9. S.C Butler

    Carmen – Citizen of the Galaxy and Tunnel in the Sky are my faves. And I loved Stranger in a Strange Land when I read it at thirteen, (it was a definitive ’60s book), but am sure I’d detest it now.

    W C – I think the juveniles are relevant as SF because they were such great introductory books. They were a great way to introduce a new generation of readers to many basic SF concepts. Star Wars did the same thing twenty years later for another generation.

  10. 10. S.C Butler

    C12VT – Small bookstores tend to have very idiosyncratic SF selections. My own local indie only carries “literary” sf like PKDick. I’ve found you can usually find the newer authors at B&N, at least their first books. But the internet, or an SF bookstore, remains the best way to find it all.

    Andy – I have to confess I reread Glory Road a few years ago and was a bit dismayed. Not what I remembered at all. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, however, I think holds up really well. But you’re right, a lot of writers tend to do some of their best work early, then spend the rest of their careers trying to live up to the promise. Few do. And even fewer last past their own generation.

  11. 11. steve davidson

    Yes. Heinlein is STILL relevant.
    Anyone reading Starship Troopers and coming away with the ‘fascist’ view has not paid attention while reading.
    Moon is a Harsh Mistress remains a seminal, teachable, important text.
    Many of the so-called juvenovels are also excellent introductory texts.
    (Any reader who gets hung up on tech glitches has not learned how to properly suspend their disbelief).
    I really don’t think there’s room to even ask the question posed by the article, and I would seriously question the validity of any “science fiction” writer who hasn’t read, and read deeply, Heinlein and his contemporaries. Whether they like it or not, their current work is based on, and in large part read through, a literary historical lens. If you’re not familiar with the history, they can’t avoid repetition, covering old ground.

  12. 12. Elias McClellan

    @Andy Thurman, off topic, but it’s good to see your post. I’m a (would-be) crime novelist. Never could get into Christy. But I’ve read she came to detest her most famous detective, Poirot. I think a lot of authors, if not hate, at least get bored.

    After “Pale Kings and Princes,” I lost interest in RBParker’s Spencer and I think he did, too. Same for John Campbell’s Prey novels. Hard as it was to accept, I commend my rabbi, Walter Mosley for putting Easy Rollins to bed before he became a shell.

    Only Michael McGarrity’s detective, Kevin Kerney has held my attention, due largely to the New Mexico settings which never get old for me. As far as crime, Elmore Leonard is the king and RIP Donald Westlake. I never read a bad Richard Stark novel and he was in his late 70s with the last couple.

    I look forward to reading more of your comments.

  13. 13. S.C Butler

    Steve – Much as I love Heinlein, I’m not sure he really is necessary to an SF writer any more. The tropes he established are already there in every writer who’s come since. In the same way that a novelist writing about domestic life doesn’t need to be deeply read in Austen or Trollope, I don’t think the SF writer needs a deep understanding of the SF masters, either. That said, there’s no doubt in my mind that, to be a master yourself, I’d say you have to have at least a nodding acquaintence of your predecessors. But it’s not absolutely necessary. Especially since many of your readers will have no acquaintence with them at all.

  14. 14. S.C Butler

    Steve – Much as I love Heinlein, I’m not sure he really is necessary to an SF writer any more. The tropes he established are already there in every writer who’s come since. In the same way that a novelist writing about domestic life doesn’t need to be deeply read in Austen or Trollope, I don’t think the SF writer needs a deep understanding of the SF masters, either. That said, there’s no doubt in my mind that, to be a master yourself, I’d say you have to have at least a nodding acquaintence of your predecessors. But it’s not absolutely necessary. Especially since many of your readers will have no acquaintence with them at all.

  15. 15. NewGuyDave

    Sam,
    We have a modern library Musketeers, translated by Jacques le Clercq, and our library doesn’t have the Penguin version either. I’ll seek it out.

    Elias,
    The Richard Lester movies are miles above the others in swashbuckling, and love how the musketeers improvise and parry with whatever they can get their hands on.

    Must watch the oldies before we go watch the new Musketeers, though maybe I’ll skip the Disney version.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  16. 16. S.C Butler

    Musketeers, not mouseketeers!

  17. 17. Elias McClellan

    M-U-S-K-E– wait, that’s not how the song goes.

  18. 18. jarrod foster

    I’m honestly surprised that everyone is so far, mainly in defense of his juveniles which in my opinion, are by and large complete garbage. His adult novels, like Time Enough For Love, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, I will Fear No Evil, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Cat who Walks Through Walls, etc. These are the stuff of sci-fi legend, and easily some of the best reading I’ve ever done. To find these ignored in favor of the YA books is truly baffling to me, given everything this master storyteller gave us.

  19. 19. S.C Butler

    Jarrod – It’s a good thing lots of different books get published, eh? Other than Stranger in a Strange Land, which I loved when it came out, I’ve never been able to finish any of the other books you mention. And I’ve read practically everything else the man ever wrote. But good on you for liking them. Like what you like, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

  20. 20. Vivienne Grainger

    I can’t say whether he still matters; he mattered to all of us who read him, and many of us write now ourselves. There will always be the enthusiast who goes back to dig up the “ancient masters,” to see what everyone was excited about.
    Some of them, I fear, will have my blues experience: as a teenager, that was my music of choice. Having gotten into the genre through the back door of modern practitioners, when I actually listened to the ancient masters, the recordings of the acknowledged harmonica king actually bored me to tears. He might have been far more real than the new guys, but they were so heavily influenced by him that I’d heard everything he did countless times before.
    So may it become with Heinlein. The grace of his sturdy prose will never fade, but his name may fade simply because his influence was so far-reaching.
    Except for “Glory Road.” I can see that one living forever.

  21. 21. S.C Butler

    Vivienne – Another vote for Glory Road. I guess I’m outnumbered. But you make a good point about how coming to the masters via their pupils can be a bit of an anticlimax.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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