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"Robert Heinlein Remembered"
Lever Action Essays ^ | 1988 | L.Neil Smith

Posted on 10/12/2002 11:20:11 PM PDT by redrock

Robert Heinlein Remembered

by L. Neil Smith

"Take big bites. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing."
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Imagine a lonely kid, undersized and overbright, living on an American air base overseas. Comic books taught him to read years before he started school and he'd tackle anything that fell open under his eyes. Anything about science or space travel leaped off the page as if printed in boldfaced italic. A neighbor's medical texts had such delightfully disgusting diseases you could practice having, and radio magazines ... in those days radios had vacuum-filled glass cylinders, see, and -- radio? You know, TV for blind people?

One day, sent to the library as punishment (so much, he grinned to himself, for the intelligence of authority) he ran across two books he hadn't seen before, Red Planet and Tunnel in the Sky. As would be the case years later with a certain little old Russian lady's name, he didn't know how to pronounce "Heinlein".

But the latter novel, he discovered, was about kids not much older than he was, slung across the galaxy as a graduation exercise to survive or die on a planet not even described to them beforehand. The protagonist's big sister, a tough Marine, gives him her favorite fighting knife to carry as a spare, a gift both practical and sentimental. (In time the reader would learn that Heinlein didn't see much difference between the two.) In the other book, even younger kids, on colonial Mars, rebel because the new headmaster at their company school confiscates the weapons they've always believed it their natural right to carry.

To the Air Force kid, this was powerful stuff which bent his head severely. He's writing this because it never got unbent. As a matter of fact, it got worse. But first he looked for more books by this guy Heinlein. What they were about, he found, besides science and space, was individual competence and the suicidal insanity of weighting it with political chains. What's more, each taught him something about the universe, the culture he lived in, and often, whether he liked it or not, himself.

Without knowing it, Heinlein became the advisor, confidant, sometimes the only friend of his childhood, setting standards against which the boy eventually came to measure all his adult conduct and achievement.

Over the past thirty years, I don't supposed a single day has gone by that I haven't thought about Robert A. Heinlein. The lessons I learned from him were endless, as they were bound to be, coming from a man of his pragmatic wisdom and a body of literature exceeding three million published words.

It's hard to recapitulate the second chance he offered my generation, given the abject failure of public schooling, since most of what he taught I've long since taken as self-evident. It certainly wasn't when I learned it; it was often painful and confusing. But it was needed. 20th Century America's method of rearing its young fails to produce organisms fit for -- or worthy of -- survival.

If I cite different lessons at this moment than I might another time, if I discuss them in a different order than I received them, if I select different items than you might, that's one definition of art, isn't it? It's also a measure of the fact that, above all, Heinlein taught us to accept his wisdom without becoming followers. He taught us to become, and to remain, individuals.

The Green Hills of Earth formed my first coherent vision of the future, establishing the historical context for my own life, convincing me (as kids must be if they're to turn out civilized) that, just as millions of human beings preceded me in past ages, so millions more will follow in ages to come. At the same time, Methuselah's Children revealed to me that, yes, I do want to live forever, and that such a thing, given time and the stubborn application of reason, might just be possible.

Between Planets taught me that a kid never knows when the demands of adulthood will tap him on the shoulder. There are worse things that could happen. Starman Jones taught me that the adult world makes about as much sense as the average train wreck, and that it's the first duty of anyone who aspires to be a whole human being to start re-making the world the way he wants it. Toward that end, Time for the Stars showed me that the universe can be a bizarre, hostile place, but that my feelings about that are irrelevant to dealing with it.

Citizen of the Galaxy showed me that it was possible -- and important -- to stand outside my own culture and try to examine it like an anthropologist or a visiting alien. "If This Goes On ..." from Revolt in 2100 warned me that, in any culture, things are never what they appear on first glance. At the age of twelve, I was just as shocked as the viewpoint character to learn what was going on between the Prophet Incarnate's palace guards and his attendant Virgins.

"Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done, and why. Then do it."
Robert A. Heinlein, "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long"

Farnham's Freehold asserted that nobody, no race, religion, or ethnic group, has a monopoly on incompetence or cruelty, and The Day After Tomorrow argued back that a conclusion is never foregone, that the struggle is never over as long as one good man or woman is still alive. It also gave me a second lesson (my first was in Double Star) in how to cut up and dispose of a body, a skill I haven't needed yet, but you can never tell.

Beyond This Horizon proved to my satisfaction that "an armed society is a polite society," long before I had a firsthand chance to see it demonstrated over and over again in real life.

Glory Road taught me, as a novelist and a human being, that life goes on after they all live happily ever after. I've never believed love is all you need, or that it'll always find a way, but The Door Into Summer (along with Double Star, my favorite of Heinlein's books) brought me closer to changing my mind about that than any other book I've read, and also taught me that the most brilliant innovation is useless unless it rests of a foundation of necessity and familiarity.

Space Cadet represented another sort of graduation exercise for someone who was slated to become an individualist- anarchist. I often think about writing an entire essay dedicated to comparing it in detail with Arthur C. Clarke's superficially similar Islands in the Sky, in order to demonstrate metaphysical differences in worldview between the productive class and the parasitic over- and underclasses. In case I never get around to it, read both books -- asking the question, "Who or what is responsible, in each instance, for whatever the protagonist achieves?"

In a sense, however, this is a futile exercise, not even scratching the surface of a lifetime's education. Other lessons I learned from Heinlein, I'll talk about another day. Let me dispose of the canard, as anyone could who actually reads his books (as opposed to whatever it is critics do), that he was a militarist, a racist, or a sexist.

Starship Troopers takes the most heat, which is peculiar, since the society it describes is founded by soldiers fed up with war, no conscription is permitted, the franchise won by military service (aggressively coeducational military service) doesn't apply until the service is over with, and the book's hero, like many Heinlein characters, is (unobtrusively) non-white.

Heinlein's alleged sexism amounts to this: he contemplated humanity as a product of billions of years of evolution by natural selection. Successful specimens were accomplished, heroic, individualistic killer-apes, the most dangerous and relentless predators on the planet and, it remains to be hoped, in the galaxy. Half these dangerous, relentless predators were women, whom his male characters valued and desired (incessantly, as what healthy male predator wouldn't?) as sexual partners.

But if that wasn't intolerable enough for the critics, these treacherous, politically unfashionable females like sex (usually with dangerous, relentless male predators) themselves! It appears he was married to such a woman. Because of what he taught me, so am I -- another unpayable debt I owe him. And what more fascinating subject could a man find to write about?

Heinlein's real crime, of course, was the same as Ayn Rand's, and to a certain type with which the Libertarian movement seems particularly burdened, unforgivable. In a universe with few obvious signposts, he set standards which reason and experience suggested to him. It wasn't enough that he lived by them, he assessed others in terms of how well they succeeded -- or failed -- to measure up, calling things by their true names, acting on their real nature, rather than anybody's wishes and fears. (It's most interesting to observe this in his fantasy novel Waldo and Magic, Incorporated.) This always angers and frightens those for whom an excuse is as good as a deed accomplished, for whom a well-chosen euphemism can affect the ethical quality of a deed.

"Freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go take a hike."
Robert A. Heinlein, "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long"

One crime, of course, leads to another, as surely as consuming mother's milk leads to heroin abuse. Heinlein's standard, like Rand's, was heroic. If I had a dime for every idiot who claims that real people aren't like that, that the heroes Rand and Heinlein wrote about don't exist, I wouldn't worry about publishers paying me on time. Not only do they exist, but Heinlein did a better job than Rand (who was occupied with other tasks) of teaching us to value the heroic in fiction, in real life, and -- few lessons are as important -- in enemies as well as friends.

Those who know Lazarus Long, Wyoming Knott, and Friday tend to like Han Solo, Marion Ravenwood, and Thomas Sullivan Magnum (an Oscar Gordon who, in a fictional universe less kind than Heinlein's, never found his Star). They have no trouble recognizing real heroes like Alvin York, H. Ross Perot (before he ran for President, when he was personally rescuing his employees from Iran), or Bernie Goetz, nor do they fail to appreciate, from a prudent ethical distance, heroic "villains" like Gordon Liddy and Oliver North. They know that what the Libertarian Party needs is a John Joseph Bonforte and what it always seems to get, in the end, is Nehemiah Scudder.

Some while back, in a local restaurant, my wife and I met an old couple from Carthage, Missouri, not far away mentally or geographically from Butler, where the papers say Heinlein was born. We happened to be the only four patrons in the room, and the old lady was up and examining photos of turn-of-the-century Fort Collins. Her sister, she explained, having looked us over and decided we were safe, had attended college here in Nineteen Ought-Something and wanted to know what had become of her alma mater.

I grew up in Fort Collins as much as my wandering Air Force life allowed, came back to college in 1964, and saw Old Main, subject of the restaurant's largest photo, erected in the 1870s as the first campus building, burn to the ground in that strange violent summer of 1968. I'd stood in the door of a bike shop across the street and felt the intolerable heat of it on my face. Telling the old lady about that started her off on the time her church burned down, what the firechief, the minister, and the insurance adjustor had said, the makeshifts they'd put up with before a new church was raised.

As old folks will, she rambled on about people I didn't know and didn't care about. I had my own preoccupations (I'd just heard that Heinlein had died) and had to exert every ounce of "mercy to the weak and patience with the stupid" his stories ever managed to exhort me to.

She didn't say anything unusually offensive (I admit that if I didn't feel bound by the Non-Aggression Principle, there wouldn't be a church left standing above its own ashes west of the Mississippi) and I even got an impression -- something vague about a nephew who'd just re-enlisted in the Navy, another coincidence -- that she'd pull off one of her arms and hand it to you if you were in need of it. But she reminded me of every tight-mouthed, self-righteous Baptist I'd known in northern Florida where I went to high school; people who assumed, despite a basic ignorance of everything since Copernicus, that where they lived, how they thought and felt, what they were, was exactly where and how and what all human beings ought to live and think and feel and be, in Big G's image, Q.E.D. Anybody who differed, who valued the Bill of Rights, say, was a damnyankee liberal, affectatious and perverse for the sheer pleasure of it.

I was dressed as I usually am, 14-inch boots, faded Levis, loud shirt with pearl snaps, wide belt with nickel-silver buckle embossed with longhorns and ponies. She made an assumption about my attitude toward life and events, that they didn't differ from those of a churchgoing Missouri sodbuster, which I usually enjoy demolishing. Wait until she found out I was an anarchist, an atheist, a connoisseur of pornography, a professional despoiler of American youth!

But for once something restrained me. I remained polite, didn't argue, listened through her whole dissertation, and suddenly understood how remarkably far Heinlein had propelled himself from this "American Gothic" mindset through a lifetime which, however long it had lasted, was far too short, for him and for me.

Centuries hence, when the difficult, dangerous age we're living through is written of, what historians will say about the "Crazy Years" will resemble what was first written about them by a science fiction novelist decades before they began. The Libertarian movement must go far to prove itself, but it may prove to be the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak era. The shadows of two powerful minds cast themselves over everything about that movement, whether we recognize it or not: the minds of Ayn Rand and Robert A. Heinlein.

What's astonishing isn't that Rand and Heinlein differed with one another, but that, coming from such different directions, they agreed so often. Neither of these giants was very happy being called Libertarian, yet the monument Rand left us can't be effaced, no matter how many pests pay pigeon respects to it. She gave Libertarianism a philosophical discipline to serve as its brain and backbone. What Heinlein gave it, no less vital if we're to effect the changes we aspire to, was heart and guts.

Both gifts were needed. As we've had occasion to observe, brain and backbone by themselves produce humorless puppets, wrenching without effect at their own strings. Equally, heart and guts, undisciplined, result in the directionless flailing we're used to seeing among conservatives. Perhaps the idea of Libertarianism, the unique concept of the Non- Aggression Principle, should have been enough, but with origins in this particular culture at this particular time, it was doomed to succumb, sooner or later, to cancerous factionalism among its proponents or a paralysis of liberaloid self-doubt.

Combined, however, the unique idea of Libertarianism, supplemented by suitable amounts of brain, heart, guts, and backbone, may just give us a ten-toe hold on the unstoppable wave of the future.

Serf's up!

"Beat the plowshares back into swords.
The other was a maiden aunt's dream."

Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters

This page has been included in the Robert Heinlein ring of the Free World index.

This essay first appeared in the Fall/Winter 1988 issue of NOMOS. It will appear in this updated form in L. Neil Smith's forthcoming collection of speeches and essays, Lever Action.

L. Neil Smith Author: The Probability Borach, The Crystal Empire, The Lando Calrissian Adventures, Henry Martyn, Pallas and (forthcoming) Lever Action and Bretta Martyn. Mr. Smith's celebrated first novel, The Probability Broach, was be republished, in unexpurgated form, by TOR Books in October, 1996. Publisher: The Libertarian Enterprise Founder & International Coordinator: Libertarian Second Amendment Caucus Secretary & Legislative Director: Weld County Fish & Wildlife Association NRA Life Member

Permission to redistribute this article is herewith granted by the author -- provided that it is reproduced unedited, in its entirety, and appropriate credit given.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Miscellaneous
KEYWORDS: bookreview; heinlein; novels; scifi
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To: redrock
He was a great writer but "Time Enough for Love" sucked out loud, IMHO. Way too long and boring
161 posted on 03/07/2005 4:01:54 PM PST by muir_redwoods (Free Sirhan Sirhan, after all, the bastard who killed Mary Jo Kopeckne is walking around free)
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To: Phsstpok

Yes, I have a copy of Guns of the South. It's his best novel, I think, and certainly his most well known. Besides being an interesting sci-fi concept, it approaches the question of the civil war and slavery from a different angle by contrasting the period characters with the modern racist extremist. My only gripe with Turtledove is a lot of his dialog ends up sounding the same. I've tried some of his other alternative stuff, like the Great War and American Front, but they read too much like Guns of the South and Worldwar. I think maybe he's cranking too much stuff out at the moment. Some of his earlier short stories have excellent mood and dialog. I stumbled across a short story he wrote in 1988 called "Gentlemen of the Shade" about vampires, and didn't even recognize it as being his writing. The dialog in the Worldwar series suffers a little bit from this, but I think it can be forgiven because overall it's a ambitious story with scope dealing with race, international politics, the impersonal brutality of mechanized war, and the personal brutality of the Maoists, Soviets, Nipponese and Nazis. It is a pretty depressing, I'll admit. There's little hope for a victory for the human race, only a stalemate. There's another three books called Colonization which advance the story into the 1960s when the colonization fleet is due to arrive. It's a little bit of an unsatisfying sequel, because there are tantalizing hints that the human race might be able to rid themselves of the Lizards, or at least corrupting them to the point that a distinction would be a moot. There's also the hint of attempting contact with the Lizard homeworld. However, none of these plotlines are developed and are so far off anyway as to be not within the scope of the existing novels. Supposedly, Turtledove has released a fouth and final book in the Colonization series this fall which I haven't read yet.

The one weak point in the Worldwar series I though was the Lizard's supply of nuclear missles. Truly, if they wanted to, they could push an asteroid ala Footfall to compensate for their dwindling supply of nukes. This capability is hinted at as a human tactic in the second series.

162 posted on 03/07/2005 4:23:52 PM PST by Liberal Classic (No better friend, no worse enemy. Semper Fi.)
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To: All

The End Of The World Part Two.

163 posted on 03/07/2005 4:36:13 PM PST by Focault's Pendulum (Aww!! Crap!!! My tag line just illegally emigrated south! And it doesn't have any medical coverage)
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To: ABG(anybody but Gore)
"Starship Troopers"....

...kept me somewhat sane thru my time in Vietnam.

To this day...I re-read it every couple of years.


164 posted on 03/07/2005 6:53:02 PM PST by redrock (Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock. --Will Rogers)
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To: society-by-contract
"Specialization is for insects."

Something that too many forget...or never realized.


165 posted on 03/07/2005 6:54:41 PM PST by redrock (Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock. --Will Rogers)
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To: strider44
"It was required reading on the Marine Corp ROTC List at Norwich University 1988 - 1992."

It SHOULD be required reading to graduate High School.


166 posted on 03/07/2005 6:57:20 PM PST by redrock (Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock. --Will Rogers)
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To: Phsstpok
"Lucifer's Hammer" and "Footfall".

Two excellent books.


167 posted on 03/07/2005 6:59:44 PM PST by redrock (Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock. --Will Rogers)
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To: redrock
She [Rand] gave Libertarianism a philosophical discipline to serve as its brain and backbone. What Heinlein gave it, no less vital if we're to effect the changes we aspire to, was heart and guts.

Thanks for posting this.

168 posted on 03/07/2005 7:10:26 PM PST by NMC EXP (Choose one: [a] party [b] principle.)
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To: Professional Engineer

Oh yummy! Thanks for the Heinlein ping!

Hehehe.... some new things to think about starting to read to my Abby you know! :-)

169 posted on 03/07/2005 8:52:26 PM PST by Wneighbor
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To: redrock
It SHOULD be required reading to graduate High School.

Heartily agreed!

It was required reading for my kids anyway.

170 posted on 03/07/2005 8:54:26 PM PST by Wneighbor
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To: E Rocc
He espoused conservative principles without the priggishness, and libertarian principles without the naivety.

Nicely put. Thanks.

171 posted on 03/07/2005 8:59:37 PM PST by Ichneumon
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To: redrock

There has been one piece of advice that has helped me with great profit and any number of crisis.

It has resulted in a power that has taught the results of power carry responsibility.

The advise: "Rub her feet"

ahh how knowledge truly IS power.

172 posted on 03/07/2005 9:05:56 PM PST by longtermmemmory (VOTE!)
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To: Phsstpok

you may also want to check out for free books.

I keep books on my PDA for those hurry up and wait times.

173 posted on 03/07/2005 9:09:17 PM PST by longtermmemmory (VOTE!)
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To: redrock

So much of his should be required reading.

(some of his books are even available in cliffs notes.)

174 posted on 03/07/2005 9:11:02 PM PST by longtermmemmory (VOTE!)
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To: redrock

BTTT for later read.

175 posted on 03/07/2005 9:14:31 PM PST by Positive (Nothing is sadder than to see a beautiful theory murdered by a gang of brutal facts.)
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To: JohnnyP

try "Stranger in a Stange Land" its about a Martian name Michael Valentine Smith. (there are even cliff's notes on it!)

176 posted on 03/07/2005 9:23:28 PM PST by longtermmemmory (VOTE!)
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To: no-s
My daughter is curious about Smith's books, I caught her trying to read "Pallas" the other day.

Start her off with "The Probability Broach". Still Smith's best.

177 posted on 03/07/2005 9:57:56 PM PST by Ichneumon
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To: ihatemyalarmclock
In 1970, I stumbled across the one and only Heinlein book in my woefully-understocked Junior High School library: "Have Space Suit, Will Travel." I was eleven at the time, but a bright seven-year-old could doubtless get a lot of fun out of it. (One of the two main characters is a 10-year-old girl, the other a 17-18 year old boy.)

"Have Space Suit, Will Travel" is the first Heinlein book I did-and-didn't read.

Wait, let me explain...

Like you, I stumbled across it in the school library as a kid, in a fat large-type hardback edition. I started reading it, but didn't really get "into" it because it was just a kid tinkering in his garage on an old suit and stuff, and thus I hadn't gotten too far into it when the book was due to be returned.

*Years* later, when I was eighteen, my girlfriend at the time introduced me to what I thought was my "first" Heinlein book, "Stranger in a Strange Land". Like all of Heinlein's books, it had more mind-stretching ideas than a stack of most lesser works, so I began devouring all his books (I've now read every one of them, and own copies of most).

The last books of his I read were his so-called "juvenile" books (all still imminently readable for adults), and thus I came full circle -- one of the last ones I caught up on was "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel", and as I read the first few chapters it came flooding back to me that I had checked out and read this book *many* years ago as a young child.

The really funny part is that I remembered exactly where I had stopped out of youthful boredom -- it was HALF A PAGE before an alien space ship comes flying out of the sky and grabs the main character from his back yard and all hell breaks loose... (He was already standing in his backyard dressed in the spacesuit at the point I stopped reading.)

If I had read just one more page back when I was a kid, I'd have gotten to "the good parts", and read the rest of the book. Who knows how much sooner I'd have caught up on Heinlein's books at a much younger age, and what effect that might have had on my formative years.

Oh well, better late than never I suppose.

178 posted on 03/07/2005 10:10:36 PM PST by Ichneumon
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To: stands2reason
Can The Moon is a Harsh Mistress stand alone or is it part of a series?

It stands alone, and is without doubt on any "must read" list of Heinlein's books.

Besides just being a wonderful read, it's also a great homage to the American Revolution.

179 posted on 03/07/2005 10:16:56 PM PST by Ichneumon
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To: Ichneumon; stands2reason; ihatemyalarmclock; no-s; E Rocc

Wow, I just noticed how old the posts are to which I'm responding, LOL! Who resurrected this dusty old thread? ;-)

180 posted on 03/07/2005 10:26:08 PM PST by Ichneumon
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