To get the most out of my rereading Heinlein project, I figure I need to hold up on reading the stories and get an idea of why Heinlein wanted to write. There are two schools of thought on studying literature. One holds that a work of fiction must stand on its own. I can buy that. But second, believes in knowing as much as possible about the context in which the work was created. And I can buy that too. For my rereading Heinlein project, I’ve decided to get to know as much about Heinlein as possible and to study what others have written about Heinlein.
This effort is going to be rather haphazard because I don’t plan to devote all my time to studying and reading Heinlein. Nor am I scholarly or disciplined enough to systematically collect and analyze data. I shall alternate between reading about Heinlein, reading a story by Heinlein, and writing about my reaction to the two. I will probably revise what I blog as I go along and learn more.
Over the years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with reading Heinlein. As a kid, I wanted to grow up and be like him, a science fiction writer. He was my hero. But, by the time I graduated high school and started college, I realized Heinlein was on the far side of the 1960s generation gap. He was now the enemy. Heinlein was pro-Vietnam war. I was against it. Heinlein was in the Old Wave of science fiction writers. I sided with the New Wave writers. When I was young, Heinlein felt like a liberator of thoughts, but by my late teens, he seemed like an oppressor. What really turned me off to Heinlein was I Will Fear No Evil which came out in 1970. He had changed. But then, so had I.
My father died in 1970 when I was 18. We often locked horns over the same social and political issues that turned me against Heinlein. When I got older, I often wondered what my dad was really like because I eventually realized I had never gotten to know him. I had rebelled against his older self, and one I judged too quickly because I was young and impatient. I had no clue about my dad’s younger self. The same was true for Heinlein. Now that I’m old myself, I believe I need to go back and figure out these men. What did they originally want? I don’t have much evidence for who my father was, but I do for Heinlein.
While reading Heinlein’s early stories I get the impression he wasn’t like the other science fiction writers. I assumed he had grown up reading science fiction and science fiction was the obvious choice when Heinlein decided to make money by writing. Samuel Johnson is famous for saying, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but that doesn’t explain what they choose to write about. I’m starting to doubt if Heinlein was a trufan of science fiction because he had so many other interests. I wondered if he considered writing in other genres or even writing nonfiction? I know Heinlein read science fiction, but he also read lots of other kinds of fiction and especially nonfiction. Heinlein had diverse interests, and even though he read and wrote science fiction, and occasionally interacted with fandom, I’m not sure if he really thought of himself as a science fiction fan and writer.
All the details I cite below about Heinlein’s life come from Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 by William H. Patterson.
From 1925 to 1934 Heinlein’s goal was to be a naval officer. In 1934 he was forced to retire because of TB. This military experience provided great knowledge for his later writing career, but I don’t think he would have become a writer while in the Navy. Although he did get experience writing for his ship’s newspaper. Heinlein trained as an engineer at Annapolis and became a ballistic officer with special training on a new computing machine. Heinlein like doing.
In the 1920s Heinlein started reading science fiction when The Skylark of Space was serialized in Amazing Stories. Over the years he read various SF magazines, but I don’t know how often. Heinlein was widely read in other areas. But most writers end up writing what they like to read, so I assume Heinlein had a science fiction addiction too.
In 1930 Heinlein became the 22nd member of The American Rocket Society. Right from the beginning, they were thinking about traveling to the Moon. Quite a few of Heinlein’s stories were set on the Moon.
In 1932 Heinlein met and married Leslyn MacDonald, who was 26, and he was 23. Leslyn had a master’s in philosophy, was very liberal politically, acted in local theatrical productions, directed workshops in experimental theater, was a published writer, had a job as Assistant Director of the Music Department at Columbia Pictures, and maybe even did some script doctoring for them. The Heinleins had an open marriage, and belong to nudist colonies in Colorado and California. Leslyn was an equal partner, even though she was probably better educated, smarter, and far more philosophical. And she probably had more worldly experience. Leslyn also had an interest in mystical and spiritual traditions, and her mother was a Theosophist. Heinlein read to her The Time Stream by John Taine which was being serialized in Science Wonder Stories (December 1931- March 1932). She got him to read Tertium Organum by P. D. Ouspensky, a student of George Gurdjieff. Leslyn had a tremendous impact on Heinlein becoming a science fiction writer, and even the subjects we wrote about. At the time both were left-leaning socialists who shared progressive political ideas and New Age and occult philosophies.
Heinlein’s ambition after leaving the Navy was to start on a master’s and work up to a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy at Caltech. Unfortunately, at the time he graduated from the Navy college at Annapolis, it didn’t confer bachelor’s degrees, so he couldn’t go directly into graduate school. If he could have followed this path he might have eventually become an SF writer on the side, but I tend to doubt it. Again, Heinlein’s drive was to do. However, the failure to become a scientist seems to be a common trait among science fiction writers.
Next, Heinlein and Leslyn threw themselves in the 1934 election for California’s governor. The Heinleins backed Upton Sinclair, the famous muck-raking writer and socialist turned democrat to run for governor of California. The Republicans launch an all-out smear campaign against Sinclair. This taught Heinlein a lot about dirty politics. After Sinclair lost, he pushed ahead with EPIC (End Poverty in California) and the Heinleins joined that crusade. They worked with Sinclair and got to know him, and Sinclair admired their dedication to the cause and put Heinlein in some higher-up positions. Heinlein got to work with Oakies and immigrants, as well as Hollywood star do-gooders. He saw the horrors of how the poor were treated. Heinlein even ran for a local position and lost, but learned a great deal about grassroots politics. All of this was grist for the meal of his first novel, For Us, The Living. Heinlein had gotten more writing experience working on EPIC publications. That experience was starting to add up.
The Heinleins had bought a small house in Laurel Canyon, but one they really couldn’t afford on just his military retirement paycheck. Heinlein’s health depended on a low-stress life, so he couldn’t handle regular work. This is when he decided to try writing for a living. He wrote For Us, The Living, but it failed to sell. That novel really wasn’t science fiction, even though it was about the future. It was Heinlein presenting ideas on how to create a better America. The novel promoted concepts like guaranteed incomes and psychiatric rehabilitation instead of prison for criminals. Heinlein could have become a nonfiction writer instead of a fiction writer. This explains why there is so much infodumping, lecturing, and even preaching in his books.
There was practically no science fiction being published in book form in the 1930s. Heinlein wanted to be a futurist, but they didn’t exist back then. Being an officer in the Navy, or a politician meant being a leader, a man of action, and a doer. I felt from the biographical material I’ve read, that Heinlein wanted to lead, influence, build, and especially, invent. However, he was out of options. Maybe he could at least be an influencer by writing.
All along, Heinlein had been reading science fiction, but I’m not sure how much. When he sold “Life-Line” to Astounding for $70, he discovered he had a platform for his progressive ideas and a way to pay his mortgage. John W. Campbell, Jr. had higher ambitions too. Both men wanted to do something real but found their niche in writing and publishing fantasies about the future.
As I reread Heinlein’s fiction I need to remember what Heinlein really wanted. I’m sure this bled out in his stories. Samuel Goldwyn is famous for a quote he probably didn’t say, “If you have a message, call Western Union.” Heinlein always had a message. Sometimes I’ve held that against him, but I realize now, all the best stories do have a message.
Some fiction is just a story. Something entertaining to occupy your time. But all the best writers have something to say. The true art of fiction is to communicate a great deal without the reader feeling they are being lectured.
In judging Heinlein’s stories as I read them, I need to decide how well he wove his message into his fiction. I need to come up with a method to evaluate stories on several levels at once. But that’s another essay.
James Wallace Harris, 10/8/22
One thought on “What Motivated Heinlein to Write Science Fiction?”
On an earlier post I remarked how in “Life-Line” his main character Hugo Pinero had a name that sounded like, and a personality like, the Hercule Poirot character in Agatha Christie’s fiction. That might be one influence of his.
An interesting thought exercise might be what would have happened if he went into other genres — how successful would he have been. Those other genres by 1939 were well established with prominent authors. I think he would have been successful, but not highly so.
I think he turned to writing, and writing SF, because he found a field that was still somewhat new and unexplored, that he could make a name for himself in. And in John W. Campbell, he found an editor who he meshed well with and could develope this, and who brought out the best in him.