Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve, William H. Patterson Jr.

Tor, 2010, 622 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1960-9

You don’t have to be a Science Fiction historian to understand the massive influence that Robert A. Heinlein had over the genre.  His writing techniques set an example for all writers to emulate (or repudiate), his personality challenged readers to become better human beings and so it’s no exaggeration to state that entire generations of SF enthusiasts have been led by Heinlein’s example.  As a writer, a personality, and a towering figure in the SF community even more than two decades after his death, he is one of the few SF writers of the twentieth century to deserve a massive two-book biography.

What we get with William H. Patterson Jr.’s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve (count those colons!) is… something impressive, even as the first half of a bigger project.  Alas, it’s not the single best possible account of Heinlein’s life.  Like most authorized biographies, it benefits from generous access to primary sources, but suffers from a lack of critical perspective.  The author has accomplished a herculean task of bringing together a mass of information about Heinlein, but he hasn’t always been able to condense this data into a readable or insightful portrait of the man.

It may be that the SF community has been spoiled by Julie Phillips’ extraordinary biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr., a fusion of fact and interpretation that remains the gold standard for SF writer biographies.  (Outside the genre, there’s also William McKeen’s biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Outlaw Journalist, to consider.)  Compared to Phillips’ work, this first volume feels flat and bloated, afraid to take a dispassionate stand about its own subject while having a hard time distinguishing between trivia and detail.  Why else spend a page detailing speeches at an Army-Navy game in which Heinlein was only peripherally involved? [P.81]

We shouldn’t be ungrateful for the sheer amount of detail: This is a “Life and Times of” kind of biography, and if nothing else, readers will come away from the book with a meticulous understanding of 1920s Annapolis, 1930s California Progressive politics and 1940s stateside war efforts.  But if you’re getting the sense that you have to be enthralled by Heinlein before reading the book (rather than let the biography do the convincing), then you’re right.

Readers without a deep-set case of Heinlein worship are advised to grit their teeth, skip the rah-rah-RAH introduction (in which the death of Heinlein is compared to the assassination of JFK, the Challenger explosion and 9/11) and start reading on Chapter One, which sets the tone for a book that is a great deal more factual that its hagiographical opening would suggest.  Not that the fawning tone entirely disappears later on: Patterson has a tendency to exculpate Heinlein from various errors and lapses of judgement, blaming his wife for a bad signature, not questioning official medical records and generally presuming that Heinlein knew best.  I’m also troubled at how much of the sourcing goes straight back to recollections by Heinlein’s third wife –that is, unchallenged hearsay by a highly biased source.

This occasional fusion of overwhelming minutia and unquestioning Heinlein fanboyism makes the book feel considerably less accomplished than it actually is.  From various reports on and off-line, I understand that the editing process for the book wasn’t simple (nor, apparently, friendly) and that the result is considerably shorter than the manuscript initially submitted for publication.  The result remains a bit frustrating… about as much so as trying to make sense of the hugely complicated man that was Heinlein.

Still, having vented my frustrations about the book, here’s why it deserves to be read widely, discussed passionately and nominated for next year’s Hugo Awards: It’s a significant piece of work, it presents new information about Heinlein and it manages to describe the broad strokes of Heinlein’s life during a very badly documented period.

Even confirmed Heinlein fans will learn quite a few things out of this biography: Heinlein’s first-of-three marriages; the particular nature of his second one; the way he got to Annapolis; his fascination with the occult; the episode in which he nearly became a Rhodes scholar; his unpleasant first Guest of Honour experience at the 1941 Worldcon; the details of his unsuccessful electoral bid; and so many others.  Even dirty gossip gets a bit of space, as we learn of a possible affair between L. Ron Hubbard and Heinlein’s second wife.  (Read the endnotes!)  There is a lot of information here that, to my knowledge, has never received wide publication.  The magnitude of Patterson’s achievement in chronicling the first forty years of Heinlein’s life is magnified by the difficulty of getting this information, by dint of historical distance or by deliberate erasure.  (Heinlein burnt much of his own personal papers in 1947.)  To find so much information unearthed (even via unreliable sources) is a minor miracle and for that reason alone, this biography is a major piece of work that will become a significant starting point to any further Heinlein assessment.

There’s also quite a bit of merit in how Patterson is able to trace Heinlein’s formative influences, from the rigour of his naval background to his liberal politics within Upton Sinclair’s faction of the California Democratic Party to his post-war reassessment of his political affiliation given the threat of nuclear warfare.  Heinlein’s fiction can argue opposite sides of issues in successive novels, and this biography does a fine job at showing how widely Heinlein’s experience differed from the American norm of the time.   For SF fans, I suspect that the last section of the book, after Heinlein starts selling fiction professionally, is a fascinating look at the development of the SF field at a crucial period.  There are familiar names (Campbell!  Pohl!  Hubbard!  Asimov!) and a strong sense of what the community must have been at the time.

I also suspect that quite a few early Heinlein devotees will be astounded to read about the genesis of some stories.  One of my first significant SF reads was Heinlein’s Space Cadet, for instance, and I was stunned to learn of the circumstances in which the novel was written –Heinlein practically living as a nomad, in-between marriages, fighting rumours spread by his second wife and desperately trying to make ends meet in difficult circumstances.  Who knew?

One thing is for sure: This book has created a lot of brisk discussion within the SF field, and will continue to do so for a while.  As with all things Heinlein, the biography is attracting passionate commenters from all persuasions, and some of the best results of the online fur-ball are a good erratum for the biography, and an informed reassessment of Heinlein’s stature within the field.  It’s a significant reminder of Heinlein’s influence still.

The end result is a complex, meaty, substantive biography that has a number of weaknesses, but still represents the best and most complete look at Heinlein’s early life than we’ve been able to read so far.  It’s not the best Heinlein biography imaginable (I challenge anyone to do better), but it’s assured of a spot on next year’s Hugo Awards short-list, and a long half-life as an significant work of SF scholarship.  Better yet; it prefigures a second volume that will really dig into Heinlein’s fully-matured period.  That one will be a heck of a read, even –especially- if it’s as frustrating as this first volume.

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