Tag Archives: William H. Patterson Jr.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century: Vol2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson, Jr.

<em class="BookTitle">Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century: Vol2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988</em>, William H. Patterson, Jr.

Tor, 2014, 672 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31961-6

When the first volume of William J Patterson’s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his century appeared in 2010, my review reflected the critical consensus: While Patterson had better access to source material (including the cooperation of Virginia Heinlein) than anyone else and was able to shed light on hitherto-unknown aspects of Heinlein’s early life, the result was burdened in trivia, lacking in any critical perspective and so utterly beholden to Heinlein as to approach hagiography. Still, complete judgement had to be suspended until the publication of the second volume, which tackled Heinlein’s better-known era, his marriage to Virginia Heinlein and his accession to best-sellerdom. Now that the second volume is here, it turns out that… much of the critical consensus about the first volume also applies to the second one.

The Man Who Learned Better starts in 1948, roughly coinciding with Heinlein’s third wedding and (after a brief detour via Hollywood where he worked on Destination Moon), gradual home-making in Colorado. Much of this second volume presents a detailed minutia of Heinlein’s life, almost day-by-day as he writes stories, attends events, receives visitors and becomes involved in various causes. Eventually, health issues come to the forefront, from the near-death experience he suffered in 1973, to a lengthy period of ill health, culminating in a series of crises that led to his death in 1988. The immensely detailed narrative often borders on the trivial, but the effect becomes strangely hypnotic, almost as if we were living with the Heinleins on a daily basis. Patterson may not have been a particularly gifted writer (see below for a few examples), but the book does have an affecting melancholy to its latter sections, as a couple struggles and copes with health issues that force them to downsize their life before the inevitable end.

Anyone looking for re-interpretation of Heinlein, or expanded commentary of his work will be disappointed: Patterson is a biographer far more than he is a literary critic, and since he hews so closely to the Heinleins’ point of view, he too regards reviewer as either useless (when they praise Heinlein) or malevolent (when they don’t). Noted critics such as Alexei Panshin and H. Bruce Franklin both turn up as recurring villains, to say nothing about Forrest J. Ackerman. While we get a hint as to what caused the enmity (Ackerman misappropriated Heinlein’s work, Panshin had the annoying habit of making inferences about Heinlein’s work, while Franklin was –horror of horrors- a Maoist), the level of vitriol thrown at these three men is almost ridiculous.

Still, it’s a useful clue at what the biography leaves out. Reading In dialogue with his Century, one gets the impression that Heinlein towers over everyone else. That he is never wrong. That he never changes his mind even as the country moved leftward. (Making a mockery of the title “The Man Who Learns Better”) That everyone who went against him was a simple-minded villain. This somewhat charitable viewpoint can’t quite paper over the fact that Heinlein, by all accounts, was kind of an arrogant jerk. (There’s a better word that rhyme with …hole, but it goes against the PG-rating of this site.) Contemporary accounts of his behavior make it clear that if Heinlein was a member of your family, he’d be the insufferable blowhard uncle who’s always right, always willing to harangue family members for their political opinions and usually ends holiday gatherings by leaving early after having insulted everyone. It’s this dimension of Heinlein’s personality that has so fascinated fans for decades, and it’s that aspect that gets the shortest thrift here.

It really doesn’t help that Patterson, being an ardent fanboy, doesn’t just idolize Heinlein (the introduction starts with “Mr. Heinlein”, always a bad sign for a biographer), but seems more than willing to co-opts Heinlein’s opinion into the current right-wing mindset. So it is that Heinlein-extended-by-Patterson gives us gems such as the Baltic states being enslaved by the USSR because they didn’t want to “do what must be done”, unlike the Scandinavian states (has Patterson ever looked at a map?) [P.198]. Such overreach of contemporary political opinion over historical events were easier enough to accept in the first volume of the biography which discussed a time too far away to be controversial, but it proves harder to tolerate with more contemporary events and figures.

Furthering the problem is Patterson, graceless style. There are moments so clumsily written that they jar any reader out of the narrative. Take, for instance, this paragraph about a visit to Rio de Janeiro…

…they drove up Corcovado mountain to see at first hand the monumental Christ the Redeemer status overlooking the steep hills over Rio –and, what the Heinleins may not have realized they were overlooking, Rio’s favelas, some of the worst slums in the world, so legendary in their poverty, violence, and crime that they are still being used as the setting for many “shooter” video games. [P.105]

…and tell me how we can justifiably go from an account of a 1950s trip to a faintly reprobate mention of contemporary video games. Worse yet is the following:

…During the course of the operation, Heinlein received blood transfusions collected from five anonymous donors. Since Robert had an uncommon blood type (universal recipient – Ginny had the even rarer universal donor type), it was almost certain that his life had been saved by the efforts of the National Rare Blood Club he had come across while researching I Will Fear No Evil. [P.320]

As written, this makes almost no sense: Heinlein did have a rare blood type (AB+, roughly 3.4% of the population) but as a near-universal recipient, he could have received blood by nearly everyone –hence instantly debunking the assertion that his life had been saved by the National Rare Blood Club. (Notwithstanding the above blunder, the two chapters covering Heinlein’s year-long involvement with Blood donations reveal much about one of Heinlein’s most underrated life achievements, and stand as a highlight of the book.)

Insufficiently copy-edited, the book also contains a number of typos and small annoying mistakes. Even my casual read of the text showed typos such as “Candian”, or “crities” (this one quasi-maliciously incorrect, as it refers to a section of Alexei Panshin’s web site), or more seriously “November 23, 1963” as the date of JFK’s assassination, when it actually took place on November 22nd.

I hope that my exasperation with the text comes through. In details and in larger interpretation (or rather a lack thereof), In Dialogue with his Century is an immensely well-documented book that nonetheless seems to avoid commenting on the man at its center. Patterson seems to know everything about Heinlein but understand quite a bit less. To see this, the work of two lifetimes, result in a biography that falls substantially shorts of the gold standard of the genre is an exercise in frustration. This biography should have looked at its subject sympathetically but not uncritically. Even today, Heinlein does not need hero-worshipping –he needs someone willing to do what Heinlein himself couldn’t bear to do, which is to explain who he was. Readers can work from inferences (it’s no surprise that a trained military officer would later turn out to be particularly paranoid about threats to US hegemony) but for a biography claiming high that Heinlein avoided simplistic reductions, the fawning uncritical look at Heinlein seems unworthy of the subject. On related matters, we get some information in this volume about Leon Stover, first chosen biographer to Heinlein (and who was later removed from the project by Virginia Heinlein for “unauthorised” enquiries) but little about Patterson’s involvement itself.

Still, it’s a heck of a scholarly work. There’s a lot of stuff in this second volume (from a scholarship aspect alone, I expect it to be nominated for a Hugo next year… even if the book really isn’t as good as it could have been), and I hope that it will become a reference for anyone writing a better biography. It’s also a tremendously rich book to discuss: My list of notes and items of interest from the book easily contains twice as many things I have the time to write about, and as a reviewer this is the kind of book that I love to discuss endlessly, largely because it isn’t perfect and could be improved.

I’m also saddened to report that Patterson died barely a month before this second volume was released. For all the faults we can find with The Man Who Learned Better, his death leaves the ensuing conversation about Heinlein without a crucial voice, and without someone to receive and collect information that could have been raised during this discussion. (As Patterson himself writes in the appendix to his second volume unearthing new information about Heinlein’s early years, “the good stuff” invariably comes out shortly after publication.) Still, Patterson does leave in his wake a massive work of scholarship that will hopefully inspire others to further examination in Heinlein’s life.

I also suspect that this biography will act as another lightning rod in the current fracture within the SF field, the old-guard of fans trying to preserve the memory of Heinlein against younger, more progressive and far more diverse fans. In the old-guard’s minds, In dialogue with his century is an attempt to prove that Heinlein is still of relevance today; that his fiction remains exemplary of what SF means to do, and that his philosophy is still valid. In claiming the good old dodge “I didn’t change my mind, everyone else did”, In Dialogue with his Century moves goalposts, but also servers to illustrate the difference between this old school and the new guard: The old school sees “the country moving to the left” as a sorrowful conclusion, whereas the new guard will perceive older men like Heinlein being naturally left behind.

As far as I’m concerned, I expected this second volume of Heinlein’s life to mark a capstone of sorts to my own dealing with Heinlein. While I found him tremendously influential as a teen and young adult (I’ve been reading his novels since I was nine), I have recently, through various experiences and life changes, come to accept his dwindling relevance to today’s readers: While I still hold tremendous affection for his work, I accept that he will, from now on, be read mostly as a historical writer: even in the SF field, where his influence is unparalleled, I see younger viewers rejecting his novels and claiming other (often newer) writers as relevant. And that’s fine: the genre is not stuck in amber, and we need to move forward. Isn’t it enough to realize that his place in history is assured?

But something happened in reading The Man Who Learned Better: I felt some jitterbug energy coming back, compelling me to go and re-read some of his fiction. So it is that I’m embarking (even with my limited time) on a modest re-reading project: Heinlein’s four Hugo Award-winning novels, from Double Star to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, stopping by Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land for completeness. We’ll see if they’re dated, if they can’t stand contemporary social standards, and if they are as I remembered them. In haven’t read them in twenty years; now is the time to revisit them.

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

<em class="BookTitle">Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve</em>, 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.