Saturday, July 07, 2007

Robert A. Heinlein, Born July 7, 1907

Robert A. Heinlein was born 100 years ago today, July 7, 1907, in Butler, Missouri. He was one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, and even that may be an understatement.

I remember the first Heinlein book I ever read. It was Red Planet. I was in 7th grade, I had checked the book out of the school library, and despite the fact that I had a headache, I lay there all evening on the davenport, reading that book from cover to cover.

I eventually ended up reading almost all of Heinlein's writings, novels, short stories, essays. Well, not all of it: I Will Fear No Evil defeated my best intentions, and there were a few of Heinlein's later novels that I simply skipped. But I've read most of Heinlein: he fills 25 inches of shelf space in my science fiction bookcases.

My favorite Heinlein novel was Citizen of the Galaxy. Thorby, Baslim, the Free Traders: I cannot exaggerate the impact this book had on me, and I suspect I've read it a dozen times over.

Above and beyond that, other favorites would include Have Spacesuit, Will Travel; The Door into Summer; Starship Troopers; and (??!) Farnham's Freehold. These books, and others of Heinlein's, simply became part of my mental furniture. You sit down, you open the book, you read, you reread. When you come to, you find that the afternoon has fled. Heinlein had a way of drawing the reader into the book; I don't know, it's hard to put into words, it resists analysis.

But I've always thought that's the mark of a great writer: they resist easy analysis. I want to say Heinlein is one of my favorite science fiction authors because he knew how to write, and he knew how to tell a story; and that's probably close to the mark. But I think the truth is simpler and more basic than that: for whatever reason, I simply find myself drawn back to Heinlein's writings, again and again and again.

Later Heinlein I sometimes find tedious. But I did like The Number of the Beast. Ditto Friday, and the first half or so of The Cat Who Walks through Walls.

I read some people who tell how Heinlein had a major impact on their own philosophy and worldview. I have to confess that Heinlein's books have had little if any influence on my overall outlook. In fact, often as not I find myself in disagreement with him; though I usually find his thinking intriguing. But I seldom read fiction on the basis of whether I agree or disagree with the author's views.

I will never forget driving along through the countryside, one beautiful sunny day in May of 1988. I had just finished up my first year of graduate studies at Duke University, and somehow a lazy afternoon of drifting from one highway to the next had led me on up out of North Carolina, and into Virginia. My car radio was tuned to I don't know what station, and the news came on at the top of the hour. One of the news items was that science fiction writer Robert Heinlein had died.

Robert A. Heinlein. Born 100 years ago today, July 7, 1907. Died May 8, 1988. He was indeed the Dean of Science Fiction.



Blogger Paul Burgess said...

BTW, here's an odd "six degrees of separation" bit of trivia: a friend of mine happens to live in Butler, Missouri, the town Heinlein was born in. Prior to that, my friend happened to live in Lawrence, Kansas, where William S. Burroughs lived for a number of years. I've told Dick he's got to stop living in towns associated with well-known writers, though I don't doubt that if he stays in Missouri, his next stop will be Hannibal. ;-)

Saturday, July 07, 2007 8:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aaaaahhhh. A Door Into Summer. The Cat ...

While its safe to say that they didn't form my own personal philosophy, they ... supported and encouraged ... it at a time that nothing else on Earth did.

At the heart of both of them I find an absolutely stunning refusal to yield, the ability to lose the battle yet win the war. They came at a time in my life when battle after battle was lost, and the only hope of victory was perseverance.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007 4:44:00 PM  

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