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Robert Heinlein

By Farah Mendlesohn

A major new critical study of the writings of a giant of the SF genre by a Hugo award-winning critic and historian.

Biography | Sci-fi & Fantasy
135% funded
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Publication date: March 2019

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Now finance has been raised, the author’s share of subsequent proceeds will be divided between The Foundation for America’s Blood Centres, and Con or Bust:


"Mendlesohn has burrowed into Heinlein as has no other critic. This is the most insightful consideration of RAH - themes, methods, the man - ever." - Greg Benford, Nebula award-winning author of Timescape

Robert A. Heinlein began publishing in the 1940s at the dawn of the Golden Age of science fiction and carried on writing until his death in 1988. His short stories contributed immensely to the development of science fiction’s structure and rhetoric, while his novels (for both the juvenile and adult markets) demonstrated that you could write hard SF with strong political argument. His vision of the future was sometimes radical, sometimes crosswise, and towards the end in retrenchment. He continues to influence many writers whether in emulation or reaction. Recent controversies in science fiction have involved fighting over Heinlein’s reputation and arguing about what his legacy is and to whom he belongs.

I first came across Heinlein when I was twelve and was seduced by both his narrative style and his continual emphasis on competence and on critical thinking. Like many I came to doubt the answers he provided to the questions he raised, but I’ve never stopped thinking about those questions. You can see many of his lines of thought in the branches and sub-branches of genre science fiction.
The book is a close reading of Heinlein’s work, including unpublished stories, essays, and speeches. It sets out not to interpret a single book, but to think through the arguments Heinlein made over a life time about the nature of science fiction, about American politics, and about himself. Although not a biography it tries to understand Heinlein’s work both as product and insight into the man. The key thesis of the book is a challenge to the idea of Heinlein as a libertarian and resituating him as a classical Liberal in the terms he understood; a man who prized the individual highly but understood the individual as at their best when enmeshed in the complex structure of a nurturing society.

Follow Farah on Twitter at @effjayem


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343 pledges


Ebook edition of the book.
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Hardback edition of the book, plus an ebook edition of the book
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  • Farah Mendlesohn avatar

    Farah Mendlesohn

    Farah Mendlesohn began reading science fiction at the age of 12, when her Dad’s best friend handed her a suitcase full of science fiction books and told her “don’t sort, take the lot”. The contents of the suitcase turned out to be an introduction to entire new worlds.
    She is a historian, critic and fan. She chaired the Science Fiction Foundation and served as the President of the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts, as director of Programme for the Montreal World Science Fiction Convention and Director of the Exhibits Hall in for the London World Science Fiction Convention. She has taught History, American Studies, Publishing and Creative Writing. Mendlesohn is the author of, Practicing Peace: Quaker Relief Work in the Spanish Civil War; Diana Wynne Jones and the Children’s Fantastical Tradition, Rhetorics of Fantasy, The Inter-Galactic Playground: science fiction for children and teens, and co-author of A Short History of Fantasy (with Edward James) and Children’s Fantasy Literature: an introduction. She has been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book five times and won for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited with Edward James.
  • When Robert A. Heinlein was first published in 1939, the magazine science fiction field was entering what would later be termed by many “the Golden Age.” In the late 1920s and early 1930s the magazines had been supplied by writers who worked in multiple genres. Much science fiction was thinly glossed empire romance, or invention stories in which little about the world fundamentally changed. By 1939 however, there were 15 magazine titles in print and activist editors such as Raymond Palmer and John W. Campbell Jr. argued in editorials and through editorial choices what science fiction should be.

    Heinlein’s very earliest contribution to this field, “Life-line,” mimicked the accepted narratologies: an inventor declares an invention that threatens to rupture industrial peace, and is quietly disposed of, if only by fate. His stories “The Roads Must Roll” and “Blowups Happen” take the conventional focalising view of a journalist or anthropologist. Quite quickly however Heinlein began to shift the field. As more than one critic has observed a key change was in his insistence that the consequence of change was more interesting than the change itself. In stories such as “The Roads Must Roll,” “Misfit,” and “Coventry” we are introduced to the changes in the world long after they have taken place. The story is about the psychological and social affect on human beings. Heinlein helped to move the field away from stories about the future, to stories set in the future.

    Heinlein produced twenty-nine stories before his engagement in the war, and another thirty-two between 1946 and 1962. He wrote in total thirty-one novels of which thirteen are usually listed as juveniles (I will be suggesting that we might add at least two more titles to the list). Add in all the essays and collections (which often contain interesting contextual reading) and there are 129 titles. 

    Heinlein brought to his writing a number of sensibilities and positions. He was the middle child of a middle-class but not wealthy mid-western family; he had entered the navy to get an education and had enjoyed both the process of education and the absorption into a larger body. He brought to his writing the interest in and knowledge of engineering that gave the early stories such heft: Robert W. Bly cites Heinlein’s technological engagement with the invention of atomic bombs, computers, dimensional theory, exoskeletons, generational space ships, genetic engineering, hyperspace, longevity studies, space, asteroid mining, mutation, nuclear warfare, suspended animation and time travel. Heinlein's work, particularly everything before 1960, is a part of what Boyer calls; "Fantasies of a Techno-Atomic Utopia" in which atomic power could fuel cars, change the polar ice coverage (melt it for a warmer climate, no polar bears worried about here) control the weather, and generally perform miracles.

  • Farah Mendlesohn has written 4 private updates. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    10th May 2018 How Durable is Heinlein?

    A really interesting post from John Scalzi  here on Heinlein's durability. One point he notes is that you might not have read Heinlein but you have probably read writers influenced by Heinlein so you aren't going to escape his influence no matter what you do.

    My own feeling is that if RAH makes it through one more generation he'll move from "Vintage" (a thing that some think sexy and others think…

    5th April 2018 The slow process of publishing.

    I've been receiving enough comments along the lines of "why will it take so long to publish your book?" that it seems worth making a post about it. Hopefully this won't be too dull.

    Book publishing is slow. Because as readers we tend to focus on the words between the covers, we often lose sight of the fact that this is a manufactured product. That means that it:

    • needs to meet physical specifications…

    1st April 2018 Heinlein at Eastercon

    Every Easter weekend a section of British fandom meets in a hotel location somewhere in Britain. This year was Harrogate, at The Majestic, with author guests Kim Stanley Robinson and Nnedi Okorafor (both of whom secured Hugo nominations this week).

    The committee invited me to give a talk on Robert Heinlein and despite Kim Stanley Robinson being on a panel directly opposite, it invited a healthy…

    26th March 2018 [Gulp!]

    And the copy edited manuscript just landed on my desk....

    24th March 2018 At last, we have a title!

    One of the comments I've frequently made, is that in some ways I have been channelling the great man himself. Verbosity, intemperance, etc etc. But nowhere has this been truer than my inability to come up with a title. Heinlein had a terrible ear for titles. Most of his stories were titled by magazine editors, and most of his adult novels were titled by Virginia. His original title for Number of the…

    19th December 2017 Wendy Bradley – Tax Collection

    Wendy Bradley is a retired tax inspector who is a member of the Women in Tax Community. She asked me to think about Heinlein's attitude to taxes and a tax based society.

    Q: How seriously should I take Heinlein's "don't drink: you might shoot at tax collectors and miss"? Several Heinlein characters seem to argue paying tax is either voluntary or a sign of degeneracy - did that carry over into…

    14th November 2017 Q&A with Aliette de Bodard

    Aliette de Bodard, author of The Dominion of the Fallen series, dark Gothic fantasies set in a ruined turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war; The Xuya series, space opera influenced by Vietnamese culture, which includes the standalone books On a Red Station, Drifting and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls

    And The Obsidian and Blood trilogy of books, Aztec noir fantasy featuring priest…

    30th October 2017 Q&A with Julie Bozza

    In a parallel universe Farah Mendlesohn is about to publish her first novel, Spring Flowering, with the LGBT+ publisher Manifold Press. This led to a conversation with her editor, Julie Bozza, about romance in Heinlein.

       1. How important were the romance subplots in Heinlein's novels and stories?

    In Heinlein’s Juveniles romantic subplots are notable mostly by their absence. If there is a lesson…

    16th October 2017 Mimi Mondal – Con or Bust

    Con or Bust raises funds for fans of colour to attend conventions, particularly in the United States. I chose this organization is that it has been active in supporting friends outside of the Anglo-American fannish community. As Heinlein was a committed internationalist for at least the first half of his writing career (the crews of his spaceships and his Patrol were from all over the world, long…

    9th October 2017 Con or Bust

    Con or Bust, Inc., is a tax-exempt not-for-profit organization (EIN: 81-2141738) that helps people of colour/non-white people attend SFF conventions. Con or Bust isn’t a scholarship and isn’t limited to the United States, to particular types of con-goers, or to specific cons; its goal is simply to help fans of color go to SFF cons and be their own awesome selves. It is funded through donations and…

    29th September 2017 Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

    Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian SF writer who has won the Nebula, Hugo Award and John W. Campbell Awards. This week he was awarded an Aurora for the best and most compelling Canadian science fiction of the decade.

    We’ve been friends for many years and a few years ago I was able to host him at my favourite independent bookshop, Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, North London.


    RJS: To me, Heinlein…

    28th September 2017 National Poetry Day – Remembering Rhysling, the blind singer of the spaceways

    It’s national poetry day today so let’s remember the blind poet Rhysling, the blind singer of the spaceways.

    Rhysling was an engineer on the Earth Mars run. Blinded in an attempt to repair the ship’s engines, he becomes a tramp, taking advantage of the right of spacemen to free passage. His story is told in “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947)

    Extract from Chapter 3.

    “The Green Hills of Earth…

    26th September 2017 Q&A with Ken MacLeod

    KMM: Two full-length studies on Heinlein's work were written during his lifetime, by Panshin and Franklin. Since he died there has been Patterson's two-volume biography, and there are a lot of scholarly and fan articles. Clearly, you've read them all! Why do we need another book on Heinlein?

    FJM: To start with, of the books out there on Heinlein, only two were written after Heinlein’s last novel…

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  • Jesper Rugård
    Jesper Rugård asked:

    A bundle with some of the relevant Heinlein stories would extremely nice. I have only a sparse collection of his works (read most of what I have read at the library when much younger).

    Farah Mendlesohn
    Farah Mendlesohn replied:

    Sadly they are in copy right. The best collection now available is The Past Through Tomorrow from the SFF Gateway Library:

    Tracy Latimer
    Tracy Latimer asked:

    I think this is a worthwhile project, but can't afford to make a $20 pledge (most of my support pledges are in the much smaller range). Do you have someplace for small donations?

    Farah Mendlesohn
    Farah Mendlesohn replied:

    let me get back to you on this and thank you for asking.

    Nic Smith
    Nic Smith asked:

    While this is not a biography, will you cover RAH's relationship with Hubbard, as covered in 'Going Clear'? It would be interesting to get an alternate perspective on this time period. The lifestyle portrayed in this book reminded me somewhat of 'Stranger in a Strange Land'

    Farah Mendlesohn
    Farah Mendlesohn replied:

    Only briefly, but I do have a take on that relationship.

    Jennifer Anstey
    Jennifer Anstey asked:

    I wonder if Heinlein read Margaret Sanger's 1919 "Birth control and racial betterment" and if it perhaps can be credited with influencing his strong women characters, care in using birth control, and other aspects, like his nominating older women as leaders in some stories? Having seen "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" and then read a few articles on Marston, the Sanger book was apparently hugely influential in developing his own feminist views.

    Farah Mendlesohn
    Farah Mendlesohn replied:

    I am very sure he did. His mother Bam was engaged in some aspects of the feminist movement. It probably also influenced his eugenicist ideas which were of both the right and the left at the time. But I also always got the impression that Heinlein just liked women. When he talked of old school friends it's girls he mentions. And his campaign life in California seems to have involved a lot of women campaign workers. Then during the war, because he stays a civilian, he finds himself managing smart women workers (of whom Virginia was one of course) and likes it.

    Mike Ryder
    Mike Ryder asked:

    Hi Farah, I pledged at Signed level and just received my hardback copy (it looks wonderful, thanks!) Do you know when the ebooks will be dispatched? Is there a link we need to follow, or will we be notified by email? Many thanks.

    Unbound replied:

    Hi Mike, You should receive an email letting you know how to download the ebook today (22nd Feb 2019). We're glad you like the book! Unbound Support