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 in them for smart girls and boys it’s that romance is to be avoided at all cost when you are young because it will restrict your ambitions. Heinlein of course had made this mistake himself with what we’d now call a “starter marriage” in the early 1930s, but in those days it was the only legitimate way for a nice boy to get sex. There is a hint of it in Starman Jones, but it doesn’t work out, in Between Planets the hero doesn’t notice he is being romanced, and in The Star Beast, both female protagonists have it all worked out, but the hero hasn’t noticed yet.
By the 1960s his boys approach girls with awe: Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers likes having women in charge of the space ships because it’s a reminder what he’s fighting for, but there is not a whisper of sex, which is one reason I suggest in the book that we really do need to see this one as a juvenile.
But from Stranger in a Strange Land onwards, it’s not that romance is a subplot so much as that one of the things Heinlein clearly wants to think seriously about is what love is. Stranger is all about how you love someone, how you love without jealousy, and how true love should be expansive, encompassing and generous. Glory Road is this magnificent medieval Romance, intensely performative and playful and a bit silly, but by the end separating the game of romance from the real thing. And of course the Lazarus Long sequence, particularly the tellingly titled Time Enough for Love, and the last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset are all about what love means and what we will do for love. But the true masterpiece of Heinlein’s romances is The Door Into Summer which for all the sub plot about Dan’s relationship with Ricky, is truly about a man and his love for his cat.
2. You mentioned that you devoted a section of your book to kissing, an activity to which I'm also partial as a writer and reader. Can you tell me more about the significance of this to Heinlein? Was it in lieu of more explicit sexual content?
I started off assuming that kissing was indeed a substitute for sex, and I also read endless commentaries that accused Heinlein (rather than his editors) of prudishness, and later kinkiness. Now there is nothing wrong with kink, but I came to realize after a while that this is just not what is going on. In I Will Fear No Evil and To Sail Beyond the Sunset there are lengthy and very intense descriptions of kissing, of the scent of a person’s skin, of their private parts, of the taste of their mouth. Heinlein just really, really liked kissing. Kissing seems to be a test of cleanliness and character in Heinlein’s work, and in Friday where quite a lot of the actual sex is transactional, kissing is the one true gift.
3. Does Heinlein include, whether literally or metaphorically, LGBTQ+ characters in his work?
Yes and no. It’s clear from odd lines that Heinlein was never very comfortable with male homosexuality in his own person, but he is also quite clear that its existence and acceptance is part and parcel of a truly liberal society. He’s actually best at it with background characters such as the lawyers in I Will Fear No Evil. He also seems far more comfortable with bisexuality than with either homosexuality or lesbianism. With the exception of older characters such as Lazarus Long or Jubal Harshaw who are depicted as old fashioned and out of step, most of the characters in his later books are depicted as bisexual, and as he moved away from the rather rigid line marriage of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to something much more free flowing he embeds (sic) bisexuality into the family structure. What I find fascinating is the steady development of transvestite, intersex and transsexual characters, from a throwaway set of cross-dressers in “The Year of the Jackpot” through the intersex protagonist of “All You Zombies”, the enforced transgender switch of I Will Fear No Evil while in the background is a world where young people argue for as many as five genders, and much later the desired change of Andrew/Elizabeth Jackson Libby Long. This is not a minor interest for Heinlein. He seems to have returned to it every time the science and social science changed.
4. Which is your favourite of the various film and television adaptations of his work?
Most are so awful that this is the easiest question by a long way: Predestination directed by the Spierig brothers. It even drew my attention to the thriller sub plot that is there in the story and I’d never noticed.
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