The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. 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.

However, Heinlein was never really a hard sf writer because he was always more interested in the human than the machine, more interested in the use of invention than the invention itself. Peter Nichols offers an accurate assessment when he maintains that the “emotional centre of his work has always been the political and social satire of man, and the cultures he builds and lives in”. Alfred Berger argues persuasively that it is in this way that Heinlein contributed to the feel that there was a ‘science of society’. 

After leaving the navy Heinlein became involved in Californian politics as both a grass roots campaigner and a participant in classic block politics; he was married and enjoyed a radical open marriage with Leslyn MacDonald, who brought her experience of cinema and knowledge of script doctoring. He had already written a lightly fictionalised utopian manifesto that did not see the light of day while he was alive. His stories were startlingly political compared to those of his contemporaries (they often share interests more common to the utopian inflected writers of the 1920s and early 1930s), which have a clear cinematic art, and which tuck sexual and social radicalism first in their corners and then, as he moved into adult novels in the 1960s, brought up front as the primary interest. He understood science fiction as part of the historical process and as part of preparing for the future. “There won’t always be an England—nor a Germany, nor a United States, nor a Baptist Church, nor the Democratic Party, nor the superiority of the white race…” (GoH Speech at Devention)

Although it is not really helpful to think of sf writers as predictors, for all Heinlein never successfully predicted technological change (although there is Matt Dodson’s mobile phone in Space Cadet) it is amusing that he predicted the Presidential wife consulting an astrologer (Stranger in a Strange Land), an actor becoming President while controlled by his PR staff (Double Star), gender-neutral bathrooms (Friday), a demagogic Presidential candidate (“Revolt in 2100”), and gender fluidity (I Will Fear No Evil). His futures are politicised in complex ways over and above the stories he tells. This is not always successful and this book will tackle the failures as well as the successes but it is in those complex backgrounds that lie the truth in Peter Nicholls’ summation: “Although most of his themes were not new to science fiction, Heinlein was often the first writer to render them solidly believable rather than merely mind-boggling”

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