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.

Tuesday, 14 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-investigator Acatl.

Aliette had not long had her second child when she sent me these questions. As the answers to them over lap I’ve made one lengthy response.

How unusual was Heinlein's characterisation of relationships and families compared to his contemporaries? Science Fiction tends to deal poorly with pregnancy (it's either monstrous or holy), and with babies (who are either invisible or absent). How did Heinlein handle this? As a parent, I think of raising a child as one of the highest-stakes situations I've been in. Does this appear in Heinlein's work, and if so, how? 

Hardly any of Heinlein’s contemporaries show women or children at all. In many of them there is no evidence of human reproduction. When women do appear they tend to have fixed roles. This is true of many women writers as well by the way: I fell in love with Zenna Henderson in part because she wrote about women and children and families and how they fitted into international politics (see in particular a short story called “SubCommittee”, 1960). I do have a theory by the way which I cannot prove: Heinlein is not actually of the same generation of his writer contemporaries. He was an adult in the 1930s, a period which was very heterosocial, very oriented towards family, very interested (on both the left and the right) in eugenics and educational theory and practice. You can see this in the sf of the 1930s in which working women may be presented as exceptional but are definitely there, and where good men are married with families (singleness is a strong indicator of being evil/mad in early sf). Many of Heinlein’s sf contemporaries however went from their schools and universities into the war during their formative dating years: they spent their early twenties in single sexed environments. I think this, more than anything, accounts for the dramatic disappearance of female characters and of family from science fiction in the 1940s.

 I’m trying to think of all the pregnancies in Heinlein’s work. I think the first is in “Year of the Jackpot” in which Potiphar and his girlfriend flee to the hills and we literally see her barefoot and pregnant at the end: in the sense of being a “new Eve” narrative it’s a holy pregnancy. The second is in “All You Zombies” in which the young woman gives birth, the baby is kidnapped, she loses her internal sex organs and is re-sexed as male (without permission), and grows up to discover she is the baby: is that one monstrous or holy or both? And of course the idea is revisited in I Will Fear No Evil where Joan Eunice dies in childbirth because she is rhesus negative (which they weren’t yet able to treat easily) but we have the impression or delusion that Joan-Eunice-Jacob are reconstituted in the brain of the baby: again another monstrous birth or, given it is a trinity a holy one? Heinlein for all he has a reputation as being a very straightforward, even WYSIWYG writer—something traceable to his very plain noir cinema prose—frequently has two ideas in mind with anyone image or process so it’s tricky. It could indeed be both.

How the pregnancies are depicted is very controversial. At least one reviewer I believe made fun of Heinlein because of the depiction of Karen giving birth in Farnham’s Freehold but I am afraid  cheated a bit because they didn’t tell us what actually happens: Karen gives birth in the primitive settlement they have established.[1] They have few painkillers, and Farnham is operating out of a book. Karen tries hard not to scream and it’s all a bit twee and icky in part because she calls Hugh “Daddy”, but I’ve learned over the years that many Americans do use “mummy/mommy” and “daddy” well into adulthood. And then she dies. She dies. It’s awful. We’ve been led to think the cat having kittens is a good omen, but it is merely a distraction. Karen dies. It is Barbara who successfully gives birth later on and she does so in the care of a high tech culture that has an investment in keeping her babies alive.

Similarly the childbirth scene in Time Enough for Love in the short story “The Twins Who Weren’t” in which Heinlein has Lazarus Long ‘s Estelle use a) a birthing stool b) sits the father down in it to hold his wife and c) uses a sharp gravitational tug may seem absurd and I accept Jo Walton’s comment that this could cause tearing. But so do forceps. Medics now use a suction cap instead of forceps and it also has problems. Childbirth is dangerous and the tradition emphasis on the health of the baby rather than the mother has meant that some medical interventions have been downright dangerous to mothers.[2] I’m not saying the sudden gravitational tug would work but a slow and steady increase might.

Then there is the actual role of babies: we start to realise from Beyond this Horizon that Heinlein is very reproduction oriented (philogenerative?). The entire point of that novel, its plot and its speeches and its background, is all constructed to persuade Hamilton Felix, who lacks appears to lack the selfish gene, to reproduce. As Heinlein goes on that gets more noticeable: in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the family is an economic and welfare oriented unit but by Friday its purpose is to raise children and kittens. In Time Enough for Love this is even more explicit and while Maureen is the most casual mother in existence, she is a member of the Howard Families who are selected both for longevity and their willingness to have large families. Babies are highly visible if not always very realistic — no one ever seems to change a nappy (US: diaper). Heinlein clearly feels very strongly indeed that babies matter and that they are in the end what society is for. His saving grace is that he does not require people to produce them biologically. Friday carries a child not her own to term (and for Friday this is important validation but I don’t think RAH means it needs to be for everyone) but there are many adopted and fostered and mentored children in Heinlein’s work, and also some pretty awful birth mothers and fathers. He is idealistic, but not romantic.

I’ve devoted an entire chapter to Heinlein and the raising of children. I am pretty sure he would have approved of the phrase “it takes a village”. His juveniles were always intended as educational texts, in terms of promoting science, right ways of living and — he hoped and intended, even if he didn’t always get the tone right — critical thinking. One of the very noticeable things is that for texts meant for kids, there is one hell of a lot of parental advice in them; and for the kids is an awful lot of guidance on how to study and what to study. I don’t agree with it all but I do agree with the drive behind it. There are several stories that are precisely about the high stakes and how awful screwing up can be and there is one type he uses often enough that he either experienced it or saw it:  in “Coventry” we are told:

Dave’s father was one of the nastiest little tyrants that ever dominated a household under the guise of loving-kindness. He was of the more-in-sorrow- than-in-anger, this hurts me more-than-it-hurts-you school, and all his life had invariably been able to find an altruistic rationalisation for always having his own way.

John Thomas IV’s mother is much the same, and the bio-family of Thorby Baslim try the same trick. Podkayne’s parents in Podkayne of Mars are a different brand of awful, parents who want to keep their children infantile and thus have reared one child who is basically horrible because no one has ever taught him any ethics, and another who thinks the only way to get what she wants is to avoid telling anyone what she wants because it will somehow be prevented. And Heinlein does not let his favourite characters off the hook: Maureen washes her hands of her two youngest when she decides she’s just too old for all the crap they are bringing home. But generally, parenting is an important role and once one takes it on, one has obligations. The best and nicest parent is probably Kip’s father in Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I think we all want a parent / or to be a parent who listens that well, and can guide without being overly directive.



[1] I believe it is Joanna Russ but I cannot find the reference and am not sure enough to cite it here.

[2] The lack of attention to post-natal maternal health is rather notorious. The latest issue to be exposed is complications from the use of mesh to repair pelvic floor damage caused by childbirth. 

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Nancy Lebovitz
 Nancy Lebovitz says:

This comment is mostly disagreements, but I'm looking forward to your book tremendously. Even when I don't agree, you're raising important questions and topics.

I'm not sure whether newborns in books should be checked for whether they're holy or monsters, but maybe this makes sense when there's only one newborn in the story.

The earth is about to be destroyed at the end of "The Year of the Jackpot"-- the child offers no hope. However, the world is monstrous, not the child.

It's not that Hamilton Felix lacks the the selfish gene-- he's quite selfish-- it's that his selfishness doesn't take the form of wanting to reproduce. His kid is an interesting mix of holy and monster-- he's what Felix needed, he's telepathic, and he's pretty annoying.

I think there was some mention of the work of raising children in Friday, though it wasn't onstage.

As for Heinlein and raising children, I was struck after Heinlein died by the number of men who said that Heinlein was a father to them.

posted 15th November 2017

Elizabeth Bentley
 Elizabeth Bentley says:

Space Family Stone is an example of good family/parenting, across 3 generations.

posted 15th November 2017

Adam Shostack
 Adam Shostack says:

Thanks for the great post! I'm struck by a detail you mention, "We’ve been led to think the cat having kittens is a good omen, but it is merely a distraction," and seem to recall lots of kitten-bearing through his books. Is Heinlein "just scene setting in those, or are there metaphors that relate back to Ms. de Bodard's question?

posted 19th November 2017

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