MagazineBook reviews

Just in | Library of book reviews 


Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1: 1907-1948: Learning Curve by William H. Patterson, Jr.

1/10/2011. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century in the USA - or Buy Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century in the UK

author pic

pub TOR. 640 page paperback. Price:GBP 7.50 (UK) if you know where to look. ISBN: 978-0-76531-962-3.

check out website:

Love him or hate him and there are plenty of supporters in both camps, Robert Anson Heinlein was one of the founding fathers of modern Science Fiction. This impressive book is part one of the 'authorised biography' and is titled 'Learning Curve' because it details Heinlein's life from birth to the age of forty. Perhaps it is presumed that he did no more learning after that. Arguably, he forgot all that he had learned.

Clive James once wrote that the politics of Robert Heinlein, in later life, were indistinguishable from those of John Wayne. Well, they were born in the same year and both grew up in something approximating poverty with fathers who, despite working hard in the all-American way, could not provide much. They both had to work from an early age, fitting it in around school. Another interesting parallel is that both had mothers who preferred another son. John Wayne could do nothing to impress a Mom who doted on his younger brother. Robert Heinlein's mother preferred his elder brother by two years, Rex Ivar Heinlein. On one occasion, the tight family budget was used to buy riding boots for Rex rather than a necessary winter coat for Bob. That must have been chilling. If we indulge in popular psychology, it might be said that Heinlein's deep attachment to the military came about because it was a substitute family.

In the introduction to Robert Silverberg's anthology ‘Worlds Of Wonder', the other Robert opines that most Science Fiction writers were peculiar children and cites Heinlein as the probable exception 'for somehow he is our Great Exception in almost everything'. This is not true. Heinlein concealed his oddness well but he was never really one of the gang and began to get metaphysical notions from an early age. He became convinced that he had been around, in some form, for a long time. He was also pretty sure that there was some sort of conspiracy among adults to hide a great secret from him because the world as he saw it didn't make sense. This feeling was later developed as the classic short story 'They'. 'Stranger In A Strange Land' came as a surprise to some in 1962 from a man perceived as a pragmatic technophile but Heinlein had spiritual leanings from way back and, despite a devotion to the works of Charles Darwin, never swallowed that notion that a lot of amino acids had once bumped together in a primeval swamp and just happened to come up, millennia later, with Robert A. Heinlein. Like Jubal Harshaw, he could never believe the 'just happened' theory, popular as it was with men who called themselves scientists.

Heinlein's father never earned much but he was a small cog in the Democratic Party 'machine' in Kansas City. This was similar to the Tammany Hall set up in New York but was run by a man called Tom Pendergast. Appointments to the Naval Academy at Annapolis were in the gift of the State's Senator and you had to get credits, kudos and letters of recommendation from every available source to be the chosen one each year. In the year Heinlein tried, there were about fifty candidates and most sent one letter of recommendation. Heinlein sent fifty. 'There is no such thing as luck. There is only adequate or inadequate preparation for a statistical universe', as Kip's dad told him in 'Have Space Suit - Will Travel.' Robert got a reputation as a grind at school and while he achieved the rank of major in the school's Reserve Officer Training Corps, there were those who said he did so at the expense of his men, drilling them unmercifully and taking credit for their hard work. This earned him his first hate mail.

At Annapolis, Heinlein was an impoverished western hick amongst mostly well-off, sophisticated sons of the east coast establishment. He coped and learned but it can't have been easy. On arrival, he was not strong physically, weighing 118 pounds at six feet tall. This might be one reason he eschewed physical combat sports like football and went for fencing and later, shooting. However, he did learn rough and tumble fighting which was eventually useful for fiction. Heinlein's first published work, incidentally, was a cartoon in 'The Log', the weekly magazine put out by the academy.

Science, also useful later, was a key part of learning at Annapolis: spherical trigonometry, ballistics, technical drawing, astronomy and so forth. The regime was tough and, over a four year stretch, a class of 488 fell to 240. Heinlein fictionalized some of this in 'The Man Who Was Too Lazy To Fail' and it obviously contributed to such works as 'Space Cadet' and 'Starship Troopers' in which promising young men are sent off to learn soldiering. Unfortunately, promising young Robert was not destined for a successful naval career. He did well in early postings and was found to have talent as an executive officer, dealing with the administration of a ship, but his first success was aboard an aircraft carrier. They are pretty stable. When he was transferred to a destroyer, he came down with permanent sea sickness which probably led, because he was so weak, to contracting tuberculosis. He was retired on half pay.

For those of us interested in Heinlein the writer, the naval career is a bit dull but there are points of interest. While he was at Annapolis, the US Secretary of State gave a talk in which he told the young men that war with Japan was inevitable. Presumably, control of the Pacific was the issue. Around ten years before Pearl Harbour, the US Navy carried out an exercise in which one task force made an attack thereon and another defended it. The attacking planes came in from far away and took the defenders by surprise but the Navy brass, in their infinite wisdom, decided there were no lesson to be learned, thereby as the Japanese would never think of it. Japanese observers had different ideas. Ten years later, everyone was pretty sure war would come soon and Heinlein wrote to John W. Campbell, editor of ‘Astounding’, that as the Japanese favoured surprise attacks there would probably be one that weekend. On Sunday, they duly bombed Pearl Harbour. This does lend quite a lot of ammo to the old rumour that Roosevelt let it happen in order to get America into the war.

The naval career having been undone, Heinlein had to look for something else to do. It seems he was disinclined to get a regular job, perhaps because his father had worked hard all his life at that and got nowhere. He ended up getting involved in Democratic Party politics in California as part of a movement by Upton Sinclair called EPIC - End Poverty In California. This was a decidedly socialist movement and the mainstream Democratic Party suspected that it had been infiltrated by members of the Communist Party. To be fair, it probably had. Heinlein lost the Democratic Primary to a sitting Republican, though not by much. This meant the Republican stood unchallenged in the actual election as he had the nomination from both parties! American politics seems very strange to outsiders.

Having failed at politics and then business, a bad investment in silver mining, Heinlein turned to writing. The legend is that he saw a short story competition in a Science Fiction magazine and wrote ’Lifeline’ to win $50 then decided to send it to ‘Astounding’ instead and got $70 from John W. Campbell. The legend is true but misses the background. Heinlein was a lifelong fan of Science Fiction, ever since reading HG Wells and Jules Verne in youth, and bought the magazines avidly. He also read a lot of deep, meaningful books about philosophy and metaphysics and kept track of scientific developments. He was a member of a rocket club and crazy about astronomy, too, so he didn’t suddenly discover it all in 1939 and knock off a story. Despite his eventual success, it seems that writing did not come easily to him and he had to work hard to get things right. Chaps like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov seem to have adored writing and could hardly bear to wrench themselves away from the typewriter. For Heinlein, it was always a job I think, though he enjoyed it when things went smoothly. His second wife, Leslyn, had worked hard at the campaign with him and chipped in when he launched his writing career, too.

Leslyn had worked in Hollywood and was a very talented story coach and not just for Heinlein. She didn't do the actual plotting but was an excellent sounding board and source of ideas. Later, she was superseded in this role by John W. Campbell, but I think her early positive influence should not be discounted lightly. Heinlein certainly appreciated her.

Navy half pay and pulp sales helped to eke out a living but they had many spells of poverty and hardship. War work at the Aeronautical Materials Lab in Philadelphia bought a pretty good income for both and a rich social life with several Science Fiction writers who had been recruited by Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov among them. However, Leslyn worked too hard and she lost a lot of family in the war, often in tragic circumstances. She spiralled slowly into depression and alcoholism. Perhaps genetic factors are involved in this kind of tendency as her father had steadily drank himself to death with a quart of whisky a day. In any case, it didn't do well for the marriage.

Enter Virginia Gerstenfeld. She was a navy engineer who worked at the Aeronautical Materials Lab and greatly impressed Heinlein because she was prepared to put on dungarees and get her hands dirty. She seems to have got on well with Leslyn, too, at least in the early days. Potted biographies of Heinlein sort of give the impression that Ginny moved in when he was already successful but this was far from the case. His marriage fell apart slowly and she was there waiting for him but his initial sales to the slicks were slow and he had not yet started the run of successful juvenile novels. They shared a hard icy winter in a trailer park and long periods of separation while he tried to cut a deal with Fritz Lang for a film about a flight to the Moon and waited for his divorce to come through. The failure of his second marriage was genuinely devastating to him, Leslyn had been his boon companion for over a decade. It is a generally held view, by Asimov for example, that Ginny moved his politics over to the right but the author of this biography seems to think that this was happening anyway. Idealists do tend to become disillusioned as they get older but such an extreme swing from ultra-liberal to reactionary is rare. Ginny, incidentally, didn’t hold with that open marriage stuff once she was the bride.

The book ends with their marriage on October 21, 1948 so Part Two will take the story from there. I await it eagerly. This is a genuine in depth biography that uses a wide range of sources - letters to and from the main characters and official records - to paint a detailed picture of a complex, intelligent man. There are numbered academic footnotes to nearly every point made and I had to use two bookmarks while reading it because the notes on the sources were frequently as interesting as the main text. A gripping read here for friends or foes of the great man. Highly recommended.

Eamonn Murphy

Magazine > Book reviews

Just in | Library of book reviews

Add daily news updates to your own web site or blog - just cut and paste the code below...


This book has 81 votes in the sci-fi charts

The all-new SFcrowsnest is now running at This is now the archive for pre-2012 content. Nothing new is being posted here.

Magazine Articles

- Features

- Movie/TV Reviews

- Book Reviews

- News

- E-mail magazine

- Encyclopedia

- Other formats: Kindle, Nook, Sony Ebook, iPhone & iPod


- Top books

- Top movies/tv series


- SciFi @ FaceBook

- Steampunk @ FaceBook

- Us @ Google+


- Search site

Reader Tools

- RSS news feed

- Facebook page for SFcrowsnest

- Twitter page for SFcrowsnest

- Google toolbar for SFcrowsnest

Webmaster Tools

- Add our content feeds to your site