Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

7/7/7 Happy 100th Bob

Today, Saturday 7/7/7 is the hundredth anniversary of SF author Robert Anson Heinlein's birth.

It's actually difficult to write anything about Heinlein that wouldn't lengthen into a book by way of digressions, qualifications and defenses against some of the more egregiously idiotic criticisms he's been subjected to*. He led a long and interesting life, absorbed with the exploration of ideas.

Man of contradictions, libertine and libertarian. Simultaneously condemned as a "militarist" and "facist", mostly for Starship Troopers**, he also wrote the hippy free-love counter-culture Bible Stranger in a Strange Land.

Apostle of reason and the scientific method, he also apparently believed in reincarnation and dabbled in fringe science such as Korzybski's General Semantics and was briefly enamored of the pseudo-science of Dianetics.

Heinlein was a ardent patriot, strong supporter of the military, and a just as passionate anti-authoritarian. One of the few absolute dogmatic positions he took was an unbending opposition to conscription in any form. He once wrote that a society that needed to resort to conscription to save itself was already lost and did not deserve to survive.

Reading Heinlein was one of the things that got me through childhood. (The other being Kipling's poetry and stories - people who like the one will almost certainly like the other.) His specialty in the novels for juveniles he penned for Charles Scribner & Sons was the coming-of-age story.

Heinlein's prose and story tellling has been condemned by literary types, but novels published under his own name - even some pretty bad ones (Rocket Ship Galileo, I Will Fear No Evil) have never gone out of print since they first saw the light of day.

Heinlein tossed off ideas like sparks from a blacksmith's hammer. The term Waldo (remote-control robot arms for handling dangerous materials) came from a story of the same name. During a period of convalescence from his chronic health problems, he invented the idea of the waterbed. The first man to build and market them sent him one - which he never assembled.

The acronym he coined in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress TANSTAAFL ("There ain't no such thing as a free lunch") has been used in libertarian circles as a summation of the essence of free market economics.

But Heinlein makes even libertarians uncomfortable, because though passionately committed to freedom, he was equally committed to the ideal of duty. They should look again. "Never confuse duty with anything you owe anyone else. Duty is something you owe only to yourself."

I reformulated this as a guide for my own conduct: "Duty is the price you must pay for the privilege of thinking of yourself as the kind of person you wish to be" i.e. if you wish to think of yourself as brave, you must act with courage when the occasion demands.

Heinlein makes doctrinaire feminists uncomfortable - this in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that every one of his female characters without exception is strong-willed, intelligent, competent and courageous.

My brother once mentioned to me that a female friend of his loathes Heinlein. "Why?" I asked. "She said something about how he shows women who like to have babies." Oh whatever will this poor old world be FORCED to endure next!

Heinlein is the man who defined love: "Love is when another's happiness is essential to your own" and a short elaboration, "Love is what goes on when you're not horney."

Has love every been so succinctly defined in any language?

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein tossed off in one paragraph the only original constitutional idea since, well perhaps since the Constitution. The idea (which I call Petition Proportional Representation) was that almost everybody could have the representative of his choice if, instead of a winner-take-all election in a geographic area, a candidate would gather petition signatures until a he/she gathered a certain minimum x. One x signatures got you a seat and one vote in the representative body. Two x got you a seat and two votes, etc.

I will confess that my favorite Heinlein novels are still the juveniles he wrote under contract for Scribner's, plus Starship Troopers, which they rejected. Citizen of the Galaxy still moves me to tears at the end, "To be willing to live a slave, or to die, that freedom might live."

His later works were more experimental and seem to miss as much as they hit. However, I'm willing to entertain the notion that Heinlien was ahead of his time and we just haven't gotten it yet.

Heinlein's effect on our culture is something that social scientists will be trying to evaluate for centuries to come - once they get that a popular writer of genre fiction had a greater effect than probably any academic of this century. I read him and my children will - and perhaps theirs as well.

* Spider Robinson's essay 'Rah, rah RAH' is the best point-by-point "defense of a man who doesn't need it".

** Those offended by Heinlein's notion that the privilege of voting should be restricted to those who accept some responsibility for supporting and defending society (via military service among other ways) have never to my knowledge, realized that this was institutionalized in some of the states at the beginning of our history. Voting qualifications included paying taxes on a freehold of a certain value - or by being registered for the militia.

Nor do critics ever seem to note that Federal Service in Starship Troopers was completely voluntary and a soldier could resign at any time up to the start of a battle.


  • At 2:44 PM, Blogger Galt-In-Da-Box said…

    Sadly, I've yet to read any of his works, though I did see The Day After Tomorrow and Starship Troopers...The books would almost certainly HAVE to be better.
    As to the idea of everyone having to assume some responsibility as a requirement to vote, I say AMEN! We should take the vote away from the so-called "poor" looters and moochers, and if someone wants to be a ward of the state like that, granted - provided they are prepared to waive their Constitutional rights, and be only "residents", not citizens.
    A citizen is someone who has ability and is productive. A resident just takes up space!

  • At 3:00 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    'The Day After Tomorrrow' is not related to the Heinlein book of the same title.

    For a very good essay on why the movie version of 'Starship Troopers' sucks rocks, see


    That damned director took every lying canard about the book and attempted to prove them in the movie.

  • At 10:33 AM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    I think Farmer in the Sky is my favorite novel of his but Starship Troopers has had the most impact on my life. I grew up as a hippy wanna-be in the late 70's/early 80's, totally digging John Lennon and Woodstock (still love the music) but it was Heinlein that showed me you have to work with society and not against it or away from it. 'Course. Lennon/McCartney hit on that in Revolution but I didn't get it back then, either.

    Anyways, after flailing around college for a year, not knowing what to do, I joined the military. Certainly not the best time in my life (Desert Storm) but it helped put things in perspective.

    Can't wait until my daughter's old enough for RAH.

  • At 7:17 PM, Blogger Scott Kohlhaas said…


    R.I.P. Robert Heinlein! Death to conscription!

    Would you be willing to spread the word about www.draftresistance.org? It's a site dedicated to shattering the myths surrounding the selective slavery system and building mass civil disobedience to stop the draft before it starts.

    Our banner on a website, printing and posting the anti-draft flyer or just telling friends would help.


    Scott Kohlhaas

    PS. When it comes to conscription, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!


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