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A Handle On Heinlein

Robert Heinlein was a very H. G. Wells kind of writer. The parallels are all too obvious.

The early books of both Wells and Heinlein took the world by storm. The critics heaped praise upon them both, and their books sold like wildfire. But success went to their heads and both writers gradually forgot that they were first and foremost story tellers. Now they felt that they had important things to tell the world; they felt that they were teachers and philosophers and so their books became more and more preachy. Critics judged them more and more harshly and their loyal readership began to disintegrate.

The ideas that Wells and Heinlein harangued their audience with became progressively more weird as they grew older, and more stubbornly convinced of their guru-like destiny. As the old joke has it, they sold their birthright for a pot of message and many of their later novels were quite unreadable as a result. The critics scorned them and their fans deserted them in droves. They never quite lost their magic touch – there were always nuggets of gold hiding in among the dross. But the dross was heaped higher and higher, and the gold became harder to find. When they died there was great sorrow at their passing, but everyone agreed that their day was long gone and they were no longer the influential figures that once they had been.

Heinlein, Wells – only the names change to protect the innocent. Everything else remains exactly the same.

So let's take a look at Heinlein the person and also Heinlein the writer. Let's see how the one might have influenced the other...

As a young man, Heinlein attended a military academy and then took up a position as an officer in the US Navy. Academically he came fifth in his class, but several serious disciplinary infractions caused the powers that be to demote him and officially he passed out twentieth in his year. Even in his early life, the only rules that Robert Heinlein respected were his own rules – where they were in conflict with society's rules, society's rules always took second place.

His time in the navy was short and undistinguished. He contracted tuberculosis and was honourably discharged from the service. He never served directly in the military again, but he always seemed to look back on his own military career through rose coloured glasses and it was a theme that he examined closely in many of his books. The duty and responsibility of service was something that he felt very strongly about.

After leaving the navy, he bummed around for a while trying this job and that one, but nothing really worked out for him. He fell into writing almost by accident. Thrilling Wonder Stories announced a policy of encouraging new and previously unpublished writers to submit stories to them. Heinlein wrote a short story called Life Line. Once he'd finished it, he decided that it was far too good for a second rate market like Thrilling Wonder Stories and so he submitted it to John Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction. At the time, Astounding was the premier SF magazine and Campbell was the number one editor, revered and feared throughout the SF world. Heinlein really was starting at the top. Luckily Campbell agreed with Heinlein's own assessment of his story and he bought it. From that point on, Heinlein never looked back. Two years later he'd paid off his mortgage. After that everything was pure profit.

When the second world war broke out, Heinlein re-applied for military service. But his health was too precarious and he was rejected. However he did manage to wangle himself a job at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia. Exactly what he did there is unclear and much of it was top secret.

He worked there with two other SF writers: Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Several anecdotes about their time in Philadelphia have emerged. Heinlein was extremely patriotic and would permit no criticism at all of the American war effort. This extreme attitude applied even to the food in the canteen. Heinlein refused to admit that anything prepared for the noble war workers could possibly be inedible. When Asimov moaned about the cardboard potatoes, wilted lettuce and middle-aged roast beef, Heinlein got angry and insisted that from now on whenever anyone complained about the food they would have to contribute a nickel to a kitty. When they had enough money in the kitty, they'd use it to buy a war bond. Asimov objected to this and suggested to Heinlein that if he could find a way to complain that wasn't really complaining, would Heinlein call it off? Heinlein agreed.

Once Asimov was sawing away at a slab of haddock.

"Is there such a thing as tough fish?" he asked innocently.

"That will be 5 cents, Isaac," said Heinlein.

"It's only a point of information, Bob!"

"5 cents Isaac. The implication is clear."

Since Heinlein was judge, jury and executioner, Asimov had to pay up.

Then one day someone new joined the table. He took one mouthful and then said, "Boy – this food is awful!"

Immediately Asimov rose to his feet, lifted one arm dramatically and said: "Gentlemen, I disagree with every word my friend here has said, but I will defend with my life his right to say it."

And the game stopped.

Heinlein's extreme patriotism and his 'my country right or wrong' attitude made him a lot of enemies. Even Isaac Asimov, by all accounts a very easy going person, found Heinlein hard to get on with. In his autobiography I. Asimov he had this to say:

[Heinlein] had a definite feeling that he knew better and to lecture you into agreeing with him. Campbell did this too, but Campbell always remained serenely indifferent if you ended up disagreeing with him whereas Heinlein would, under those circumstances, grow hostile.

I do not take well to people who are convinced they know better than I do, and who badger me for that reason, so I began to avoid him.

Furthermore, although a flaming liberal during the war, Heinlein became a rock-ribbed far right conservative immediately afterward. This happened at just the time that he changed wives from a liberal woman, Leslyn, to a rock-ribbed far right conservative woman, Virginia.

Asimov found it odd that Heinlein's political opinions seemed to have been so strongly influenced by his wives. He had no explanation for it, but since Heinlein's personality was so abrasive and his politics were so diametrically opposed to Asimov's own, they could never be close friends, and once the war was over they tended to keep out of each other's way.

Heinlein maintained this super-patriotic, hard line attitude throughout his life. It coloured his fiction, which consistently preached that point of view. It alienated many people. Isaac Asimov was not the only SF writer to feel Heinlein's wrath.

In 1984, Arthur C. Clarke spoke at a meeting convened to discuss Ronald Reagan's strategic defence initiative, the so-called Star Wars plan. Clarke was rather scathing about it. Heinlein just blew up, screaming that Clarke had no moral right to be critical of the defence of the United States. It was a matter of national sovereignty and Clarke wasn't a citizen, so he could not criticize something in which he had no stake. He accused Clarke of  "...typically British arrogance."

I've always been rather glad that I never met Robert Heinlein. I'm sure I would have disliked him intensely. I think it says a lot about his skills as a writer that I can love so many of his books so much while at the same time despising the man who wrote them.

As far as his writing goes, I like to divide Heinlein's career into three very distinct classes. His juvenile novels, his good adult novels, and his bad adult novels.

During the 1950s Heinlein produced a series of novels specifically designed to be read by teenagers. These days we'd call them young adult novels, but that term hadn't been invented when Heinlein was writing.

Very few of these novels were published in England during my teenage years. Indeed very little Heinlein was available to me at all when I was growing up – half a dozen or so of his adult novels and a sprinkling of his juveniles and that was that. And then suddenly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Heinlein was sprawled everywhere over the bookshop and library shelves. Presumably his American publishers had finally negotiated a satisfactory deal with his British publishers. So I first read Heinlein's juveniles when I was in my early twenties; quite the wrong age, of course. Nevertheless I absolutely devoured them – they are exciting adventure stories, full of interesting characters, thrilling events and a never ending sense of wonder at the glories of the universe. I found them irresistible.

One book which made a particularly big impression on me was Space Cadet. It's all about the training and eventual deployment of a class of cadets in the space force. At one point, the cadets are given an orbital calculation to solve. Not only does Heinlein state the problem, he also states the answer. As it happened, I was studying such problems in my physics classes at university, so I sat down to see if I got the same result that Heinlein did. It proved to be a much more hairy problem than my somewhat superficial reading of it had suggested. But after wading my way through several pages of tight mathematical reasoning, I eventually arrived at the answer. Guess what? Heinlein got it right! I found this very impressive – he must have ploughed his way through the same complex mathematics that I had just gone through; there is no way he could have simply guessed the answer. It was obvious to me that if he was prepared to put in this amount of background work just for the sake of a couple of sentences in the book, he must have taken the writing of these novels very seriously indeed.

There's a constant theme to all his juvenile novels. Space travel is the accepted norm and colonising other planets is a very important concern. And for once we know that these really are Heinlein's own opinions. He said so, loud and long whenever anyone asked him about it. And nobody was more excited than Heinlein was on the day that man first landed on the moon.

Heinlein's juvenile novels inspired many of today's high flying scientists and engineers. He made science and engineering sound so romantic, so much fun that most of us couldn't wait to get out our slide rules and start building things. I re-read all of his juvenile novels when I was preparing this article and they excited and inspired me all over again. They haven't lost their magic with the years, and there are very few things that you can say that about. If Heinlein is going to be remembered for anything, it will be these books.

The last of his juvenile novels was called Starship Troopers.

Rather to his surprise, the publishers rejected it. He resubmitted it to the publishers of his adult novels and they fell upon it with great cries of glee. It is unclear whether he re-wrote it for adult publication or whether the adult novel is just as he submitted it to his juvenile publishers. But either way, the book is a tour de force. It was enormously controversial, and even today it continues to excite great passions.

It was the first of his overly didactic novels; the first book where he stopped the story in its tracks every so often and just sat back and lectured the reader.

It actually tells quite a simple story – it details the training of a soldier of the future and his participation in a future war. It begins with a skirmish. The infantrymen are dropped from a starship onto a planet where they engage the enemy. We see the incident through the eyes of Rico, one of the grunts. Then we flash back to pick up Rico on the day that he enrolled in the military. The next few chapters take him through basic training with all the usual clichés of the tough sergeant, the rigorous training, and the tale of how the hero makes a mess of things and gets straightened out. Interspersed with this are reminiscences of Rico's high school class in History and Moral Philosophy. Rico's teacher is Colonel Dubois, and his lectures appear to be the major reason that the novel exists at all. Heinlein uses the History and Moral Philosophy classes to expound upon his ideas of how society works. He presents us with a recipe for what we can only presume is his own ideal society and way of life.

After finishing his basic training, Rico becomes a professional soldier. This is where the skirmish that opened the book fits in. As he gains experience, he realises that he wants to advance his career as an officer and so he applies to officer training school. Again, we follow him through his training and on to combat.

Heinlein presents Rico's career as simple death and glory. All the nasty things about war are avoided. There is no dirt, disease, or confusion. Our side is good, their side is bad. It's all black and white. He seems to hero worship the military and puts it by definition beyond criticism. At one point in the novel he says:

        A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member,
        defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.

In the society of Heinlein's novel, only ex-servicemen have the right to vote and hold office, and they are also the only ones who are allowed to teach History and Moral Philosophy. Only ex-servicemen truly understand how society works. To be fair, Heinlein makes it clear that being in the military is not the only service through which citizens can make a contribution to society. There are many other routes leading to the right to vote and hold office. It just so happens that this novel is about the military and there is a very strong implication that the military is by far the most glorious branch in which to serve. Anything else is second best.

Heinlein defines the society, its morals and its values as inarguably correct. He tells us that it is the natural outcome of a scientifically verifiable theory of morals. This allows him to churn out "right" answers without having to defend them against other viewpoints and other possibilities. Unfortunately, that comes across, to me at least, as the philosophical equivalent of that mysterious element called handwavium with which many SF authors power their faster than light space ships.

As an example, Colonel Dubois states as a given that value is not an absolute. According to Colonel Dubois, value is relative to your perception of it in terms of its cost and usefulness to you and, as a side effect, to society as a whole. Thus if you value freedom highly you must be willing to give your life for it. If you aren't willing to give your life for it then you don't value it highly enough.

Down through the ages, many other thinkers from Plato to Karl Marx, have held that value is an absolute. But Heinlein, in the persona of Colonel Dubois, can dismiss them out of hand. The scientifically verifiable theory of morals tells him that he is right. No argument is possible; no argument is allowed.

This is why the book is so extraordinarily annoying. Every time I read it I want to argue with Colonel Dubois. But I can't, and it frustrates the hell out of me.

The idealistic military life that Heinlein paints makes me suspect that the book probably wasn't tinkered with much, if at all, when he resubmitted it for publication as an adult novel. It deliberately appeals to the gung ho patriotic glory that lurks inside every child before the simple act of growing up starts to force you to look beneath the surface a little.

For example, Rico flies into battle in a ship called the Rodger Young. It turns out that Rodger Young was a real person, an infantryman who died, gloriously of course, on the island of New Georgia in the Solomons while single handedly attacking and destroying an enemy machine gun emplacement that had his unit pinned down. His bold, gallant and to my mind quite stupid action in the face of overwhelming odds enabled his companions to escape without loss. He was awarded the Medal Of Honour, posthumously of course. I'm sure he found it a great comfort.

Somebody wrote a heart-string-tugging song about Rodger Young, and to Rico that song is the sweetest sound in all the world, for it is broadcast from his ship when it comes to pick him up and take him away from the battle...

Excuse me while I vomit.

Starship Troopers won a Hugo, and it was richly deserved. Much though I loathe the ideas upon which the book is based, every time I read it I am carried away by the magic spell that Heinlein casts. He truly does make you believe in the whole house of cards. Even the lectures in History and Moral Philosophy are interesting. There was a time in his life when Heinlein simply couldn't write a boring sentence. The book grabs hold of you and it won't let go, damnit.

During most of the 1950s Heinlein tinkered with something he referred to as his Mowgli novel. In The Jungle Books Rudyard Kipling had introduced a young boy called Mowgli who had been brought up by wolves. Mowgli saw no other human beings until his adolescence. Consequently he tended to regard human society as being rather odd in comparison to the vulpine society with which he had grown up. Kipling had a lot of fun using Mowgli as a mouthpiece for social commentary. Now Heinlein wanted a go at it as well. The novel went through a lot of drafts and false starts but it was finally published in 1961 with the title Stranger In A Strange Land.

Heinlein's hero, Valentine Michael Smith, was brought up by Martians, and he has a peculiarly Martian view of the way the universe works. Heinlein uses him to talk about the three things you should never discuss at a polite dinner party: politics, religion and sex. He shows, quite convincingly, just how ridiculous all three of them are and he has a lot of fun poking them with a stick to see just where they fall apart.

Many people regard Stranger In A Strange Land as Heinlein's magnum opus. Certainly it is one of his more controversial books for he pulls no punches. A lot of people dislike it intensely, claiming that it has far too much message and not enough story. People have called it obscene and blasphemous, ugly, crazy and dangerous. I can sympathise with all those points of view, but nevertheless it remains one of my favourite Heinlein novels.

Heinlein's original manuscript ran to some 220,000 words and it was far too big to publish. Rather than have some dumb copy editor hack it about, Heinlein elected to cut and edit it himself and he trimmed about 60,000 words from it. Even after he edited it down to a publishable length, it was still an enormously long novel by the standards of 1961, but they went ahead and published it anyway. On its thirtieth anniversary, Heinlein's original uncut manuscript was published and both versions appear to have been in print, side by side, ever since.

A comparison of the two versions reveals that Heinlein cut nothing major out of the book. All the characters and incidents remain unchanged. He reduced the book to publishable length by going through it almost word for word and simply tightening what was sometimes very loose prose.

For example, his original opening went like this:

Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian

named Smith.

Valentine Michael Smith was as real as taxes but he was a race of one.

In the published novel this became:

Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.

I much prefer the 1961 version. Heinlein's original, uncut manuscript is loose and floppy and self indulgent. The 1961 version of Stranger In A Strange Land is lean and mean and tight. When Heinlein was paying attention and keeping his verbosity in check, he could write diamond hard prose that really hit home. But as the 1991 version proved, his first drafts were often a sloppy mess.

Curiously, Stranger In A Strange Land doesn't use Valentine Michael Smith as a Mowgli figure directly. Smith begins with no preconceptions about Earth society. He has an open mind and an open heart and he is eager to learn all about this strange land in which he finds himself a stranger. He wants to understand all its ramifications with all his senses. In short he needs to grok it.

It says a lot for the impact that Heinlein's novel had that his little neologism grok quickly entered the language. Even today you will hear it used quite a lot; it's such a useful word.

The character in the novel who comments most upon the society in which Smith finds himself is Jubal Harshaw, a crusty old man with radical ideas who adopts Smith and explains Earth society to him. Most Heinlein novels have such a figure in them; a guru who knows how things work and who takes on the role of teacher and mentor. Starship Troopers had Colonel Dubois, Stranger In A Strange Land has Jubal Harshaw. Their equivalents pop up at some point in almost everything that Heinlein wrote. Some critics assume that this character is a stand-in for Heinlein himself and I suppose to a certain extent that's probably true, since they lecture and pontificate and dot the universal i's and cross the universal t's. But if Heinlein actually espoused every point of view presented by every one of these mentor figures in all of his novels, then he really must have believed many more than six impossible things before every breakfast, for they are not always consistent in their views. On the other hand, I doubt if Heinlein was always consistent in his views either.

Eventually Stranger In A Strange Land manages to combine sex, politics and religion into a single big religious idea. Valentine Michael Smith inspires a new religion of which he himself is the Messiah. This religion contains aspects that are guaranteed to shock the proponents of every currently existing theology; and much of the controversy surrounding the novel stems directly from what many people perceive to be blasphemy. Heinlein has done his homework well. He has dug deeply into the philosophy and metaphysics of every major religion, and the conclusions he has arrived at really can be quite shocking if you are that way inclined. Valentine Michael Smith has something for everyone as well as something that everyone will hate.

There is no single God. Instead Smith states that: "Thou art God." and if you are able to grok that sentence then you really are God regardless of whether you agree with the sentence or not! Every rational being is God, and that is all the God there is. And since, by definition, God cannot die, survival after death is guaranteed by the system.

Consequently, since there is no such thing as real death, murder cannot possibly be a crime and Smith and his followers show no hesitation in killing (or in their terms, "discorporating") anyone who gets in their way. But isn't that what the followers of all fanatical religions do?

Furthermore, Smith (and therefore, presumably Heinlein) has absolutely no use at all for conventional morality. Every possible experience must be grokked to the fullest extent, that's axiomatic. Under this rubric, of course, absolutely nothing can be forbidden. And so there is a huge emphasis on promiscuity, communal mating, orgies and voyeurism. Who said religion couldn't be fun? Heinlein defends all this with enormous wit and cleverness and some of his lectures on this topic are almost laugh out loud funny.

Of course you can't practice a religion like this without having the authorities on your side. You don't want them to close you down. That's where the politics comes in. And again, Heinlein goes out of his way to be cynical, shocking and controversial. Unfortunately real life has caught up with him a little bit here – in 1961 nobody would ever have believed that a President of America would be dumb enough to set governmental policy on the basis of advice from a personal psychic and soothsayer, as happens to shocking effect in the book. But in 1961, Ronald Reagan hadn't been elected yet. Things like that take some of the sting out of the tail of this novel.

And so the story goes its merry way. Sex, drugs and perhaps even rock and roll. Everything is grist to the Martian mill and Valentine Michael Smith turns everything that conventional society believes to be true into a lie. Not only that, he makes everything that conventional society hates seem to be attractive and enlightening. But isn't that what social commentators have tried to do ever since Ug the caveman carved the first graffito on the first rock?

Stranger In A Strange Land won a Hugo award, upset absolutely everybody, has never been out of print, and more than forty years later, people are still reading it and arguing about it. If that doesn't make it a major novel I don't know what does. To my mind it stands head and shoulders above everything else he wrote.

Most of Heinlein's work was written for adult readers. Some novels were based around stories that he'd published in Astounding and some were original work. Many novels and short stories were set in a consistent future whose major events he had mapped out in a quite detailed timeline. The timeline itself was published in the short story collection The Man Who Sold The Moon (in England, anyway). Most of the short stories that made up the future history were published in America in a massive collection called The Past Through Tomorrow, and the timeline was published there as well.

But he didn't restrict himself just to that single future. His first adult novel, Universe was a fix up of a couple of novellas about a generation ship sent off to colonise a planet of a nearby star. Again, Heinlein was promoting his belief that sending colonies to other planets was the only way to guarantee the survival of the race.

As with the juvenile novels, there seemed to be some sort of hiccup with his British publishers, and for many years there were only a small number of his books available in England. Despite the fact that they were ostensibly for adults, as a young teenager I read and enjoyed The Puppet Masters, and The Door Into Summer, and that was just about it for a long time. Nevertheless, those two books (which were probably the first Heinlein novels I ever read) turned me into a raving fan and I read and re-read them endlessly.

The Puppet Masters is quite a simple "aliens invade the earth" story. But this time the alien slugs attach themselves to human hosts and take over their nervous systems, completely possessing the unfortunate person and turning them into soulless zombies. It's a terrifying story, brilliantly told. In one of its nastier touches, the first person narrator is taken over by an alien at one point and so we get a chilling inside view as to what it is like to be completely taken over by an outside mind, to lose all free will, to just scream silently inside as your alien master uses you for its own mysterious purposes.

Looked at logically, the story makes no sense. For example, the people under the control of the slugs don't bathe, shave, eat drink, pee or poo unless the aliens let them, and mostly the aliens don't let them. So the aliens just ride their hosts until the hosts die and then they take over another one. This seems self-defeating. Surely you would expect the slugs to pamper their hosts in the same way that we pamper the farm animals that we live off. However dramatically it makes perfect sense – anything that increases our disgust at the alien invasion ramps up the tension and increases our sympathy for the poor beleaguered humans who are fighting a losing battle.

Eventually Heinlein comes up with a particularly Wellsian solution to the problem. The slugs turn out to be susceptible to a virus and the novel ends with the humans triumphant and about to blast off into space to take the battle to the slugs' home world.

Some critics have tried to argue that the slugs are meant as metaphors for communism and the soulless zombies into which people are turned show the ultimate effect of living under the communist tyranny. Certainly America at the time was deep in the throes of its 'reds under the bed' paranoia and there is no doubt that Heinlein hated communism as much as the next right wing, red-blooded patriotic American. But I think this is taking literary criticism a bit too far; the analogy is far too strained and it falls apart. There is no doubt that Heinlein did put political messages in some of his fiction; but not, I think, in this one. It's just a rattling good yarn.

My very favourite Heinlein novel from this period was The Door Into Summer. I read this one so many times I think I read the ink off the pages.

The hero, Daniel Boone Davis, is a freelance engineer who has made his fortune out of automating household gadgets. However he is a political and financial naif. He refuses to release his latest machine until he's got all the bugs out of it. But his partner and his secretary (who are having an affair behind his back) want the money immediately, and they conspire to ease him out of control. Davis goes on a drunken binge and, on a whim, decides to take Cold Sleep; a suspended animation treatment. He will sleep away thirty years and get his revenge on his partner and his secretary by still being young when they are old and dying. When he sobers up, he changes his mind, but his secretary and his partner believe that he knows too much and he is too dangerous to them and so they force him to take the Cold Sleep anyway.

Davis wakes up in the year 2000. He quickly settles in and starts making money but historical records suggest that he actually accomplished more in 1970 that he remembers doing. A chap turns up with a proper time machine and Davis uses it to go back in time to 1970 where he can attempt to straighten things out.

After that things get complicated – I suggest you read it yourself. It's as brilliantly plotted a story as anything Heinlein ever wrote. If I had to choose a single Heinlein novel to introduce someone to his work, I think it would be this one.

Suddenly one day Heinlein's novels were everywhere I looked, spread all over the English bookshop shelves. So many books to read! Eventually I reached what I thought was his latest novel; The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It's a thinly disguised re-telling of the American revolution, but set on the moon as it tries to secede from Earth. A wonderful story, brilliantly told.

Then I heard that there was a new book due any day now. I ordered it from the library because it was so new it was only available in hardback. The paperback wouldn't be in the shops for at least another year, and that was too far away. I'd probably rupture something vital if I had to wait that long to read I Will Fear No Evil.

I was hugely disappointed when I read it. It is diabolically bad.

I discovered later that the published book was an unrevised first draft. Heinlein had completed the manuscript, but had been rushed to hospital with a perforated diverticulum. He'd ignored the pain for several days and peritonitis had set in. He was seriously ill; indeed he almost died. He simply was not physically capable of revising the manuscript and so it was published as is.

Despite the fact that it was universally loathed by the critics and most of the fans, it still sold in enormous numbers. The name Robert Heinlein on the cover of a book seemed to be simply a licence to print money.

And from that point on, I don't think Heinlein ever bothered to revise another word. Why should he? He had objective evidence that there was no need to do it. And so the rot set in and there were no more good books; there were only books that had good bits in them.

The next novel was Time Enough For Love. It was really a collection of novellas and short stories. Some of them were very good indeed, but nevertheless there was sufficient flabbiness to the writing that the overall impression was a poor one.

Then Heinlein had a stroke. In his own words, he was becoming "...dull, normal, slipping towards 'human vegetable', sleeping 16 hours a day and barely functional for the rest." An angiogram revealed that he had a blocked artery which was restricting the blood supply to his brain. He had a carotid bypass operation to clear the blockage and restore the blood flow. Now that he could write again, he started work on The Number Of The Beast, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst, most self indulgent thing he ever wrote. It sold in its millions.

One of the things you could always depend on Heinlein for was a tightly knitted plot, but in The Number Of The Beast the plot (such as it was) unravelled underneath him and simply never ravelled up again.

Subsequent novels never quite sunk to the depths of The Number Of The Beast but they were only intermittently interesting. They became more and more didactic and more and more obsessed with Heinlein's own peculiar ideas about sex, religion and politics. It was almost as if he was trying to recast the material he had explored so exhaustively and so successfully in Stranger In A Strange Land. Unfortunately, by expressing his ideas explicitly instead of wrapping them in satirical intent, they lost a lot of their intellectual rigour and started to seem extremely odd, and sometimes more than a little pathetic.

In his last novel, To Sail Beyond The Sunset, Lazarus Long, the hero and Heinlein's alter ego through a number of novels, gets to travel back through time and sleep with his mother (who, it appears, may also be his daughter). Somehow that seemed like a fitting end to his writing career.

As usual, the critics hated To Sail Beyond The Sunset and even many of Heinlein's fans found it a bit sick. Personally, I rather enjoyed it. I've read it a couple of times and I suspect I might well read it again one day, which is more than I can say for any of the other novels from his later life. The plot is nice and tight – Heinlein was always good at plotting time travel stories, he hated to vanish up his own paradox – and the exposition is slightly less overt than usual. Perhaps the two are not unrelated.

After he died, there were no great unpublished novels hidden in his filing cabinets. A few posthumous publications surfaced, but they were minor works.

Grumbles From The Grave was a selection of Heinlein's letters; Tramp Royale was a previously unpublished account of a world tour that Heinlein and his wife had taken in the 1950s, For Us The Living was Heinlein's very first novel, previously unpublished because it was so amateurishly constructed. Interestingly, a lot of the material from this book turned up, heavily revised, in many of Heinlein's later works, which gives it a certain historical curiosity value. But it's a very dull novel. Take Back Your Government is a political handbook dissecting the ins and outs of running a participatory democracy; and yes, it's just as boring as it sounds. Variable Star is a novel that Spider Robinson completed from notes that Heinlein had left. He did quite a good job, but it is ersatz Heinlein at best.

For almost thirty years, Robert Heinlein was the most popular and most influential science fiction writer in the world. Many of the novels and stories he wrote can still be read with pleasure and excitement today – something which is definitely not true of a lot of his contemporaries. I think it is a great shame that the weaker novels of his later years have cast a retrospective shadow over his reputation. He deserves better than that.

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