Ignoring the Debt You Owe Heinlein

Over at Tor.com and SfSignal, there is some internetual (note useful new word!) discussion of Robert A. Heinlein and his legacy.

The ingratitude that hangs like a cloud of phosgene gas over the discussions I find as ugly and appalling as I do incomprehensible.

One writer opines, for example, that Heinlein was both a pro-feminist and a sexist pig. Me, because I harbor no illusions about what feminism truly stands for, I see no irony in that. I note that Hugh Hefner, pornographer, also was a pro-feminist and a sexist pig — this is the jarring combination is inevitable as long as modesty, femininity, chastity and fidelity are seen by feminists as enemies of equality for women rather than allies. Heinlein and Hefner perhaps sincerely believed in liberating women from the shackles of monogamy, and surely sincerely wish to liberate them all the way into a harem.

The topic is interesting. Nonetheless, the tone of ingratitude and supercilious condescension falling from the raised eyebrows and sneering lips of the leftward-leaning half of the commentators deters me from delving further into their conversation.

Heinlein was bold and defiant in insisting, for example, that the Jewish character would not be removed from ROCKET SHIP GALILEO. Here is a quote from one of his letters:

I have deliberately selected a boy of Scotch-English pioneer ancestry, a boy whose father is a German immigrant, and a boy who is American Jewish. Having selected this diverse background they are then developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds. You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm. The ancestry of the three boys is a “must” and the book is offered under those conditions. My interest was aroused in this book by the opportunity to show to kids what I conceive to be Americanism. The use of a diverse group . . . is part of my intent; it must not be changed. . . . I am as disinterested as a referee but I want to get over an object lesson in practical democracy.

This (1947) was when Heinlein had no books published, and he did not have the clout or stature to make such a demand. It was a matter of pure principle and he could have ruined his career by swimming against the tide of the times.

Such principle, such idealism, such pure guts in a profession as uncertain and underfunded as ours is not just rare, it is heroic.

The only other writer I happen to have noticed making such principled stands is Ursula K. LeGuin. There are others, to be sure — please let none be offended that I cannot at once bring them to mind, for the nature of such heroes, if they are honest, is that they do not draw attention to themselves.  I do not count Harlan Ellison being willing to go the wall for the “principle” of not removing the hyphen from mother-fucker, a word that graces his prose. Mere striking of poses is the opposite of taking a stand on principle.

Heinlein’s bravery kicked open doors otherwise nailed shut, and everyone in the SFF field owes him. Have you written, or have you read, a SF book with a Jewish hero, or a woman, a Black, or a homosexual? Heinlein was there first, and that book might have been aborted had he not blazed the trail, and made such defiance of the norms of the time seem normal.

Instead of paying the debt he owes to Heinlein’s bravery, one of these  jeering, gargoyle-souled commenters (I prefer not to do him the honor of mentioning his name) sneers at him and call Heinlein’s love of American melting-pot inclusiveness “creepy.”

The commenter further complains that there are no disabled people or gays enrolled at the military academy in the Heinlein juvenile SPACE CADET — even though there is a wheelchair bound vet in the opening scene of TROOPERS, where it is explicitly stated that cripples may enlist, despite any physical disqualifications; and even though practically the first gays portrayed sympathetically in SF was in Heinlein’s TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE.

The commenter then sniffs that Heinlein did not include girls at the military space academy. This, even thought Heinlein was the first — do you hear me? — the first SF writer who put females at the helms of spacewarships in his justly famous STARSHIP TROOPERS.

He then pouts that there are no Muslims in the Heinlein novel SPACE CADET, even though there is a Muslim character very sympathetically portrayed in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.

The complaint seems to be, not that Heinlein was not the most inclusive, most diverse, most politically correct advocate for bigotry-free cosmopolitan universality in all SF writing, but that he did not somehow cram all of his messages into one slim juvenile in 1947-48.

The difficulty, even the folly, of having homosexuals in military boarding school for boys, or the stupid  absurdity of including persons physically unable to perform the tasks military service required, seems not to touch the reality-proof brain of this particular commenter.

SPACE CADETS, for example, was published before the Korean War. A writer in that year (1948) would have had to spend the entire book justifying such a character, explaining at length before it would seem, to that generation, a reasonable science-fictional extrapolation.

There are even some honest folk of today who judge that the difficulties involved with integrating homosexuals or disabled in the military have not or perhaps can not be overcome. Heinlein was too good a writer to fall into the Leftist non-thought trap of supposing that merely because something should be done, it can be done, and at no cost, with no drawbacks.

Of course, in an SF book we can always imagine creepy sex-drive suppression drugs to prevent fraternization with the ranks of either sex. Likewise, incorporating cripples as pilots — perhaps quadriplegics wired as cyborgs into the ship’s control system would be an interesting if also creepy SF answer — but this also introduces difficulties in the plot and theme that would have to be answered in the plot and theme. But in either case, this would almost require an entirely different storyline and theme from SPACE CADET.

No offense, but the writer could not also stick a giant man-eating ten-eyestalked mind-reading dragonoid from planet Delgon into the midshipman class of that book as a minor character without changing what the book was about. (For those of you who forget, SPACE CADET took on the rather adult theme of how to keep the peace in an age of atomic weapons — a topic that some grown-ups, including grown-ups in Washington and Moscow, in those years had not yet faced.)

Some ideas, no matter how mindlessly loyal to the politically correct bullshit of the current fashion season, are bad storytelling ideas for a given story, especially a story written to last beyond the current fashion season.

I call it a “fashion season” because some of these ultra-new modern pieties, such as condescending concern for mascot Muslims, could not even have been imagined by the most progressive Progressive of 1948.

In 1948, the break up of the mighty Ottoman Empire was still within living memory. Thinking of Turks as oppressed would be like this generation called Russians oppressed. (Compare the time interval between 48 and 23 to the interval between now and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.) Pigeonholing the Muslims as an “oppressed minority” during years when Jim Crow was alive and well in the South, and the military was still segregating companies by race, and some real people were suffering real rather than imaginary injustices, when, in fact, there was not a single law in any jurisdiction in America denying any Islamic any Civil Right routinely being denied Blacks, and when the KKK were killing more Catholics than they were Islamics — such nonsense would have been somewhat off the mark, and unhelpful if not counterproductive to the Progressive Cause.  (Not to those that have a Cause rather than follow a series of Fads, that is.)

The ingratitude of such retrograde Progressives toward their boldest, best champion (at least, the boldest, best champion in the wee SFF corner of the globe) sickens me: I cannot stomach it.  I cannot read it. I have unwisely vaunted of my stoicism and Vulcan dispassion in times past: well, it has failed me here. A palpable nausea overcomes me when my eye falls on such words.

So, rather than make any further contribution to or detraction  from that conversation, or paying it any further mind at all, allow me to repeat an article I wrote some years ago on this same topic, the ingratitude toward Heinlein — still timely, as nothing (apparently) has improved since then.  If anything, it has gotten worse.

(It is a topic I touched on briefly in my recent comments here.)

Article below.


This is from a wikipedia article on Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which I here quote at length:

To modern readers, some statements in the book may seem to convey a sense of misogyny or homophobia. For example:

…[Jill] had explained homosexuality, after Mike had read about it and failed to grok — and had given him rules for avoiding passes; she knew that Mike, pretty as he was, would attract such. He had followed her advice and had made his face more masculine, instead of the androgynous beauty he had had. But Jill was not sure that Mike would refuse a pass, say, from Duke — fortunately Mike’s male water brothers were decidedly masculine, just as his others were very female women. Jill suspected that Mike would grok a ‘wrongness’ in the poor in-betweeners anyhow — they would never be offered water.

Another passage concerns the mail that the man from Mars receives:

After looking over a bushel or so of Mike’s first class mail Jubal set up a list of categories: … G. Proposals of marriage and propositions not quite so formal … Jill brought a letter, category “G,” to Jubal. More than half of the ladies and other females (plus misguided males) who supplied this category included pictures alleged to be of themselves; some left little to the imagination, as did the letters themselves in many cases. This letter [from a woman] enclosed a picture which managed not only to leave nothing to the imagination, but started over by stimulating fresh imaginings.

One critic writes:

These days the “heresy” is centered more on the characters’ provincial attitudes towards gay men (“poor in-betweeners” whose “wrongness” denies them water-kinship) and all women (“Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her own fault,” Jill says to Michael, when instructing him not to defend her too strenuously against such an assault). (Tasha Robinson, “Humanity, through a glass brightly”)

However, these passages both deal with the prudish character Jill, who is used as a dramatic foil for Mike and Jubal’s less parochial views. A major thread of the story is Smith’s gradual persuasion of Jill to grow beyond her inhibitions, embrace her previously suppressed exhibitionistic nature, and learn to understand other people’s sexuality (e.g., Duke’s interest in pornography). The passage about the letter deals with Jill’s inclination to shield Mike from it, and she is overruled by the wiser Jubal (additionally, the “misguided males” could be misguided only in that they are unaware that Mike is strictly heterosexual). The quote concerning “wrongness” in the “poor in-betweeners” likewise portrays the unenlightened character Jill’s speculation about what Mike would think of homosexuality, not Mike’s actual attitudes.

On the other hand, just because some of these negative views of homosexuality occur in the thoughts and words of the characters, rather than coming from the authorial voice, that doesn’t mean that they were not intended to express Heinlein’s views. As Brooks Peck put it, “Heinlein loved to pontificate through the mouths of his characters,” and Jubal is clearly often acting as a mouthpiece for Heinlein’s own views. Also, the remark about “misguided males” is part of the book’s exposition, not its dialogue or the representation of a character’s thoughts.

Later chapters in the novel, depicting the workings of the Church of All Worlds, in fact have a number of references, some more obvious than others, that the sexual bonding that occurs between water-brothers is not limited to male/female. Ben, who has become a water brother but who has not received the training that normal church members receive, comments at one point that two men are kissing, but nothing about the act seems out of place or unmasculine. By the novel’s end, it seems to promote a kind of general bisexuality, implying that sexual bonding can occur between any water-brothers, regardless of gender. This is, however, not directly stated so much as implied, and other interpretations are possible.

End of Quote. My comments follow:

It is safe to assume that this passage was not written by someone on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

The mere fact that “modern readers” might find Heinlein “misogynistic or homophobic” is a sufficient clue that we are dealing with a Leftist archly dropping the hint that Heinlein has committed thoughtcrime. “Modern readers” is a code word for Leftist, who congratulate themselves on being the vanguard and inheritors of the future; “misogyny” means not being a politically correct feminist; “homophobia” (a technical term meaning a psychopathological fear of being alone) is here used to mean not being a politically correct pervertarian.

The problem is, of course, that Heinlein is a pervertarian: the greatest and clearest voice for sexual liberation, for the trashheaping of all sexual mores, comes from Heinlein, and, specifically, from this very book: a satire where a man from Mars shows how all human social conventions concerning sexuality and religion are bogus and uproariously absurd.

But Heinlein’s unambiguous support for libertarian, libertine, and sexual liberation in all its forms, is insufficient for the thought police of the modern age. The book is clearly and explicitly pro-fornication and pro-pornography. It is filled with hostility and mockery toward marriage, fidelity, or other norms of sexual behavior.

The book strongly hints at being pro-homosexual: there being a scene where Ben Caxton is sternly criticized for fleeing from the naked man trying to kiss him. The gentle tone with which the author discusses homosexuality, calling it a ‘wrongness’, but otherwise passing over it as if it were merely a mildly risible personality quirk, was about as strong and clear a pro-pervertarian message as could be managed or imagined in the time when the book was written. Remember that STRANGERS was penned before the Viet Nam war.

This book, indeed, was one of the great victories of the Culture Wars, bringing the norms and values (such as they are) of the counterculture to the forefront of American popular ideas. This book therefore should be reverenced by the sexual liberators, counterculturalists, and pervertarians everywhere: it is their Gospel, their clearest and strongest enunciation of their credo.

Good Lord, even cannibalism is praised in this book. Objections to feasting on human flesh are dismissed as neanderthal. One cannot imagine a more clearly antinomian tract. It is perfect in its opposition to all traditions of decency and norms of civilized behavior.

Instead this Gospel of the Left is condemned. By the Left.

This is a sad commentary on the Left, but it is not unexpected. Radicals are always replaced by radicals even more extreme, and the new radical condemns the old radical as reactionary.

Leftists are not known for their sense of gratitude.

The Leftist is in the unenviable posture of being in continuous rebellion against all authority figures, father figures, and establishments. The Left exist in an eternal “now” like an infant, and know nothing of history. It is always Year Zero to them.

This means that any victories, where their own philosophy becomes part of the establishment, are welcomed only with condemnation. A Leftist cannot make a mark on history, or establish a legacy, or begin a movement: because the next generation of Leftists will treat him with the same contempt and disdain he treated the generation before. Heinlein’s radical libertarianism in sexual matters, since it was not sufficiently explicit in its adoration of the perversion of homosexuality, is now condemned as a psychopathology; a ‘wrongness.’

The philosophy of eternal rebellion cannot be passed from generation to generation: it is self-defeating. Only a philosophy that teaches respect for prior generations can expect to be passed to the next.