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Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein

Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907May 8, 1988) was one of the most influential authors in the science fiction genre. He developed new themes, new techniques and approaches. He became the first science fiction writer to break into major general magazines in the late 1940s with true, undisguised science fiction, and the first bestselling novel-length science fiction in the 1960s. The major themes of his work were social: radical individualism, libertarianism, religion, the relationship between physical and emotional love, and speculation about unorthodox social and family relationships.



Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, but spent his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri. The outlook and values of this time and place would influence his later works; however, he would also break with many of its values and social mores, both in his writing and in his personal life.

After high school, Heinlein attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After graduating from the Academy in 1929, he served as an officer in the United States Navy. He married his second wife, Leslyn Macdonald, in 1932. (Little is known about his first marriage.) In 1934, he was discharged from the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis. During his long hospitalization he mentally re-engineered the waterbed, which he later incorporated into Stranger In a Strange Land. The military was the second great influence on Heinlein; throughout his life, he strongly believed in loyalty, leadership, and other ideals associated with the military.

After his discharge, Heinlein attended a few weeks of classes in mathematics and physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, dropping out either because of his health or because of a desire to enter politics, or both. He supported himself working at a series of jobs, including real estate and silver mining. Heinlein was active in Upton Sinclair's socialist EPIC (End Poverty In California) movement in early 1930s California. When Sinclair gained the Democratic nomination for governor of California in 1934, Heinlein worked actively for the campaign (which was unsuccessful). Heinlein himself ran for the California state assembly in 1938, and was also unsuccessful (an unfortunate juxtaposition of events had Konrad Henlein making headlines in the Sudetenlands). While not destitute after the campaign—Heinlein had a small disability pension from the Navy—he turned to writing to pay off his mortgage, and in 1939 his first published story, "Life-Line", was printed in Astounding Magazine. He was planning on retiring as soon as he held his mortgage party, but wanted a new car, a trip to New York, and a few other things. He then told John Campbell, the editor of Astounding, that he was planning to quit. He made an agreement to send a few stories he had on tap but that he would quit writing when Campbell bounced a story. When Campbell bounced a story, Heinlein quit and started to feel unwell. He became jittery and absent-minded, suffered loss of appetite, weight loss, and insomnia. He thought this might be the onset of a third attack of pulmonary tuberculosis. Campbell eventually dropped him a note, and when reminded of the conditions, said he would take another look at the story. He did so and asked for some very minor edits. When Heinlein sat down to do those edits, he suddenly felt better.

Heinlein rapidly became acknowledged as a leader of the new movement toward "sociological" science fiction. He began fitting his early published stories into a consistent Future History (the chart for which Campbell published in the May 1941 issue of Astounding).

During WWII he served with the Navy in aeronautical engineering, recruiting the young Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp to work directly for the Naval Aircraft Factory. As the war wore down in 1945, he began reevaluating his career. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the outbreak of the Cold War galvanized him to write nonfiction on political topics, and he wanted to break into better-paying markets. He published four influential stories for the Saturday Evening Post, leading off with "The Green Hills of Earth" in February 1947, which made him the first science fiction writer to break out of the pulp ghetto. Destination Moon, the documentary-like film for which he had written story, scenario, and script, and invented many of the effects, won an Academy Award for Special Effects. He also embarked on a series of juvenile novels for Scribner's that was to last through the 1950's. Heinlein was divorced from his wife Leslyn in 1947, and in 1948 married his third wife, Virginia "Ginny" Gerstenfeld, who probably served as a model for many of his brainy and independent female characters.

Heinlein's juvenile novels may have turned out the most important work he ever did, building an audience of scientifically and socially-aware adults. He had used topical materials throughout his series, but his juvenile for 1959, Starship Troopers, was regarded by the Scribner's editorial staff as too controversial for their prestige line and was rejected summarily. Heinlein felt himself released from the constraints of writing for children and began to write "my own stuff, my own way," and came out with a series of challenging books that redrew the boundaries of science fiction, including Stranger In a Strange Land (1961), which is his best-known work, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), which many regard as his finest novel.

Beginning in 1970, however, Heinlein had a series of health crises, punctuated by strenuous work. The decade began with a life-threatening attack of peritonitis, recovery from which required more than two years. But as soon as he was well enough to write, he began his most technically ambitious work to date, Time Enough for Love (1973). In the mid-1970's he wrote two well-regarded Encyclopedia Britannica articles (on Paul Dirac and antimatter and on blood chemistry). He and his wife Virginia criss-crossed the country helping to reorganize blood collection in the U.S., and he was guest of honor at a World Science Fiction Convention for the third time at Kansas City in 1976. He became exhausted, his health began declining again, and he had one of the earliest heart bypass operations in 1978. Asked to appear before a Joint Committee of the House and Senate that year, he testified on his belief that spinoffs from space technology were benefitting the infirm and the elderly.

His brush with death re-energized Heinlein, and he wrote five novels from 1980 until he passed away in his sleep on May 8, 1988, as he was putting together the early notes for his sixth World As Myth novel.

Heinlein continues to have an active commercial life decades after his death: Several of his works were published posthumously, including a selection of letters edited by his wife, Virginia, and his book on practical politics written in 1946, a travelogue of their first around-the-world tour in 1954, and restored versions of two novels edited unacceptably in their original release. In 2004, his first novel, For Us, The Living, long thought destroyed, was recovered and published, revealing how very much of his late social and political philosophy was present in his radical political days. An experimental novelization of an outline and notes created by Heinlein in 1958 is now being written by Spider Robinson.


Early work, 1939–1960

Heinlein's first novel was For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs, written in 1939 and not published until 64 years later, after a copy was discovered in the garage of Michael Hunter, who had been assigned to write about Heinlein as a student. Although a failure as a novel, being little more than a disguised lecture on Heinlein's social theories, it is intriguing as a window into the development of Heinlein's radical ideas about man as a social animal, including free love. It appears that Heinlein at least attempted to live in a manner consistent with these ideals, even in the 1930s, and had an open relationship in his marriage to his second wife, Leslyn. (He was also a nudist; nudism and body taboos are frequently discussed in his work. At the height of the cold war, he built a bomb shelter under his house, like the one featured in Farnham's Freehold.)

After For Us, The Living, he began writing novels and short stories set in a consistent future history, complete with a timeline of significant political, cultural, and technological changes. A large portion of his work during the period from 1939 to 1961 consisted of juvenile novels. Some representative novels of this type are Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Farmer in the Sky, and The Rolling Stones. Many of these were first published in serial form under other titles, e.g., Farmer in the Sky was published as "Satellite Scout" in the Boy Scout magazine Boy's Life. There has been speculation that his intense obsession with his privacy was due at least in part to the apparent contradiction between his unconventional private life and his career as an author of books for children, but For Us, The Living also explicitly discusses the political importance Heinlein attached to privacy as a matter of principle.

Heinlein originally wrote his first published book, Rocket Ship Galileo, because a boy's book was solicited by a major publisher. The publisher rejected it because 'a trip to the moon was preposterous.' He took the manuscript to Scribner's, who bought it—and started a chain of options resulting in a yearly Christmas trade book. This agreement lasted for twelve years, until the editor (who hated science fiction) rejected a manuscript, which Heinlein then took across the street and for which he later won a Hugo. Many readers may not realize that some of Heinlein's apparently clichéd ideas, such as the voyage to the moon in Rocket Ship Galileo, were considered surprising at the time, and in fact helped to create the clichés in the first place. Another good example from this period is The Puppet Masters, which originated the idea of aliens taking over humans' bodies, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The novels that he wrote for a young audience are a fascinating mixture of adolescent and adult themes. Many of the issues that he takes on in these books have to do with the kinds of problems that adolescents experience. His protagonists are usually very intelligent teenagers who have to make a way in the adult society they see around them. On the surface, they are simple tales of adventure, achievement, and dealing with dumb teachers and jealous peers. However, Heinlein was outspoken with editors and publishers (and other writers) on the notion that juvenile readers were far more sophisticated and able to handle complex or difficult themes than most people realized. Thus even his juvenile stories often had a maturity to them that make them readable for adults. Indeed, his last "juvenile" novel was Starship Troopers, which is also probably his most controversial work. Starship Troopers was written in response to unilaterally stopping nuclear testing. Even a relatively innocent book such as Red Planet portrays some very subversive themes, including a revolution by young students modeled on the American Revolution; his editor demanded substantial changes in this book's discussion of topics such as the use of weapons by adolescents and the confused sexuality of the Martian character.

Mature work, 1961–1973

From about 1961 (Stranger in a Strange Land) to 1973 (Time Enough for Love) Heinlein wrote his most characteristic and fully developed novels. His work during this floruit explored his most important themes, such as individualism, libertarianism, and physical and emotional love. To some extent, the apparent discrepancy between these works and the more naïve themes of his earlier novels can be attributed to his own perception, which was probably correct, that readers and publishers in the 1950s were not yet ready for some of his more radical ideas. He did not publish Stranger in a Strange Land until long after it was written, and the themes of free love and radical individualism are prominently featured in his long-unpublished first novel, For Us, the Living. The story that Stranger in a Strange Land was used as inspiration by Charles Manson appears to be an urban folk tale; although some of Manson's followers had read the book, Manson himself later said that he had not. It is true that other individuals formed a quasi-religious organization called the Church Of All Worlds, after the religion founded by the primary characters in Stranger, but Heinlein had nothing to do with this, either, so far as is known.

Later work, 1980–1987

After a seven-year hiatus brought on by poor health, Heinlein produced a number of new novels in the period from 1980 (The Number of the Beast) to 1987 (To Sail Beyond the Sunset). These novels are controversial among his readers. Some feel that many of them were not up to the quality of his earlier work. The books sold well, however, and won a number of awards; many readers believe that those who criticize them are missing their irony and self-conscious parodying of both science fiction and literature in general.

Some of these books, such as The Number of the Beast and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, start out as tightly constructed adventure stories, but devolve into philosophical fantasias at the end. It is a matter of opinion whether this demonstrates a lack of craftsmanship or a conscious effort to expand the boundaries of science fiction into a kind of magical realism, continuing the process of literary exploration that he had begun with Stranger in a Strange Land.

The tendency toward authorial self-referentialism begun in Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough For Love becomes even more evident in novels such as The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, whose first-person protagonist is a disabled military veteran who becomes a writer, and finds love with a female character who, like all of Heinlein's strong female characters, appears to be based closely on his wife Ginny. The self-parodying element of these books keeps them from bogging down by taking themselves too seriously, but may also fail to evoke the desired effect in readers who are not familiar with Heinlein's earlier novels.

Ideas and themes

Heinlein's philosophy

As in the work of other authors, in Heinlein's work there is little clear distinction between the themes of his work and the sort of philosophical views that he propagated.

In his book To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Heinlein has the main character, Maureen, state that the purpose of metaphysics is to ask questions: Why are we here? Where are we going after we die? (and so on), and that you are not allowed to answer the questions. Asking the questions is the point for metaphysics, but answering them is not, because once you answer them, you cross the line into religion.

Maureen doesn't state a reason for this; she simply remarks that such questions are "beautiful" but lack answers. The implication seems to be as follows: because (as Heinlein held) deductive reasoning is strictly tautological (i.e., never generates conclusions that were not already presumed in the premises) and because inductive reasoning is always subject to doubt, the only source of reliable "answers" to such questions is direct experience—which we don't have.

Maureen's son/lover Lazarus Long makes a related remark in Time Enough For Love. In order for us to answer the "big questions" about the universe, Lazarus states at one point, it would be necessary to stand outside the universe. (It is not quite clear why this should be so, but at any rate this is what Lazarus says. The usual warnings about mistaking a character's views for those of the author apply here, of course, but this opinion seems fairly easy to tie into Heinlein's own views as expressed in nonfiction and interviews.)

During the 1930s and 1940s, Heinlein was deeply interested in Count Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics and attended a number of seminars on the subject. His views on epistemology seem to have flowed from that interest, and (some of) his fictional characters continue to express Korzybskian views to the very end of his writing career.

Heinlein's politics

Heinlein's writing may appear to have oscillated wildly across the political spectrum. His first novel, For Us, The Living, consists largely of speeches advocating the social credit system, and the early story "Misfit" deals with an organization which seems to be Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps translated into outer space. Stranger in a Strange Land was embraced by the hippie counterculture, and Glory Road can be read as an antiwar piece, while Starship Troopers has been deemed militaristic, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, published during the Reagan administration, is stridently right-wing, with, e.g., the sympathetically portrayed first-person character referring to illegal immigrants as "wetbacks." In another example, another of his sympathetic leads refers to homosexuals as "the poor in-betweeners," an offhand comment that has even drawn fire from Heinlein's admitted hagiographer, Spider Robinson.

There are, however, certain threads in Heinlein's political thought that remain constant. He was strongly committed to libertarianism, as expressed most eloquently in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. His early juvenile novels often contain a surprisingly strong antiauthoritarian message, as in his first published novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which has a group of boys blasting off in a rocket ship in defiance of a court order. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the unjust Lunar Authority that controls the lunar colony is usually referred to simply as "Authority", which leads to an obvious interpretation of the book as a parable for the evils of authority in general, rather than the evils of one particular authority.

In contrast to the Christian right, Heinlein was opposed to any encroachment of religion into government, and pilloried organized religion in Job, A Comedy of Justice, and, with more subtlety and ambivalence, in Stranger in a Strange Land. His future history includes a period called the Interregnum, in which a backwoods revivalist becomes dictator of the United States. Positive descriptions of the military (Between Planets, Red Planet, Starship Troopers) tend to emphasize the individual actions of volunteers in the spirit of the Minutemen, while the draft and the military as an extension of government are portrayed with skepticism in Time Enough for Love and Glory Road.

Despite Heinlein's work with the socialist EPIC and social credit movements in his early life, he was an ardent lifelong anticommunist. In the political world of the 1930s, there was no perceived contradiction between being a socialist and being passionately anticommunist. George Orwell had similar views, and Animal Farm is in this vein. Heinlein's nonfiction includes "Who are the heirs of Patrick Henry?," an anticommunist polemic, published as an ad, and articles such as "'Pravda' Means 'Truth'" and "Inside Intourist," in which he recounts his visit to the U.S.S.R. and advises western readers on how to evade official supervision on such a trip.

Many of Heinlein's stories explicitly spell out a view of history which could be compared to Marx's: social structures are dictated by the materialistic environment. Heinlein would perhaps have been more comfortable with a comparison with Turner's frontier thesis. In Red Planet, Doctor MacRae links attempts at gun control to the increase in population density on Mars. (This discussion was edited out of the original version of the book at the insistence of the publisher.) In Farmer in the Sky, overpopulation of Earth has led to hunger, but emigration to Ganymede only provides a "life insurance policy" for the species as a whole; Heinlein puts a lecture in the mouth of one of his characters toward the end of the book in which it is explained that the mathematical logic of Malthusianism can lead only to disaster for the home planet. A subplot in Time Enough for Love involves demands by farmers upon Lazarus Long's bank, which Heinlein portrays as the inevitable tendency of a pioneer society evolving into a more dense (and, by implication, more decadent and less free) society. This episode is an interesting example of Heinlein's tendency (in opposition to Marx) to view history as cyclical rather than progressive. Another good example of this is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which a revolution deposes the Authority, but immediately thereafter, the new government falls prey to the inevitable tendency to legislate people's personal lives, despite the attempts of one of the characters, who describes himself as a "rational anarchist".


Heinlein grew up in the era of racial segregation in the United States and wrote some of his most influential fiction at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement. Race was sometimes an important topic in his work. The most prominent example is Farnham's Freehold, which casts a white family into a future in which white people are the slaves of African rulers. Heinlein enjoyed challenging his readers' possible racial stereotypes by introducing strong, sympathetic characters, only to reveal much later that they were of African descent, e.g., in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Tunnel in the Sky, and, most surprisingly to some Friday. (The reference in Tunnel in the Sky is subtle and ambiguous, but at least one college instructor who teaches the book reports that some students always ask, "Is he black?" The Cat Who Walks Through Walls was published with a dust jacket painting showing the protagonist as pale-skinned, although the book clearly states that he is of African descent; this was also true of the paperback release of Friday.) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress includes an incident in which the protagonist visits the Southern U.S., and is briefly jailed for miscegenation, and Podkayne of Mars deals briefly with racial prejudice against the protagonist due to her dark skin. In the context of science fiction before the 1960s, the mere existence of dark-skinned characters is a remarkable novelty; in the science fiction genre of that era, green occurred more often than brown.

Asian civilization is sometimes treated negatively in his work, as in his 1949 novel Sixth Column, in which the U.S. defends itself against invasion using a ray that only kills people with "asiatic blood;" the idea for the story was pushed on Heinlein by editor John W. Campbell, and he was apparently embarrassed by the story later in his life. Tunnel in the Sky and Farmer in the Sky both contain negative depictions of overpopulation in Asia. Heinlein did include sympathetic Asian characters in his later works (e.g. "Tiger" Kondo in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls — a cameo appearance by Yoji Kondo , a NASA scientist of Heinlein's acquaintance who also edited the tribute volume Requiem ).

Heinlein repeatedly denounces racism in his non-fiction works and numerous references can be found in Expanded Universe. It is easy to speculate that Heinlein's dislike of Communist China's political direction and policies has been misunderstood by those who percieve a dislike of Asians. On an individual basis Heinlein's "Asian characters" are neither all good nor all bad. Each is dealt with on an individual basis, consistent with the theme of Radical Individualism.

It is interesting, although perhaps risky, to interpret some of the alien species in Heinlein's fiction in terms of an allegorical representation of human races. Double Star, Red Planet, and Stranger in a Strange Land all deal with themes of tolerance and understanding between humans and Martians. Several of his stories, such as "Jerry Was a Man", The Star Beast, and Red Planet, deal with the idea of nonhumans who are incorrectly judged as being less than human.    Although it has been suggested that the strongly hierarchical and anti-individualistic "bugs" in Starship Troopers were meant to represent the Chinese or Japanese, Heinlein wrote the book in response to the unilateral ending of nuclear testing by the U.S., so it is more likely that they were intended to represent communism.    A problem with interpreting aliens as stand-ins for races of Homo sapiens is that Heinlein's aliens generally occupy an entirely different mental world than humans. For example, Methuselah's Children depicts two alien races: the Jockaira are sentient domesticated animals ruled by a second, godlike species. In his early juveniles, the Martians and Venerians are depicted as ancient, wise races who seldom deign to interfere in human affairs. 

Struggle for self-determination

The theme of revolution against corrupt, nasty oppressors infuses several of Heinlein's novels:

The theme of self-making

The theme of self-making is taken to its furthest in the related books Time Enough for Love, The Number of the Beast, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. We are invited to wonder, what would humanity be if we shaped customs to our benefit, and not the other way around? How would our humanity be expressed if we did not develop under the soul-squashing influence of culture? We would be individuals. We would have self-made souls.

Other recurring themes binding Heinlein's works together include individual dignity, the value of both personal liberty and responsibility, the virtue of independence, science as a liberating factor, the perniciousness of bureaucrats, the brutality of corporate power, the hypocrisy of organized religion, the objective value of Korzybski's general-semantics and the subjective value of mysticism.


Among many other awards, he was the first to receive the Grand Master Nebula of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He is also the only writer to have received seven Hugo Awards, four during his life -- Double Star (1956), Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger In a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) -- and three Retro-Hugos awarded posthumously in 2001, for work published in 1950: Best Novel, Farmer in the Sky, Best Novella, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," and Best Film, Destination Moon).


Heinlein's fictional works can be found in the library under Library of Congress PS3515.E288, or under Dewey 813.54.

Known aliases include Anson MacDonald and Lyle Monroe.

Early Heinlein novels

Juvenile novels

Late Heinlein novels

"Future History" short fiction

Other short fiction





See also: List of Robert Heinlein characters

External links

Further reading

  • H. Bruce Franklin. 1980. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 195027469.
  • Tom Shippey. "Starship Troopers, Galactic Heroes, Mercenary Princes: the Military and its Discontents in Science Fiction", in Alan Sandison and Robert Dingley , ed.s, Histories of the Future: Studies in Fact, Fantasy and Science Fiction. 2000. New York: Palgrave. ISBN 0312236042.
  • Alexei Panshin. 1968. Heinlein in Dimension. Advent. ISBN 0911682120.

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