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Eric: Confessions of a Liberal Heinlein Fan: Worldbuilding and Utopia

My friend Bruce pointed me to a discussion he thought I'd be interested in. (He thought that, by the way, because he is right. He is often right when it comes to what I'm interested in.) Later, I also found that discussion referenced on Boing Boing, which, besides being one of the online homes of Cory Doctorow contains tons of links to cool things.

The discussion in question was on Electrolite, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden's weblog, and contains many extremely interesting layers of discussion around the common themes of Robert Heinlein, Heinlein's 'new' book For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs, and John Clute's Excessive Candour column reviewing For Us, The Living. The discussion is fascinating because of the sheer plethora of authorities contributing to it. Scientists, futurists, fans, literary critics -- there's something of everything in it, and the content of the discussion is unusually high for the web.

Which isn't really what I'm going to talk about here. Though interestingly enough, I'd already seen the Clute review. In fact, the Clute interview was what told me the book was now available. I knew the book was going to be published, because I'm a member of The Heinlein Society. Somehow, however, I'd missed the publication announcement, so it came as a surprise to find a post-publication review.

I was home in Maine when this happened, over Christmas break. This was a wonderful time, mind, and my first real vacation in a very long time. I was relaxed, going through electronic things, chatting with my folks, hanging out with my cat (Sarah) and their two dogs (Buddy and Teddy). And I found the review in question, and read it.

I imagine it was pretty startling both for parents and animals when I started bouncing on the couch going "EEEEEEEE!"


They say that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. I think it may have been a couple of years before that for me. But, I can remember it very clearly -- the moment when I became an SF fan. And it involved Robert Heinlein.

We were in New York City. We did that a couple of times when I was growing up. And we were in a bookstore. I'm certain it was a bookstore and not some kind of game store. Besides, this was before I got into gaming. Before Dungeons and Dragons and all the rest. But I remember clearly walking through the bookstore and looking at different things, and I remember turning and seeing a game.

It was purple and blue and lurid red, and golden armored men were in the process of falling from the sky. Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers it declared itself. Man vs. Monster. Interstellar Warfare in the Twenty-Second Century.

I was in love. I don't know why. I don't know why my father decided to buy it when I asked, either, but he did. And he even played it with me a couple of times. Looking back, I'm a little surprised we ever played it at all. It was a pretty complicated wargame for someone as young as I was.

But even if I rarely played it, I read through the rules over and over again. Especially the rules on the different scenarios. Especially the 'in character' descriptions of those scenarios. I loved them. I loved the descriptions of Rasczak's Roughnecks and the tremendous esprit de corps of the Mobile Infantry.

And then I found out there was a book. I don't even know how. But I bought it. And read it. Many, many times. Most recently I reread it last May, actually.

From there, I worked my way through every Heinlein novel. Every one of them. I anxiously awaited any new one. I bought books by writers Heinlein referenced, eagerly. From there I bought other SF books. I bought Fantasy novels. I read glorious works and crap, alike.

But always I read Heinlein.

He shaped my early political and sociological opinions. This meant I went through the Libertarian phase almost every Heinlein fan passes through (and a good number never come out of, and there's nothing wrong with that). It also meant that my concepts of personal honor, of liberty coupled with responsibility, of duty, of sin and of love were shaped in part by Heinlein's writings. As I later entered a moderate and then liberal phase of my thoughts, I still found much of who I was shaped by Heinlein and his own evolving beliefs.

I was in the theater alone (one of the rare times I went to a movie by myself) to see Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters. I went with my friend Russ to see Starship Troopers, and had a great B movie time while decrying the loss of opportunity to make an actual movie out of the book. I know where I was when I heard (on NPR) that Heinlein had died. I remember that moment like the generations before mine remember where they heard that Kennedy was dead.

After his death, I bought each 'new' book as it came out. I bought Grumbles from the Grave and devoured it. I bought and cherished Tramp Royale. I read Requiem and cried at the parts that all the other fans cried at. I bought the "uncut" Stranger in a Strange Land. I bought the 'sad ending' Podkayne of Mars.

When I was at Baycon last year, I went to some of the Heinlein panels, and discovered that regardless of my current ethos, Heinlein's children are my people, and I'm proud to be among them. I joined the Heinlein Society after that convention, and discovered I still had plenty to learn about a man whose writing I can now put into a proper perspective -- but which will always have tremendous personal significance to me.

Imagine what it is like, for one of Heinlein's children to learn that an unpublished manuscript had been found. Imagine what it is like to learn that a Heinlein novel -- in fact, his lost first novel -- had been found. And then to learn that apparently when he wasn't looking, that book had been published.

Tremendous.


I called ahead to Borders. They had one copy left. Sales, I was told, had been brisk. I asked them to hold it.

My parents and I drove down. I got the book, along with Cory Doctorow's short story collection and the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel. I started reading on the way home.

By the time my vacation was over, I'd read the new Heinlein twice, straight through.


Clute's review of For Us, The Living is excellent. He has a truly valuable understanding of what this book is and what it isn't. And as much as I loved the book, I do understand what it isn't.

For example, it's not a novel. It's barely a story. But more on that in a bit.

Clute also recognizes the value of Dr. Robert James's afterward. Dr. James is an excellent scholar and researcher -- and clearly a very cool person. I had the pleasure of meeting him at Baycon, and am hopeful he'll be at Arisia in a couple of weeks. Clute is less charitable toward Spider Robinson's introduction, and I admit Spider does come across as a little silly. But, I'm inclined to cut him a lot of slack -- during a period when the SF establishment couldn't find anything good to say about Heinlein (an attitude which is fading but still clings here and there) Robinson went loudly and on the record in support of the Dean of Science Fiction. And may have had his career suffer as a result. As a result, he gets to be as silly as he likes, for my money.

(All right, I think the idea that somehow Virginia Heinlein's influence on her husband extends clearly into this work, written several years before they'd even met while he was married to a different woman entirely, is as silly as Harold Bloom's contention that Shakespeare influenced Chaucer. Still, having written an unapologetically sappy reunion story after Mrs. Heinlein passed on, I'm not about to cast stones at Mr. Robinson's reverence for the lady.)

Clute goes on to discuss the remarkable points of the work -- particularly Heinlein's advocacy of liberal issues and attitudes, born of his reverence of the time with Upton Sinclair, who he knew and under whose theories Heinlein ran for public office (unsuccessfully) -- in great detail. And certainly, those who have decided Heinlein was an ultraconservative will be more than a little surprised by his love of fiat money, social credit and government control in this story. However, before one decides Heinlein's views were wholly different later they need to see all the myriad ways his most famous opinions are echoed in this first major work. Most significantly, Heinlein's lifelong commitment to personal privacy is echoed in the constitution of his Utopia:

Every citizen is free to perform any act which does not hamper the equal freedom of another. No law shall forbid the performance of any act, which does not damage the physical or economic welfare of any other person. No act shall constitute a violation of a law valid under this provision unless there is such damage, or immediate present danger of such damage resulting from that act.

That paragraph would fit in perfectly in works from Beyond this Horizon through Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all the way up to To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Heinlein may have been a fiat money advocate in For Us, The Living and a hard currency advocate in Time Enough for Love, but the banking conversation Lazarus Long has in Time Enough's "The Tale of the Adopted Daughter" finds its roots in the extensive economics lessons in For Us, The Living. Heinlein's advocacy of homosexual rights, womens' rights, and racial rights can be found in For Us, The Living and are echoed throughout the rest of his work. And as Liberal as Heinlein seems to be in For Us, The Living, he still clearly sees the military as both honorable and necessary. And even the service-franchise of Starship Troopers is presaged in a Constitutional amendment in For Us, The Living: in this future time, any time the United States Congress or the President wants to go to war without the United States first being attacked, a referendum is called -- and only those people eligible to be drafted for that war are allowed to vote. If the vote carries, those who voted for the war are the first to be conscripted into service, the very next day, automatically. The next group pulled into service are those eligible soldiers who didn't vote. Those who opposed the war are called up last.

(Don't you wonder how the last two years would have been different if the Invasion of Iraq had to be voted on and approved by those required to register for Selective Service before it could have begun? Heaven knows I do.)

It's a fascinating view of Heinlein's work, and made all the more fascinating by the hints of Heinlein's later content. Quite apart from the political and economic themes, echoes of Heinlein's future writing appear again and again. Elements that would appear in the Future History, in Beyond this Horizon, in "If This Goes On..." and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, in Friday and Job: A Comedy of Justice and many, many other stories -- right down to some of the conflicts in The Number of the Beast and To Sail Beyond the Sunset appear in this book. Clute and Robinson and James alike note these elements and similarities.

And also note that as a novel, it's not much of a novel. It doesn't have much plot. Its story elements are, in Robinson's words, a sexy but thin negligee the book wants you to tear off, so that it can seduce you with its long essays on Utopia. And make no mistake -- this is a Utopic Work. This is more an essay than anything else, they say. They even point out Heinlein's use of footnotes (rather pretentiously attributed to "the Author" but clearly written from within the fourth wall, not through it.)

They're right about this not really being a novel. But they're wrong about it being an essay, really.

I recognize this form, you see. And I'll bet everyone else in my own profession does too.

This isn't a novel, and this isn't an essay. This is Heinlein's notebook for his Role Playing Game and campaign.

I'm quite serious. I've seen this any number of times. Hell, I've written it more than once. The same way my 2nd Edition AD&D game 'house rules' broke 200,000 words and had 230 footnotes, this is an extended work of Worldbuilding on Heinlein's part. He puts in huge pieces about how they got there, he follows them up with all the ways this world is different than we might expect, and despite a token effort, there's really no conflict to be found anywhere within. At the end of the book I expected to find hyperlinks to his game logs and to system mechanics.

Naturally, Heinlein wasn't a roleplayer, but the RPG Worldbuilder's phenomenon is also the budding SF writer's Worldbuilder's phenomenon. Before anyone can become a writer, they have to learn a core lesson -- setting is not story, and no matter how fascinating your fictional world is, until you put real people into it and give them problems, no one's going to care. Eventually, writers evolve out of the habit and, if they're smart, mine the huge backstory they've so painstakingly worked out (believing they're preparing to write, but really doing it for their own sake) and use it where appropriate for their later works.

As Heinlein himself does, it's worth noting. His decline and fall of the United States into Theocracy under Nehemiah Scudder, the fate of a United Europe that descends into 40 Years War (and predicts the European Union pretty amazingly, in ways), the rolling roads, the Crazy Years, Coventry and its rules, the essential "An it harm none, do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" nature of the Constitution, the Privacy Customs, the pneumatic tube internet... all of these things, mutated and changed somewhat, found their way into later Heinlein works, almost always as elements of backstory instead of the lead element.

The book's tone reminds me the most of Beyond this Horizon, all told. And anyone who enjoyed that book will enjoy this one. Anyone who read more than a couple of Heinleins will also enjoy this, and if you read more than five Heinleins this book approaches a must-buy, sheerly for the insight into the development as Heinlein, the writer. As a standalone work, it's weak, and as a Utopia it's passable. But no matter what this does to my New Critic credentials, the value of For Us, The Living is contextual, and from that standpoint this work couldn't be more important.

Hey, I read it through twice in three days. And I'm going to read it again. What more do I need to say?

Posted by Eric Burns-White at January 11, 2004 4:33 PM

Comments

Comment from: Bill Reich posted at May 15, 2004 6:07 PM

Well, another child of Robert A. Heinlein and he kept saying that he was childless. I stumbled on this page through a google search that wasn't intended to find it.

I just wanted to say that you are not alone. That man had more kids than a biblical patriarch. And we still miss him.

I was twelve when I read _Between Planets_ and I am almost sixty now. But I am a child of Heinlein. Named my roleplaying rules after _Glory Road_ and never go very long without re-reading almost all the books.

It's been a long, strange trip and I've enjoyed it. Hope you feel the same; sure looks like it. I am still a libertarian, myself but lots of people who frequent alt.fan.heinlein are liberals like yourself.

That's what I was going to mention. alt.fan.heinlein on usenet. I think you'd like it. I think you would be good for it.

--
Will in New Haven

Playing poker online is like training dogs without looking at them

Comment from: Kris@WLP posted at February 15, 2005 1:41 AM

This may surprise you, Eric: I'm a libertarian who became a libertarian *despite* Rand, *despite* L. Neil Smith... and *despite* Heinlein.

I hate the works of all three authors, all for the same two reasons:

(1) The characters are fake. I get no sense that the authors, when writing the characters' dialog, maintained even the lightest possible touch to -reality.-

(2) I don't read -fiction- to be preached to. If I want to read screeds on TANSTAAFL, "An it harm none, do as thou wilt," and the inevitable rise of the talented individual over the common herd, I'll pick up a book with a Dewey Decimal number in the 300s. A book I read for entertainment, when it begins preaching to me, the reader, gets the Dorothy Parker treatment.

(And that is? I hear you ask. Quote: "This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be hurled away with tremendous force.")

It also doesn't help that I cannot stomach utopia in any form. Utopias do not exist, and any political system or philosophical argument which either leads to utopia or requires utopia to operate is worthless.

I say all this just to demonstrate that a person can become a Libertarian and not be a Heinlein fan.

Comment from: espd [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 2, 2006 8:59 PM

Kris@WLP: You read speculative fiction "for entertainment"? Well, maybe that's your first mistake.

SF, and hard SF in particular, are not merely intended to entertain. While any work of ficiton should entertain, speculative fiction is also inteded to provoke thought, discussion, and even dissent.

It's intended to provoke wonder, as in, "I wonder if we really will have space travel in my lifetime," and "I wonder if homosexuals will ever really be treated like normal people by the rest of society." And/or many other things.

Eric: I stumbled upon your entry and was very glad to do so. Your description of how you became a Heinlein fan is so profoundly similar to my own experience that I feel I could have written it myself.

Cheers from California.

Comment from: larksilver [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 3, 2006 10:54 AM

As a long-time, voracious reader of the essays on this site.. how the heck did I miss one about one of my favorite authors?

Despite how unpopular it became, for a while there, to be a Heinlein fan, I too maintain a special spot for his works. Stranger was one of my first forays into SF, at age 11 or so, and struck me like a thunderbolt.

My political views are so much on a case-by-case basis that I don't think I get to be a card-carrying member of any of the clubs, but as I look at them, now, I realize how heavily they were informed by those books, as a kid.

And now I have to go buy a copy of certain books, as I gave them to my nephew when he hit 12...

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