Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Robert Heinlein was born on July 7, 1907. His centennial inspired this article in Reason Magazine which does a reasonable job of summing up his career and influence.

As someone who like so many others was deeply influenced in my youth by Heinlein, I have a few things I'd like to add to Brian Doherty's article.

First, it's a little unfortunate, but in the United States perhaps unavoidable, that the whole framework for discussing Heinlein is based on how it fits into American cultural obsessions. I like, however, Doherty's final conclusion that Heinlein was a "full-service iconoclast." Well said: whatever your sacred cow, Heinlein could slaughter it with a few well-chosen words or a long, perhaps excessive rant. Whichever way he managed it, he'd make you think -- if not necessarily agree with him.

Second, Doherty says little, except in connection with conscription, of Heinlein's loathing for slavery, and nothing at all about his hatred for racism. A complete and utter rejection of racism was not so common among Americans of the early 20th century, especially those raised in former slave states. As for slavery itself, no child who ever read A Citizen of the Galaxy (a bit of an homage to Kipling's Kim, but smarter) will doubt for a second that slavery is evil or that slavers' excuses for their attempts to own human beings are contemptible.

Third, and perhaps even more important than the second point, Doherty hardly touches on Heinlein's own great obsession, and the lack says a great deal. Heinlein spent most of his life not just writing about space travel, but promoting the real thing, and his influence on government research into rocketry in the late 40s and early 50s is an untold story. Heinlein believed that space exploration and the expansion of the human race throughout the universe was the obvious road to a great future. His extraordinarily influential juvenile novels were so because they made that future expansion -- with its rewards, costs, challenges and unimaginable discoveries -- look real and attainable. He would be appalled that going to Mars is for most people a fantasy, for the American leadership a cheap talking-point to be trotted out once to distract people from the rolling catastrophe.

He might say now, why can't we have the world of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars -- quite a scary place in some ways -- instead of the futility of the Iraq War and Darfur and heads in the sands about global warming?

Soundtrack: Written while listening to a track called They Came in Peace by Tranquility Bass, cablecast by the Galaxie music network of the CBC.

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