SUMMER SNIPPETS: ‘The Authorized Biography of Robert A. Heinlein’ (Vol. 1, Learning Curve, 1907-1948)
More snippets clipped from my summer reading, this time from William Patterson’s 2010 biography of the SF master.
“Heinlein’s hard-core un-common sense, dosed out mostly as entertainment, had given the parentless generations of the mid-twentieth century something of what previous generations had gotten, in quiet moments, one-one-one with their fathers and their tribe’s wise men: their portion, all they could take, of life wisdom. They counted Heinlein their “intellectual father,” as an earlier generation regarded Mark Twain… They had needed, sometimes desperately, to hear what he had to say—not slogans, but tools:
‘What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore
divine revelation, forget ‘what the stars foretell,’ avoid opinion, care not what the neighbours think, never
mind, the un-guessable ‘verdict of history’—what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You
pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue.’”
“[The film from Heinlein’s screenplay] Destination Moon was released in 1950 and caused a national sensation by visualising for the people of the world the first trip to the Moon… Now, in 1969, he was a celebrity again, his big satire on hypocrisy Stranger in a Strange Land still picking up steam, though almost nobody seemed to understand it was not a book of answers, but a book of questions.”
“[It was July 20, 1969, and as Neil Armstrong took that small step onto the moon’s surface for first time,] Heinlein sat in a makeshift studio in Downey California … with Walter Cronkite and Arthur C. Clarke … they wanted him for commentary, when he was too excited, almost, to talk at all. Heinlein had yearned for the moon most of his life, and had done what he could to make it happen—in aeronautical engineering in the Navy, then writing about it, making real to readers … [as he] got on with his real work of teaching people who to live in the future…
“This is a great day,” Heinlein told Cronkite:
‘This is the greatest event in all the history of the human race, up
to this time. This is—today is New Year’s Day of the Year One. If
we don’t change the calendar, historians will do so. The human race—
this is our change, our puberty rite, bar mitzvah, confirmation, from
the change from infancy into adulthood for the human race. And we
are going to go on out, not only to the Moon, to the stars: we’re going
to spread. I don’t know that the United States is going to do it; I hope
so. I have—I’m an American myself; I want it to be done by us. But
in any case, the human race is going to do it, it’s utterly inevitable:
we're going to spread through the entire universe.’”
“So successful was his writerly mission that Heinlein was increasingly sought out as a guru—a position he rejected. At almost the same time Stranger in a Strange Land was speaking to the spiritual life of a new generation, so too The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was galvanising another movement of young people coming together. The movement has suffered many ups and downs, but well into the twenty-first century libertarianism is still with us … stile holding out Heinlein’s vision of what an untrammelled society might look like.”
In his first naval placement, Heinlein was impressed that his hard-pressing ship’s commander on the USS Lexington Captain, later Admiral, King “always looked unhurried and unworried, but he worked very hard anticipating anything that could go wrong and paying attention to every detail—even the ones he seemed not to notice at the time… King expected performance from his subordinates—and got it: ‘I find a boss who consistently requires high performance much easier to work for than one who blows both hot and cold. As for the third sort, who are always satisfied with poor performance—I quit!’”
As a fan of his science fiction writing, Heinlein was initially sympathetic to H.G. Wells’s brand of socialism, which muckraking journalist and 1930 Socialist Party candidate for California governor Upton Sinclair described as having been killed by Communism:
‘Socialism [like Wells’ which was creative is stunned, and Communism, which is the sabotage of civilisation by the disappointed, has usurped its name and inheritance … The new Marxist Socialism, therefore, with its confident dogmas, its finality and hardness, its vindictive will, developed an intensity and energy that drowned and almost silenced the broader, more tentative, and scientific [sic] initiatives of the older, the legitimate Socialism. Communism, with its class-war obsession, ate up Socialism.’ "
“The socialism of Sinclair and Wells was ‘progressive’—the term means social change by progressive stages of education and gradual political conversion, as opposed to the violent revolutionary change should by Marxist theory. Progressivism fit very comfortably with the liberal orientation of the Democratic Party platform; Sinclair switched his party affiliation on September 1, 1933, changing his techniques, he said, but not his principles: ‘I found I was not getting anywhere as a Socialist,’ he explained… , ‘ and so I decided to make progress with one of the two old parties.’ ”
“In July 1935, the Seventh World Congress of the [Communist International] announced the Popular Front against fascism throughout the world, bizarrely holding up the Nazi government of Germany as ‘the highest form of capitalism.’ The success of this peculiar ‘big lie’ would crippled the ability of traditional liberals to resist the growth of totalitarian ideology. They would have to be antifascist, anticommunist and anticapitalist all at the same time. Liberals didn’t realise it yet, but traditional—‘classical’—liberalism began to collapse as an intellectual movement … from that moment.”
“[In 1936] Robert and [his wife] Leslyn started hosting informal breakfasts Sunday mid-mornings for [electioneering Democrat] workers in their district, to provide a neutral ground where all the [party’s] different factions could come face-to-face… Leslyn Heinlein recorded some thoughts about this process:
‘…one of the most useful functions Bob and I performed in
our political activities was that of getting people together who were in basic agreement and didn’t know it. It
is amazing how quickly methods of accomplishing a desired end can be worked out, once two people who
have been busy hating each other’s guts get the idea they want to accomplish the same end and have
been fighting over how.’ ”
“Pragmatically, Robert and Leslyn knew that the Democratic Party was rotten with communists… [and] were very much in the way insofar as the success of the Democratic Party was concerned… For his efforts, he got on the Communist Party’s ‘better dead’ list… The dislike was mutual. Individual communist may not be villains, but Heinlein had then then common liberal’s abhorrence of communism as an active force in the world:
‘Let me go on record that I regard communism as expressed by the U.S.S.R and its friends here and
elsewhere as a grisly horror, a tyranny maintained by force and terror, utterly subversive of human
liberty, freedom of thought, and dignity. I regard it as Red fascism, distinguishable from black and
brown fascism by differences of no importance to me nor to its victims.’ ”
In April 1939, “flat broke following a disastrous political campaign … and with a heavily-mortgaged house” Heinlein submitted his first short story “Life-Line” to Astounding Science Fiction and was rewarded with a cheque for $75, then a fairly princely sum. “ ‘How long has this racket been going on?” he demanded rhetorically. “And why didn’t someone tell me about it sooner?’ ”
“Germany … rejected Great Britain's ultimatum to return to its borders after the invasion of Poland, and the suddenly revealed Hitler-Stalin pact had American communists spluttering. England declared war on Germany, and the French were mobilising. On September 3, 1939, Heinlein composed a memorandum/prediction for his own files: ‘A note from Robert A. Heinlein of this date to R.A.H. of some later date, just to keep the record straight’:
‘Great Britain has just declared war on Germany. France joins them.
‘Germany has not attacked Britain nor France… I do not justify Germany’s attack, but let’s keep the
record straight. Britain is not entering this war to save democracy (Poland is a dictatorship), nor because of
the "holiness" of her treaty obligations (remember both Ethiopia and Czechoslovakia—a democracy,
‘So far as I can see, Britain is entering this war because Germany is getting stronger than she likes. She
has decided to fight Germany because she thinks she can lick her now, and isn’t sure she can later-let’s not
be sanctimonious about it.
‘This war isn’t being fought for Thomas Mann, nor Albert Einstein, nor for other persecuted Jews. Nor is
it being fought for "democracy." It’s being fought to preserve the worst and most unjust features of the
Versailles Treaty. Let's get that straight. And stop Hitlerism makes as much sense as Hang the Kaiser.
‘Hitler is a symptom of Versailles—we caused him. The insanity he typifies we caused.
‘This is where we came in—want to sit through another show?’
“He added a handwritten postscript:
‘I’ll bet two bits that from here on anyone who is not pro-British will be called un-American.’ ”
“Toward the end of 1940, … Heinlein [was persuaded to] take up photography as a hobby. ‘I am completely nuts on the subject of cameras,’ he told [a friend]. ‘This produces a vicious cycle: I have to write stories to support my camera, darkroom, buy gear etc., but I really haven't got time to write stories because photography is a full time occupation.’ Nude photography was what he spent most of his free time and spare cash on. Heinlein never had any difficulty getting women to pose for him—which astonished his friends and acquaintances. To him, it was simply a numbers game: ‘If you approach a woman right, one out of two will post nude for you… Leslyns’s chaperonage is the main reason I can get anyone to pose for me I want for the purpose.’ The Heinleins also belonged for several years to a camera co-op that hired live models at group rates. In 1941, the co-op brought him the perfect model, Sunrise Lee. ‘She could not fall into an ungrateful pose,’ [he said]. A nude study hung in his house for the rest of his life.”
“With the money [from writing] coming in … making a studio for himself [went to] the top of his list… He didn’t bother getting a permit for the work, but sneaked materials in under cover of night, and even cut the windows and outside door at night so that the neighbours could not catch on and complain. When the structure was completed, he posted a sign … on the outside door, to discourage random visitors and door-to-door salesmen:
‘ENDOSTROPHIC THERAPY ROOM. KEEP OUT!
DO NOT KNOCK!!!
Use upper door—it works quite well’
“The ‘upper door’ was the main house … where Leslyn had posted her own sign:
‘Anyone knocking on this door before eleven a.m.
will be buried free of charge.’”
“There is a certain type of personality … unfortunately common in science-fiction fandom, for which adoration [of SF writers] is a red flag. A dozen or so of these boys … followed him around [at conventions] and made a ‘steady and malicious effort’ to whittle him down to size. This irritation loomed large in his mind. ‘They were so rude that I did not enjoy [the guest-of-honour experience].’ He wondered for years why the more socially adept fans didn’t rein them in.”
“I haven’t anything which could properly be termed a religion [he wrote to a friend when asked about the subject]. My thoughts on religious subjects are matters of intellectual rather than emotional conviction. The nearest thing to a religious feeling I have, and, I believe, strong enough to justify calling it religious feeling, has to do with the United States of America. It is not a reasoned evaluation but an overpowering emotion. The land itself as well as the people, its culture in the broadest most vulgar sense, its history and its customs … I have no God. The only think which inspires in me a feeling of something much bigger and more important than myself … is this country of ours. I know it is not logical—I presume that a mature man’s attachments should be for a set of principles rather than for a particular group or a certain stretch of soil. But I don’t feel that way … every rolling word of the Constitution, and the bright sharp brave phrases of the Bill of Rights—they get me where I live. Our own music, whether it’s Yankee Doodle, or the Missouri Waltz, or our own bugle calls—it gets me.”
“Not even overwork to the point of exhaustion put a serious crimp in Heinlein’s omnivorous reading… Robert particularly enjoyed C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters [written] from the perspective of a senior demon giving infernal advice to his nephew, a tyro imp, on how best to corrupt human souls. The conceit ticked Heinlein's fancy.
“Vincent McHugh, whose 1936 Caleb Catlum’s America Heinlein was still using as a touchstone by which to measure the compatibility of potential friends (along with Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao and an odd little French graphic novel Private Memoirs of a Profiteer by Marcel Arnac) published his fourth book, I Am Thinking of My Darling—a response to H.G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet....
“But Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers so exactly said things Heinlein believed desperately needed I to be said that Heinlein’s enthusiasm ran away with him and he gushed for an hour about the book to e very uninterested fan … who came to visit one day in 1943.”
“Heinlein had come to despise his [wartime] job [at the Naval Aeronautics Lab]—the waste, the inefficiency, the absolute rigidity of the bureaucratic read tape that tied everything up in knots and made it nearly impossible to get anything useful done…
‘I found here my conception of the navy had been incorrect or at least incomplete … and I began to be
ashamed of being a naval officer (yes, ashamed). Presently the heroic exploits of the fleet compensated in
part and gradually I began to understand the mechanism which produced, automatically, [the place he and
his co-workers had dubbed] Snafu Manor. It does not produce bastards, but it gives them scope…”
“ ‘It was Ian Hay, I believe, who first discovered that any military administration is divided into three departments: the Fairy Godmother Department, the Practical Joke Department, and the Surprise Party Department. By preparing for Come-What-May I may circumvent and discourage the latter two and be turned over to the benevolence of the first. But I am not optimistic; the resourcefulness of the two larger departments can hardly be measured.’ – Letter to a friend, 1944.”
“Early in July 1945 the imperial Japanese government had approached the Soviet government to open diplomatic discussions for a negotiated peace. By this time however, it was clear that what the Japanese wanted was a ‘breather’ to rebuild their shattered war machine, and that was not acceptable: there would be no prospect for peace so long as the military was in control of the Japanese government… Early in the morning of August 6, 1945, the specially modified bomber Enola Gay approached the industrial city of Hiroshima … and dropped its payload, the U-235 bomb code-named Little Boy… Heinlein had known about a secret War Department project involving uranium and did his best to keep talk about the subject in his presence to a minimum, preferably none at all. Now, atomics were a reality—and the future rushed in.
“Even while he struggled to grasp the enormity, his mind flashed ahead to the meaning of the event. ‘That’s the end,’ he said flatly. The end of the war, almost certainly—but also, Goodbye To All That, the end of the whole world as it was before August 6, 1945…
‘Combine the atomic bomb with the V2 and I believe it is evident o any sober-minded technical man that
the events of 6 Aug, et seq., should cause us carefully to re-examine all plans, proposals, and projects
which obtained before that time … In the broad sense we are out of business, just as thoroughly out off
business as were wooden fighting ships after the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac… It is a simple fact that
(1) we cannot afford a war ever again, (2) the atomic bomb cannot be abolished, nor can it be indefinitely
kept from other peoples. We must ride the lightning and ride it well. I conceive the atomic bomb as being
the force behind the police power for a planetary peace … such a force there must be if we are not be
ourselves destroyed.’ ”
“The Naval Air Materials Center, the research wing of the Naval Aircraft Factory, should organise ‘a major project’ with all the usual apparatus of its wartime R & D projects, to develop a man-carrying rocket out of V2 technology. The first step could be an unmanned ‘messenger rocket’ to the Mon, guided by the new radar target-seeking technology…
‘It must be noted that it is really much easier to build a successful Moon rocket than to build a proper war rocket [he wrote in a memo that went up the Naval and diplomatic channels]. Nevertheless either problem can be sued to solve the other—the choice between the two is a choice in diplomacy and politics.’
“The public, he said, is now ready for such a project, and Robert Goddard had suggested a good test in his 1920 technical paper: the Moon rocket could carry a fifty-pound payload of carbon black. An explosion just before touchdown could disperse it far enough for eth mark to be seen on Earth, even by quite low-powered amateur telescopes…. ‘The unique prestige which would accrue to the United States of America, to the U.S. Navy, and to NAMC in particular cannot be expressed.’ ”
“Heinlein set out his understanding of the current situation in a letter [to a friend]:
‘As I see it, we finally finished off the war by plunging the globe and ourselves in particular into the
greatest crisis, the most acute danger, in all history. I am not deploring it. I know that the discovery of
atomic power was inevitable and I know that you can’t turn the clock back, no turn sausage back into hog. It
is here. We’ve got to face it and deal with it. I am overwhelmingly thankful that we got it first and that it
was brought out into the open by the war. Now we have a fighting chance to save civilisation as we know it
and the very globe we stand on. If the Axis had gotten it we would have had no chance. It might have been
a thousand years before freedom and human dignity would ever again have been known.
‘But I am bitterly afraid of the way we may handle it. There are two crazy approaches … The first says
"We’ve got it … From now on they got to do what we tell them too" … The second crazy viewpoint regards
the atomic bomb as just another weapon, powerful but bound to be subjected in time to an effective
counter weapon… There is a third reaction, one of deploring the whole thing [and] of passing
resolutions expressing regret that we ever used so barbarous a weapon…
‘You might call these three types of dunderheads the bloody minded, the common or garden
unimaginative stupid, and the custard head. God deliver us from all of them.’ ”
“Magician [and Heinlein friend] Jack Parsons rented out rooms in the large house in Pasadena he had inherited, seeking odd and eccentric characters of all kinds. This suited L. Ron Hubbard’s needs [who had just finished lodging at Heinlein’s house], and he moved in. Parsons had assumed leadership of the Los Angeles chapter of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and he gave weekly presentations of the ‘Gnostic Mass’ in the attic of the house.
“The Gnostic Mass was a theatrical piece rather than a true religious rite, suitable for introducing newcomers to the basic concepts of Crowley’s religion of Thelema… Parsons found Hubbard [who was later to create the religion of Scientology] ‘the most Thelemic person I have ever met.’ Hubbard immediately became comfortable in Parsons’s eccentric ménage—and soon started an affair with Parson’s live-in lover and magickal assistant, Sara ‘Betty’ Northrup… It appears Parsons had little objection to make when Hubbard took over Betty’s affections; Betty’s affections were habitually strewn around pretty indiscriminately, and not just as a matter of adolescent friendliness… Instead, Parsons immediately threw himself into a magickal project to call down an elemental to take her place.”
“In January 1946, [Heinlein] wrote another of his atomics articles, ‘America’s Maginot Line’—this time pointing out how inadequate conventional weapons were to address the strategic demands of atomic weaponry… Offense had so far outrun defence that trying to rely on conventional weaponry was virtually an invitation to a pre-emptive strike with atomic weapons.
‘I believe that present plans for national ‘defence’ are not only useless and a waste of money but tend to lull
the public into thinking that ‘older and wiser’ heads have the situation under control…
‘The most expensive thing in the world is a second-best military establishment.’
“[As he began writing his novels for boys] he kept in mind his conversations with [film-maker] Fritz Lang, since the same considerations would apply to any films… Above all, he did not want [them] to be what H.G. Wells had once called the ‘artificial and meretricious fricloity forced upon the young.’
‘Before starting [Rocket Ship Galileo] I established what has continued to be my rule for writing for
youngsters; Never write down to them. Do not simplify the vocabulary nor the intellectual concepts... The
story should have lots of action and adventure … [and] plot use of difficult intellectual or scientific concepts:
the kids enjoy getting their teeth into such—much more than their parents…
“I have been writing the Horatio Lager books for this generation, always with the same strongly
moral purpose that runs through every line of the Alger books… "Honesty is the best policy"—"Hard work
is rewarded"—"There is no easy road to success”—"Courage above all"—"Studying hard pays off, in happiness
as well as money"—"Stand on your own feet"—"Don’t every be bullied"—"Take your medicine”—“The
world always has a place for a man who works, but none for a loafer." These are the things the Alger books
said to me, in the idiom suited to my generation … and I have constantly tried to say them to a
younger generation which I believe has been shamefully neglected by many of the elders responsible for
its moral training.’
[To be continued]