One of my favorite science fiction writers, Robert Anson Heinlein, would have turned 100 years old this week:
When Robert A. Heinlein opened his Colorado Springs newspaper on April 5, 1958, he read a full-page ad demanding that the Eisenhower administration stop testing nuclear weapons. The science-fiction author was flabbergasted.
He called for the formation of the Patrick Henry League and spent the next several weeks writing and publishing his own polemic that lambasted “Communist-line goals concealed in idealistic-sounding nonsense” and urged Americans not to become “soft-headed.”
Then Heinlein made an important professional decision. He quit writing the manuscript he had been working on–eventually it would become one of his best-known books, “Stranger in a Strange Land”–and started work on a new novel.
“Starship Troopers” was published the next year, and quickly became perhaps the most controversial sci-fi tale of all time. Critics labeled Heinlein everything from a Nazi to a racist. “The ‘Patrick Henry’ ad shocked ‘em,” he wrote many years later. “‘Starship Troopers’ outraged ‘em.”
Almost half a century later, the book continues to outrage, shock–and awe. It still has critics, but also armies of admirers. As a coming-of-age story about duty, citizenship, and the role of the military in a free society, “Starship Troopers” certainly speaks to modern concerns. The U.S. armed services frequently put it on recommended-reading lists.
There’s even a grassroots campaign to have a next-generation, Zumwalt-class destroyer named the USS Robert A. Heinlein.
Heinlein’s influence reaches far beyond a single book, of course. He was the first sci-fi author to make the bestseller lists, the winner of multiple awards, and the inspiration for a legion of proteges and imitators whose own volumes now weigh down bookstore shelves. He was not the most accomplished literary stylist in his genre, but he spun a good yarn, grappled with big questions, and left an enduring imprint on a popular field. He was arguably the preeminent sci-fi author of the 20th century
And it’s hard to argue with that. Aside from Isaac Asimov, he was the most prolific science fiction writer of his generation. And his stories were as much about ideas that mattered in the real world as they were about worlds that only existed in some far-distant future.
Also, as Brian Doherty points out, Heinlein was very much the precursor for many of the cultural movements that come out of Southern California:
Although science fiction’s visions and handling of character have become more complex and sophisticated in many ways since Heinlein’s day, his wide-ranging speculations about human futures created a still-valuable mix of ideas and entertainment. In his peculiar and unprecedented combination of rocket visions, a tough-minded individualism respectful of the military and iconoclastic free living, Heinlein is truly the bard of Southern California.
Though the libertarian in me would probably pick
Starship Troopers The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress as the penultimate Heinlein novel, when I was first reading him as a teenager, it was Stranger In A Strange Land along with Time Enough For Love that truly made me a Heinlein fan. Since then, I’ve pretty much read novel, short story, and essay that he’s published and I love it all.
Happy Birthday Mr. Heinlein wherever you are.