The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Time Enough for Thought

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn, Unbound, 2019.

Full disclosure up front: the author is an old friend. Unbound is a crowd-funded publisher, and my name is one of hundreds listed who pre-supported this book.

Heinlein was for better or worse one of the great names of science fiction. In his generation and age-group, he stood alongside Asimov and Clarke as one of the genre's public intellectuals: the chaps who got called into television studios to talk about moonshots. Asimov and Clarke, for all their obvious differences and Clarke's agoraphilic sublime, were united in their basic world outlook. Both were liberal secular humanist futurists, and what you saw was what you got. Heinlein was something else: an original moralist, complex and contradictory but always (it seemed) confident. He got under his readers' skins and into their minds in unexpected ways. In that respect, oddly, he can better be compared to Le Guin.

In my early teens, reading the stories collected in Revolt in 2100 ('"If This Goes Onβ€”"', 'Coventry', and 'Misfit') had a lasting impact. Heinlein had a knack for the throwaway, delayed-action bombshell: a casual reference to a theology curriculum that included 'mob psychology and basic miracles' being one from that book. And Starship Troopers gave me a lot to think about at the time, though probably not the thoughts the writer intended, which says something for him.

I've read nearly all the juveniles, many of the short stories and nearly all the novels except the late long ones, which I've always bounced off.

Heinlein has been the subject of a definitive biography, major critical studies during and after his life, and an immense and growing amount of academic and fan criticism. But he remains so vast and various that there's always more to say, and Mendlesohn says it here. Her approach has been to read (re-read) every publicly available thing Heinlein wrote, and only then to read (re-read) everything in print, and a lot of what's online, about him.

After a brief introduction and a useful potted biography, Mendlesohn devotes successive chapters to Heinlein's fiction (short stories, juveniles, and adult novels), technique and rhetoric. She then applies her close reading of the texts to Heinlein's handling of civics and politics, racism and antiracism, ethics, sex and sexuality. Heinlein's political shifts are related to his deeper consistencies in interesting and unexpected ways: individual and community, patriotism and radicalism, democracy and revolution, family and free love all turn out to have more complicated dialectics across his work as a whole than a partial reading -- which is, of course, all that most readers have – would suggest.

Mendlesohn's dismantling of the disaster of Farnham's Freehold -- and her answer to the inevitable appalled question 'What the fuck was he thinking?' – is patient and persuasive. The discussion of sex, sexuality and gender in Heinlein's work is full of surprises and rigorously argued.

This effort to read with fresh eyes has paid off. On almost every page there's a new insight or an arresting remark. Mendlesohn takes Heinlein seriously as a thinker, and makes you think.


Sounds interesting, and I think it will have its audience. My own experience is that a good many people who are not academics or genre historians remain interested in the writer and his ideas all these decades on.

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