Heinlein published 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections during his life. Four films, two television series, several episodes of a radio series, and a board game have been derived more or less directly from his work. He wrote a screenplay for one of the films. Heinlein edited an anthology of other writers' SF short stories.
Three nonfiction books and two poems have been published posthumously. For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs was published posthumously in 2003; Variable Star, written by Spider Robinson based on an extensive outline by Heinlein, was published in September 2006. Four collections have been published posthumously.
Over the course of his career Heinlein wrote three somewhat overlapping series.
Early work, 1939–1958
Heinlein began his career as a writer of stories for Astounding Science Fiction magazine, which was edited by John Campbell. The science fiction writer Frederik Pohl has described Heinlein as "that greatest of Campbell-era sf writers". Isaac Asimov said that, from the time of his first story, the science fiction world accepted that Heinlein was the best science fiction writer in existence, adding that he would hold this title through his lifetime.
Alexei and Cory Panshin noted that Heinlein's impact was immediately felt. In 1940, the year after selling 'Life-Line' to Campbell, he wrote three short novels, four novelettes, and seven short stories. They went on to say that "No one ever dominated the science fiction field as Bob did in the first few years of his career." Alexei expresses awe in Heinlein's ability to show readers a world so drastically different from the one we live in now, yet have so many similarities. He says that "We find ourselves not only in a world other than our own, but identifying with a living, breathing individual who is operating within its context, and thinking and acting according to its terms."
The opening installment of The Puppet Masters
took the cover of the September 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction
The first novel that Heinlein wrote, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (1939), did not see print during his lifetime, but Robert James tracked down the manuscript and it was published in 2003. Though some regard it as a failure as a novel, considering it little more than a disguised lecture on Heinlein's social theories, some readers took a very different view. In a review of it, John Clute wrote:
"I'm not about to suggest that if Heinlein had been able to publish [such works] openly in the pages of Astounding in 1939, SF would have gotten the future right; I would suggest, however, that if Heinlein, and his colleagues, had been able to publish adult SF in Astounding and its fellow journals, then SF might not have done such a grotesquely poor job of prefiguring something of the flavor of actually living here at the onset of 2004."
For Us, the Living was intriguing as a window into the development of Heinlein's radical ideas about man as a social animal, including his interest in free love. The root of many themes found in his later stories can be found in this book. It also contained a large amount of material that could be considered background for his other novels. This included a detailed description of the protagonist's treatment to avoid being banned to Coventry (a lawless land in the Heinlein mythos where unrepentant law-breakers are exiled).
Heinlein as depicted in Amazing Stories
It appears that Heinlein at least attempted to live in a manner consistent with these ideals, even in the 1930s, and had an open relationship in his marriage to his second wife, Leslyn. He was also a nudist; nudism and body taboos are frequently discussed in his work. At the height of the Cold War, he built a bomb shelter under his house, like the one featured in Farnham's Freehold.
After For Us, The Living, Heinlein began selling (to magazines) first short stories, then novels, set in a Future History, complete with a time line of significant political, cultural, and technological changes. A chart of the future history was published in the May 1941 issue of Astounding. Over time, Heinlein wrote many novels and short stories that deviated freely from the Future History on some points, while maintaining consistency in some other areas. The Future History was eventually overtaken by actual events. These discrepancies were explained, after a fashion, in his later World as Myth stories.
Heinlein's first novel published as a book, Rocket Ship Galileo, was initially rejected because going to the moon was considered too far-fetched, but he soon found a publisher, Scribner's, that began publishing a Heinlein juvenile once a year for the Christmas season. Eight of these books were illustrated by Clifford Geary in a distinctive white-on-black scratchboard style. Some representative novels of this type are Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Farmer in the Sky, and Starman Jones. Many of these were first published in serial form under other titles, e.g., Farmer in the Sky was published as Satellite Scout in the Boy Scout magazine Boys' Life. There has been speculation that Heinlein's intense obsession with his privacy was due at least in part to the apparent contradiction between his unconventional private life and his career as an author of books for children. However, For Us, The Living explicitly discusses the political importance Heinlein attached to privacy as a matter of principle thus negating this line of reasoning.
The novels that Heinlein wrote for a young audience are commonly called "the Heinlein juveniles", and they feature a mixture of adolescent and adult themes. Many of the issues that he takes on in these books have to do with the kinds of problems that adolescents experience. His protagonists are usually intelligent teenagers who have to make their way in the adult society they see around them. On the surface, they are simple tales of adventure, achievement, and dealing with stupid teachers and jealous peers. Heinlein was a vocal proponent of the notion that juvenile readers were far more sophisticated and able to handle more complex or difficult themes than most people realized. His juvenile stories often had a maturity to them that made them readable for adults. Red Planet, for example, portrays some subversive themes, including a revolution in which young students are involved; his editor demanded substantial changes in this book's discussion of topics such as the use of weapons by children and the misidentified sex of the Martian character. Heinlein was always aware of the editorial limitations put in place by the editors of his novels and stories, and while he observed those restrictions on the surface, was often successful in introducing ideas not often seen in other authors' juvenile SF.
In 1957, James Blish wrote that one reason for Heinlein's success "has been the high grade of machinery which goes, today as always, into his story-telling. Heinlein seems to have known from the beginning, as if instinctively, technical lessons about fiction which other writers must learn the hard way (or often enough, never learn). He does not always operate the machinery to the best advantage, but he always seems to be aware of it."
Heinlein decisively ended his juvenile novels with Starship Troopers (1959), a controversial work and his personal riposte to leftists calling for President Dwight D. Eisenhower to stop nuclear testing in 1958. "The 'Patrick Henry' ad shocked 'em," he wrote many years later. "Starship Troopers outraged 'em." Starship Troopers is a coming-of-age story about duty, citizenship, and the role of the military in society. The book portrays a society in which suffrage is earned by demonstrated willingness to place society's interests before one's own, at least for a short time and often under onerous circumstances, in government service; in the case of the protagonist, this was military service.
Later, in Expanded Universe, Heinlein said that it was his intention in the novel that service could include positions outside strictly military functions such as teachers, police officers, and other government positions. This is presented in the novel as an outgrowth of the failure of unearned suffrage government and as a very successful arrangement. In addition, the franchise was only awarded after leaving the assigned service, thus those serving their terms—in the military, or any other service—were excluded from exercising any franchise. Career military were completely disenfranchised until retirement.
The name Starship Troopers was licensed for an unrelated, B movie script called Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine, which was then retitled to benefit from the book's credibility. The resulting film, entitled Starship Troopers (1997), which was written by Ed Neumeier and directed by Paul Verhoeven, had little relationship to the book, beyond the inclusion of character names, the depiction of space marines, and the concept of suffrage earned by military service. Fans of Heinlein were critical of the movie, which they considered a betrayal of Heinlein's philosophy, presenting the society in which the story takes place as fascist.
Likewise, the powered armor technology that is not only central to the book, but became a standard subgenre of science fiction thereafter, is completely absent in the movie, where the characters use World War II-technology weapons and wear light combat gear little more advanced than that. In Verhoeven's movie of the same name, there is no battle armor. Verhoeven commented that he had tried to read the book after he had bought the rights to it, in order to add it to his existing movie. However he read only the first two chapters, finding it too boring to continue. He thought it was a bad book and asked Ed Neumeier to tell him the story because he couldn't read it.
Middle period work, 1961–1973
Heinlein's novel Podkayne of Mars
was serialized in If
, with a cover by Virgil Finlay
From about 1961 (Stranger in a Strange Land) to 1973 (Time Enough for Love), Heinlein explored some of his most important themes, such as individualism, libertarianism, and free expression of physical and emotional love. Three novels from this period, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough for Love, won the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, designed to honor classic libertarian fiction. Jeff Riggenbach described The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as "unquestionably one of the three or four most influential libertarian novels of the last century".
Heinlein did not publish Stranger in a Strange Land until some time after it was written, and the themes of free love and radical individualism are prominently featured in his long-unpublished first novel, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress tells of a war of independence waged by the Lunar penal colonies, with significant comments from a major character, Professor La Paz, regarding the threat posed by government to individual freedom.
Although Heinlein had previously written a few short stories in the fantasy genre, during this period he wrote his first fantasy novel, Glory Road, and in Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil, he began to mix hard science with fantasy, mysticism, and satire of organized religion. Critics William H. Patterson, Jr., and Andrew Thornton believe that this is simply an expression of Heinlein's longstanding philosophical opposition to positivism. Heinlein stated that he was influenced by James Branch Cabell in taking this new literary direction. The penultimate novel of this period, I Will Fear No Evil, is according to critic James Gifford "almost universally regarded as a literary failure" and he attributes its shortcomings to Heinlein's near-death from peritonitis.
Later work, 1980–1987
After a seven-year hiatus brought on by poor health, Heinlein produced five new novels in the period from 1980 (The Number of the Beast) to 1987 (To Sail Beyond the Sunset). These books have a thread of common characters and time and place. They most explicitly communicated Heinlein's philosophies and beliefs, and many long, didactic passages of dialog and exposition deal with government, sex, and religion. These novels are controversial among his readers and one critic, David Langford, has written about them very negatively. Heinlein's four Hugo awards were all for books written before this period.
Most of the novels from this period are recognized by critics as forming an offshoot from the Future History series, and referred to by the term World as Myth.
The tendency toward authorial self-reference begun in Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love becomes even more evident in novels such as The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, whose first-person protagonist is a disabled military veteran who becomes a writer, and finds love with a female character.
The 1982 novel Friday, a more conventional adventure story (borrowing a character and backstory from the earlier short story Gulf, also containing suggestions of connection to The Puppet Masters) continued a Heinlein theme of expecting what he saw as the continued disintegration of Earth's society, to the point where the title character is strongly encouraged to seek a new life off-planet. It concludes with a traditional Heinlein note, as in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress or Time Enough for Love, that freedom is to be found on the frontiers.
The 1984 novel Job: A Comedy of Justice is a sharp satire of organized religion. Heinlein himself was agnostic.
Several Heinlein works have been published since his death, including the aforementioned For Us, The Living as well as 1989's Grumbles from the Grave, a collection of letters between Heinlein and his editors and agent; 1992's Tramp Royale, a travelogue of a southern hemisphere tour the Heinleins took in the 1950s; Take Back Your Government, a how-to book about participatory democracy written in 1946; and a tribute volume called Requiem: Collected Works and Tributes to the Grand Master, containing some additional short works previously unpublished in book form. Off the Main Sequence, published in 2005, includes three short stories never before collected in any Heinlein book (Heinlein called them "stinkeroos").
Spider Robinson, a colleague, friend, and admirer of Heinlein, wrote Variable Star, based on an outline and notes for a juvenile novel that Heinlein prepared in 1955. The novel was published as a collaboration, with Heinlein's name above Robinson's on the cover, in 2006.
A complete collection of Heinlein's published work has been published by the Heinlein Prize Trust as the "Virginia Edition", after his wife. See the Complete Works section of Robert A. Heinlein bibliography for details.
The primary influence on Heinlein's writing style may have been Rudyard Kipling. Kipling is the first known modern example of "indirect exposition", a writing technique for which Heinlein later became famous. In his famous text on "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction", Heinlein quotes Kipling:
There are nine-and-sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays
And every single one of them is right
Stranger in a Strange Land actually originated as a modernized version of Kipling's The Jungle Book, his wife suggesting that the child be raised by Martians instead of wolves. Likewise, Citizen of the Galaxy can be seen as a reboot of Kipling's novel Kim.
The Starship Troopers idea of needing to serve in the military in order to vote, can be found in Kipling's "The Army of a Dream":
But as a little detail we never mention, if we don't volunteer in some corps or other — as combatants if we're fit, as non-combatants if we ain't — till we're thirty-five — we don't vote, and we don't get poor-relief, and the women don't love us.
Poul Anderson once said of Kipling's science fiction story "As Easy as A.B.C.", "a wonderful science fiction yarn, showing the same eye for detail that would later distinguish the work of Robert Heinlein".
Heinlein described himself as also being influenced by George Bernard Shaw, having read most of his plays. Shaw is an example of an earlier author who used the competent man, a favorite Heinlein archetype. He denied, though, any direct influence of Back to Methuselah on Methuselah's Children.