Robert A. Heinlein | influence and legacy

Influence and legacy

The Dean of Science Fiction Writers

Heinlein is usually identified, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, as one of the three masters of science fiction to arise in the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, associated with John W. Campbell and his magazine Astounding.[97] In the 1950s he was a leader in bringing science fiction out of the low-paying and less prestigious "pulp ghetto". Most of his works, including short stories, have been continuously in print in many languages since their initial appearance and are still available as new paperbacks decades after his death.

He was at the top of his form during, and himself helped to initiate, the trend toward social science fiction, which went along with a general maturing of the genre away from space opera to a more literary approach touching on such adult issues as politics and human sexuality. In reaction to this trend, hard science fiction began to be distinguished as a separate subgenre, but paradoxically Heinlein is also considered a seminal figure in hard science fiction, due to his extensive knowledge of engineering and the careful scientific research demonstrated in his stories. Heinlein himself stated—with obvious pride—that in the days before pocket calculators, he and his wife Virginia once worked for several days on a mathematical equation describing an Earth-Mars rocket orbit, which was then subsumed in a single sentence of the novel Space Cadet.

Writing style

Heinlein is often credited with bringing serious writing techniques to the genre of science fiction.

For example, when writing about fictional worlds, previous authors were often limited by the reader's existing knowledge of a typical "space opera" setting, leading to a relatively low creativity level: The same starships, death rays, and horrifying rubbery aliens becoming ubiquitous. This was necessary unless the author was willing to go into long expositions about the setting of the story, at a time when the word count was at a premium in SF.

But Heinlein utilized a technique called "indirect exposition", perhaps first introduced by Rudyard Kipling in his own science fiction venture, the Aerial Board of Control stories. Kipling had picked this up during his time in India.[98] This technique — mentioning details in a way that lets the reader infer more about the universe than is actually spelled out[99] became a trademark rhetorical technique of both Heinlein and generation of writers influenced by him. Heinlein was significantly influenced by Kipling beyond this, for example quoting him in On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.[100]

Likewise, Heinlein's name is often associated with the competent hero, a character archetype who, though he or she may have flaws and limitations, is a strong, accomplished person able to overcome any soluble problem set in their path. They tend to feel confident overall, have a broad life experience and set of skills, and not give up when the going gets tough. This style influenced not only the writing style of a generation of authors, but even their personal character. Harlan Ellison once said, "Very early in life when I read Robert Heinlein I got the thread that runs through his stories—the notion of the competent man ... I've always held that as my ideal. I've tried to be a very competent man."[101]

While Heinlein used this style, in part, as a role model to the reader, it also has appeal to the self-image of general competence among many science fiction readers, who may see themselves as having technical ability, wide-ranging knowledge, an understanding of science, and great problem-solving skill, all of which feel unappreciated in school and work.

Heinlein's Rules of Writing

When fellow writers, or fans, wrote Heinlein asking for writing advice, he famously gave out his own list of rules for becoming a successful writer:

  1. You must write.
  2. Finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put your story on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold.

About which he said:

The above five rules really have more to do with how to write speculative fiction than anything said above them. But they are amazingly hard to follow – which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants, and which is why I am not afraid to give away the racket![102]

Heinlein later published an entire article, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction", which included his rules, and from which the above quote is taken. When he says "anything said above them", he refers to his other guidelines. For example, he describes most stories as fitting into one of a handful of basic categories:

  • The Gadget Story
  • The Human Interest Story
    • Boy Meets Girl
    • The Little Tailor
    • The Man-Who-Learned-Better

In the article, Heinlein credits L. Ron Hubbard as having identified "The Man-Who-Learned-Better".

Influence among writers

Heinlein has had a pervasive influence on other science fiction writers. In a 1953 poll of leading science fiction authors, he was cited more frequently as an influence than any other modern writer.[103] Critic James Gifford writes that

"Although many other writers have exceeded Heinlein's output, few can claim to match his broad and seminal influence. Scores of science fiction writers from the prewar Golden Age through the present day loudly and enthusiastically credit Heinlein for blazing the trails of their own careers, and shaping their styles and stories."[104]

Heinlein gave Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle extensive advice on a draft manuscript of The Mote in God's Eye.[105] He contributed a cover blurb "Possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read." Writer David Gerrold, responsible for creating the tribbles in Star Trek, also credited Heinlein as the inspiration for his Dingilliad series of novels. Gregory Benford refers to his novel Jupiter Project as a Heinlein tribute. Similarly, Charles Stross says his Hugo Award-nominated novel Saturn's Children is "a space opera and late-period Robert A. Heinlein tribute",[106] referring to Heinlein's Friday.[107]

Words and phrases coined

Outside the science fiction community, several words and phrases coined or adopted by Heinlein have passed into common English usage:

  • Waldo, protagonist in the eponymous short story "Waldo", whose name came to mean mechanical or robot arms in the real world that are akin to the ones used by the character in the story.
  • TANSTAAFL, short for There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, an existing term that refers to the fact that things supposedly given free always have some real cost, popularized in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
  • Moonbat[108] used in United States politics as a pejorative political epithet referring to progressives or leftists, was originally the name of a space ship in his story Space Jockey.
  • Grok, a "Martian" word for understanding a thing so fully as to become one with it, from Stranger in a Strange Land.
  • Space marine, an existing term popularized by Heinlein in short stories, the concept then being made famous by Starship Troopers, though the term "space marine" is not used in that novel.
  • Speculative fiction, a term Heinlein used for the separation of serious, consistent Science Fiction writing, from the pop "sci fi" of the day, which generally took great artistic license with human knowledge, amounting to being more like space fantasy than science fiction.

Inspiring culture and technology

In 1962, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (then still using his birth name, Tim Zell) founded the Church of All Worlds, a Neopagan religious organization modeled in many ways (including its name) after the treatment of religion in the novel Stranger in a Strange Land. This spiritual path included several ideas from the book, including non-mainstream family structures, social libertarianism, water-sharing rituals, an acceptance of all religious paths by a single tradition, and the use of several terms such as "grok", "Thou art God", and "Never Thirst". Though Heinlein was neither a member nor a promoter of the Church, there was a frequent exchange of correspondence between Zell and Heinlein, and he was a paid subscriber to their magazine, Green Egg. This Church still exists as a 501(C)(3) religious organization incorporated in California, with membership worldwide, and it remains an active part of the neopagan community today.[109]

Heinlein was influential in making space exploration seem to the public more like a practical possibility. His stories in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post took a matter-of-fact approach to their outer-space setting, rather than the "gee whiz" tone that had previously been common. The documentary-like film Destination Moon advocated a Space Race with an unspecified foreign power almost a decade before such an idea became commonplace, and was promoted by an unprecedented publicity campaign in print publications. Many of the astronauts and others working in the U.S. space program grew up on a diet of the Heinlein juveniles,[original research?] best evidenced by the naming of a crater on Mars after him, and a tribute interspersed by the Apollo 15 astronauts into their radio conversations while on the moon.[110]

Heinlein was also a guest commentator for Walter Cronkite during Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's Apollo 11 moon landing. He remarked to Cronkite during the landing that, "This is the greatest event in human history, up to this time. This is—today is New Year's Day of the Year One."[111] Businessman and entrepreneur Elon Musk says that Heinlein's books have helped inspire his career.[112]

Heinlein Society

The Heinlein Society was founded by Virginia Heinlein on behalf of her husband, to "pay forward" the legacy of the writer to future generations of "Heinlein's Children." The foundation has programs to:

  • "Promote Heinlein blood drives."
  • "Provide educational materials to educators."
  • "Promote scholarly research and overall discussion of the works and ideas of Robert Anson Heinlein."

The Heinlein society also established the Robert A. Heinlein Award in 2003 "for outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings to inspire the human exploration of space."[113][114]

In popular culture

  • In the 1967 Star Trek television episode "The Trouble with Tribbles", the title creatures in the episode resembled the Martian flat cats in Heinlein's 1952 novel The Rolling Stones. Script writer David Gerrold was concerned that he had inadvertently plagiarized the novel which he had read fifteen years before.[115] These concerns were brought up by a research team, who suggested that the rights to the novel should be purchased from Heinlein. One of the producers phoned Heinlein, who only asked for a signed copy of the script and later sent a note to Gerrold after it aired to thank him for the script.[116]
  • In the 1985 science fiction film Explorers, one character is a genetically engineered talking rat named Heinlein.[117]
  • In the 2001 novel The Counterfeit Heinlein by Laurence M. Janifer, Heinlein appears indirectly as the purported author of an ancient manuscript, supposedly one of his unpublished stories, "The Stone Pillow".[118][third-party source needed]
  • Author John Varley, also a Heinlein fan, coined the term "Heinleiner" in his novel Steel Beach, wherein there is a group of libertarians known by that name, because they reside on a starship known as the Robert A. Heinlein, a theme continued in his novel The Golden Globe. The term is now considered slang for rugged individualists.[119][120]
  • Music
    • In 1971, progressive rock band Yes released a three-part song called Starship Trooper on their album The Yes Album. The title was based on the Heinlein novel Starship Troopers. Lyricist Jon Anderson said he got the idea of a "Starship Trooper being another guardian angel and Mother Earth".
    • In 1974, Jimmy Webb used the author's title The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress for his song of the same name:
      "Robert Heinlein was a kind of early mentor of mine. I started reading his books when I was eight years old. ... I guess I was really getting more of my education out of science-fiction than out of public school. I was reading Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and learning a great deal about the patois of the language itself and how these words were being used to create emotions. I was learning this from writers without even knowing it. ... The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was one of the best titles I've ever heard in my life. I really am guilty of appropriating something from another writer. In this case I had contact with Robert A. Heinlein's attorneys. I said, "I want to write a song with the title, 'The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress'. Can you ask Mr. Heinlein if it's okay with him?" They called me back and he said he had no objection to it.[121]
    • In 1980, progressive rock band The Police released a song called Friends, B side to Don't Stand So Close to Me, that was based on Stranger in a Strange Land. Writer Andy Summers said was "about eating your friends, or 'grocking' them as the book put it":[122]
      "I likes to eat my friends
      I makes no bones about it"
    • The U2 song Stranger in a Strange Land was named after the Heinlein Novel.[123]
    • Billy Joel's song "We Didn't Start the Fire" (1989) names the novel.
    • Many people have collected the various parts of the Heinlein "song" The Green Hills of Earth — Heinlein used this trope in various stories, the characters occasionally mentioning the song and even quoting lines from it — together and put them to music.[124][125][126]
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