Volume 2 of William H. Patterson’s Massive Biography of Robert A. Heinlein is here at last! Here’s my review

It’s huge, it has a a ridiculously bad title, and it’s a feast for a Heinlein fanatic like me.

Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better tells the story of the second half of the life of the most influential science fiction writer since H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

Volume 1 of the biography came out in 2010. I found it to be a fascinating portrait, not just of Heinlein as a boy and young man, but also of the nation he was raised in. That nation was far away and distant from our own. It was America, 1907-48. Heinlein dreamed of the stars at a time when you kept in touch with your friends by mail if they lived outside of driving distance. If you wanted to take a long-distance trip, you drove or took an overnight train.

Robert and Virginia Heinlein in Tahiti, 1980. Photo by Hayford Peirce.

Robert and Virginia Heinlein in Tahiti, 1980. Photo by Hayford Peirce.

I loved the second volume almost as much as Volume 1. I read most of it over Memorial Day weekend. And the Tuesday after Memorial Day, I was up at 4:30 in the morning thinking about Heinlein. I’ve been struggling with some big life decisions for a while; the example of Heinlein’s life helped me find answers.

Heinlein is one of my heroes. He has been since I was a boy. The very first novel I read was a slim paperback of Heinlein’s Red Planet. I was captivated by the story of two boys in a boarding school on Mars and their pet Martian bouncer Willis (who turns out to be more than just a pet), getting caught up in a revolution as they skated across the frozen canals of Mars.

And Heinlein stayed with me for more than forty years since. Not all his books are great. Some of them aren’t even very good. The books he wrote in later life are his most popular — from 1961’s Stranger in a Strange Land to To Sail Beyond the Sunset, publishedin 1987, the years before he died. But I don’t really care for those (not even Stranger, his most popular book of all). I like his earlier work, in particular the “boy’s books” he wrote in the 1950s: Citizen of the Galaxy, which I wrote about here a short time ago; Starman Jones, Tunnel in the Sky, The Star Beast, and a couple of the adult books he wrote in the same period, including Double Star and Methuselah’s Children.

I re-read Heinlein every couple of years. His novels are like visiting a favorite uncle. I love the language. Heinlein’s narrators and characters spoke a mid-20th-Century vernacular; the voices when I read his books are Stewart, Hepburn, Tracy, and Grant. Methuselah’s Children is set 200 years in the future; the men wear kilts, carry blasters, and pilot spaceships, but they also smoke cigarettes. I imagine they wear fedoras and the cigarettes they smoke are Luckies. Lazarus Long, the hero, calls people “Bub.” Just about all of Heinlein’s novels are like that. That’s part of the charm for me.

Almost none of Heinlein’s heroes are supermen. They’re ordinary men and women, highly competent, educated, and skilled, called on to perform heroically. They’re likable — even the villains are just guys trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances.

Heinlein’s greatest skill was sketching out whole worlds in a few words. Doors dilate, cigarettes are self-lighting, one character’s alarm clock chirps “Better look at me boss— I’ve got troubles,” over and over until shut off — seemed very futuristic when I read the book 40 years ago; now you can easily set your iPhone to do something like that.

Heinlein was married to Virginia Heinlein for 40 years, until his death. As described by Patterson, theirs was a great love, a marriage of two great minds and spirit. The section of the biography describing the period after Heinlein’s death is extremely sad; Virginia writes a letter to Robert describing how she misses him and hopes to be reunited with him soon. Both Heinleins were rationalists and materialists, but they kept the door open to the possibility of the occult and life after death.

Volume 2 of Patterson’s biography lacks the wonderful worldbuilding of Volume 1, because the world of America 1948-88 (Heinlein died that year), is more familiar. I found this volume of the biography slow going at times, consumed with the details of Heinlein’s chronic illnesses and the very complicated business dealings of a bestselling novelist. (Spoiler alert: many people in the movie business were unscrupulous then, as were many people in publishing).

The book seems one-sided — not surprising, since this is a biography authorized by Heinlein’s widow and later their estate. I’m sure Patterson was scrupulous in trying to be objective, but I presume he was selected because of his admiration for Heinlein. Heinlein got in disagreements, with fan Forrest Ackerman, the national blood bank organization, science fiction critic Alexei Panshin, and — in a particularly tragic turn — his second wife, Leslyn, who seems to have descended into alcohol and madness. I would have liked to have heard their side of the stories.

Also, Patterson seems to agree with Heinlein’s politics, and at times appears to be apologetic for them.

Still, it was a fine biography and I found it well worth reading.

I interviewed Patterson, the author of the biography, for more than two hours on a podcast I was then producing called Copper Robot. (I don’t have a link — sorry. Maybe I can find something and re-post if there’s sufficient interest.) Patterson and I were both regulars at LosCon, the Los Angeles sf convention held over Thanksgiving weekend, and we got in a few conversations, sat on a couple of panels together, and had lunch there. We corresponded on Facebook — our politics were different but I enjoyed our disagreements, and he seemed to as well.

Then in late April of this year I got bad news and good news in the same message. The bad news overshadowed the good: Patterson was dead. And the Heinlein biography was due out June 3.

I’m sorry that Patterson is gone, but he’s left a fine legacy behind him.

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18 thoughts on “Volume 2 of William H. Patterson’s Massive Biography of Robert A. Heinlein is here at last! Here’s my review

  1. I’m almost finished with the 2nd volume of the biography. Our history is very similar. Red Planet was the first Heinlein I read too, and I mainly prefer his books written in the 1950s. I have a love/hate relationship with Stranger in a Strange Land, and find all his books after The Moon is a Harsh Mistress almost unreadable.

    I thought Patterson did a good job of summarizing the Heinlein papers, but was disappointed that he didn’t go out into the world and interview people that knew Heinlein. I was also disappointed that we didn’t get more information that illuminated his novels. We learned about when and where he wrote them, and how much effort it took, and how much he got paid, but little was revealed about why he wrote the novels, how he came up with the ideas, and what they meant to him.

    My favorite Heinlein novels are the Scribners juveniles and the biography makes it seem they were a pain in the ass for him, and he less proud of them than his later books.

    Heinlein was a kind of literary father figure to me that I’ve written about often, but ultimately I rebelled against.

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  2. Heinlein seemed to like writing the juveniles and believed they were important work. But he found the editorial process to be — as you say — a pain in the ass.

    I would not say I have rebelled against Heinlein. There are elements of his work and life I find laudable, other elements not. His libertarianism and anti-Communism may have been right for that time and place but not today.

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  3. From reading volume 2 of the biography I got the feeling Heinlein was not quite proud of the juveniles. He was proud that they were a success, but I got the feeling he wanted bigger successes. Patterson didn’t focus on this, but he provided enough clues to make me wonder if Heinlein wanted to be considered a serious writer, and that Heinlein consider writing boys books as not serious.

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    • He certainly wanted to be considered a serious writer. His entire World War II career was driven by that, and by avoiding the “science fiction” label. IIRC, Heinlein did not consider himself a science fiction writer.

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      • It was disappointing that Heinlein wasn’t satisfied with being a big fish in a little pond, and wanted to be a big fish in a big pond. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, but I would have been more impressed if he hadn’t started taking himself so seriously. I liked Heinlein best when he was being an advocate of space travel, and not a guru for freedom and responsibility. Heinlein was no Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson.

        I thought it rather telling that Patterson writes up the Heinlein’s as being involved in the Goldwater campaign, seemingly to imply importantly so, but when he gives Heinlein a pat on the back for suggesting a goldfish bowl for collecting donations I realized that the Heinleins were only very marginally involved.

        I’m afraid Heinlein’s self-image as a 20th century American writer was over-inflated too. Heinlein did become rich on his writing, so that is some validation, but I’m not sure if it means much in the long run.

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