01 Jul 2007

Robert A. Heinlein Centennial

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Brian Doherty, in the LA times, pays tribute on the occasion of Robert A. Heinlein’s upcoming 100th birthday.

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein was born in Missouri, and his fiction was mostly set in the future and on distant planets. But there’s no question that Heinlein — born 100 years ago this week — was one of Southern California’s great prophets.

He lived in Los Angeles in the 1930s and ’40s, and first turned to writing because of looming mortgage payments after his failed campaign in 1938 to represent Hollywood in the Assembly. Though he would later become a great inspiration to libertarians, Heinlein was then an active member of novelist Upton Sinclair’s popular quasi-socialist “End Poverty in California” movement.

From the beginning of his career as a writer in 1939 (when he published his first story, “Life-Line,” in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine), Heinlein was one of the field’s masters. Before that, science fiction had been mostly either a heavy-handed and didactic genre or one concerned with unsophisticated fantastic adventure tales. Heinlein added sophistication and realism, creating a future world that seemed everyday and lived-in, not impossibly distant. He treated rockets and space travel as matter-of-fact details of human life — as Heinlein believed they would and must become.

From 1939 until his death in 1988, Heinlein was science fiction’s acknowledged leader, with 33 popular novels, most of them in print decades later
Heinlein’s novels were also powerful precursors of Southern California politics and culture, especially as they unfolded in the change-filled 1960s. …

California, and specifically Southern California, was key to Barry Goldwater’s surprising 1964 GOP nomination victory. Goldwater’s rough-hewn combination of a crusty, antigovernment attitude and extreme bellicosity against communism — which he saw as an unacceptable threat to American individualism — resonated deeply in Southern California at the time.

But the Goldwater surge was preceded by a mini-movement Heinlein tried to create in 1958 with the “Patrick Henry League,” dedicated to the notion that the truest expression of U.S. liberty was preparing for a fight to the finish with international communism.

Heinlein laid some of these concepts out in his 1959 “Starship Troopers,” offering up the idea that American liberty and a relentless fight against the Soviets were inextricably linked — a science fiction version of Goldwater’s subsequent message. It presented a world of low taxes and few laws in which only veterans of public service could vote (not only military veterans, contrary to some Heinlein detractors who saw something fascist in the novel) and where brave young men gave the last full measure of devotion to defeat an insectoid alien menace that was a clear metaphor for communism. …

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.


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