Robert Heinlein is the greatest writer of Science Fiction that ever lived.
I’m not claiming that he’s “Science Fiction’s Greatest Writer.” Obviously there have been men and women with a greater grasp of the art of written language, with a greater fluency or more artful prose. Names come to mind like Bester, Dick, Vance and Sturgeon, to name just a few. What I AM saying is that no one writes a better Science Fiction story than Robert Heinlein. In my mind, Heinlein’s works are the very definition of what Science Fiction is at its best.
Now I know there are many of you thinking to yourselves “I read STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, I read STARSHIP TROOPERS and they just weren’t that great.” And you are right. Why these are the books that have become associated so strongly with Heinlein’s name is quite beyond me. They are not his greatest works. STARSHIP TROOPERS is revered, it seems, because it marks the creation of the “Space Marine”. This is an incredibly interesting idea, but a dated one that can have little impact on a modern reader who has already been bombarded with the concept for decades. The story itself is. . . lackluster. The characters are unmemorable. The battle scenes are interesting as I remember, but that was about it. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND was groundbreaking at its time, but the social commentary of this book written in the 1960’s is again “old news” to the modern reader. I do love the characters in this one, and the story is interesting, but too much of it is just no longer relevant. Another strange thing about this novel is the way it was edited. Apparently the book was such a deluge of pages in its original form that Heinlein was asked by the publisher to remove sixty thousand words. Reluctant to cut any of the passages he had written, Heinlein painstakingly went through the pages and pulled out sixty thousand words without changing the meaning of one sentence. This to me explains why this book does not contain the “fire” of his better works. The message remains but the “passion” was removed. Some time ago the complete version of the book was released, but I have to admit I haven’t read it yet. It’s on my bookshelf. I’m “saving” it.
So where do we turn to read something great by Robert Heinlein? For me it is the short stories that he wrote in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The stories that have become known as Heinlein’s “Future History” and outline man’s first forays into the solar system, occurring between the 21st and 24th centuries. These are amazing stories that convey the excitement for space travel that existed during the time in which they were written. They contain a positive outlook of the future as well as a belief in the power and the good of mankind that could only exist in the early days of Science Fiction. They are also packed with action, tension and fantastic ideas. Most of these stories are collected in the enormous THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW. If you are looking for a thousand pages of pure, unadulterated “what Science Fiction should be”, this is the place to start. Beyond just a romantic homage to what the future can bring, these stories offer challenging thoughts on government, religion, social norms, and what it means to be a human being. Read this book. Seriously. Heinlein continues his “Future History” a thousand years later in ORPHANS OF THE SKY and then a thousand years after that in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. Both are also great.
The next stop on our journey through Heinlein should certainly be THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. This is perhaps Heinlein’s most beautifully written novel, taking place during a civil war in which the lunar colonies are trying to separate from Earth. This of course sets up Heinlein for comments on war and government, but the story also touches on the morals of self-aware artificial intelligence. His predictions around the type of men who will one day spend their lives working with computers are eerily on target. This is an absolutely splendid novel.
I should probably mention the “Juveniles” as these are some of his best known works. Titles like ROCKET SHIP GALILEO, HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL, and yes of course SPACE CADET are among almost a dozen works that Heinlein created for young adults. These novels are all fun, but nothing astounding. They are like comic books, or b-movies that take place in space. Of course I LOVE comic books and b-movies more than just about anything, so I do love the “juveniles”, but they are a distraction. Good for a day at the beach, they will not hold your thoughts or bring new insights.
Heinlein wrote prolifically and lived a long life. While I am not particularly fond of his later works, there is still a plethora of engaging, exciting and thought provoking work to be plundered. GLORY ROAD is an unexpectedly fun romp in the world of sword & sorcery. FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD is a novel that amazed me. Just when you think you know what it’s about, it becomes something completely different. I am still astounded by the strong emotional impact this novel had on me. Man, I just finished a collection called ASSIGNMENT IN ETERNITY that contains a handful of novellas and short stories from the 1940’s that I enjoyed immensely. The list goes on and on. Until, like me, you find you have devoured all of these delicious tales, and end up clinging tragically to the hope that sixty thousand more words to STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND will be worth the wait. . .