Monday, October 25, 2010

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century by William H. Patterson

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning CurveI'd have to say that this is the definitive biography of Heinlein, except that it's not, quite...there's still another volume to come. It's already the kind of massive tome you can bludgeon an armed intruder with. Patterson had full access to the Heinlein archives and a lot of help from his widow, Virginia, other family members and acquaintances. Most of Heinlein's actual friends have passed on by now, so they didn't provide a lot of input.

One of the fun things about reading this book is getting little glimpses and hints of where Heinlein came up with the inspiration for his characters, plots and themes. One of the things that's perhaps not so fun is wading through the incredible amount of detail, including his personal and professional correspondence, unclassified work he did for the Department of the Navy during WWII, and the amount of rent he paid for each place he lived.

The book takes us from his birth in 1907 to his marriage to Virginia (Ticky) in 1948. I hadn't known a whole lot about his first wife...or second wife...before I read this. The second wife, Leslyn, comes off as a real cast-iron bitch, with serious psychological problems and an alcohol addiction. I have to wonder if this impression isn't colored by how Virginia felt about her.

I also hadn't realized that he'd been so active in the Democratic Party in the 30s, running campaigns for other candidates, and even running for office in California, himself. His political beliefs were an interesting smorgasbord, not exactly what I expected from having read all his novels, and they may indeed have evolved somewhat over time to something I'd recognize as distinctly Heinlein.

I was also somewhat surprised to see how bad his health was. I knew that he'd had a medical discharge from the Navy not too long after being commissioned as an officer, but hadn't realized that he continually suffered from a number of ailments, and writing was one of the few professions that was physically undemanding enough for him to pursue. We might never have known of his vast storytelling talents had he not been forced to retire from a more active career.

Heinlein seemed from this history to run with a very bohemian, bon vivant sort of crowd. Patterson describes him several times as being very spiritual, but he wasn't - in the religious sense. He'd pretty well rejected formal Judeo Christian religion quite young, and experimented with anything else that came his way. Leslyn, herself, was a practitioner of ritual magic, and used it to ward their home from bad spirits, especially one that like to "come up from the basement".

His life is a veritable Who's Who of science fiction authors and fandom. Asimov was a protege, Ackerman a persistent gadfly in his social circle. L. Ron Hubbard (of later Scientology fame) was a frequent guest in the Heinlein home. Willy Ley was a close friend until he started promoting Werner Von Braun (a Nazi and member of the SS) in the U.S. Every social gathering mentioned in the book was full of authors' names I recognized from the Golden Days of SF. I wonder why they call them the Golden Days, as there's a ton more SF on the market and far greater opportunities today for authors than ever?

Anyway, I'm not sure whether I'm looking forward to Volume 2 or not. I'm sure it will contain a ton of great information about my favorite author, but it's gonna be a major time investment to winnow through the chaff. Serious R.A.H fanz, go for it!

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