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Uncanny Vision of the Future Fills His Books : Science Fiction Author Robert Heinlein Makes Living Writing About Things Before They Occur

December 19, 1985|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ — Robert A. Heinlein, the reclusive science fiction author, writes history before it happens.

Impossible?

Well, in 1940, when America was at peace with fascism, one of Heinlein's first short stories predicted that atomic weapons would end the coming world war. In the 1800s other science fiction writers fantasized about nuclear weapons, but Heinlein foresaw that the United States would be first to use them.

Over the years Heinlein has repeatedly written history before it happened, fantasizing in print about water beds and an electronic defense shield that President Reagan now proposes as his Strategic Defense Initiative.

In 45 books and dozens of short stories, Heinlein has built a global audience in the millions, especially among young people drawn to his vision of the lone male genius on the Last Frontier who prevails against any organized authority that dares to restrict his potential. Heinlein favors self-made men--and he has given life almost everlasting to virile adventurers like Lazarus Long, whose time covers at least 10,000 years.

One of His Last Novels

But in a rare interview at his home near here, he said that his newest book, "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" (Putnam: $17.95), which resurrects Lazarus Long, may be one of his last novels.

"I used to work 12 hours a day, but now it's hard to work four hours a day," Heinlein observed from a secretarial chair in the wedge-shaped office that makes up one slice of his round yellow Slumpstone home.

His breath is short now, the legacy of the cigarettes he gave up 21 years ago after growing ill on a vacation in Papeete and a bout with TB half a century ago that forced him to retire as a Navy officer after just five years.

"Any exertion at all is too much. . . . I've got emphysema, a terminal disease, but I'll be a long time going and I've got no complaints, sergeant, no complaints," he said, grinning defiantly. "I'm 78 and that's a lot longer than I expected to live because life expectancy in 1907, when I was born, was 50."

And besides, he added, the future history of America is an experience he would just as soon not share.

"This country has been corrupted by what I call the 'wimp philosophy,' the idea that violence never settled anything," Heinlein said, noting that the cold reality is that "violence has settled more issues than anything else known in human history."

Decline in 40 Years

Heinlein, a 1929 Annapolis graduate whose polished Naval sword hangs in his office, said the "wimp philosophy" is hastening the day when American history will be taught the way Roman history is: only in the past tense.

"Look we haven't been smart at any time in the past 40 years so why should we get smart now?" he asked. "Both the liberals and the conservatives have seen the problems--it doesn't take very good eyesight to see that things have gone to hell in the past four decades.

"It is very easy for a man to grasp the notion that he has rights, but it is another for him to grasp that he has responsibilities," Heinlein said, adding that "to make democracy work the people should be aristocrats; they have to have a certain amount of nobility in the soul. . . ."

Heinlein thinks of himself as a libertarian. His work is so filled with ideological contradictions that critics have called him, in print, both a centrist and a fascist.

"To my taste government should be limited to exterior defense, interior defense and adjudication--and you'll notice I didn't say anything about public roads, public schools," he said.

Heinlein said he believes concern about economic security is draining the public purse with dire consequences for the soul of the country. "It hasn't been demonstrated yet that democracy is here to stay," Heinlein said.

Heinlein underwent high-risk surgery a few years ago to correct a blood flow problem that interfered with his thinking. He recovered well, his mind today is lucid and his creative vision undimmed.

Atop a row of filing cabinets, some of them padlocked and marked "classified," sat piles of 3x5 cards with handwritten notes for "Opus 189," his as-yet-untitled next novel.

One card served as a self-reminder that the book must deal with an important issue, that no deadline looms and work should be done at a pace his health allows, that Lazarus Long or some similarly appealing character should be portrayed and that "it should be long enough to justify the same contract as 'The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.' "

Literary Roots

The last item reflects Heinlein's literary roots. On forced Navy retirement, Heinlein found himself pressed to meet a mortgage payment in 1939 when he read an announcement for a short story contest with a $50 prize.

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