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BOOK REVIEW : A Shallow Peek Into a Sci-Fi Grand Master

January 23, 1990|LEE DEMBART

Grumbles From the Grave by Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Virginia Heinlein (A Del Rey Book: $19.95; 281 pages)

There was a time, not long ago, but eons past in spirit, when everyone knew the verb grok .

You could buy buttons and posters that contained the word, and people used it in conversation. It meant to understand fully and completely with great empathy, to be in harmony, and it came from Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel, "Stranger in a Strange Land," one of the books of the 1960s.

Though no one seems to grok anymore, "Stranger in a Strange Land" is still in print, as are many of the science-fiction works that Heinlein wrote between 1939 and his death in 1988 at the age of 80. He was the grand master of science fiction, and he took the genre into the world of ideas and social consciousness.

"Stranger," with its challenge to organized religion, government and science, and its message of free love and universal peace, became the bible of the counterculture. (Remember the counterculture?) It was embraced by hippies, libertarians, the women's liberation movement and Charles Manson, among others.

All of which came as a surprise to Heinlein, who was a political conservative and a staunch supporter of the Pentagon and military preparedness. When he discovered in 1968 that a course was being offered at UCLA on "J. D. Salinger, Robert Heinlein, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Other Personal Gurus," Heinlein wrote to his agent, "I'm such a square I don't even know who the third guru is. . . . I'm new to the guru business."

This little tidbit is one of many in "Grumbles From the Grave," a collection of Heinlein's letters selected and edited by his wife, Virginia. The collection starts with Heinlein's cover letter for his first story in 1939 to "Astounding Science Fiction" and continues until 1972. Most of the letters were written to Heinlein's agent, Lurton Blasingame, with occasional responses from him. Mrs. Heinlein has organized them roughly by subject. The title was proposed by Heinlein before his death.

Alas, readers wishing to find the inner Robert Heinlein will not find him here. Many of his letters are taken up with the nuts and bolts of his craft: his writing and rewriting habits, arguments with editors, rejections, pay rates and schedules.

There is some information to be gleaned about "Stranger." Heinlein first got the idea for it from Virginia in 1949 and worked on it on and off for a decade. Unlike most of his books, it did not come easily to him. "I have been hung up for a solid week on the new adult novel," he wrote to his agent in 1955. "It is the Man-from-Mars idea that I first talked about several years ago. It is an idea as difficult as it is strong and one I have had trouble with twice before."

Once he finished it in 1960 he wrote to Blasingame: "I wrote the thing with my eye intentionally not on the market. For 20 years I have always had one eye on the market with the other on the copy in this mill. . . . When I finished it and reread it, I did not see how in hell you could ever sell it."

In one of his few reflective letters, written about the same time, Heinlein said something about the themes of "Stranger":

"I have undertaken to criticize and examine disrespectfully the two untouchables: monotheism and monogamy. My book says: a personal God is unprovable, most unlikely, and all contemporary theology is superstitious twaddle insulting to a mature mind. . . .

"Concerning sex, my book says: Sex is a hell of a lot of fun, not shameful in any aspect, and not a bit sacred. Monogamy is merely a social pattern useful to certain structures of society--but it is strictly a pragmatic matter, unconnected with sin . . . and a myriad other patterns are possible and some of them can be, under appropriate circumstances, both more efficient and more happy-making."

That's about as close as the book gets to revealing much about Heinlein. His letters are a useful addition to the history of science fiction, but they say virtually nothing about the man who was so influential on its development.

There was a complicated man spinning out those yarns, but you would hardly know it from these letters. A biography of Heinlein and critical assessment of his work remain to be written.

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