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The descent of a sci-fi guru

Robert A. Heinlein was one of the greats of the genre's golden age, but his legacy polarizes today's readers.

December 09, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

He was a onetime utopian socialist who became an assertive right-winger, a libertarian nudist with a military-hardware fetish, a cold warrior who penned an Age of Aquarius sensation with a hero who preached free love.

He won admiration from Ronald Reagan, who enlisted his ideas in his "Star Wars" missile shield, and Charles Manson, who was captured with the novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" in his backpack. He predicted the European Union and invented the water bed.

But Robert A. Heinlein, the California-based science-fiction writer who stood over the midcentury decades like a colossus, casts a different kind of shadow now, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, as his archives, held by UC Santa Cruz, are being placed online, making his work even more accessible to scholars and fans. Most of his work is in print, but opinions vary wildly about how important a writer Heinlein was: He's both a life-changing inspiration and a "dinosaur" who exerts less cultural presence than, say, Philip K. Dick, the drug-addled oddball who was a footnote during the field's golden age.

Heinlein, who in life was a divisive figure, has become, in death, a polarizing one and even something of a punch line. "When an emerging science-fiction writer's work earns him comparisons to Robert A. Heinlein," Dave Itzkoff begins a 2006 New York Times review, "should he take them as a compliment?"

As the literary and academic worlds open to science-fiction and genre writing, Heinlein lacks the cachet of J.G. Ballard, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Neal Stephenson, cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson and others. Films based on Dick's books, good and bad, keep coming. But Heinlein's film adaptations, in the last half century, since 1950's "Destination Moon," culminated in 1997's "Starship Troopers," widely disliked by his fan base.

Non-SF writer William Burroughs probably has more influence inside the genre's literary wing than Heinlein, who won four Hugos (the award voted by the fans), sold millions of copies, and was termed the field's most significant writer since H.G. Wells.

"His rabid fan base is graying," said Annalee Newitz, who writes about science fiction for Wired and Gawker. "To literary readers, the books look cheesy, sexist in a hairy-chest, gold-chain kind of way. His stuff hasn't stood the test of time," because of characters' windy speechifying and their frontier optimism.

"Here at the store I actively resist promoting him, because he was a fascist," said Charles Hauther, the science fiction buyer at Skylight Books. "People don't seem to talk about him anymore. I haven't had a conversation about Heinlein in a long time."

Still, hard-core admirers remain: David Silver, the Venice-based president of the 800-member Heinlein Society, discovered the author's work as a boy in the '50s and said he rereads about four dozen of Heinlein's books every year.

And Heinlein's following shows up in unexpected places: He's the hero of numerous astronauts, Silicon Valley types and those seeking to privatize space travel. He isn't just their favorite writer; he set them on their life's course. He generated public enthusiasm for the space race, inspired the genre called "military science fiction." Tom Clancy, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and countless libertarians are fans. A crater on Mars is named for him.

Tom Disch, author of the respected critical study "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of," said Heinlein's early work was often brilliant. "His great misfortune is the people who like him: It's often old-fashioned, cantankerous, right-wing chest-beaters. He was a better writer than that would suggest. He had a gift for startling notions."

'He was the enemy'

There are plenty of reasons for the polarized feelings over Heinlein, who was born in Missouri, attended the U.S. Naval Academy, left the military after a bout of tuberculosis and spent several decades in L.A. and Santa Cruz. After campaigning for Upton Sinclair and running for the California Assembly, he dominated the pulp magazines, broke into the Saturday Evening Post and became the first science fictionist to land on the New York Times bestseller list.

Some of the divisiveness around Heinlein comes from a battle that redrew the field profoundly over politics and gender.

In the '40s and '50s, science fiction's "golden age," there were three faces on the genre's Mt. Rushmore: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Heinlein. His books are far more likely than the others' to have the word "controversial" in their jacket copy.

"He was the enemy," recalled Disch, who was an emerging novelist in the "new wave" of the 1960s.

Those writers, often liberal or radical, aimed to move away from pulp space operas and toward literature, from tales of physics to stories about psychology and sexuality and drugs.

There were more female writers, and the men exhibited a feminist consciousness that diverged sharply from the golden age, in which women were usually sex objects, foils to rugged male heroes or absent altogether.

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