Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume I (1907-1948): Learning Curve

It’s hard to imagine a generation of science-fiction readers growing up without the looming presence of Robert A. Heinlein. From his earliest published story in 1939 to his death in 1988 (and, in many ways beyond), he reshaped sci-fi from its easily dismissed pulp roots to a popular and formidable — if not always respected — genre of fiction that could be instructive and expansive, as well as entertaining and, yes, predictive. Robert Silverberg expressed it best in the opening line of his tribute to Heinlein (collected in Yoji Kondo’s REQUIEM) when he stated, “The word that comes to mind of him is essential.”

Now we have William H. Patterson Jr.’s long-awaited biography of Heinlein — or at least part of it. The huge ROBERT A. HEINLEIN: IN DIALOGUE WITH HIS CENTURY: VOLUME I (1907-1948): LEARNING CURVE is only the first of the promised two volumes of Heinlein’s life. As Patterson notes in his Introduction, this first installment covers his subject’s birth and early life through his formative years as a writer.

Writing an authorized biography, Patterson was granted unlimited access to the Heinlein’s archive of scrapbooks, correspondence, articles, notes, interviews and everything else recording his life and work — all dutifully reported in the near-100 pages of notes. But those who fear that “authorized” means “whitewash” can take heart in Patterson’s effort to present the man with all his shortcomings, as well as his triumphs.
Born into a large and often financially strapped family in 1907 in Butler, Mo., young Robert displayed an early intelligence and, not surprisingly, became an early lover of books. His childhood favorites included Horatio Alger, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. Later, he would discover Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and, most importantly, H.G. Wells. He also was drawn to the earliest forms of what would become science fiction in the many pulp magazines published by Hugo Gernsback.
Knowing his family could not afford a college education, Robert followed the example of a few of his older brothers and enlisted in the military, in his case, the Navy. Although difficult at first, he eventually found life at the Annapolis Naval Academy much to his liking and stayed on in the service after graduation. But what might have been a career was ended when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given a medical discharge.
Most readers assume it was at this point that Heinlein became a writer. But as Patterson reveals, that had to wait until after a lengthy involvement in California politics. Having settled in the west with his (we now learn) second wife, Heinlein worked at promoting the radical, liberal Democratic candidacy of Upton Sinclair for governor. The campaign failed, but Heinlein remained a vocal observer of politics for the rest of his life.
But there were groceries to buy and bills to pay. So while contemplating other means of potential income, Heinlein tried his hand at fiction writing in the manner of his mentor, Wells, and the pulp magazines popular in the day. (And it was not in response to a writing contest, as Heinlein had us believe, but rather to an open solicitation for work from unpublished authors.)

He first completed a novel (FOR US, THE LIVING, not published until 15 years after his death and now placed in historical perspective with the rest of his works), then, while trying to land a publisher, short stories that he sent out to the pulps. The stories sold, and his final career was set in motion.

Like the proverbial kid in a candy store, Patterson must have found it hard to resist leaving out any details and anecdotes his research unveiled. As a result, this first volume is at times as exhaustive to read, as are its various sources. This is especially true in the chapters detailing Heinlein’s years in the Naval Academy and on the California campaign trail. Still, we keep reading for fear of missing any moment that might prove insightful into his later life and work.
Then, when he finally becomes a professional writer, the narrative gains a blissful energy and is damn near impossible to put down. Here, we learn about the influential, long-distance relationship Heinlein established with editor John W. Campbell, who not only provided the freshman author with story ideas, but constantly pushed him to make his fiction better and more appealing to the paying audience.

It is in these years that Heinlein learned to fuse his personal philosophy and beliefs into his fiction, while never losing sight of his targeted audience. Along the way are the personal and professional relationships he made with many of the authors who would be remembers as part of the “Golden Age” of science fiction, including Henry Kuttner, Frederick Pohl,  L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov and a rambunctious, energetic youngster named Ray Bradbury.
This volume ends with the publication of Heinlein’s first “juvenile novel,” ROCKET SHIP GALILEO; his graduation from the pulps to the more respectable “slick” magazines, like THE SATURDAY EVENING POST and COLLIER’S; and his painful second divorce and his marriage to Virginia “Ginny” Gerstenfeld. We have to wait until the second volume to learn the intimate details behind those works that truly established Heinlein as the undisputed “Grand Master of Science Fiction”: STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS and, of course, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.
Let’s hope Patterson and Tor don’t make us wait too long. —Alan Cranis

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