Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What Makes Heinlein a Great Author?

This post contains spoilers for "Podkayne from Mars," "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," and "Stranger in a Strange Land."  

After reading three books by Heinlein I am captivated by his writing.  He is a competent author that takes readers into his world in ways very few authors can replicate.  In researching Heinlein I came to some conclusions about why he was such a good author.  First, Heinlein was not a lazy author. Second, Heinlein was quite intelligent. Third, life experience!  Heinlein didn't REALLY start writing until he was in his thirties.  How long does it take to gain the life and literary experience needed to write a good fiction book?  Heinlein was thirty-two when his publications began to appear.

Of course Heinlein's writing career didn't just appear when he turned thirty.  He read, a lot, and not just fiction.  Heinlein read all the astronomy books in the Kansas City public library before attending high-school.  He also devoured quite a few sci-fi books in his childhood.  His education was also pivotal though non-conventional.  Heinlein attended a year of community college before being accepted into the Naval Academy of which he graduated fifth in academics overall out of over two-hundred candidates.

Heinlein's writing becomes high-quality for the reader when the reader realizes that it is not lazily written.  There is a lot of research and brute intelligence manifest throughout his books especially in the realm of mathematics and physics.  Heinlein doesn't skimp out on it.  What can account for such high quality in these areas?  Though Heinlein doesn't have an undergraduate degree in Physics or Mathematics he did earn what is equivalent to "Naval Engineering."  If Naval Engineering in 1929 is anywhere near the rigor of current engineering degrees today Heinlein had a solid foundation in mathematics (probably up to Vector Calculus, Linear Algebra, and Differential Equations, though some mathematics was still being developed after 1929). Heinlein also took a few weeks of graduate courses at UCLA in both physics and mathematics which have added to his quality of writing significantly.  

Heinlein left UCLA and ran for office as an assemblymen in Hollywood.  He failed at this but according to the Heinlein Society it influenced him tremendously.  In books such as "Podkayne of Mars," a "juvenile noel", Heinlein creates a magnificent political back story, though never too detailed, that creates a three-demensional experience.  "Pokdayne of Mars" has it all; political duplicity, kidnapping, blackmailing, and a politically principled old man (to the point of sacrificing his niece and nephew).  Podkayne, an 18 year old girl in earth years (9 in Mars years), was captured along with her 6 year old brother Clark (12 years old in earth years) as political prisoners in order to get their elderly uncle to acquiesce to the threats of the kidnappers.  This isn't even the most interesting part.

Clark, the younger brother, a genius with an IQ of 165, planned their escape which included the use of a bomb he smuggled into his sisters baggage at the "spaceport."  A discussion commenced between Clark and his sister Podkayne over the ramifications and the morality of using the bomb to kill their captors en route to an escape which ultimately concluded with the moral rule "if it is moral for a collective then it is moral for and individual."  Clark convinced Podkayne that killing their captors was just as moral as the justice system doing so in their place.

After reading this it took me a while to mull over the principle.  This principle was stated in a different way in Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."  Instead of rationalizing actions based on what the collective does the sentiment is given: "If it is not okay for an individual to do something then it is not okay for a collective to do it."  This moral rule limits the actions of the individual.

It is discussions like these that make Heinlein's work intriguing.  In "Stranger in a Strange Land," a discussion on religion brings to light some of Heinlein's deepest thoughts on the subject.  Though I find the book to be disappointing for including too much of the supernatural I found the ideas discussed withing to be mind-churning.

I have recently read a literary advice blog that suggested saying less is more in the case of fiction.  Would Heinlein be as good as he is if he limited his discussion and simply drove the plot home?  Would there really be any plot?  The overall sense one gets when completing a Heinlein novel would be diminished greatly.  He is one of those rare authors that can pull off being verbose on topics not necessary for the plot.

All three novels I read by Heinlein had emotional appeal at the end of them.  In "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," Mike, the computer, dies.  It takes the entire novel to gain an attachment to Mike as a character but in the end Heinlein was effective.  In "Stranger in a Strange Land" the main character is killed as a religious martyr.  The story would have been much better if the reader wasn't assured of an afterlife.  Like I said above, way too much of a supernatural element.  Finally, in the original version of "Podkayne of Mars" the bomb explodes and kills Podkayne as she tries to save a baby fairy.  Even in the published version it seems as if this is the case but their uncle discloses that she survived in a phone conversation with the children's parents.

Heinlein is and will remain one of the most loved sci-fi authors of all time.  

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