A Survey of Heinlein Commentary & Criticism

James Gifford, 2001

Given a choice, I would say nothing about the historical body of Heinlein commentary and criticism. However, the omission of all but the briefest such material from the last version of the web site generated more email than any other topic. Clearly, it's not a subject that can be ignored on a web site that stakes a claim to having comprehensive Heinlein information.

In an even earlier edition of the web site, there was more discussion of the various Heinlein critics, much of it rather barbed. The comments posted then generated even more email than the more recent lack of information. So it's a no-win situation, at least in that respect; I may as well comment freely and be done with it.

"Heinlein Idolators Beware"

Or so reads the warning on one Heinlein critic's web site. There is a pervasive attitude on the part of older Heinlein critics and their supporters that anyone who disagrees with these flawed, incomplete and often biased assessments must be such a slavish, drooling Heinlein chauvinist that they can't see the truth. Too often, the critics hold up these ignorant rebuttals as "proof" that they are somehow right - obviously Heinlein is only thought to be a good writer by his semiliterate acolytes.

While there have certainly been drooling, slavish, fannish dismissals of Heinlein criticism, their existence does not validate the accuracy of the criticism. Like the work itself, published critical evaluation must stand on its own and fend for itself. Most science fiction criticism has the survival and self-defense skills of a "pinkie" mouse.

There are a number of reasons for the shoddy quality of most sf criticism. Most stem from the second-rate (charitably speaking) standing of science fiction in the literary spectrum. Even though the genre contains some of the finest writing and exploration of ideas in the late twentieth century, "serious" literary types still tend to dismiss it as a bastard stepchild of "real" literature. In their view, sf is pop culture and therefore not worthy of real scholastic attention.

This means that sf criticism largely has been left to three categories of critic:

  • The fan critic, who often means well but lacks the depth of literary understanding and the critical faculty to produce anything much beyond what is more or less a book review - usually a glowing one.
  • The ignorant critic, who also often has the best of intentions, but does not understand science fiction well enough to evaluate it correctly.
  • The lazy critic, who knows perfectly well that he is doing second-rate work, but also know that his peers will be unable to judge its quality, and thus has found an easy way to publish instead of perish.

Heinlein has been subjected to more bad criticism ("bad" as in "flawed," not as in "negative") by the above types of critics than perhaps any other science fiction writer. Perhaps it's because he's the biggest target in the pantheon/shooting gallery. Perhaps it's because his deceptively simple writing style makes him appear less "literary" or easier to understand than other, more deliberately complex writers.

And, in the case of some critics, perhaps it's due to a combination of ignorance, laziness and envy, which adds up to a truly vicious approach to "criticism." In some cases, "envy" could be replaced or augmented with "disappointment," as some critics let it slip that Heinlein somehow "let them down," often when their juvenile appreciation failed to mature into an adult appreciation.

Whatever the reason, serious, honest critical appraisal of Heinlein and his works is essentially nonexistent before the last decade. Heinlein is, by any count, a major writer; he deserves a fair turn under the microscope. Heinlein has flaws: they should be carefully examined and put in context. Heinlein has strengths: they should be studied. Heinlein has some true hallmarks of greatness: they should be analyzed. Heinlein has a vast body of work, which ranges from pure pulp hack to what may be some of the finest writing of the twentieth century: it should be sorted out, wheat from chaff from grit. And all of this investigation should be done with the same care, balance, thoroughness - and honesty! - accorded any other literary figure.

A new generation of critics, some from the science fiction side, more from the academic literary side, are starting to evaluate Heinlein in just this light. However, there is a more than forty-year legacy of substandard work that will have to be overcome. The only reason these "pinkie mice" still exist is that no one with adequate critical credentials has bothered to step on them. But boots are being laced on, all over the critical world.

Heinlein Criticism, 1950-1987

Herewith, a survey of early Heinlein criticism. (I should note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but only a catalog of the most important or significant critics and writings. There have been many more critics and many more minor contributions to the literature over the years than are listed here.)

Sam Moskowitz

A member of First Fandom - sf readers and writers who first organized as science fiction fans in the late 1930's - Moskowitz was a part of much of the early history of sf himself. He later became known as science fiction's historian, and wrote some of the first serious commentary and criticism in the field.

Moskowitz's writings about Heinlein are almost exclusively factual-historical, not analytical or critical. He did make some claims about Heinlein that were quoted by many later critics and proved eventually to be, if not false, at least incomplete.

Damon Knight

Author, editor, and one-time illustrator Damon Knight is almost as old a figure in sf history as Sam Moskowitz. In criticism, he is perhaps best known for the 1956 In Search of Wonder (updated 1967), which includes the long essay, "One Sane Man: Robert A. Heinlein." The essays in this collection are derived from book reviews that Knight wrote from 1951 onwards, and as such, read like, well, book reviews.

Knight's take on Heinlein is not particularly exhaustive; he takes a quick look at several works, with a variety of comments, before spending the second half of the essay analyzing what he sees as Heinlein's "meatiest" work to date: Citizen of the Galaxy. He is generally laudatory of Heinlein, with only a few mild detractions. (He handles Heinlein quite gently in comparison to other writers that came under his scrutiny.) All in all, Knight's contribution is a pleasant if not particularly insightful discussion of Heinlein and his work.

James Blish

Somewhat later than Knight, James Blish, writing as "William Atheling Jr.," wrote a number of essays on science fiction that were later collected in The Issue at Hand (1964) and More Issues at Hand (1967).

These books contain several critical essays on Heinlein, in which can be found the seeds of misunderstanding that would permeate Heinlein critical studies for the next thirty years. Blish, a noted science fiction writer himself (for the Hugo-winning A Case of Conscience), fails to grasp many of Heinlein's essential points. As a result, he winds up spending much of his essays criticizing Heinlein for flaws that Heinlein does not have. The misunderstanding is Blish's; his criticisms are akin to complaints about the cargo capacity of a Ferrari or the slow acceleration of a dump truck. He does not understand that he does not understand the material.

The seeds of error planted by Blish are that Heinlein is a pulp sf writer, an engineer and adequate typist who managed to pound out stories good enough for sf readers, but a writer who fumbled along in the dark and was not really "good enough" for the literary world. That Heinlein is a highly educated, deeply read and meticulous writer escaped nearly all critics until the late 1980's. But Blish's dismissals of Heinlein as being somehow lucky to have achieved his success set the tone of Heinlein commentary until nearly the present day.

Alexei Panshin

It is likely that no single person has done more damage to serious study of Heinlein than Alexei Panshin. Winner at 26 of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for his 1967 novel Rite of Passage, Panshin became better known for the 1968 collection of essays Heinlein in Dimension. This was the first book-length treatment of Heinlein, was claimed to be the first book-length treatment of any science fiction author, and stood nearly alone on the "About Heinlein" shelf for almost twenty years. In doing so, by default, it became the basis for many fans's opinions of Heinlein's work, and strongly shaped other critics's opinions as well.

It would take more space than is reasonable to define Heinlein in Dimension's flaws in detail. Panshin's arguments are generally brief, superficial, and often contradict themselves within a few pages. For all the initial incisiveness of each investigation, Panshin repeatedly loses his way and skims over the top of the truth like a stone skipped on water. For every paragraph of fact, there is a paragraph or more of commentary that ignorantly dismisses Heinlein's work or comes to a muddled, unfathomable conclusion. The icing atop all of this is Panshin's pervasive attitude that Heinlein is a writer whose career is clearly on its last legs...in 1967.

Whether on his own or from feedback, Panshin seems to have learned - a little - from his mistakes. In 1976, he and his wife Cory released Science Fiction in Dimension, another collection of essays which covers broader ground but is shot through with more commentary on Heinlein and his work. Most of the commentary is utterly benign, mere factual statement of story content and bibliography. But Panshin's odd love-hate relationship with Heinlein bursts through in a few places, most notably in his ca. 1973 analysis of the then-forthcoming novel Time Enough for Love, in which he positively froths at the mouth and calls Heinlein some of the nastiest names ever seen in print - while admitting that he knows nothing of the novel but a few sentences from a publisher's press release! Since Panshin's book was not published until several years after the essay, he had time to read Heinlein's novel and rethink his embarrassing prior comments. That he did not, and included the essay intact even in the light of complete evidence, bespeaks volumes about Panshin's mindset.

The Panshins authored several more books on sf criticism and went on to win the Hugo for the 1989 The World Beyond the Hill, which contains yet more Heinlein commentary, all of it relatively benign and of little interest.

Panshin is one of the few "old guard" critics still active, if essays on a web site can be defined as activity. His recent writings are all justifications and explanations of his earlier efforts, showing a sad devolution from his earlier arrogance into a pathetic whining. To me, his is one of the saddest cases in science fiction's short history: a writer who burst onto the scene with great promise in both the fiction and nonfiction arenas, then pissed away that promise by making a serious and very public mistake from which his ego would not let him recover. Clearly, Panshin had never heard the maxim that "when you shoot at a king, you must kill him."

George Edgar Slusser

Slusser is author of two long monographs on Heinlein, both published by the now-defunct Borgo Press in the mid-1970s. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein and Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in His Own Land at first seem to be critically valid assessments of Heinlein - the first, on what Slusser perceives as Heinlein's peak years; the latter, on Stranger in a Strange Land.

It is not until the reader attempts to make sense of Slusser's comments and arguments that it becomes clear that Slusser really does not quite understand his subject - any of them. Page after page of commentary and critique superficially appear quite sane and reasonable, but when the reader attempts to match the comments to Heinlein's texts - or, where appropriate, to reality - it becomes an exercise in frustration. Slusser was the first to state the notion that Calvinist thought suffuses Heinlein's work. (Stover continued this line of thinking, which was strongly denied by Heinlein.)

My usual shorthand summary of Slusser is that his work is vague, diffuse and clueless. However, I like my colleague Bill Patterson's oft-stated summary better: "Slusser seems to be writing about a different Heinlein, one from an alternate - and not quite parallel - universe."

Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss is a science fiction writer of the first rank who thought his writing ability qualified him to write a history of sf. He did so by effusively praising all members of his clique, the so-called "New Wavers" (roughly, the early 1960s through late 1970s writers such as Brunner, Ellison, Dick, and himself), and damning in no uncertain terms all who had gone before as semiliterate hacks or misguided clods who were lucky to be permitted to touch a typewriter. (One early chapter in Trillion Year Spree [updated in 1986 from the 1973 Billion Year Spree] begins, "The worst thing that ever happened to science fiction was a man named Hugo Gernsback." In Aldiss's view, science fiction fell into the hands of Philistines early on and was barely rescued by the clever and highly literary efforts of the New Wavers.)

(It is interesting to note how little of the New Wavers's work is read today - far less than that of many of Those Who Went Before.)

His commentary on Heinlein is largely confined to a chapter titled "How to Be a Dinosaur," which pretty much sums up his attitude and is not worth further discussion here.

Olander & Greenberg

In 1978, Joseph Olander and Harry Martin Greenberg collected what they felt were the best serious critical essays on Heinlein and presented them as Robert A. Heinlein, an entry in Taplinger's "Writers of the 21st Century" series.

The essays vary in quality, with the best being Jack Williamson's assessment of the Heinlein juveniles. Unfortunately, the rest of the essays vary from mediocre to (if I may again quote Bill Patterson's concise and stinging commentary) "barely coherent" to "the most incompetent Heinlein criticism ever published."

H. Bruce Franklin

American Marxist H. Bruce Franklin shares, with Alexei Panshin, the enmity of most modern Heinlein critics. Both, by angering Heinlein with their misuse of archive material and personal contacts, firmly closed doors into Heinlein's life and archives. Many of these doors remained closed until the subjects died - taking with them priceless historical and biographical information. Other doors have opened again only grudgingly, with much patience and effort on the part of newer researchers.

Franklin's 1980 Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction has no place in literary criticism. At its most superficial level, it is a Marxist primer, taking readers from a (pardon the phrase) rah-rah look at Heinlein's work into the fundamentals of Marxist thought, with a journey through the flaws of capitalism and American culture on the way. Its best feature is the long opening chapter on Heinlein's family history; from there it devolves into a Marxist analysis of American culture, using Heinlein's work as a vehicle. It is truly unfortunate that this book is in any way entangled with Heinlein's name.

(Although Heinlein received Franklin in his Santa Cruz home for an interview, Virginia Heinlein made her opinion known by pointedly leaving through a back door as Franklin was admitted.)

Leon Stover

Leon Stover's area of greatest expertise is the work of H.G. Wells, and indeed, he has just published the last in a series of annotated editions of Wells's major works. In 1987, just before Heinlein's death, he wrote Robert Heinlein, the first book-length critical analysis of Heinlein and his work that both focused on its subject and was not assembled from shorter essays.

Reading Robert Heinlein is an exercise in frustration, not because Stover is out to denigrate Heinlein or use him as a hobbyhorse, but because he so thoroughly praises Heinlein...and does such a poor job of it.

In Stover's favor is his detailed and praiseworthy analysis of Heinlein as one who should be perceived as a great American writer - not a science fiction or other genre writer, not as one whose name needs an asterisk and a footnote, but one who stands with the best writers in the American pantheon. Eventually, Stover will be seen as the critic who drew the line in the sand, the one who waved the banner at the head of the line of newer, more honest critics.

Forgotten, hopefully, will be the legions of errors in Stover's book. Every page, almost, is marred by errors of fact and interpretation, rendering whole sections untrustworthy for all but the most knowledgeable reader, and fundamentally crippling many of his assessments. (For example, he declares that Friday [of the eponymous novel] is bionic, an android, and goes on to make several conclusions about the novel based on that erroneous claim. That Friday is utterly, completely human is the whole point of the novel!)

Spider Robinson

If there is an anti-Panshin in the ranks of Heinlein critics, it must be science fantasy writer Spider Robinson. Best known for his warm, fuzzy, human and humorous series of stories set in Callahan's Bar, Robinson is also the author of two widely-read essays on Heinlein.

The first, "Rah, Rah, R.A.H.!" was written in 1980 and has become something of a rallying point for Heinlein fans. Robinson takes on the common Heinlein criticisms and at length, demolishes each of them...perhaps a little too thoroughly.

Robinson is a 100% Heinlein chauvinist. (If you only know that word from "...male chauvinist pig..." perhaps you should take a short break and look it up in a good dictionary.) To him, Heinlein is a demigod among writers, one without mark or flaw. Robinson's bombastic denials of every critical attack reach the point where they make even the staunchest fan squirm a bit, and become painfully embarrassing to more knowledgeable aficionados. In combatting the decades of silly, overheated, undercooked and just plain lame criticism, Robinson has delivered up a dish that has its own areas of overheat and undercook. The result does not provide as much balance or counterweight as it should.

Just one example: Robinson makes much of Alexei Panshin's claim that "Heinlein can't stand to be disagreed with." Out of all the aspects of Panshin's criticism with which he could have successfully taken issue, Robinson manages to pick one of the few things for which Panshin had some justification - although it was not commonly known at the time. (Panshin makes this claim in the context of explaining why Heinlein firmly shunned him. Heinlein 'cut' Panshin for a variety of reasons, of which disagreement was at best a minor issue.)

As rebuttal, Robinson notes Heinlein's penchant for dropping money, story ideas and other largesse on fellow writers suffering hard times. Heinlein did that; he had an extraordinary gift of generosity. He even did it for "flipped-out freaks" like Philip K. Dick, who wrestled with drug problems and mental illness much of his adult life. However, PKD being (in his own words) a "flipped-out freak" and thus the opposite of the clean, upright, ex-military gentleman who helped him does not mean that he and Heinlein "disagreed."

As a reading of the reminiscences in Requiem, a number of the letters quoted in Grumbles from the Grave and autobiographies of contemporaries such as Isaac Asimov's I. Asimov - all published after Heinlein's death - will show, Heinlein did most certainly dislike being disagreed with on any subject on which he held a strong opinion. The list of contemporaries and colleagues with whom he had long friendships until they stepped on Heinlein's tender toes of opinion is long. (A great champion of both Heinlein and Robinson himself, a very well known sf writer and editor, shocked me recently by refusing to discuss Heinlein - because Heinlein had taken offense and shunned him in the last years of his life.)

Heinlein could tolerate opposing viewpoints and attitudes in friends and acquaintances as long as they did not publicly disagree with him after he had expressed an opinion. Heinlein most certainly did object to being disagreed with, and did indeed break off long-term friendships when it happened. When I raised this point in correspondence, Robinson brushed it off. While "Rah, Rah, R.A.H.!" contains a number of valid and amusing points about Heinlein and his work, it is marred by this and other overly bombastic claims that serve the ends of the Heinlein haters more than those of Heinlein defenders.

Robinson's later essay, "Robert," written specifically for Requiem, is far more measured and even in tone. Its most interesting aspect is the paragraph or two where Robinson wonders if the earlier essay damaged his career. This is interesting because Heinlein in Dimension definitely did throttle Alexei Panshin's career. It is hard to see how even the most lavish praise of such a highly-regarded figure as Heinlein would damage an sf writer's career, but Robinson's career has definitely been in eclipse over the last decade or so.

(Note that I have ignored many lesser critics and critical works, most of which have been published in small journals and general sf critzines such as Extrapolations. Some very good, honest work has been done in this arena...along with a far greater bulk of shoddy work such as I've outlined above.)

...and Heinlein Criticism, 1988-Present

For no reason that can be grasped, almost no critical work was done on Heinlein in the decade after his death. Other than scattered papers, it was not until about 1997 that a new generation of critics took up the reins.

It is harder to write about these critics, because I am one of them and many of the rest are close colleagues. I can't possibly pretend to be unbiased here, and won't.

James Gifford

I insert myself into this list because I was the first critic (using the term in its loosest sense) who ever started with a clean sheet of paper and developed a book-length discussion of Heinlein's work while taking the care to obtain verified, accurate information at every turn. Myths were not good enough; oft-told tales and anecdotes were suspect; third-hand bibliographic material was ignored. If I wondered about how Heinlein might have edited a longer work into a shorter published version, or what the real date of a work's creation was, I did not spend six pages speculating about it and summarizing other critic's speculations. I went to the UC Santa Cruz archives and examined Heinlein's manuscript.

I realize this is a radical departure for most highly-evolved critics, steeped in modern traditions of Deconstructionism etc. as they are, but the result, Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, is a highly reliable, fully vetted bibliographic foundation for further study of Heinlein's work. (It is not really a critical work, which is why I qualify "critic" above.) By itself, it is a modest contribution. But it is already forming the basis for a new generation of careful work.

The Heinlein Journal

In 1997, while ARC was in development, a new critical journal appeared on the scene: The Heinlein Journal. Dedicated to serious study of Heinlein's life, milieu and works and presenting material from brief notes to extended-length analyses that include detailed studies of individual stories, THJ has at last provided a high-level forum for Heinlein scholars. Its contributors are all becoming well-known names in the field.

Bill Patterson & Andy Thornton

The Heinlein Journal editor and publisher Patterson and THJ contributor Thornton have combined to write the first full-length analysis of one of Heinlein's works. The Martian Named Smith: Critical Perspectives on Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land continues from Stover's "line in the sand" and presents Heinlein as a complex, careful, and deeply literary writer whose roots lie far outside the sf ghetto.

Robert James

An even newer figure on the Heinlein studies stage is Robert James, Ph.D. His immediate area of expertise has been the life and history of Leslyn Heinlein, Robert's second wife, and his essays have turned her from a sketchy outline into a formidable figure in Heinlein's personal and professional life. Dr. James is also the primary figure behind the rediscovery of the "lost" manuscript For Us, The Living, and wrote the Afterword for its 2004 publication.

The Future & the "Next Generation"

My modest contribution, and the giant steps taken by The Heinlein Journal and Patterson and Thornton's work, are only the long-delayed start of serious and honest critical evaluation of Heinlein. Soon to come are a swell of new works, many from THJ contributors, academic professionals such as Phillip Owenby, and more whose names are not as yet widely known.

But the event horizon has been crossed. The older and deeply flawed criticism of Heinlein will be forgotten curiosities, used by some future doctoral candidate as source material for analysis of how the artificial wall of a genre becomes an excuse for slipshod work.

There are revelations about Heinlein and his work, to be revealed by biography and critical evaluation, that will revolutionize understanding of the man and the material, of flaws and strengths, of petty motivations and grand plans. Stick around. Dawn was a long time coming, but it's daybreak in Heinlein studies.

- Copyright 2001, 2004 by James Gifford. All Rights Reserved.

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