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
"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
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
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 -
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'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!)
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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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