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Robert Heinlein Biography Review

July 7, 2011

But he’s a science fiction writer, you say. Why should he be mentioned on a blog about freedom?

You’ve obviously never read the man’s work. Robert A. Heinlein was many things, but he became one of the most well-known articulators of individual freedom in his writing this side of Ayn Rand. In fact, he was a contemporary of Rand, and I’m sure he was influenced by her writings.

But we will find out about that in volume II of this big biography, the first definitive one on Heinlein, filled with anecdotes and details that were drawn from those who knew him and from documents made available by the estate and his family. Heinlein had no children, and his documents are held in a trust today. Patterson was tapped by his widow Virginia to start the biography, but it was not completed until after her passing.

The book covers his life from his birth in 1907 to his marriage to Virginia in 1947. This is an excellent breaking point for a multi-volume work. Heinlein’s life could be described as “pre-Ginny” and “with Ginny.” While the book surprises with the depth of contributions his second wife Leslyn made to his writing, Heinlein’s personal life and his career changed dramatically post-WW II and following his divorce from Leslyn and subsequent marriage to Ginny.

Even those not interested in science fiction of the so-called “Golden Age” will find this book interesting as a wonderful window into the world of America between the World Wars and during World War II. Heinlein graduated from the US Naval Academy, but the Academy was a different place than it is today. The way appointments were made, the way the Academy was run, and the goals of its students make it seem to today’s reader to be something other than one of America’s elite institutions of higher learning. It did, however, succeed at its primary mission: moulding young men into Naval officers. Heinlein was no exception.

It will come as a surprise to some who are somewhat familiar with Heinlein’s writings that he was a Democrat for many years, and a Social Democrat at that; Patterson covers in detail Heinlein’s work in politics in California, including his own failed attempt at political office. It also makes it clear how his philosophy evolved over the years, and the subtitle of the book, “Learning Curve,” has to do with far more than just learning the craft of writing. Heinlein the libertarian icon was developing during this period as well.

This is no glossy puff piece. Heinlein’s failures as well as his successes are described, and in particular his relationship with his older brother Rex is highlighted more than I have ever seen before. Little has been written about Heinlein’s family, and in interviews he said very little about them. This is a picture of a fairly typical Midwestern family struggling to survive during the Twenties and Thirties and how it influenced Heinlein, his philosophy, his writing, and even his physical health.

I eagerly await the second volume of the biography. It should talk more about Heinlein’s fully developed libertarian views, and how he brought up some very controversial ideas in his fiction, especially in Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land.

I recommend this to anyone interested in US history, military history, or science fiction. The web site is here.

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