[Editor’s note: This review originally appeared in the July issue of the Denver clubzine DASFAx. Reprinted by permission. You can find issues of DASFAx at this link.]
By Sourdough Jackson: Normally, I don’t read doctoral dissertations, nor any later academic works based on them. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn, is an exception.
The author is a British cultural historian and literary critic specializing in SF and fantasy, and has served on the committees of several UK science fiction conventions, including co-chairmanship of the 2006 Eastercon. Her dissertation was a study of a dozen major SF authors, six male, six female, and one of them was Heinlein.
Years later, she returned to Heinlein scholarship, basing Pleasant Profession on her earlier research, adding in a great deal more work. One of my multiple beefs about the Patterson biography (Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, 2 vols.) was its lack of discussion of Heinlein’s fiction; this book fills that gap for me, although very much not in the way William Patterson might have written it. Mendlesohn is politically center-left (UK style) and a moderate feminist, while Patterson was emphatically neither.
One thing Mendlesohn does not do is to create a scheme of little boxes and try to shoehorn all the information into them. You will find no mention of the “Heinlein Individual,” first proposed by Alexei Panshin and then discussed by other commentators, except to say that some critics had found the concept useful.
Instead there are deep chapters on many aspects of RAH’s fiction. She begins with a 70-page biographical precis, including a few points missed or misinterpreted by Patterson—this section is by no means a simple digest of the earlier work. Following this is a brief description of Heinlein’s “narrative arc,” a summary of his fictional output and how the stories are related. Unlike most earlier scholars, she is able to discuss the comparatively-recent posthumous book For Us the Living. She relates it to his other work—this book may have been a colossal marketplace failure during his lifetime, but he mined it for ideas and characters throughout his career. Mendlesohn acknowledges that, although neither of the Heinleins ever wanted it to see the light of day, it’s a valuable resource for critics, historians, and the curious.
In “Technique,” she discusses how the cinema molded much of his early work and influenced his style—one of the hallmarks of his stories is sparse description, particularly of characters. Although she does not mention this, such technique is far older than the movies—Shakespearean drama works without stage scenery and the barest minimum of props. The author, be it Heinlein or Shakespeare, counts on the audience to have their imaginations in good working order.
She also makes a point often lost on many readers: the viewpoint character in most Heinlein stories is not the principal actor, it’s his sidekick. One example is The Star Beast. The main character appears to be John Thomas Stuart XI; the real protagonist is Lummox, the runaway alien princess—John Thomas is her sidekick (and, in her eyes, her pet human). Two other active characters are Betty, his girlfriend, and Mr. Kiku, the alien-affairs diplomat. They and Lummox drive the story, while John Thomas is along for the ride.
She also discusses how engineering informs his tales, and dissects his time-travel technique. RAH was good at that; his early story, “By His Bootstraps,” only pales when stood against his later masterpiece, “All You Zombies.”
In “Rhetoric,” the next chapter, she discusses at length sentiment and how important it is to nearly anything Heinlein wrote. After a brief foray into his fantasy stories, she launches into a long talk about picaresque novels, a form he went in for later in his career, although his first picaro came early (and stayed late, wearing out his welcome with this reader): Lazarus Long. It is that discussion which brought home to me why I care little for much of Heinlein’s later work. A picaro, to many readers (myself included) is not a sympathetic character. In the case of Lazarus, I want to take my hardcover of Time Enough for Love and throw it at him.
The next two chapters cover civic society and revolution. In a nutshell, Heinlein considered the civic order to come from informed citizens working together to create and maintain it—a standard tenet of old-school American liberalism (see Emerson on self-reliance). As for revolution, he injected several instances of that into his tales, some necessary and praiseworthy (Between Planets, Red Planet, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and “If This Goes On…”), and some attempts at tyranny (Friday, Beyond This Horizon, and “The Long Watch”).
In the revolution chapter Mendlesohn places a long aside on guns. One of the odd things about guns is that, when they appear, they almost always end up being useless. It’s only in Starship Troopers, one of his two military novels, that they’re consistently effective (the other, Space Cadet, is about peacekeeping, not war-making).
Racism is a major can of worms. Mendlesohn states—and shows—that Heinlein did not like it at all, and tried to work against it in his fiction. Sometimes he succeeded, other times not. One of his anti-racist (or, more properly, anti-ethnic-prejudice) tools in the 1950s was to fill a tale with background characters having wildly-diverse surnames. This is especially noticeable in Space Cadet, Time for the Stars, and Starship Troopers (for the last-named book, she includes a list of character names in an appendix). Incidentally, it is here that Mendlesohn makes an uncharacteristic boo-boo: When she discusses Alfred McNeill, the elderly black department head of the ship’s telepaths, she describes him as coming from the American South. Late in the novel, his tele-partner’s residence is given as being in Johannesburg, where she’d apparently been all the time. Last I heard, Johannesburg was in South Africa.
In this chapter is also a long, long discussion of Farnham’s Freehold. Even after reading her cogent exegesis of that novel, I still dislike the book, and probably always will. In his attempt to show the racist shoe on the other foot, Heinlein went too far—he ascribed habitual cannibalism to the black masters, atop all the other evils of slavery. Although Heinlein did not intend to play up to the white supremacists, this aspect of the story made blacks out to be inherent savages.
“Right Ordering of Self” comes next, and begins with personal honor. Heinlein’s honor is that of the person who is married or in the military, living by an internal code and living up to sworn vows and oaths. It is not the “honor” of the prickly, upper-class rakehell in the streets of Shakespeare’s Verona.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to sexual integrity and sexuality in general. To Heinlein, the worst thing a man can do, except perhaps to violate his oath of military service, is nonconsensual sex (aka rape). In one of his yarns, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, rapists, attempted rapists, and men perceived as attempting rape (even though they intended no such thing) get summarily shoved out the nearest airlock without benefit of pressure suit.
She brings up an odd, but true, idea in this passage on sex. Although RAH has a reputation for writing a lot of sex into his later books, it’s not so. There’s plenty of sexual banter, and much implied sex, but hardly any visible sex acts. What there is, is a great proliferation of kissing. Mendlesohn concludes that Heinlein simply liked kissing, and often used it to show love between characters.
From I Will Fear No Evil (1970) onward, Heinlein often explored transgender phenomena, and Mendlesohn devotes a chapter to this. Her discussion indicates that he knew his masculine side quite well, and had some understanding of his feminine side and how it related to the rest of him. She does not directly address his skill at handling transgender themes, which is perhaps just as well. Fear No Evil was clumsy, ill-informed, and rushed to publication. Normally, his wife took a pass through every manuscript before it went out, giving him suggestions—this did not happen with this book, owing to Heinlein’s desperately poor health at the time.
Also, very little was known about transgender issues at that time, or at any time during his life. Heinlein was a great respecter of information—when he had good data, he used it to good effect. When he had poor or spotty info, his lack of awareness of this tended to yield questionable results.
A case in point is Heinlein’s handling of female characters. For at least half a century, a common beef has been, “Heinlein can’t write females worth spit!” implying that he didn’t know anything about women. Not necessarily so. He knew several quite well: his mother, his sisters, and three different wives. Traits from all of these (not just Virginia, his last wife) found their way into the women and girls on his pages—a fine example is Grandma Hazel in The Rolling Stones, whose prototype was his mother (Mendlesohn misses this point).
One exception to this observation is the three Puddin’ stories (non-SF) and Podkayne of Mars. For these, he did have information—badly distorted, though. It came from the editor of a magazine for teenage girls, and no doubt fitted that editor’s preconceptions of what teenage girls should be. Knowing no better, RAH swallowed it whole (and sold three stories), later reusing the misinformation to produce Podkayne. Incidentally, Podkayne of Mars is another place where Mendlesohn missed a point. The scene where Mrs. Royer tries to get Podkayne to rub her back has usually appeared to me to be an attempt at lesbian seduction by Mrs. Royer. Mendlesohn considers it to simply be Mrs. Royer treating Podkayne like a servant, which is how I read it at first (I was eleven years old then, and innocent of sexual matters). Podkayne misses the point, too, although later on, she is fully aware of Dexter Cunha’s intentions toward her.
The epilogue, “The Cat Who Walked Through Genres,” is a nice exploration of Heinlein’s love of cats, as expressed in his writings. A dog person early in life (best illustrated in “A Tenderfoot in Space,” whose main character is a dog), he was introduced to cats by Virginia when they married. He was practical about this in his fiction; in The Rolling Stones, for example, Roger Stone loudly vetoes the idea of carrying a cat on the family rocket-yacht, due to feline sanitary considerations in zero-G.
On the whole, this is a very good exploration of Heinlein’s writings. This was published in the UK and written by an Englishwoman, so spellings and typographical conventions are what one would expect when reading something by Arthur C. Clarke or Fred Hoyle. She does keep British colloquialisms down to a minimum, however.
It is also a scholarly work, filled with source citations—which she does in the most convenient way possible, inline, contained in parentheses. Other footnotes she puts at the bottom of the page, where they belong (that’s why they’re called footnotes). There is an extensive bibliography at the end, which is an excellent source for further readings about Heinlein. An accident of the alphabet places Alexei Panshin next to William H. Patterson, Jr., a juxtaposition which would irk both men, as Alexei and Patterbill always disagreed strongly in their interpretations.
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein is well worth the purchase price—like almost all books, it can be found for a discount on Amazon.com (list price on the dust jacket is £25.00).
Next month, I hope to return to my series of essays on Heinlein’s juvenile fiction. Until then, clear ether!