Writers Of The Purple Page:
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

[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!

24 thoughts on “Writers Of The Purple Page:
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

  1. In my opinion, Mendlesohn’s book is the best of the Related Book Hugo finalists. I hope it isn’t too late for voters to consider it.

  2. Wry smile at “politically center-left (UK style) and a moderate feminist”, which inadvertently end up suggesting more J K Rowling than Farah Mendlesohn to me.

    I’m not entirely sure Heinlein’s ready for the rehabilitation that seems to be underway these days, but this sounds interesting and Farah Mendlesohn is smart and perceptive. I’ll have to give it a try.

  3. Thank you so much. Also thank you for the correction! Ouch.

    May I ask for one change? The dissertation this was based on was my BA dissertation. The confusion is that we call the PhD a thesis, not a dissertation. You can find the original very short essay in Foundation 90, way back in about 1991.

    And as Sophie Jane notes, I’m not a ‘moderate’ feminist but if you think I am I’m cool with that.

    Bob, the deadline for voting is tomorrow. I won’t win, but it would be nice to make a respectable showing.

  4. Sophie Jane: I’m not entirely sure Heinlein’s ready for the rehabilitation that seems to be underway these days, but this sounds interesting and Farah Mendlesohn is smart and perceptive. I’ll have to give it a try.

    Mendlesohn’s work is not at all the rose-tinted hagiography of Patterson, but she’s not going into it with an agenda to demonize him, either. It seemed to me to be a pretty even-handed and perceptive analysis, which refrained both from hero worship and from contemptuous condemnation.

  5. @JJ

    That’s a definite recommendation, coming from you. I’ve bought myself a copy to read once I stop being distracted by the essay collection I accidentally bought at the same time.

  6. Sophie Jane: That’s a definite recommendation, coming from you.

    I’ve learnt a great deal from your comments here, and it’s really gratifying that my opinion means something to you. (As you know, I have very definite opinions about things, which may or may not have any correlations to other peoples’ opinions. 😛 )

    I have a lot of mixed feeling about Heinlein. I grew up in a shitty small town with a woefully-inadequate antiquated school library and a town library which was stuck in the dark ages and absolutely worthless (something which my mom, in later years, managed to remedy to absolutely spectacular effect, but too late for my benefit — such that the town library is now in my will, because what’s there now is awesome, and I don’t want the kids, especially the young women, there to have to grow up the way I did).

    So my entree into SFF was Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov and Bradbury and Earthsea — especially Heinlein — read over and over and over again, plus Star Trek reruns. Even as a child, I recognized the horrific unfairness and wrongness of Sixth Column while simultaneously reveling in its “science conquers the enemy!” plotline. Which is why I really appreciate an even-handed analysis of Heinlein which neither elides the problematic aspects of his work *cough*TheMenaceFromEarth*cough* nor condemns the body of his work to the dumpster.

  7. I was lucky enough to pick up a signed copy of Ms. Mendelssohn’s book, which I found to be a worthy companion to Alexi Panshin and William Patterson’s books.

    And even though she and I had a very public dust-up on her Facebook page several years ago (which resulted in her booting me from her page altogether), I remain an admirer of her scholarship and writing and would gladly consider her in the Best Related Work category.

    Chris M. Barkley

  8. Seconding JJ that “The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein” is not hagiography like the Patterson biography, but a serious attempt to view Heinlein as the complex person that he was and not the one-dimensional cartoon Heinlein as which he is often remembered today.

    It’s an excellent study (and I’m not a Heinlein fan either) and I would be happy if it won, but then Best Related Work is very strong this year.

  9. …filled with source citations—which she does in the most convenient way possible, inline, contained in parentheses.

    twitches in Chicago

  10. @JJ

    I grew up with poorly-stocked local libraries but also my mother’s collection of old SF paperbacks from the 60s and early 70s. (After which she switched to mysteries.) So I read a lot of “classic” SF one way or another, mostly very uncritically. I used to enjoy Heinlein a lot – Space Cadet was a childhood favourite and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress nearly turned me into a libertarian when I was thirteen – and I still recognise his strengths. I guess what I think, though, is that it would be nice to see his significance decline overall.

  11. Okay, giving this one another chance, I had a big NOPE moment very early in the book (together with a discusion here on File 770), what let me to drop this book.

  12. John Hertz replies by carrier pigeon:

    I respectfully dissent from applause for this book. Dr Mendlesohn, I’m sorry.

    I dissented from this treatment of Heinlein at his centenary in 2007. I dissent from it now.

    Theater audiences again and again conclude actors must be like the characters they work so hard to make an audience believe in. I don’t for a moment deny they might be. That’s one way to do acting.

    After Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land Heinlein was asked how he could write two such contradictory books.

    I respectfully urge that the question reveals a tragic flaw – in the questioner.

    Heinlein answered, “I’m a science fiction author. I make things up.”

    Some years ago I found myself studying the end of the Classical and the beginnning of the Romantic age. I don’t remember who said “Classicism is government of the passions. Romanticism is government by the passions.” Two hundred fifty years after Beethoven’s birth, observations that his sunniest music was written while his life was a wreck fall on deaf ears.

    Maybe I shouldn’t invoke Beethoven, I should invoke Thurber. This reading of Heinlein takes the Thing Contained for the Container.

    Chris Garcia – who remains my friend, despite or because of our differences – printed my Heinlein appreciation in The Drink Tank 156. See for yourself at https://efanzines.com/DrinkTank/DrinkTank156.pdf..

  13. Muphry’s Law dept: the character’s name is “Alfred McNeil”, not “McNeill”.

    (And I zipped through with ctrl-F all of the mentions of the character in the book. Yes, the niece lived in Johannesburg, but based on the descriptions of Uncle Alfred, it is an entirely fair reading of the text that he was born and raised in the American South, and didn’t move to South Africa until he was retired and started assisting with his grand-niece’s raising.)

  14. This is the best book about Heinlein to date, both in terms of the evenhanded approach to the subject matter and in terms of the writing quality.

    It’s high up on my Hugo ballot, and a book that I recommend to everyone with an interest in the genre and its history.

  15. I had the fortune to hear Mendlesohn talk about, and answer questions about, this book last year in Montreal, and, while I will never be a fan of Heinlein, the discussion aided my understanding of his complex person greatly. Thank you, Farah!

  16. @APHowell

    I am absolutely a Chicago gal, but it would have made this book even longer (commission, 65k, first draft 180k, target for Unbound 150k, final ms 155k).

  17. Very insightful review! Thanx!
    Tho RAH once remarked to me, “Reviewers probably have other nasty habits.”

  18. I found this book to be a very even-handed exploration of Heinlein, and thoroughly researched. It also reads easily (at least to me) which is helpful in an academic type work. I liked this book a lot and it’s second on my ballot. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in reading a fair-minded book about Heinlein.

    I thought Mendlesohn’s approach to Heinlein’s treatment of his female characters to be well-reasoned but ultimately did not convince me. I think she places herself in the same category as many of my contemporaries (born in the 1960s) – giving too much of a ‘pass’ to people who were influenced by the 1970s American sexual revolution in their thinking about equal rights and women. I will grant that Heinlein was trying to adhere to his (advanced for the time) ideas about ‘women’s liberation’ but that does not prevent him from being misogynist in many ways.

    My personal opinion is that he did not examine the internalized misogyny he picked up through societal influence and so his attempts to depict strong female characters often inlcude large dollops of paternalism, condescension and ‘male-gaze’ which will turn off many a modern reader.

    I have a soft spot for Heinlein, as he formed a large part of my SF reading in my youth. As a person with an early interest in languages I was very intrigued by how he wrote Mannie in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I’m still quite fond of his earlier works, but as a teenager (and later as an adult) I found myself turned off by his later works.

  19. One example of sidekick as viewpoint character is Podkayne. As I read it, the protagonist is Clark and the central question, implied in the uncle’s comment at the end, is whether he is going to become a decent human being or remain a supergenius psychopath.

    His sister is the one thing pulling him towards humanity.

  20. “A pdf edition of this was part of the Hugo Awards Nominations Package.”

    Better still, so were ePub and Mobi editions. Really people, if you want me to read a work and the layout isn’t a core part of what makes it work, then give me something I can change the print size on.

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