Saturday, 7 July 2007

Heinlein Centenary

Born July 7 1907, and probably still the most influential sf writer. But it surprises me when I realise, looking at the couple of dozen of his books I have on the shelf, how very little most of them have stayed with me. Though I like The Door into Summer and Between Planets (neither of them, I suppose, very high up the list of most Heinlein fans) the only book I vividly retain any coherent memory of is Starship Troopers.
I can't quite understand the enthusiasm for Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The Lazarus Long sequence I remember practically nothing of. They were all very long. They also marked a return to the very early stories (gathered together in The Man Who Sold The Moon) in that there was this worked-out chronology which is now quite popular with people like Peter Hamilton and Al Reynolds. Heinlein's fell apart: the moving walkways in airports never became the interstate.
I think Starship Troopers is terrific though, as I think The Forever War is terrific. And I've never seen what seemed objectionable about the former's politics, though that's not the same as saying I share Heinlein's view. But his early enthusiasm for Social Credit, based in large part on the wonky economics of Major Douglas (popular with Ezra Pound) and the Poujadiste/feudalist communitarianism of Chesterton and Belloc, is entirely in keeping with his later Tory anarchism.
I think it's very difficult to argue for Libertarianism without develping it largely from property rights and, consequently, to examine how individuals can create communities without becoming subservient to bureaucracies. Heinlein's army - notably different from existing armies, it shouldn't be forgotten, in that its central rule was that everyone fought - seemed a reasonable way of constructing such an informal network.
And, despite the fact that it's difficult to imagine anyone writing Farnham's Freehold (in which whites were slaves) now, it seems well-intentioned enough. I don't think that the charge of racism or fascism will wash. In several of his books, Heinlein lets you know only late on that a particular character is black.
He was no doubt militaristic, but I don't see why one shouldn't be: in any case, Heinlein's army is a family unit above all. And I think you should prefer the family to the state. Much of the book's real appeal is in the creation of that unit, and the methods used to achieve it. I think the same applies to Haldeman.
In his use of language and ability to construct the mechanics of a story, I think he was certainly a better writer than either Asimov or Clarke. But he is not dating well for the most part. Starship Troopers will remain a classic. I wonder if, of the other books, the ones which stand up best aren't the teenage adventure stories of the fifties which preceded it, rather than those later doorstops.