Friday, April 12, 2019

Farah Mendlesohn - The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

I have an ambiguous relationship with Robert Heinlein. On the one hand, I read and re-read many of his novels from childhood through my teenage and later years. For some reason, on a lone cycling trip through France at the age of 18 the only book I took with me was Stranger in a Strange Land which I read several times; re-reading it in later years. Several other novels have stuck with me for various reasons. Time Enough For Love I enjoyed mostly for its interludes which described slices of life of Lazarus Long whose long existence enabled him to experience many different times, places and loves; Glory Road I enjoyed as a teenager for its swords and sorcery, only later coming to view it as faintly ridiculous and I read Farnham's Freehold a couple of times and on each occasion spotting something that angered me more. Friday was, for many years, a favoured tale of pure adventure with a strong female lead that was unlike much else in the science fiction genre.

That Heinlein's books could be read and sometimes enjoyed over such a period is a sign of his innovation and strength as a story-teller. What became much clearer was that there was an ambiguity to his writing which was at times, frankly revolting. As a teenager I remember finishing To Sail Beyond the Sunset and for the first and only time in my life, defacing the book in anger at what I saw then as the complete degeneration of Heinlein's politics.

Looking back now I find myself much more at odds with Heinlein. Farnham's Freehold is frankly a racist book and parts of Time Enough for Love or Stranger in a Strange Land make me very angry indeed; my last reading of Stranger in 2005 left me aghast in some places, notably the infamous line put in the mouth of a female character that "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault". Then I saw Stranger as reflecting Heinlein's trajectory towards reactionary politics. But now I am not so sure.

Because I retain some of the enthusiasm for Heinlein from my younger years I was drawn to Farah Mendlesohn's new book on Heinlein's writing. It is not a biography, rather a thematic study of almost all his writings. Having read it I found myself warming much more to Heinlein as a thinker, even though I felt, as I think Mendlesohn does too, that at times he was extremely and dangerously naive. Mendlesohn illustrates this well when studying the racial politics of Farnham's Freehold. She argues that Heinlein thought it would be an anti-racist work because it inverts slavery, making white people the slaves and black people, in a post nuclear war USA, the masters. Instead it is a novel that racists would enjoy - in particular (spoiler) because the black slave owners turn out to be cannibals. Heinlein's failure to grasp what racism is, lies at the root of this contradiction.

But the point that Mendlesohn makes is that this reaction would have upset Heinlein. He was, particularly for his time, very progressive. He had, for instance, a "deep-down belief in justice and in sexual and racial equality"; and wrote about topics that today are quite common within science fiction but were rarely talked about (or were even taboo) at the time - including gender, race and trans-questions. His language might today seem clumsy, but it was innovative - particularly when one looks at his attitude to "family" which rejects the western norm. This is, of course, why some of his books, like Stranger became icons of counter-culture - his characters have sex, take drugs and resist authority. But he did, as Mendlesohn says, "drift to the right" and in part I think this is because he was cynical about social movements. His engagement with politics was, in the context of the US at least, one that was relatively mainstream - attempts to launch radical movements were still born and floundered on what I think was a limited understanding of how society worked.

Mendlesohn writes that while "Heinlein's political opinions changed over his forty-year writing career, it is important to understand that his underlying beliefs did not". I think this is an illuminating point. Whatever Heinlein is doing there is a very emphatic "right and wrong" to his core beliefs. One of the problems that people often identify with Heinlein's books is that they feel like lectures at times - with characters extolling a particular world view. Time Enough For Love does this is several ways - with the interludes with Long's sayings interspersed with other tales where he gives waxes lyrical on a theme (slavery, racism, gun ownership) etc. Here Heinlein's characters (and we must assume Heinlein himself) have a particular vision of a better society, though it is rarely different at an econoimc or political sense, rather as the result of different personal relationships.

In discussing For Us, the Living (which I have not read) Mendlesohn says that
there is a clear sense in this book of the communitarianism still current in American life in the 1930s. In For Us, the Living civic duty is focused on contribution, and respect for the individuals social liberty; privacy is absolute, childrearing is no longer solely an occupation for women... and sexual jealousy is a mystifying illness.
It all sound very attractive, but there is no sense of how to get there. Heinlein writes about revolution in several of his books. But they are not Revolutions that socialists like myself would recognise. They are top down movements, led by small groups of people, or other intelligences, which Mendlesohn (in my opinion, mis-characterises, as being like Bolshevik organisation). But without mass involvement in such movements how will people transform themselves and "rid itself of the muck of ages" as Karl Marx argued. Heinlein provides no answers.

As the quote above indicates, Heinlein's attitude to sex and sexual relations is inseparable from his wider attitudes to interpersonal relationships and the family. In these he is firmly in the progressive camp; though Mendlesohn points out he "dives gender equality from gender roles". As a young reader of Heinlein in the 1980s and 1990s I found his discussions on such things exciting and innovative; but I found his attitude to incest troubling. Time Enough for Love and its follow-ups are, essentially a long tale about the hero eventually getting to have sex with his mother. However Heinlein dresses this up, it is odd and I was surprised that Mendlesohn didn't discuss it further.

In many ways its easiest to characterise Heinlein as a classic Libertarian, though that word is inadequate. It is possible at every stage to cherry pick Heinlein's "good" policies - he opposed the draft his whole life, he celebrated differences etc, but mostly he appears to be politically adrift. Indeed this is a point that Mendlesohn makes very well when discussing his attitude to racism:
There is never any question which side Heinlein stands on the debate... but we also need to be aware of the lack of nuance and sensitivity to the oxygen he breathes. Heinlein understands and opposes enslavement and colour prejudice, but he does not really see that racism has a wider infrastructure. He does not understand what we now frame as systemic racism.
I think this sums up Heinlein extremely well. He has instincts (some good and some bad) but he has no real framework to understand or explain them. Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing and the world is a different place to the one Heinlein was writing in. His novels are full of mansplaining white characters, which can be hard to stomach today. But on the other-hand he had many innovative ideas which certainly shaped science-fiction but had wider influences too. For me Mendlesohn's book was in someways a way to understand my own thoughts about Heinlein, an author who had a influence on me. I think her insights into his motivations and the ideas that informed his writing clarify those writings and put them in a wider context. Farah Mendlesohn's book is thus a stimulating read for fans of Robert Heinlein (and those who used to be) and an excellent piece of literary criticism.

Related Reviews

Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Heinlein - Starship Troopers

Rhinehart - The Dice Man

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