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Like most sf fans, I passed through a phase of total fascination with Robert A. Heinlein as a young reader - possibly even before my teens; and like most sensible people, I was repelled and appalled by the awfulness of his last few novels, to the point of wondering if they had all been like that and I was just too young to notice. (Though when I checked, I found the earlier ones were not as bad as I feared.)

At over 600 pages (including a 28 page index and 100 pages of grrrr endnotes), this book is nothing if not comprehensive; but it covers only the first 41 of Heinlein's 80 years, ending neatly on the day of his third marriage. We learn of Heinlein's liberal Missouri family background, his career in the Navy dashed by ill-health, his dabbling in political activism (as a left but libertarian Democrat in the 1930s) and his early writing career, and rapid emergence as a leading light in the world of sf. It's all told in meticulous detail.

However, the hagiographical tone of Patterson's introduction is a warning signal that the book may perhaps have too narrow a focus on its subject rather than on his environment. Heinlein's death is compared to the Kennedy assassinations and 9/11 in its impact on people"s lives; we are told that he "galvanised not one, but four social movements of his century: science fiction and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement." It's news to me, as one who has been active in both, that policy think tanks are especially closely linked with sf in their historical origin.

As did Jo Walton, I had hoped for a biography that would both get under Heinlein's skin and contextualise his work in the politics both of the USA and of science fiction of the times. But you will learn more of Heinlein's politics by reading half of Ken MacLeod's essay in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. This book is almost entirely surface detail - microscopically mapped and decently structured, but it will be an indispensable secondary source for other, better works in future.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
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nwhyte
Jun. 12th, 2011 06:34 pm (UTC)
I read this thread with great interest, but felt that most of the contributors had missed the point: Patterson is so totally absorbed in the detail of Heinlein's life that he doesn't care much and is not very careful about the wider context. His shakiness on details on non-Heinlein matters is part of this, but only a small part; what annoyed me much more than the fluff about Iwo Jima, which is actually a rather unimportant detail in the book however important it may have been in reality, was that there is no synthesis of Heinlein's attitudes towards the second world war - we are told what he said in correspondence month by month, but there is no reflection on the bigger picture. Was Heinlein a particularly original or profound thinker on international relations, or did he buy uncritically into mainstream liberal discourse? From this book you wouldn't know.

Having said that, as several commentators have mentioned, it's blindingly obvious that Heinlein picked up a venereal disease in the navy and that this may have been a factor in his three childless marriages; Patterson's silence on that detail is not very creditable.
fjm
Jun. 12th, 2011 07:30 pm (UTC)
Especially as he told us things like his hat maker and only stopped short at laundry marks.

nancylebov
Jun. 12th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
I was surprised when Heinlein died to hear a fair number of people say that he as a father figure for them. I'm not saying that hagiography is called for, but I wouldn't at mind seeing a book about where Heinlein fit into people's lives.
nwhyte
Jun. 12th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
Indeed, though this is not that book, and I doubt that volume 2 will be either.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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