A Provocative Theory: Heinlein turned to satire halfway through his career

Illustration for article titled A Provocative Theory: Heinlein turned to satire halfway through his career

People tend to divide Robert A. Heinlein's career into three different eras, with the "juveniles," the "slick" science fiction stories, and the bigger, more opnionated novels. But over in Locus Magazine, Gary Westfahl has a theory that's sure to be controversial: Heinlein's career actually divides into a slew of serious novels, followed by a swerve into satire.

In particular, Westfahl points out how Have Space Suit - Will Travel is like a more tongue-in-cheek version of Rocket Ship Gallileo, Heinlein's first juvenile. And Starship Troopers and Podkayne of Mars similarly seem to be lampooning earlier books, Space Cadet and Between Planets. Westfahl even offers an explanation for why Heinlein might have changed gears around 1957 — for one thing, he'd completed his future history cycle, but for another, there was a very specific event that year:

As to why this sea change in Heinlein's career occurred in the year 1957, there is one obvious event to consider: the October, 1957 launch of Sputnik, humanity's first venture into outer space, which a man like Heinlein may have reacted to in two ways. First, there might be a sense of vindication: although Heinlein's stories and novels for adults had involved a variety of topics and themes, each and every one of his juveniles had focused on space travel, suggesting an intent to persuade Americans that, more than anything else, humanity's future depended upon vigorous expansion into space. Sputnik clearly indicated that Heinlein and other science fiction writers had succeeded in achieving this goal: humans were finally venturing into the cosmos, and everyone in the science fiction community had long been confident that, once space exploration had started, further progress to the Moon, Mars, and beyond was virtually inevitable. Thus, Heinlein might have thought, with its serious purpose accomplished, science fiction could now relax and be dryly humorous instead of earnestly didactic. A second reaction might be alarm, inasmuch as it was the communist Soviet Union, not the democratic United States, that had taken the lead in the space race, creating the strong possibility that they would soon dominate space, and thus dominate the Earth as well (precisely the argument Heinlein had made in Destination Moon). As his nonfictional response to this ominous threat, Heinlein had briefly attempted to launch a political movement with his 1958 advertisement-essay "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?," shrilly arguing that a planned nuclear test ban treaty would amount to surrendering America to the insidious communists. Arguably as his fictional response, then, Heinlein might have turned to the natural tool of the distressed writer, satire; thus, among other things, Starship Troopers can be read as Heinlein's take on the Cold War, with loathsome, insect-like aliens standing in for the Russians. Later, when Heinlein was reassured by America's space initiatives and realized that a test ban treaty was not going to mean the end of the world, the new satirical approach he had adopted would gradually lose its hard edge and become more playful.

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The whole essay is well worth reading. [Locus Magazine]

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DISCUSSION

There may be an element of truth in that argument, but I don't think it's more than a minor theme running through Heinlein's work.

Heinlein was just one of those people who always thought he was the smartest guy in the room. As it happened, he was the smartest guy in the room often enough that, over time, I think he started believing his own press. While his later work was certainly buoyed by humor, I don't think most of it was intentionally satirical. I think he was presenting what he viewed as the only conclusion to which any right-thinking, intelligent person could come.

Look at the cast of characters in almost every single one of Heinlein's story. There are only ever two types of characters in a Heinlein story — the smart, self-reliant types, creative, heroic, brave, imaginative and the driving force that does all the work keeps society moving versus the slow-witted, slack-jawed, mouthbreathers who only ever oppose the heroes because they are either too stupid to do so or are acting entirely out of self interest.

The closest thing to a third type of character are those who simply haven't been enlightened by the first group yet, but will be before the end of the story. Every single one of Heinlein's works follow this pattern, at least until the later era after his illness when his work became somewhat more sophisticated and nuanced, but not by much.

In order to be effective, satire has to in some way reflect the real world, or at least the world as it perceived by the satire's audience — not necessarily by the author. Heinlein, though, never dealt with the real world, or even a "realistic" world. His works pretty much without exception dealt with what I'm pretty certain was the world as he perceived it to be, with antagonists that were little more than straw men designed to substantiate his point of view.

I think Westfahl's theory is built to do the one thing pretty much every Heinlein fan has to do at some point — come to terms with the blatant militaristic fascism of Starship Troopers.

Ironically enough, I believe that Westfahl is correct when he says that Starship Troopers is a satire — or at least an attempt at one. While I believe that Heinlein was presenting a commentary on the Cold War, and in typical Heinlein fashion, there are only two sides in his world, both of which are exaggerated to the point of extremism.

Unfortunately, while Heinlein is one of my favorite writers, I don't believe he was a good enough writer to be able to pull off what he wanted to do in the format in which he had to work. Remember, Starship Troopers was originally intended to be one of Heinlein's juvenile novels. By necessity, it couldn't be even as sophisticated as Heinlein was capable of creating, which by his own admission (there's an essay in Expanded Universe that comments on this) wasn't all that sophisticated.

In the latter phases of Heinlein's life as a writer, one critic (I'm afraid I've forgotten who) wrote something like Heinlein began to believe that what his audience wanted from him was whatever it was he wanted to give them.

Maybe there's an element of satire in there. I think, though, that very often, Heinlein's reach exceeded his grasp. While that's part of the reason I, at least, love his work, I'm not certain that he was aware of it, himself, a level of self awareness without which there can be no satire.

Or not.