THE PLEASANT PROFESSION OF ROBERT A. HEINLEIN by Farah Mendlesohn
Unbound, hardcover £25, Kindle £8.84p, 283 pp.
Reviewed by Ritchie Valentine Smith
Robert Heinlein is generally regarded as one of our greats. Many older fans and writers, including myself, were raised on his juveniles and still look on them with affection, and many consider books like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be masterworks of the genre. Heinlein was an idol, and to many he still is: though his last works were perhaps produced by an idol with feet of clay, this is most probably because Heinlein was ill, though even the later books are full of invention.
Farah Mendlesohn is a bona fide academic and also ‘one of us’ – a fan. This combination is a great strength, giving her all the analytic tools needed and a very engaging enthusiasm. She looks at Heinlein here in what seems to me to be just the right way, noting that the ‘playfulness and serviceability of Heinlein’s prose is often overlooked’ and she also lays great stress on his social curiousity and his social inventiveness (see her comments on the ethnicity of Heinlein’s characters and on the interesting variety of marriages in his books). She makes numerous interesting points new to me – for example, on the cinematic quality of early Heinlein (his then-wife was a Hollywood script editor) and the film-style banter that goes with it. To some, of course, this makes much of his work dated or worse, and his apparent racism and pro-gun attitudes problematical. Your reviewer finds the sheer variousness of Heinlein and his works commendable, and I also agree with Mendlesohn’s ‘I do not require (Heinlein) to continue to be read or valued’ (my italics) ‘as contemporary fiction.’
No wonder, and just as well. It’s easy to forget that Heinlein isn’t our contemporary. In the well-informed and fair-minded biography at the beginning of the book we encounter a writer born in the Bible belt only forty years after the American Civil War ended. He was first published as long ago as 1939, and he died in 1988. She follows his life through ‘open marriage’, virtual socialism (in the American style), and the ups and downs of both Heinlein’s writing and his health. The author makes it clear that such a complex man, and such a long and complex career, are hard to sum up, but she tries ably: Heinlein was ‘socially on the left, economically on the right’. She also notes ‘Heinlein’s belief in the vulnerability of Americans to religious fervor and fakery.’ (Some things don’t change much, eh?)
I could do worse than list a few of the high points of Heinlein’s writing career, all well analyzed here. In short stories there are Project Nightmare, many others, and of course ‘All You Zombies –’. Mendlesohn also proudly admits the (often sneered-at) sentimental power of The Long Watch and The Green Hills of Earth. There are Heinlein’s superb longer works, such as The Puppet Masters (surely one of the great thrillers of its time), and ‘If This Goes On –’, which is wonderful in every way: touching, inventive, and somehow uplifting. The ‘Heinlein juveniles’ surely hardly need mentioning, but, just to remind us, let me list a few: Between Planets, Farmer in the Sky, and a particular favourite of mine at thirteen and now, Time For the Stars. And then there are the adult novels, especially The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (a deserved winner of many awards) and the mighty, but mightily problematical, Stranger In a Strange Land. All these works are critically examined – with really interesting reactions to his themes – in a way that makes me want to re-read them, and that is a real achievement. (Perhaps her look at how cats feature in Heinlein’s work is a bit superfluous, though!)
Mendlesohn’s methods, then, work well. My quibbles with her text are very few. There are some irritating typos – Time of the Stars (sic), Valentine Michael Smith (nope, Michael Valentine Smith) – and a minor error or two. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is ‘short’ (surely not), and in Double Star she has ‘an actor becoming President while controlled (my italics) by his PR staff’ – not right, or at least not right over Smythe’s almost heroic political career overall. Of course these are minor points and perhaps will be corrected in a future edition.
So, to sum up, this book is an achievement. It is likely to remain the standard critical text on Heinlein for a considerable time to come. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein is an academic work, which has all the thoroughness you could hope for, but nothing of the dry, acerbic and sometimes even supercilious tone academics adopt. Instead, this book is lively, very clear, funny, thought-provoking, and always enthusiastic and entertaining. It treats Heinlein with the seriousness one of the greats in our field deserves, and it’s also an excellent read in its own right.