All Commentary
Tuesday, July 1, 1997

Robert A. Heinlein’s Soaring Spirit of Liberty

A Man Whose Stories Have Inspired Generations

The author thanks Virginia Heinlein for making corrections and suggestions on this article.

A pioneering master of speculative fiction, Robert Heinlein has captured the imagination of millions for liberty.

Five of his novels chronicle rebellion against tyranny, other novels are about different struggles for liberty, and his writings abound with declarations on liberty. For instance, in Requiem (1939): It’s neither your business, nor the business of . . . paternalistic government, to tell a man not to risk his life doing what he really wants to do. If This Goes On— (1940): I looked up Tom Paine, which led me to Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson and others—a whole new world was opened up to me. . . . Very inspiring stuff. Coventry (1940): You are free to seek danger and adventure if you wish . . . but you are not free to expose us to the violence of your nature. Beyond This Horizon (1948): The private life and free action of every individual must be scrupulously respected. The Puppet Masters (1951): The price of freedom is the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, any time and with utter recklessness. Double Star (1956): free trade, free travel, common citizenship, common currency, and a minimum of imperial laws and restrictions. Citizen of the Galaxy (1957): slavery . . . the most vicious habit humans fall into and the hardest to break. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966): no circumstances under which State is justified in placing its welfare ahead of mine. Time Enough for Love (1973): The purpose of my government is never to do good, but simply to refrain from doing evil. To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987): unlimited spending on ‘social’ programs ends in national bankruptcy.

Heinlein is the world’s most celebrated science fiction author. In July 1969, as Apollo 11 astronaut Neil A. Armstrong set foot on the moon, Heinlein was a guest commentator with CBS-TV anchorman Walter Cronkite, speaking to millions around the world. When the Science Fiction Writers of America began to hand out their Grand Master Awards in 1975, Heinlein received the first by general acclamation, noted Isaac Asimov, himself the respected author of more than 300 books, including much science fiction. Heinlein is the only author to have won four Hugo awards for best science fiction novel—for Double Star, Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. He was the first science fiction author to make the New York Times bestseller list (Stranger in a Strange Land), and his last five books made it, too. Heinlein’s work—56 short stories and 30 novels—have been variously translated into Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. They’ve sold over 30 million copies in the United States and 100 million worldwide.

The “Best Science Fiction Writer in Existence”

Isaac Asimov, whose astonishing career began at the same time as Heinlein’s got underway, disagreed with many of Heinlein’s views but declared: From the moment his first story appeared, an awed science fiction world accepted him as the best science fiction writer in existence, and he held that post throughout his life. Best-selling fantasy writer Stephen King declared, Following World War II, Robert A. Heinlein emerged as not only America’s premier writer of speculative fiction, but the greatest writer of such fiction in the world. He remains today as a sort of trademark for all that is finest in American imaginative fiction.

The New York Times Book Review hailed Heinlein as “One of the most influential writers in American literature.” Gene Roddenberry, creator, writer, and producer of the hugely popular Star Trek TV series, acknowledged that Heinlein was among the few authors at whose feet I’d gladly sit. Robert Silverberg, author of over a hundred science fiction books, explained: Heinlein’s belief that a story had to make sense, and the irresistible vitality of his storytelling, delighted the readership of Astounding, who called for more and even more of his material. John Campbell had found the writer who best embodied his own ideals of science fiction: In one flabbergasting two-year outpouring of material for a single magazine Heinlein had completely reconstructed the nature of science fiction, just as in the field of general modern fiction Ernest Hemingway, in the 1920s, had redefined the modern novel. No one who has written fiction since 1927 or so can fail to take into account Hemingway’s theory and practice without seeming archaic or impossibly naive; no one since 1941 has written first-rate science fiction without a comprehension of the theoretical and practical example set by Heinlein.

Added best-selling thriller writer Tom Clancy: What makes Mr. Heinlein part of the American literary tradition is that his characters do prevail. His work reflects the fundamental American optimism that still surprises our friends around the world. As Mr. Heinlein taught us, the individual can and will succeed. The first step in the individual’s success is the perception that success is possible. It is often the writer’s task to let people know what is possible and what is not, for as writing is a product of imagination, so is all human progress.

Heinlein holds a special place in the hearts of millions who discovered him during their teenage years. Before he emerged as a best-selling author of adult books, he had established his reputation with more than a dozen classic juveniles—Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), Space Cadet (1948), Red Planet (1949), Farmer in the Sky (1950), Between Planets (1951), The Rolling Stones (1952), Starman Jones (1953), Star Beast (1954), Tunnel in the Sky (1955), Time for the Stars (1956), Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958), and Starship Troopers (1959). Author J. Neil Schulman spoke for many when he confided that If Robert Heinlein hadn’t written the books he wrote, and I hadn’t read them, I doubt very much that I would have had the intellectual background necessary to climb out of the hole I was in between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. He wrote about futures that were worth living for. He wrote about talented people who felt life was worth living and made it worth living, no matter what the breaks that fell their way. His characters never had an easy time of it, but they persevered.

Teacher and Benefactor

Heinlein’s work has inspired readers around the world. For instance, Tetsu Yano: I had lost all my books during the war and had little money then to buy new ones. I wanted to and had to read something. Despite my lack of proper education in English, I found science fiction magazines quite readable. I became particularly inspired by the stories written by Robert Heinlein and Anson McDonald [one of Heinlein's pseudonyms]. His exhilarating tales gave me the will, hope, and courage to go on living in the devastations of the postwar Japan. Robert Heinlein was my teacher and benefactor. I learned English reading his stories and became a translator. It has been an honor to translate many of Heinlein’s books into Japanese.

Science fiction critic Alexei Panshin described Heinlein as about five feet eleven inches tall, with brown hair and brown eyes. He is solidly built and carries himself with an erect, almost military bearing. He has worn a trim moustache for years and is reputedly the sort of man who would always dress for dinner, even in the jungle. . . . His voice is a strong, very even, somewhat nasal baritone with a good bit of Missouri left in it. As Isaac Asimov remembered, In some ways, my most important friendship was with Robert Anson Heinlein . . . a very handsome man . . . with a gentle smile, and a courtly way about him that always made me feel particularly gauche when I was with him. I played the peasant to his aristocrat.

Robert Silverberg recalled Heinlein as a delightful human being, courtly, dignified, with an unexpected sly sense of humor. I met him first . . . at the 1961 World Science Fiction Convention in Seattle, where he was Guest of Honor. He amazed everyone there by holding an open-house party in his suite and inviting the entire convention to attend. That would be unthinkable today, when five or six thousand people go to such conventions. The attendance in 1961 was only about two hundred, but it was still a remarkable gesture. . . . I remember telling him that I had already published seven million words of fiction . . . to which he replied, ‘There aren’t that many words in the language. You must have sold several of them more than once.’

Early Life

Robert Anson Heinlein was born July 7, 1907, in a two-story frame house at 805 North Fulton Street, Butler, Missouri, about 65 miles south of Kansas City. His father, Rex Ivar Heinlein, the son of a plow salesman, had a series of jobs as clerk and bookkeeper. His mother, Bam Lyle, was a doctor’s daughter. The Heinlein family descended from German, Irish, and French people.

In 1910, his 10-year-old brother Lawrence took him to see Halley’s Comet streak across the sky, and it was a sight he would never forget. He became fascinated with astronomy, and by the time he was a teenager, he had read all the astronomy books in the Kansas City Public Library. He built himself a small telescope and mounted it on the roof of his parents’ home.

He became an avid reader of adventure stories, science fiction in particular. He bought secondhand copies of the Frank Reade Weekly, which serialized adventure stories. He read stories about the young inventor Tom Swift. He got Electrical Experimenter, a magazine put out by pioneering science fiction editor Hugo Gernsback. He relished such authors as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. Rider Haggard.

After graduating from local schools, he spent a year at the University of Missouri, then transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, where he became a champion swordsman. He graduated in June 1929, 20th in a class of 243, as a mechanical engineer. Soon after his graduation, he married Leslyn McDonald. He served in destroyers and aircraft carriers until he contracted tuberculosis and was retired from the Navy in 1934, a lieutenant junior grade. He enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, for graduate study of physics and mathematics, but frail health forced him to drop out. Following doctors’ orders to recuperate, he acquired an interest in the Shively & Sophie Lodes silver mine in Silver Plume, Colorado, but he couldn’t make a go of it. He tried selling real estate. He entered the Democratic primary to run for state representative, but he lost.

The beginning of 1939 found me flat broke, Heinlein recalled. I was highly skilled in ordnance, gunnery, and fire control for Naval vessels, a skill for which there was no demand ashore—and I had a piece of paper from the Secretary of the Navy telling me that I was a waste of space—‘totally and permanently disabled’ was the phraseology. I ‘owned’ a heavily-mortgaged house.

About then Thrilling Wonder Stories ran a house ad reading (more or less): Giant Prize Contest—Amateur Writers!!!!! First prize $50 Fifty Dollars $50. In 1939 one could fill three station wagons with fifty dollars worth of groceries. . . . So I wrote the story Life-Line. It took me four days—I am a slow typist. But I did not send it to Thrilling Wonder. I sent it to Astounding, figuring they would not be so swamped with amateur short stories.

Life Line was about a man who invented a machine which could tell people how long they would live. Editor John W. Campbell, Jr., bought it for $70 and published it in the August 1939 issue. Heinlein was 32. There was never a chance that I would ever again look for honest work, he wrote.

He appeared on the scene as science fiction was bursting into the modern era. The month before his debut, Astounding Science-Fiction had published the first story by an emerging star named A.E. Van Vogt, and the following month it published the first story by Theodore Sturgeon, another emerging star. Earlier that year, Thrilling Wonder Stories published the first story by Alfred Bester, and Amazing Stories magazine had introduced the world to Isaac Asimov.

Heinlein’s Juvenile Novels

Heinlein thought writing science fiction was an easy way to make a living, but his next several stories were rejected. His second story to be published was Misfit, in the November 1939 Astounding Science-Fiction. This was about some teenage troublemakers relocated by the government to an asteroid and how one of them became a mathematical genius who saved their spaceship. While this was generally considered a minor work, it was the first of Heinlein’s many juveniles, aimed at young readers.

In January 1940, Astounding Science-Fiction published Requiem. The hero, an entrepreneur named Delos D. Harriman, recalling the nineteenth-century American railroad entrepreneur Edward Harriman, built a company that developed communities on the moon. He fights damn persnickety regulations issued by a government bureaucracy which, because of his frail health, opposes his planned trip to the moon. But he goes anyway and dies happy.

If This Goes On— (Astounding Science-Fiction, February, March 1940) is the story of the Second American Revolution, against twenty-first-century tyranny. Narrator John Lyle tells how he developed a philosophy of freedom. I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy, censorship. When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything—you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.

Coventry (Astounding Science-Fiction, July 1940) shows how a reasonably free society might be based on a voluntary social contract called the Covenant. As Heinlein explains: Citizens were forbidden by the Covenant to damage another. Any act not leading to damage, physical or economic, to some particular person, they declared to be lawful . . . social offenders were examined and potential repeaters were given their choice of psychological readjustment, or of having society withdraw itself from them—Coventry. The story focuses on one individual, David Mackinnon, who comes to terms with the Covenant.

In Sixth Column (Astounding Science-Fiction, January, February, and March 1941), written under Heinlein’s pseudonym Anson McDonald, Free Nations were conquered, and America stood alone. Freedom fighter Jefferson Thomas everywhere found boiling resentment, a fierce willingness to fight against the tyranny, but it was undirected, uncoordinated, and, in any modern sense, unarmed. Sporadic rebellion was as futile as the scurrying of ants whose hill has been violated. PanAsians could be killed, yes, and there were men willing to shoot on sight, even in the face of the certainty of their own deaths. But their hands were bound by the greater certainty of brutal multiple retaliation against their own kind. As with the Jews in Germany before the final blackout in Europe, bravery was not enough, for one act of violence against the tyrants would be paid for by other men, women, and children at an unspeakable compound interest. Even more distressing than the miseries he saw and heard about were the reports of the planned elimination of the American culture as such. The schools were closed. No word might be printed in English. There was a suggestion of a time, one generation away, when English would be an illiterate language, used orally alone by helpless peons. Fortunately, a secret weapon is developed by a half-dozen scientists holed up in the Rocky Mountains, the conquerors are repelled, and freedom is regained.

Logic of Empire (Astounding Science-Fiction, March 1941) tells how Sam Houston Jones exposes slavery on Venus. His adversary is lawyer Humphrey Wingate, representing the authorities who control Venus. Wingate insists that people on Venus are a damn sight better off than most people of their own class here on earth. They are certain of a job, of food, and a place to sleep. If they get sick, they’re certain of medical attention. The trouble with people of that class is that they don’t want to work. Jones counters: I know human slavery when I see it. That’s what you’ve got on Venus. Jones helps see that Wingate was taken as a slave to Venus, and he is assigned work in the swamps. He witnesses brutal conditions, and after Jones secures his release, he writes a book about the horrors.

In Methuselah’s Children (Astounding Science-Fiction, July, August, and September 1941), Heinlein chronicles the adventures of Americans who had interbred to achieve longevity three times greater than average. As their presence becomes widely known, they are subject to envy, hatred, and persecution. Heinlein tells how they board a spaceship and seek a place where they can be free. The story introduces Lazarus Long, a character who reappears in Heinlein’s later work.

In Beyond This Horizon (Astounding Science-Fiction, April and May 1942), the story goes in several directions, but what’s most interesting is Heinlein’s vision of a libertarian society with highly sophisticated social cooperation. Among other things, people carry guns and protect themselves. I describe a utopia—largely anarchistic, he told interviewer J. Neil Schulman. There isn’t enough government to matter.

“Future History”

Heinlein described many of his stories as future history, aimed at working out the implications of various developments during the next couple of hundred years, especially the struggle for freedom. He got a lot of attention when he published a time chart relating these stories to a general background, although they actually had little relationship with one another. He conceded these stories were never meant to be a definitive history of the future (concerning which I know no more than you do), nor are they installments of a long serial (since each is intended to be entirely independent of all the others). They are just stories, meant to amuse and written to buy groceries.

The stories did, however, reflect Heinlein’s passion for freedom. Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, he explained, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed, it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

In just a few years, Heinlein had changed the face of science fiction, as critic Alexei Panshin put it. His narrative technique eliminated a lot of stodgy writing, and this faster, smoother writing coupled with Heinlein’s wide range of interests meant a new sophistication that spread quickly through science fiction writing.

Surprisingly, by September 1941 Heinlein was pondering his future. At the present time, he wrote Campbell, I am the most popular writer for the most popular magazine in the field and command (I believe) the highest word rate. Where is there for me to go but down? I can’t go up in this field; there is no place to go. . . . Frankly the strain is wearing on me. I can still write, but it is a terrific grind to try each week to be more clever than I was the week before. And if I do, to what purpose. First is the highest I can stand; a cent and a half a word is the most I can hope to be paid.

I will not attempt to pep up my stories by introducing a greater degree of action-adventure. It is not my style. It seems to me that the popularity of my stuff has been based largely on the fact that I have continually enlarged the field of S-F and changed it from gadget motivation to stories more subtle in their themes and more realistically motivated in terms of human psychology. In particular I introduced the regular use of high tragedy and completely abandoned the hero-and-villain formula.

Campbell replied, Science fiction is normally read as light, escape literature. The reader does not expect or seek heavy philosophy; particularly, he does not expect or prepare himself for heavy philosophy when he reads a story that shows every sign of being action-adventure. . . .

So far as going up goes, I’ll agree you can’t very well. I can agree with your desire to retire, under your circumstances. But look—when you don’t have to, writing’s a lot of fun. When you have to fill magazines as I do, good manuscripts are godsends. Be god for a little while longer and send more, willya?

After the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Heinlein tried to enlist in the Navy, but they rejected him because he had had tuberculosis and was quite nearsighted. So he went to Philadelphia where he served as an engineer at the Naval Air Experimental Station’s Materials Laboratory. He helped arrange for science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp to work there, too.

Heinlein resolved to expand his horizons when the war was over. He asked science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard about literary agents and was referred to Lurton Blassingame, who helped him sell Green Hills of Earth to the Saturday Evening Post, which paid the highest rates for fiction. That weekly magazine appeared on newsstands throughout the country and it was famous for its Norman Rockwell covers. It was the premier market for short stories as well as serialized novels. My first reaction had been of miserable envy, recalled Isaac Asimov. Bob could make the Post and I couldn’t even make Thrilling Wonder. It didn’t take much thought, however, for me to see that Bob had done us all a terrific favor, and that there was reason to rejoice. Every science fiction writer would find the world easier for him because Heinlein had made the field more respectable and, sooner or later, we would all profit as a result. Between Heinlein and the atom bomb, it became difficult to think of science fiction as childish and silly anymore.

In 1946, Heinlein told Blassingame that friends had convinced me that my own propaganda purposes will be served best by writing a series of boys’ books in addition to the adult items previously described. I have purchased several of the popular boys’ series novels and feel confident that I can produce salable copy—copy which can be sold to one of these markets: Westminster, Grosset and Dunlap, Crown, or Random House. His first effort was Rocket Ship Galileo, about three boys who cobble together a rocket, fly to the moon, and encounter a nest of Nazis determined to win back the earth. Blassingame sold it to Scribner’s, the same firm which had published work by mainstream novelists like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.

Heinlein was divorced in 1947, and the following year, on October 21, he married Virginia Doris Gerstenfeld, whom he had known from his days in Philadelphia. My wife Ticky is an anarchist-individualist, he exulted. She was, explained science fiction author Poul Anderson, his full partner, as strong and intelligent in every way as himself. He remarked once with a grin that during World War II, when they were both in naval service, she was his superior officer.

The Heinleins honeymooned in the Colorado Rockies and decided they’d like to live there. They bought property between 1700 and 1800 Mesa Drive, Colorado Springs and picked the address they wanted: 1776. Out front they had a brass house sign which evoked the famous Archibald Willard painting Spirit of ’76—three marchers, a man playing a fife, and a man and a boy with drums. The Heinleins were to live in Colorado Springs for the next 17 years. Among their friends was Freedom School founder Robert M. Lefevre.

Heinlein turned to motion pictures. In 1948, he adapted Rocket Ship Galileo into a script for a movie, Destination Moon. It showed how private entrepreneurs might arrange the first trip to the moon and take care of all the things that might go wrong. Although he didn’t anticipate developments like the multistage rocket, Destination Moon nonetheless has been described as the first modern science fiction movie, and it was reasonably successful.

Writer versus Editor

Heinlein scrapped with his Scribner’s editor, Alice Dagliesh, who didn’t know much about science fiction except that there was a demand for it. Her view goes something like this, he explained to Blassingame in March 1949: Science fiction consists of stories about the wonderful machines of the future which will go striding around the universe, as in Jules Verne. Her definition is all right as far as it goes, but it fails to include most of the field and includes only that portion of the field which has been heavily overworked and now contains only low-grade ore. Speculative fiction (I prefer that term to science fiction) is also concerned with sociology, psychology, esoteric aspects of biology, impact of terrestrial culture on the other cultures we may encounter when we conquer space, etc., without end. However, speculative fiction is not fantasy fiction, as it rules out the use of anything as material which violates established scientific fact, laws of nature, call it what you will.

Lurton, he went on, I’m fed up with trying to work for her. She keeps poking her nose into things she doesn’t understand and which are my business, not hers. . . . I’m tired of trying to educate her diplomatically. From my point of view she should judge my work by these rules and these only: (a) will it amuse and hold the attention of boys? (b) is it grammatical and as literate as my earlier stuff? (c) are the moral attitudes shown by the author and his protagonists—not his villains—such as to make it suitable to place in the hands of minors?

And Dagliesh seemed to sneer at the humble origins of science fiction. She asked me to suggest an artist for Rocket Ship Galileo, he told Blassingame. I suggested Hubert Rogers. She looked into the matter, then wrote me that Mr. Rogers’ name was ‘too closely associated with a rather cheap magazine’—meaning John Campbell’s Astounding S-F. To prove her point she sent me tear sheets from the magazine. It so happened that the story she picked to send me was one of my ‘Anson MacDonald’ stories, ‘By His Bootstraps’—which at the time was again in print in Crown’s Best in Science Fiction! I chuckled and said nothing. If she could not spot my style and was impressed only by the fact that the stuff was printed on pulpwood paper, it was not my place to educate her. I wondered if she knew that my reputation had been gained in that same ‘cheap’ magazine and concluded that she probably did not know and might not have been willing to publish my stuff had she known.

Heinlein had ideological disagreements with her, too. For instance, he wrote her in April 1949 that I have one of my characters say that the right to bear arms is the basis of all human freedom. I strongly believe that, but you required me to blue-pencil it. The second point concerns licensing guns. I had such licensing in the story, but I had one character strongly object to it as a piece of buttinsky bureaucracy, subversive of liberty—and I had no one defending it. You required me to remove the protest, then build up the licensing into a complicated ritual, involving codes, oaths, etc.—a complete reversal. . . . I have been writing from reasons of economic necessity something that I do not believe. I do not like having to do that. . . .

I am opposed to all attempts to license or restrict the arming of individuals, such as the Sullivan Act of the State of New York. I consider such laws a violation of civil liberty, subversive of democratic political institutions, and self-defeating in their purpose. . . . France had Sullivan-type laws. When the Nazis came, the invaders had only to consult the registration lists in a district. Whether the authorities be invaders or merely local tyrants, the effect of such laws is to place the individual at the mercy of the state, unable to resist. . . .

As to such laws being self-defeating, the avowed purpose of such laws as the Sullivan Act is to keep weapons out of the hands of potential criminals. You are surely aware that the Sullivan Act and similar acts have never accomplished anything of the sort? That gangsterism ruled New York while this act was already in force? That ‘Murder, Inc.’ flourished under this act? Criminals are never materially handicapped by such rules; the only effect is to disarm the peaceful citizen and put him fully at the mercy of the lawless.

Despite such backstage disagreements, Heinlein made dazzling contributions to juvenile literature—he is among the few major literary talents who took the trouble to write many works for young readers. Fellow science fiction author Jack Williamson marveled that Juvenile science fiction, as a labeled category, begins with Heinlein. . . . The Heinlein series was a pioneer effort, quickly imitated . . . Heinlein never writes down. His main characters are young, the plots move fast, and the style is limpidly clear. And here, as in Heinlein’s other work, the theme of liberty runs strong.

Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) is perhaps Heinlein’s most outstanding juvenile. It’s about a ragged boy named Thorby, who, brought in chains to Sargon, is sold as a slave. The buyer turns out to be Baslim, a one-legged undercover agent for the Hegemonic Guard, reporting on the slave trade. Before he’s caught and beheaded, he gives Thorby an education. The boy ventures from one place to another, struggling to find a place for himself. Slavery, Hegemonic Guard Colonel Brisby declares, starts up in every new land, and it’s terribly hard to root out. After a culture falls ill of it, it gets rooted in the economic system and laws, in men’s habits and attitudes. You abolish it; you drive it underground—there it lurks, ready to spring up again, in the minds of people who think it is their ‘natural’ right to own other people. You can’t reason with them; you can kill them but you can’t change their minds.

Thorby turns out to be the heir of Rudbek, a giant trading company which operates throughout much of the universe—and trades slaves. Thorby is determined to get his company out of this wretched business: It means being so devoted to freedom that you are willing to give up your own, be a beggar, or a slave, or die—that freedom may live.

I’ve taken great pride in these juveniles, Heinlein told Blassingame. It seemed to me a worthwhile accomplishment to write wholesome stories which were able to compete with the lurid excitements of comic books. But I am really very weary of being required to wipe my feet and straighten my tie before being allowed in the house by those who stand between me and my juvenile readers.

Other Novels

Besides juveniles, Heinlein wrote The Puppet Masters (1951), which tells how the earth is invaded by flying saucers loaded with parasitic collectivist slugs which enslave millions. They get on people’s backs, gain control of their bodies and minds, wiping out their individuality. U.S. security forces put a slug on the back of secret agent Sam Cavanaugh, so it could be observed closely, and during the experiment he becomes a slug voice. He promises Peace and contentment—and the joy of surrender. With the slug removed, he remarks: I could not stand the thought of dying while possessed by a parasite. Somehow I felt that to die would be to die already consigned to an endless and unbearable hell. Even worse was the prospect of not dying once the slug touched me. In the name of fighting these slugs, government assumes enormous power to monitor the population, and Cavanaugh says: Everybody watching everybody else. Might as well be behind the [Soviet Iron] Curtain. Fortunately, a disease is discovered which is fatal to the slugs, and they are infected and killed. But Cavanaugh warns there surely will be more invasions in the future. Eternal vigilance, he says, is our legacy to free human beings.

In Double Star (1956), John Joseph Bonforte, leader of the minority Expansionist Party, wants native populations of Venus and Mars to have the same rights as earthlings, and he’s kidnapped by the ruling Humanists who want earthlings to dominate those populations. Since the disappearance of Bonforte could cripple the Expansionist cause, an actor, Lorenzo Smythe, is asked to serve as a stand-in for Bonforte. Although he despised Martians, he soon embraces Bonforte’s libertarian views. I suddenly got a glimpse of what Bonforte was driving at, Smythe reflects. If there were ethical basics that transcended time and place, then they were true both for Martians and for men. They were true on any planet around any star—and if the human race did not behave accordingly they weren’t ever going to win to the stars because some better race would slap them down for double-dealing. Resignation of the Humanist government—it works like British parliamentary democracy—means that Smythe/Bonforte must function as the majority leader. He promotes tolerance, peace, and freedom. He must continue in this role after Bonforte dies of a stroke. Smythe/Bonforte becomes a better person and helps make a better world.

Heinlein plunged ahead with a new kind of science fiction novel that he had worked on periodically for years. The novel is really giving me a lot of trouble, he wrote Blassingame. This is the one I told you about long ago, I believe—a Man-from-Mars job, infant survivor of first expedition to Mars is fetched back by second expedition as a young adult, never having seen a human being in his life, most especially never having seen a woman or heard of sex. He has been raised by Martians, is educated and sophisticated by Martian standards, but is totally ignorant of Earth. What impact do earth culture and conditions have on him? What impact does he have on Earth culture?

Such success as I have had, Heinlein continued, has come from being original, not from writing ‘safe’ stuff—in pulps, in movies, in slicks, in juveniles. In pulp SF I moved at once to the top of the field by writing about sociology, sex, politics, and religion at a time (1939) when those subjects were all taboo. Later I cracked the slicks with science fiction when it was taken for granted that SF was pulp and nothing but pulp. You will recall that my first juvenile was considered an experiment by the publisher—and a rather risky one.

I have never written ‘what was being written’—nor do I want to do so now. Oh, I suppose that, if it became financially necessary, I could imitate my own earlier work and do it well enough to sell. But I don’t want to. I hope this new and different book sells. But, whether it does or not I want my next book to be still different—neither an imitation of The Man from Mars, nor a careful ‘mixture as before’ in imitation of my juveniles and quasi-juveniles published as soi disant adult SF books. I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to write about; none of them fits this pattern.

The book tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, descended from earthlings who went to Mars and was brought up by Martians. He comes to the earth after World War III. Liberty is lost, and the United States is just a small part of the World Federation of Free States. Smith arrives as a helpless child and is protected by a crusty individualist named Jubal Harshaw. Smith reveals magical powers acquired from the Martians. Harshaw encourages him to profit from his powers by establishing a religion, and he does. It involves grokking (empathizing with others) and free love. Heinlein aims a good deal of satire at conventional ways of thinking. Stranger in a Strange Land popularized waterbeds, acquired quite a following, made national bestseller lists, and sold some two million copies. Heinlein won his third Hugo Award for the book.

In Glory Road (1963), former football star and soldier Evelyn Cyril Oscar Gordon responds to an advertisement for an adventure, and he’s off on a rousing sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Among other things, he grumbles about taxes: Do you know how much tax a bachelor pays on $140,000 in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Free? $103,000, that’s what he pays. That leaves him $37,000. . . . But suppose I wangled some way to beat the tax. . . . I wouldn’t be ‘cheating’ Uncle Sugar; the USA had no more moral claim on that money (if I won) than on the Holy Roman Empire. What had Uncle Sugar done for me? He had clobbered my father’s life with two wars, one of which we weren’t allowed to win—and thereby made it tough for me to get through college quite aside from what a father may be worth in spiritual intangibles to his son (I didn’t know, I never would know)—then he had grabbed me out of college and had sent me to fight another unWar and damn near killed me. And when he finds himself in another universe, Gordon says places are so crowded that the privilege of staying alive is subject to tax—and delinquents are killed out of hand by the Department of Eternal Revenue. . . .

By 1965, Virginia Heinlein had begun to suffer the effects of high altitude in Colorado Springs, and they moved to Bonny Doon, a lovely rural area about 16 miles north of Santa Cruz, California. He described their place to interviewer J. Neil Schulman: It’s circular because Mrs. Heinlein wanted a circular house. I did the design work on it, but I did very largely what she wanted to accomplish. Got a big atrium in the middle of it—twelve feet across, open to the sky—which has a tree and flowers. And it has all sorts of things I put in to make housekeeping easier. We’re getting old enough, and neither one of us cares too much for servants. Everything is either built-in or on wheels, with the exception of her baby grand.

In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), Heinlein offers perhaps his most well-developed libertarian vision. The story is narrated by computer expert Manuel O’Kelly Davis. The moon, referred to as Luna, is a colony of the Earth which uses it as a place to keep convicts and political dissidents. They resent the Earth’s trade monopoly, which means selling Earth products at steep prices, buying Luna products for little—and ultimately starving people on Luna. They don’t like laws, but they respect customs. They cherish individual initiative and enterprise. They tolerate other people’s lifestyle choices and mind their own business. They resolve to take charge of their own destiny and declare Independence on July 4, 2076. The conspirators recruit Mycroft Holmes, or Mike, the computer who runs Luna to help the revolution.

Wyoming Knott, an individualist feminist, says: Here in Luna, we’re rich. Three million hardworking, smart, skilled people, enough water, plenty of everything, endless power, endless cubic. But . . . what we don’t have is a free market. We must get rid of the Authority! And Professor Bernardo de la Paz (Prof), revolutionary philosopher replies: You are right that the Authority must go. It is ridiculous—pestilential, not to be borne—that we should be ruled by an irresponsible dictator in all our essential economy! It strikes at the most basic human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace.

Asked to expand on his views, Prof says: I’m a rational anarchist. . . . A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world. . . . In terms of morals, there is no such thing as ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.


The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress sounds one of Heinlein’s favorite philosophical themes: ‘tanstaafl.’ Means ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ . . . anything free costs twice as much in long run or turns out worthless. . . . One way or other, what you get, you pay for. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress depicts a free society where private individuals, not government, do what needs to be done, including education, insurance, security, and conflict resolution. The book sold almost a million copies.

The violence of the 1960s discouraged Heinlein, and this was reflected in I Will Fear No Evil (1970). It’s the story of a terminally ill 94-year-old multibillionaire named Johann Sebastian Bach Smith who’s determined to survive a world gone wrong. He reflects on the time before the government gave up trying to guarantee safety in the streets . . . now we are under . . . an elected dictator even though we still have laws and legislatures and Congress. Smith arranges an operation to transplant his brain into the first healthy young body available, which turns out to be that of his black female secretary. Smith maintains his free will and explores the meaning of sexuality. While many of Heinlein’s fans didn’t care for the book, it was a huge commercial success.

The same year, Heinlein nearly died of peritonitis. His life was saved by many blood donations. He was especially appreciative because he had a rare blood type (A2 negative). He urged people with rare blood types to make donations and soon realized that all types of blood were badly needed. He used science fiction conventions as forums for promoting blood donation and rewarded people who gave blood there with autographed books.

Time Enough for Love (1974): Lazarus Long refuses to stop loving life and he becomes his own ancestor. The book includes wise and witty sayings from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long. For instance: The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. . . . The greatest productive force is human selfishness. . . . A committee is a life form with six or more legs and no brain. . . . Of all the strange ‘crimes’ that human beings have legislated out of nothing, ‘blasphemy’ is the most amazing—with ‘obscenity’ and ‘indecent exposure’ fighting it out for second and third place. . . . Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as ‘bad luck.’

Heinlein, approaching 70, continued to travel as he and his wife had done for years. We went around the world four times, recalled Virginia. One of the most interesting, but not to be repeated trips was to the Soviet Union. . . . We visited Antarctica and went through the Northwest Passage to Japan. When China opened up to travel, we went there, among other parts of the East.

In late 1978, while traveling near Tahiti, Heinlein experienced double vision and had trouble walking—warning signs of a stroke. Back in the United States, he had an operation to relieve blockage of the carotid artery to the brain. Fortunately, Virginia had already taken over management of his affairs. By assuming most of the time-consuming, spirit-consuming burdens of their business, Poul Anderson observed, she made it possible for him to write unhampered; and so we are all in her debt.

Late Novels

In The Number of the Beast (1980), Zeb and Deety, Jake and Hilda fight alien Black Hats out to vaporize them. The book features an admirable American individualist named Grandpa Zach. He hated government, hated lawyers, hated civil servants . . . public schools. . . . He once threw an agent out of his office and required him to return with a search warrant . . . supported female suffrage. . . . Grandpa Zach ducked into Canada, applied for Swiss citizenship, got it, and thereafter split his time between Europe and America, immune to inflation and the confiscatory laws that eventually caused us to knock three zeros off the old-dollar in creating the new dollar. . . . His will was probated in Switzerland and the U.S. Revenue Service could not touch it . . . with over half this country’s population living on the taxes of the lesser number it is not as easy to get rich as it was in Grandpa’s day.

In Friday (1982), a heroic courier named Friday carries out dangerous missions throughout North America, which has become a tangle of contentious states. She says: with all governments everywhere tightening down on everything wherever they can, with their computers and their Public Eyes and ninety-nine other sorts of electronic surveillance, there is a moral obligation on each free person to fight back wherever possible—keep underground railways open, keep shades drawn, give misinformation to computers. Computers are literal-minded and stupid; electronic records aren’t really records . . . so it is good to be alert to opportunities to foul up the system. If you can’t evade a tax, pay a little too much to confuse their computers. Transpose digits. And so on . . . all public employees have larceny in their hearts or they wouldn’t be feeding at the public trough. These two facts are all you need—but be careful!—a public employee, having no self-respect, needs and demands a show of public respect.

In Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), Heinlein explores the shocks of moving suddenly from one era to another. Among other things, he talks about money. I had figured out, the narrator says, that while paper money was never any good after a world change, hard money, gold and silver, would somehow be negotiable, as bullion if not as coin. So, when I got a chance to lay hands on hard money, I was stingy with it and refused to take paper money in change for hard money. Later, he adds that We’ll buy some heavy gold jewelry for each of us, then I’m going to try to find a coin dealer—buy some silver cartwheels, maybe some gold coins. But my purpose is to get rid of most of this paper money.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985) tells the tale of philosopher/rogue Colonel Colin Campbell, who embarks on whirlwind adventures and among other things explores the free-enterprise zones of the moon. One dreary character is described like this: Bill has the socialist disease in its worst form; he thinks the world owes him a living. He told me sincerely—smugly!—that of course everyone was entitled to the best possible medical and hospital service—free, of course, unlimited, of course, and of course the government should pay for it. He couldn’t even understand the mathematical impossibility of what he was demanding. But it’s not just free air and free therapy. Bill honestly believes that anything he wants must be possible . . . and should be free. . . . In all seriousness he explains how things should be, then it’s up to the government to make it happen. Just pass a law.

Heinlein’s farewell was To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987), which, inspired by his own experiences growing up, became a family reunion for many of his most beloved characters. He tells how the father of the narrator (a woman named Maureen Johnson) loved Mark Twain’s work and corresponded with him. She affirms the principles of personal responsibility and individualism. I don’t steal, she says, because I’m too stinkin’ proud! And her father exclaims: For the same reason you don’t cheat in school, or cheat in games. Pride. Your own concept of yourself. ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day.’

“I Am Proud to Be a Human Being”

During the fall of 1987, Heinlein’s frail health forced him and Virginia to move away from Bonny Doon. They had to be closer to a major hospital—twice in 1987 he suffered hemorrhages and was rushed to San Francisco. They bought a home at 3555 Edgefield Place, in the hills above Carmel, with a spectacular view of the Pacific.

Heinlein radiated optimism even as his health declined. I believe in my whole race, he declared. Yellow, white, black, red, brown. In the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability, and goodness of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth. That we always make it just by the skin of our teeth, but that we will make it. Survive. Endure. I believe this hairless embryo with the aching, oversize brain case and the opposable thumb, this animal barely up from the apes will endure. Will endure longer than his home planet—will spread out to the stars and beyond, carrying with him his honesty and his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage and his noble essential decency.

But overwhelmed by heart ailments and emphysema, Heinlein died of heart failure, in his sleep at home, Sunday, May 8, 1988. About ten days later, Virginia Heinlein boarded a U.S. Navy ship in Monterey, sailed into the Pacific and committed his ashes to eternity.

Tributes came from all over. For instance, Isaac Asimov said: He had kept his position as greatest science fiction writer unshaken to the end. Tom Clancy: We proceed down a path marked by his ideas. British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: Goodbye, Bob, and thank you for the influence you had on my life and career. And thank you too, Ginny, for looking after him so well and so long. Catherine Crook de Camp, wife of Heinlein’s friend L. Sprague de Camp: The last telephone call I made to Robert Heinlein was about a month before he died, while he was at home between two hospital stays. His voice seemed resonant and almost young that evening as we recalled the many happy times we’d shared. He described the splendid vistas from the windows of his new home as he looked towards his beloved sea. Finally, Bob and I said how much we’d always loved each other and always would. It was a heart-to-heart recap of forty-six years of tender friendship. And when there was nothing left to say, I sat beside the silent phone and wept.

Today Robert Heinlein inspires young people much as he inspired their parents and grandparents, an extraordinary phenomenon. Tunnel in the Sky is a popular CD-ROM game. In 1994, Disney released the movie Puppet Masters. Later this year, Disney and TriStar will release the movie Starship Troopers. Major studios currently have movie options on Glory Road, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Orphans of the Sky, and Stranger in a Strange Land. Robert Heinlein, now and forever—a great soaring spirit for liberty.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.