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Thread: Understanding Heinlein

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    Understanding Heinlein

    In the second volume of William H. Patterson's Robert Heinlein biography, Heinlein is quoted as saying something to the effect that if someone tells him they have enjoyed Starship Troopers, Stranger In A Strange Land and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, then it is likely they have understood what he is trying to say. Liking just one while disliking the others means they have missed his message entirely; liking just two means they are still short of understanding. (I'd dig out the exact quote for you, but the index in the book is positively execrable.)
    Rather typically for Heinlein, he discards the possibility that someone might understand his message, disagree with it, and therefore dislike all three. And also the possibility that someone might understand the message but dislike one or more of the books because they judge them to be poorly written.

    But anyway. That's the acid test, as set by Heinlein:
    Starship Troopers
    Stranger In A Strange Land
    The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

    Do you like all three?
    If not, why not?
    If so, what do you think Heinlein's message was?
    And, in the light of my reflections above, even if you don't like all three feel free to comment on the message you think he was trying to convey.

    Grant Hutchison

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    I enjoyed all three but it took me a while to warm up to Mistress. I think the odd Russian-like dialog with the clipped phrases put me off, but I still enjoyed the story.

    Troopers clearly has an anti-Communist theme with the hive-mind bugs representing the totalitarianism of the USSR.

    Mistress
    is blatantly based on the US Revolution, even to the point of sharing July 4 as the birth of both countries, with elements of Australia thrown in (convicts becoming citizens).

    And Stranger is a less-than-subtle Messiah story complete with birth, life, death and virtual resurrection of Michael Smith. (And also ritual cannibalism - which took me a while to figure out when I was 17 when I first read the book).

    It's not obvious that the three stories share a central message, other than perhaps sacrifice - sacrifice for one's fellow troops, for one's nation, or for the human race.

    (And Stranger had a significant thread of religious satire; it poked large holes into institutional religion with, IMO, a pseudo-LDS as the foil. The other books essentially ignore religion.)

    But was that what he meant?
    Last edited by schlaugh; 2015-Sep-11 at 12:29 AM. Reason: somehow a paragraph got dropped

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    Which Heinlein? The early, good writing engineer, or the later, self indulgent fantasist?
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    Quote Originally Posted by schlaugh View Post
    Troopers clearly has an anti-Communist theme with the hive-mind bugs representing the totalitarianism of the USSR.[I]
    And...you've got a problem with hive-mind bugs?

    Seriously - I had a difficult time with "Mistress" as well. Tried twice to finish it (about 10 years ago). Maybe I'll give it another try sometime. The language used was oddly appealing...but also too, I dunno. Hmmm.

    I did like "Starship Troopers."

    But my reading is very different these days.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Which Heinlein? The early, good writing engineer, or the later, self indulgent fantasist?
    The Heinlein who chose these three novels as the acid test for understanding the moral and political statement he wanted to make. From early days (according to volume one of Patterson's biography) he said he wanted to use his writing to preach a particular worldview, and he subsequently maintained (according to volume two) that he never shifted that worldview.
    He clearly understood those three novels as transmitting something essential about his beliefs.

    Grant Hutchison

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    I thought Starship Troopers was pretty creative in the technical department (didn't Heinlein invent the idea of a powered exoskeleton?), what with the powered armor, grenade-sized nukes, talking bombs and such. It also has some interesting ideas about military service* and elsewhere.

    However, as a story I found it to be pretty dull. Johnny Rico is the most boring protagonist I've ever seen in a novel.

    I really enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land. I thought it was hilarious. On the negative, Jubal was a bit too preachy, I thought. I really got the impression that he was a cypher.

    Haven't read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress yet. Maybe never will.


    *Being able to opt out of military service (which was voluntary to begin with) up until you're physically deployed against the enemy, and thus your comrades-in-arms are depending on you being there. This radical idea was written back when a compulsory draft and being forced to fight was legal in the United States.
    Last edited by SkepticJ; 2015-Sep-11 at 01:50 AM.

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    He was deeply fooling himself if he really thought he never changed his beliefs.

    I liked Mistress, I mildly enjoyed Starship Troopers as early military SF but found its politics preachy and implausible, and absolutely hated Stranger.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Buttercup View Post
    And...you've got a problem with hive-mind bugs?
    Oh heavens no, they're cute little...er...buggers. Except the ones to which I am allergic to their stings. They can go rot.

    In all seriousness the comparison of the bugs vs. communists has been around for a long while. When I read that analogy it made sense, but only after I re-read the book in the 1980s.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    He was deeply fooling himself if he really thought he never changed his beliefs.
    He claimed that he had stood fast while the American political landscape shifted.
    Like Niven, he also pointed out that people were making a category error if they confused the stated beliefs of an author's characters with the beliefs of the author himself. And he got very antsy when people like Blish, Budrys and Panshin attempted to use his writing as a route to understanding his personal beliefs. Of the many mutually contradictory ideas that seem to have occupied Heinlein's head, "I preach through my writing" and "No-one can analyse my personal beliefs based on my writing" are two of the most striking.

    Grant Hutchison

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    I haven't read Heinlein really, so I can't help, but I am interested so perhaps I'll try reading those. I did want to say though that artists seem to me to often misunderstand how other people think of their works. Just as a simple example, one of the bands I really like is Radiohead. There's this one song called Street Spirit, and Thomas Yorke (the singer) said that he's shocked that people like to listen to the song, because it's so depressing. But to be honest, because of his accent perhaps and the way he sings, I have no idea what he's even saying. I can hear the "Fade out, again..." in the chorus, but that's about all I can make out of it, so I am not understanding whatever it is that he thinks is so depressing about it. I think that writers can be the same. They delusionally think that we read their works in the way that they expect their works to be read. But that's quite arrogant if you think of it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Buttercup View Post

    But my reading is very different these days.
    Yes, that accords with what I meant to say. Writers cannot simply assume that people will read their books the way they intended them to be read. Just like I can't expect people to take my comments the way I intended them to be taken. The interpretation can change over time.
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    <snip>
    Rather typically for Heinlein, he discards the possibility that someone might understand his message, disagree with it, and therefore dislike all three. And also the possibility that someone might understand the message but dislike one or more of the books because they judge them to be poorly written.
    Or like one of the books for the story and not so much for the message.

    I never read Starship Troopers.

    I've read Stranger In a Strange Land, though only a couple of times, and the most recent was a long time ago. I kind of liked it, there were certain ideas in it that I liked, others I didn't. I think part of my like as a teenager was for the sexual situations. I don't recall a compelling message. And the whole Martian civilization thing was a fantasy by the 1970s, at least as far as I was concerned, and was a negative to me.

    I really like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it is one of my favorite SF books. I've re-read it an uncountable number of times. I think I get the message, or at least some of the messages, and I disagree with a lot of Heinlein's social-political ideas. But in spite of that, I think its a great story, has some very memorable characters and some great concepts; but mostly a great story very well told.

    I'm not sure how Heinlein would interpret that, I suspect he would say "I don't get it", but I don't really care if he would have thought I got it or not.
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    The Heinlein who chose these three novels as the acid test for understanding the moral and political statement he wanted to make. From early days (according to volume one of Patterson's biography) he said he wanted to use his writing to preach a particular worldview, and he subsequently maintained (according to volume two) that he never shifted that worldview.
    He clearly understood those three novels as transmitting something essential about his beliefs.
    That reminds me of something else. I grew up in France in the 1970s, and I absolutely loved Tintin. Recently I found out that it was supposedly done as anticommunist propaganda. And yet, though I loved the books, I never understood the political significance I guess and grew up to be a socialist. I can't really think of a single book that I decided to like or dislike based on what it was trying to say. Regarding my favorite novel, A Hundred Years of Solitude, I have no idea what he was trying to say. I guess it grates me when things are too preachy, whatever the viewpoint (for example, I hated that speech at the end of Dancing with Wolves I think). But I did like the preaching at the end of Airplane!.
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    Agree with Jens. The thing about art is that it isn't good unless it appeals to you on a personal level. I think that way too much emphasis is placed on artists' intentions and not enough attention on what is coming across in their work. I think that arguing about what art is trying to express is a little silly sometimes since the idea behind art is to be aesthetically pleasing and aesthetics are a personal matter.

    As for Heinlein, I have read all three of those books. I immensely enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land, particularly the expanded version that was published by Heinlein's widow after his death. As far as novels go, I place it on the same level as The Lord of the Rings. The other two I have read once each and while I didn't not enjoy them, I probably won't ever read them again and I don't feel that they added anything particularly valuable to my life.

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    The second two of your (Heinlein's) list, Strange Land and Moon, express his strong libertarian views.
    Strangely, so does Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" but from the opposite politico-philosophical viewpoint, that of an anarchist.
    I cannot think that either author could agree on anything.
    John

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I haven't read Heinlein really, so I can't help, but I am interested so perhaps I'll try reading those.
    I think I can't fault that trio as an introduction to Heinlein - some people praise his juveniles but they are ... well, you know ... a bit juvenile; and his overtly preachy, solipsistic later works are just plain hard going.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I did want to say though that artists seem to me to often misunderstand how other people think of their works. Just as a simple example, one of the bands I really like is Radiohead. There's this one song called Street Spirit, and Thomas Yorke (the singer) said that he's shocked that people like to listen to the song, because it's so depressing. But to be honest, because of his accent perhaps and the way he sings, I have no idea what he's even saying. I can hear the "Fade out, again..." in the chorus, but that's about all I can make out of it, so I am not understanding whatever it is that he thinks is so depressing about it. I think that writers can be the same. They delusionally think that we read their works in the way that they expect their works to be read. But that's quite arrogant if you think of it.
    Yes, there's a school of lit crit (the name of which escapes me at present) that says the author has absolutely no ownership of the text - the text means no more and no less than whatever it means to the readers.
    Heinlein's problem was that he wanted ownership of the text, but refused to enter into public discussion about what he was trying to say with the text. Then he got sniffy (verging on litigious) with people who tried to fill that gap by speculating about what he meant with the text. I think he would probably have stroked out at an early age if he'd been writing in the present world of Amazon and Goodreads reviews!

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by JohnD View Post
    The second two of your (Heinlein's) list, Strange Land and Moon, express his strong libertarian views.
    Heinlein self-identified in his letters (quoted by Patterson's bio) as a "Jeffersonian libertarian".
    That's actually quite a nuanced form of libertarianism, if you care to pick through Jefferson's writings about the rights of the individual and the duties of government.
    I think it also has relevance to Starship Troopers.

    However, Heinlein's libertarianism, in practice, seems only to have applied to those around him who were not "custard heads" - if you disagreed with Heinlein, you could pretty much forget about having your freedom of speech respected.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Yes, there's a school of lit crit (the name of which escapes me at present) that says the author has absolutely no ownership of the text - the text means no more and no less than whatever it means to the readers.


    Grant Hutchison
    Reader Response Theory?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    Yes, that accords with what I meant to say. Writers cannot simply assume that people will read their books the way they intended them to be read. Just like I can't expect people to take my comments the way I intended them to be taken. The interpretation can change over time.
    I saw an interview with Clive Barker (on YouTube) a few weeks ago. Tried finding this particular interview again, but there's a lot of interviews. From sometime in the mid-90s, it seemed. Anyway, Clive mentioned a swimming (lake) scene in one of his novels. And how the reader is "co-creator": That a reader who loves to swim will respond differently to this scene than a reader who might have nearly drowned once, or who has an innate fear of water.
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    I read Starship Troopers and frankly prefer the movie, which at least has the benefit of being silly instead of ponderous. And, yes, I'm one of those people who finds it a bit fascist.
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    Quote Originally Posted by primummobile View Post
    Reader Response Theory?
    That's the one, thanks!
    It comes in various flavours, but it's so long since I did this stuff that I can't recall any detail, and it's not important for present purposes anyway.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    I read Starship Troopers and frankly prefer the movie, which at least has the benefit of being silly instead of ponderous.
    William H. Patterson, who in his biography accepts everything Heinlein ever said at face value and who is clearly a fan of all things Heinleinian (it is an "authorized" biography, after all, and Virginia Heinlein would never have accepted anything else), is touchingly baffled by the fact that the movie is so different in tone from the book.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by primummobile View Post
    Reader Response Theory?
    I immediately thought more of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction (il n'y a pas de hors-texte), but it seems that is related.
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    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was my favorite Heinlein book for a long time. It's been so long since I read it, though, that I don't want to stand by that. As for Stranger in a Strange Land, the first time I read it I found it dramatically radical. The last time I read it it seemed almost quaint. Double Star is another one of his best, imho.
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    Love Mistress, my favorite Heinlein. Troopers seems like one of his juveniles, albeit a bit more mature. The basic lack of plot makes it feel more like a documentary. I didn't like Stranger the first time I read it, mostly because it contradicted my then-held religious beliefs. I've had no desire to re-read it lately.

    I also enjoy Double Star, ToSeek.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jamesabrown View Post
    Love Mistress, my favorite Heinlein. Troopers seems like one of his juveniles, albeit a bit more mature. The basic lack of plot makes it feel more like a documentary. I didn't like Stranger the first time I read it, mostly because it contradicted my then-held religious beliefs. I've had no desire to re-read it lately.

    I also enjoy Double Star, ToSeek.
    Those are his four Hugo awards, right there.
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    1. Really liked Starship Troopers, but found the kind of society that Heinlein seemed to be preaching implausible.
    2. Moon is a Harsh Mistress was good fun adventure, some of the social revolutionary stuff he seemed to be preaching was again for me implausible.
    3. Treated Stranger in a Strange Land as comedy and got some enjoyment out of it but I haven't reread it again.

    I think maybe Heinlein took himself too seriously, like Cleve says he was good at the start with the engineering stuff but latter on his work got pretty turgid in my opinion. I never did make it through The Number of the Beast and it kind of turned me off him since. I'll reread Mistress and Starship Troopers every now and then, but that's it.

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    I'm rereading Starship Troopers. There's definitely a thread of Heinlein's self-identified "Jeffersonian libertarianism" running through it: he even quotes Jefferson's line about the tree of liberty needing to be refreshed by the blood of patriots (though he elides Jefferson's mention of tyrants).
    He evokes military principles of duty and honour well. According to his biographer, Patterson, he said at the time that the novel was a sort of explanatory note to soldiers returned from Korea or setting out to Vietnam; he certainly received fan mail from soldiers, and the book has featured in the reading lists of various military academies. But what struck me when I first read it, and strikes me again now, is that he essentially undermines his message of duty and honour by the contention (stated as fact by Dubois, the History and Moral Philosophy teacher) that humans are born without a moral sense, and have to have one instilled by corporal punishment. Where is the honour in performing a duty that you perceive as a duty only because you were physically abused for previously failing in that duty?

    I also remember being puzzled, as a teenager, by Heinlein's faith in corporal punishment as a means of behaviour modification in children and adults. Corporal punishment was being meted out regularly at my school, and it was adopted as something of a badge of honour among those who enjoyed breaking the rules. (The threat of corporal punishment certainly modified my behaviour, but then my behaviour could also be modified by sarcasm, a withering look, or a reasoned argument.)

    Grant Hutchison

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    Yeah, studies do tend to show that corporal punishment only really teaches kids to avoid getting caught and isn't as good at behavioural modification as its proponents would have you believe.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    Yeah, studies do tend to show that corporal punishment only really teaches kids to avoid getting caught and isn't as good at behavioural modification as its proponents would have you believe.
    Never worked with my kids. Two of them never needed it and the third flys off the handle so badly that I would think he would just ignore it.

    Man, does that boy have a temper. He's 13, so I guess it is a teenage thing. I did figure out two tricks. If my wife is speaking to him, no matter what he says, I just point him back at my wife so he doesn't try to worm his way out of situation by provoking an argument between me and her. He has some serious cunning, because he does think along those lines.

    In any event, Stranger in a Strange Land is one of my favorites, Starship Troopers less so. I suspect I could have The Moon is a Harsh Mistress because I do like Heinlein, but I can't even remember a plot or even story points. Maybe I'll have to go to the library and check it out.
    Solfe

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