Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century

[Amazon Link] It seems to be the week for childhood reminisces: back in the 1950s, the first big-boy book I read from the Oakland, Iowa public library was Red Planet by a guy named Robert A. Heinlein. This got me hooked on science fiction generally, and Heinlein specifically. When the "Ten Influential Books" meme was going around earlier this year, I had two of his novels on my list. So I'm kind of a natural customer for a Heinlein bio.

This is Volume 1 of a two-volume authorized biography, covering the years 1907 to 1948. (I requested that the sainted library of the University Near Here purchase a copy. This doesn't always work, but they came through this time.) Even though it's merely Volume 1, it is nonetheless don't-drop-it-on-your-toe huge: the main text goes to page 473, and is followed by a hundred-plus pages of acknowledgements, appendixes, notes, and a detailed index. It's a scholarly and detailed work.

Heinlein was born in Missouri to a large family, and grew up in Kansas City. He graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but was discharged from his Navy career a few years later due to a nasty bout of TB. He moved to California, was heavily involved in politics for a time. Eventually, he hit on his writing career. After years of living on the edge of an economic precipice, this eventually generates a decent income.

The book goes into gory detail on the ups and downs of Heinlein's personal and professional relationships. A random selection of a few details I found interesting:

  • Heinlein was exploring a movie project with legendary director Fritz Lang. The collaboration eventually died, but pieces of the project were eventually leveraged into Destination Moon.

  • Heinlein considered himself a socialist from a young age, and was politically active for a number of years in California, where he ardently supported Upton Sinclair in his campaign for California Governor, and ran (unsuccessfully) himself for a seat in the California legislature. I'd read something about this previously, but it's kind of a shock, considering his Goldwater Republicanism by the 60s.

  • He knew famous fan-dancer Sally Rand quite well.

  • He named his car Skylark IV, in honor of E. E. (Doc) Smith's Skylark series.

The biography was authorized by Heinlein's widow (wife number three), Ginny. (She died in 2003, so it's had a long gestation period.) Fittingly enough, Volume 1 ends with Robert and Ginny's marriage in 1948 before a justice of the peace in Raton, New Mexico.

Even this Heinlein fanboy found the book pretty heavy going. (I got through it by following a strict reading schedule over the 4 week loan period.) I can't really recommend it, but (to paraphrase Lincoln), if you like this sort of thing, it's the kind of thing you're going to like.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:46 AM EDT