July 12, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.TANSTAAFL.

Anybody recognize that? Where it comes from? What it refers to?

This past weekend was the 100th birthday of Robert A. Heinlein. I was not there, though I’d wanted to be. You see, Robert A. Heinlein was one of the greatest science fiction writers in the world, and when I was a child, his books informed my apprehension of just about everything. It might be questioned whether one man deserves the kind of press Heinlein gets. Even when he was alive (he passed away in 1988) he was controversial but there were still many places you could walk into where not a soul would know who he was. I think he’s important because, in a way, he made modern America.

What? A science fiction writer? Made America?

Such a statement demands clarification.

A biography is soon to be out by a gentleman named Bill Patterson. You can read it, read about the man who once wore the title “The Dean of Space Age Fiction”, and judge for yourself. I won’t go into huge detail about his life or work here. I want to make a smaller, more pointed observation.

In 33 novels and a significant number of short stories, Robert A. Heinlein established a didactic approach to science fiction that has been copied, improved, debated, revered, and hated since he began his career in 1938. Heinlein was born in Missouri. He graduated from Annapolis. He received a medical discharge from the Navy in the early thirties for TB. He eventually moved to California and worked ardently for Upton Sinclair’s EPIC campaign during the Depression. This surprises most people today because after the Cold War was fully launched and engaged, he became an icon of right wing militarism, a reputation solidified by the 1959 publication of his novel Starship Troopers. In it, Heinlein lays out the notion that the vote is too important to simply be handed out. It must be earned. He has a society in which only military service grants the franchise. It is otherwise mildly socialist, an aspect which most people seem to overlook. Humanity, in the novel, is at war with the Bugs, a hive species bent on our destruction. Heinlein lays out philosophic justifications for the kind of total war that seems necessary. He stops just short of glorifying militarism, portraying as a necessary component of survival of culture.

Heinlein was an early defender of our incursion in Vietnam, which forms the springboard from which his novel Glory Road is launched. He believed nuclear war was likely and thought people who refused to come to terms with it softheaded and bound of extinction. He wrote about it in a couple of stories and one novel in particular, Farnham’s Freehold, which drew criticism for other reasons.

Paradoxically, for a man so identified with the Right, he was also an advocate of sexual laissez faire and in his later novels portrayed all manner of novel association between men and women. He did in fact “invent” the waterbed, though he did not patent the idea. He was also anti formalized religion. There are facets to the man the Right, as we see it today, would be hard pressed to accommodate. He virtually launched the counter culture with Stranger In A Strange Land, published in 1961.

Possibly his best crafted novel was The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, 1966, which depicts a colonial revolution, the moon breaking away from Earth’s government in 2076. It is one of his most didactic political novels and brings together a great deal, if not all, his written polemic, and the novel wherein the acronym TANSTAAFL first appeared.

When I say he created America, what I mean is that in his fiction he presented an ideal, buried beneath the entertainment, of what it might mean to be a free human being, based solidly on the principles of early America and the post WWII ideals of the Greatest Generation. It is the “Heinlein Man” we see most clearly in the first generation of astronauts; in the persona of pre 1960 Barry Goldwater; in the American presence of Ronald Reagan; in the notion behind the Can Do spirit that supposedly exemplified the United States codified by JFK’s vision; in our engineering, our generosity, our competence, our ability to walk into situations and (sometimes) leave them better; in our sense of ourselves as independent, free-thinking, moral individuals willing to do for our fellow man.

And in our choice to walk away from those who fail to benefit from our example.

The Libertarians have virtually adopted Heinlein as their ideal American.

Because the best of his work was published between 1947 and 1963, the generation that came of age in the 70s and 80s grew up reading him (those who read SF) and then being examples of what Heinlein set forth to everyone else.

At best, it’s a mixed legacy. Unfortunately, like most things of its sort, Heinlein’s work and ideology are misunderstood at best and misused intentionally at worst.

Some have suggested he would have gotten along well with Ayn Rand. Personally, I find that idea ludicrous.

There is no question that Heinlein had a profound impact on Post-WWII American Culture. The problem is knowing what it was he really intended. It is always–always–dangerous to assume we know what an artist thinks through the lens of the work. Novels and short stories are first and foremost fiction. Made up things. And in science fiction particularly there is the problem of the genre itself. It is intended as a test bed, a medium wherein ideas can be given life and deployed to see how they might play out.

In The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress Heinlein goes through the whole drama of a revolution, polemics included, to the point of independence. It is seen as a recipe for actions that are their own justifications. The rewards are supposed to be self-evident.

Two things. In the novel, there is a self-aware computer, Mike, that aids and abetts the revolution. In many ways, Mike becomes the unseen but ubiquitous spirit of the revolution. He is the entity that manages…everything. Air, water, food production, manufacturing. He’s the central computer, the “soul” of the lunar colony.

In winning the revolution, Mike “dies.” And only a few people notice.

The other guiding light is an elderly revolutionary, a figure out of Czarist Russia combined with Abbey Hoffman and Gore Vidal, the Prof. He survives the actually fight for independence, but as the new government is being constructed–and making many of the same mistakes the Prof has continually warned them against–he quietly dies in his sleep.

The two brightest aspects of the lunar culture pass away in the course of the struggle. For everything we might gain, we lose something else, and it might be that the price isn’t worth it. Heinlein didn’t send up a flare to point this lesson out, but it’s there, and generally ignored.

In later years, Heinlein’s work was dominated by the figure of Lazarus Long, the aging and ageless scion of the Howard Clan. Lazarus in well into his third millenium by the time Hienlein himself died. Lazarus’s chief quality is that he leaves. This is also unremarked. He shows up, dispenses of some (questionable) wisdom, and then departs when things get too crowded. He accepts responsibility when he must, but his life has been a series of avoidance strategies so he won’t have to. For Lazarus, everything humanity tries to do has the potential for disaster, and he has no use for any political persuasion that doesn’t allow for others to be equally represented—but ultimately he has no use for any political system of any kind.

And here’s where Heinlein became the lightning rod for any and all critics. Lazarus Long is the ultimate Libertarian—utterly self-sufficient, competent in every field he needs to survive anywhere, and beholden to no one. One of Lazarus’s famous maxims is:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.You can see in this the seeds of our present day global conundrum. Somewhere along the line, entirely unconsciously, America has embraced the notion that we are that human being–somehow without noticing that human beings are not societies and societies cannot function as individuals.

You can see in this the seeds of our present day global conundrum. Somewhere along the line, entirely unconsciously, America has embraced the notion that we are that human being–somehow without noticing that human beings are not societies and societies cannot function as individuals.The benefit for me of having read so much Heinlein growing up is simple—Heinlein had a gift for displaying the processes of thinking things through. He was Socratic in that sense. He would present a problem and then, through the course of the story, show us how one goes about dealing with it. He never intended, I believe, to become a guru. I think he would have been repulsed.

What Heinlein wanted to be was a human being capable of independence of thought and action. This had to be accomplished within the systems available to us, all of which, over time, came in for a great deal of criticism at his hand. He thought all of us should be so empowered. If there is a libertarian idea in Heinlein it is that we shouldn’t accept the position of sheep within the power structure, that if we do, then one day, likely as not, we will be shorn and then butchered.

Criticism of his sexual politics has been a hobby for decades—all Heinlein’s women wanted to have babies, something none of his wives experienced (he had three). He was a childless man who wrote about extended families. Big shock. What gets missed is that, for a child growing up in the early Sixties, Heinlein’s women were strong, independent, self-motivated, and empowered. They were intellectually the equals or superiors of their male counterparts, and occasionally physically superior. They were all Emma Peel, and from that model my own displeasure with the dominant culture’s attitude toward women grew. Oh, they liked sex—a lot—which drew the ire of the likes of Catherine McKinnon.

The charge of fascism has always baffled me, but seems to stem from his political screeds in Starship Troopers. Well. It was one novel and it presented an argument. I came to see all Heinlein’s arguments as challenges—”Argue with me, prove me wrong!”—which is what good SF is supposed to do. As for the idea that he would have found a kindred spirit in Mussolini, that surely is one of the most serious misreadings of a body of work. Fascism, whatever else it ever was, was never about Individualism. Quite the contrary.

But I do believe the misreadings multiplied, just as the misreadings of Darwin did in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and have resulted in unfortunate polemical postures. The image of Lazarus Long leaving once more when a place gets too crowded haunts the interventionist ethic that has gripped our national psyche since the end of WWII. Lazarus shakes his head and thinks, “Unless you really know better, leave it alone.”

But then there is that other saying of Lazarus that immediately follows:

Never underestimate the power of stupidity.The two links below are to the website of the Heinlein Centennial celebration, and through which more writing about him can be found. The other is an archive of pictures from that celebration.

The two links below are to the website of the Heinlein Centennial celebration, and through which more writing about him can be found. The other is an archive of pictures from that celebration.http://www.midamericon.org/photoarchive/07camp08.htm



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Category: American Culture, Culture, Entertainment, Politics, Reading - Books and Magazines, Whimsy, Writing

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (4)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    An absolutley wonderful article. My first exposure to Heinlein was as a 3rd grader when I checked the book "Rocket Ship Galileo". Soon afterward I took on "Have Spacesuit, will travel" followed by many more.

    What I liked most about his stories was how he could make you take a critical look at things long since taken for granted. I also liked his wicked sense of humor, for example, the description of a fight between Hari Krishnas and Scientologists in "Friday", or really tongue-in-cheek shorts "All You Zombies" and "And He Built a Crooked House".

    I think in "Grumbles from the Grave" there was a copy of a letter to a fan club where Heinlein stated that he had no answers, but simply asked the right questions.

    Heinlein was a man who defied being labeled or categorized. I have yet to read all of his works, but they always seem fresh.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    The first book I ever read was "The Red Planet", I was barely three. I was hooked on Heinlein, and reading. I've wandered astray from sci-fi but, still average five bestsellers or favorite authors a month. Anybody want to trade?

  3. The people in Butler are proud of him. I've driven past his childhood home but haven't yet stopped to look around.

    Expanded Universe was probably my favorite book, but I haven't read all his stuff yet. And I agree, he made you think through a problem and disguised it as entertainment.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Okay, I just had to re-read "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", a book that I had always thought was underrated. I think I've read all of Heinlein, some more often than others. As dated as it is, this is still a good read.

    I thought I'd mention the Niven short "The Return of William Proxmire" (that appears in Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes… and Niven's N-Space) about how the archetypal anti-tech senator attempts to use time travel technology to fight rampant technology by preventing Heinlein's discharge from the Navy, that had cast him as a guiding light in science fiction as he just tried to pay the bills. Niven assumes that Heinlein would have been even more effective in driving technology had he rank and position as well as vision and drive.

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