Robert A. Heinlein
A Reader's Companion
by James Gifford
 

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Nitrosyncretic Press
Citrus Heights, California; 2000
281 pages

January 2004

  
A well-structured reference

Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion by James Gifford is a reference book, a handbook to Heinlein's half-century of creative writing — mostly of science fiction, but other kinds as well. It is an excellent guide: Gifford's knowledge of Heinlein's work and life is both wide and deep, and he has an eye for odd and interesting details of stories, their publication histories, connections between stories, and so on. He concentrates on facts, but includes many insights, bits of commentary and even humor; this is not a dry book.

Structure of the main entries for books, stories, and essays:

  • a general discussion
  • Synopsis — only for a few obscure stories
  • Connections — to other stories
  • Changes — different versions, if any
  • Curiosities & Anomalies — fun stuff
  • Elements — background material, such as aliens and redheads
     
  • Contents — story list, if it's a collection
  • Commentary — about forewords to collections

There is a dual Foreword by L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine Crook de Camp, friends of Robert and Virginia Heinlein for half a century. This is a neat conversationally-interleaved version of the de Camps' 1988 warm and reminiscent speeches, as found separately in the posthumous collection of Heinlein material and tributes, Requiem edited by Yoji Kondo.
  

Many fascinating details

Robert A. Heinlein - A Reader's Companion - James Gifford James Gifford provides a wealth of authoritative detail here. Heinlein's novels are covered, including the odd publishing history of some of them. Gifford is clear on the complete versions of Red Planet, The Puppet Masters, and Stranger in a Strange Land — and how to tell which edition you're reading — which I discuss from a Troynovant angle in Heinlein's Missed Bestsellers.
  

Short stories are not stinted. In fact, the length of Gifford's entries deliberately do not correspond to the length of the specific work by Heinlein: if an item's history is simple, so is the entry; when complex, he pours out authoritative details.

"Life-Line" (1939), famously Heinlein's first published story and the first of the Future History series — traditionally sparked by a story contest — receives five fascinating pages. Gifford discusses the unstable text of "Let There Be Light" (1940); the long-puzzling origin of "Beyond Doubt" (1941), written in collaboration with Elma Wentz; and the dream-origin of the realistic morality tale, "Water Is for Washing".

Be aware that Gifford does reveal some plot surprises. In the case of several obscure early stories, he reasonably presumes that you've never read them and likely never will. In the case of the more available Heinlein, if you haven't read or re-read a story lately, use your own judgment before reading Gifford's entry.
  

The New Heinlein Opus List, etc.

There are a variety of Appendices covering items such as speeches, articles, film work; and unwritten stories (of zero length) such as "The Stone Pillow" and "Word Edgewise" listed in early Future History charts.

The most important research tool is "The New Heinlein Opus List", in which Gifford organizes all of Heinlein's writings in the order written or begun. As of when A Reader's Companion was published, no manuscript of Heinlein's long-lost first novel, For Us, the Living (written 1938, published 2004) had come to light. For such niceties Gifford maintains an updated version of "The New Heinlein Opus List" available online.

Admirably, Gifford sticks tightly to his subject. He refrains from the common critics' liability to wander far afield in literature. His presentation of context is always interesting, and he does take us afield in space, with informative connections of the stories to the Moon and beyond.
  

Star Lummox and F&SF

One item of context struck me oddly: Gifford's suggestion that Fantasy & Science Fiction "is perhaps the most adult-oriented of the science fiction magazines", in the entry for the 1957 story "The Menace from Earth". And again, in the entry for the 1954 juvenile The Star Beast, serialized in Fantasy & Science Fiction as Star Lummox: "This adult nature [of The Star Beast] explains why it was serialized in not only an adult science fiction magazine, but perhaps the most adult of all the magazines."

There are a variety of nice claims one can make for Fantasy & Science Fiction — the home of overtly-literary style and the interminable series of Feghoot story-puns — but most adult never would have occurred to me.

For serialization, F&SF abridged not only The Star Beast but later also Starship Troopers; readers who assumed they were reading complete novels were not. Printing the 1954 title as Star Lummox (Lummox is the nickname for the extraterrestrial "pet") suggests F&SF's editors emphasizing the humorous and even slapstick aspects of the novel rather than its challenging adult ones, for in some respects this is Heinlein's silliest juvenile. Oddly, F&SF ran their Star Lummox cover illustration not on their first installment of the serial but on the middle installment.
  

On the other hand, I rate Rocket Ship Galileo, Heinlein's first juvenile for Scribner's, higher than Gifford does (and to be fair, higher than most comments I've seen). I find the characters more engaging than those in The Star Beast for example; the plot if more melodramatic than The Star Beast does not have the latter's jokey elements; and the interaction with the Lunar landscape is fascinating.

Naturally fans of a prolific, complex, and subtle writer such as Heinlein are bound to vary in their assessments of his works. Gifford's opinions are visible but he concentrates on his authoritative reference material rather than trying to review or critique.
  

Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion is an outstanding book. Useful for any science-fiction reference shelf, and a delight to Heinlein aficionados.

  

© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
James Gifford's
Robert A. Heinlein site

The Heinlein Society
for the Heinlein inspiration and legacy

The Heinlein Society's Nexus Forum
all things Heinlein: join the discussion
(the Forum was begun by James Gifford)
  

  
Robert A. Heinlein at Troynovant

ReFuture at Troynovant
history of science fiction
& progress of fantasy
  


 

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