Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century
Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve
by William H. Patterson, Jr.

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Tor: New York, 2010
622 pages; 32 photos

including Errata and Revisions —

Tor: New York, 2011
640 pages; 32 photos

February 2011

The man who learned better

This biography is among the most significant books about science fiction that we will ever read; it is the benchmark insightful study of the life of science fiction's greatest practitioner; and it is a wonderfully humane study of how a man who as a visionary and engineer, sentimentalist and iconoclast, individualist and patriot, realist and futurist, interacts with the changeful and portentous Twentieth Century.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century; Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve is the first of two volumes by Heinlein scholar William H. Patterson, Jr. This first volume, Learning Curve, covers the first half of Heinlein's life. It is an ambitious biography which aspires to grasp and integrate the above themes, and does so quite successfully. I want to spend a little time on Patterson's intent, because to appreciate the magnitude of his achievement, we need to understand the complex weave of his themes.

Science fiction's pioneering critic Damon Knight pointed out in the 1950s (in his In Search of Wonder) that Heinlein had acquired such a wide background that he not only was uniquely qualified to work within the vast range of science fiction, but really was over-qualified to simply write in the field. Knight was correct on both counts; and Heinlein scholars today know far more about Heinlein than was generally known then. Many fans knew that Heinlein attended the U.S. Naval Academy, and during World War II worked as a civilian at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Fewer knew that he was active in radical politics in California in the 1930s, including running for office; or that he hosted a writer's discussion club in Los Angeles prior to the war. Hardly anyone knew that he was married three times (not two); or that he once was involved in a silver-mining venture financed by the Pendergast political machine of Kansas City; or that he lived in Greenwich Village for a time. And that's just a sampler.

Heinlein's active tour of duty on board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington is well covered. His commanding officer was the superb Captain Ernest J. King — later, during the war, Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet. Through Patterson, we watch Heinlein training under King and learning qualities of leadership. And ashore, he dated King's daughter. Heinlein also found time to read science fiction and talk ideas with his friends. Patterson's handling of these skeins of people and events, interests and ideas, is unobtrusively masterful.

Heinlein's complex and poignant marriage with Leslyn Macdonald is followed closely through about two-thirds of the biography; a fascinating person and of considerable aid in his writing. In the last few chapters we see the antecedents to his subsequent marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld, of whom we shall see far more in the second volume.

Science fiction discovers Heinlein — in part

As we reach the fourth decade covered and the science-fiction career that made Heinlein famous, Patterson's measured pace and whole-man coverage allow us to appreciate the mind and character that Heinlein brought to SF. We see from Learning Curve that Patterson has discovered the obverse of Knight's thesis: that the Twentieth Century perhaps may be approached more comprehensively — in its variety and potential — through no single individual as well as through Robert Heinlein.

Among the friendships with science-fiction professionals, the most important was with John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science-Fiction and its fantasy companion, Unknown. All of Heinlein's major pre-war story sales were to these two magazines, appearing in 1939-1942: his Future History series ranging from "Life-Line" to "Universe" to Methuselah's Children, in Astounding, and fantasies as different as "The Devil Makes the Law" and "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", in Unknown. A particular delight to me in this book is Patterson's discussion of Heinlein's writing sessions, along with idea-slinging letter exchanges between Heinlein and Campbell.

Science-fiction friends in the latter decade of this volume also include Forrest J. Ackerman, Isaac Asimov, Cleve Cartmill, L. Sprague de Camp, Henry Kuttner, Catherine L. Moore, Theodore Sturgeon. Other important friends are naval war hero Cal Lanning and rocket scientist Willy Ley.

In the years 1938 through 1947 we are given much about the writing and marketing of Heinlein's stories, although less about the stories themselves. Part of the fun in the book is spotting idea-seeds, unnamed and fragmentary, which fans may recognize as the beginning of projects which did not reach fruition for months or years or longer. For Patterson's fine literary analyses see The Martian Named Smith and critical essays. Yet the breadth of literary influences on Heinlein's work which are detailed here will surprise even devoted fans. Heinlein had learned a great deal about the structure of literature before he began writing seriously, and with only a few missteps did what he wanted to do.

Heinlein learns from his century, and —

So we may see by now why William H. Patterson, Jr., requires a long multipart title: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century; Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve. It is simply descriptive. The subject's name and his first-half dates, the volume number, are obvious. More subtle are learning and curve, because Heinlein's learning was omnivorous, and after several energetic false starts, the curve of his career began to resemble a rocket's. This is the first volume of a thoughtful and empathetic comprehensive work about an archetypal Twentieth Century American, and thus necessarily of Twentieth Century history itself. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Proceeding in this rich biography we begin to understand how Patterson develops his theme of Heinlein in dialogue with his century. Heinlein played an active part in his times, an interactive part, and wrote seriously from what he experienced and learned. There are a few noble shapers of their times who also are memorable writers; Heinlein is one of these.

Patterson's beautiful presentation makes it clear that Heinlein knew the Twentieth Century intimately and variously enough, participated and understood and empathized with so much of it, that he could foresee mankind's potential lines of development — and help to guide the way. Indeed, in this first volume, there are intimations that Heinlein already begins to make a difference, to shape the future. He is the man who learned better than anyone else that things do change, that the future is vast, and that it is ours for the shaping.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

W.H. Stoddard's review of
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century
  Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve

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