The Pleasant Profession
of Robert A. Heinlein

by Farah Mendlesohn

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Unbound: London, 2019

480 pages November 2019

Plot spoilers! This book is a critical study, not an introduction to Robert A. Heinlein's works. Farah Mendlesohn assumes that her readers already have read Heinlein's works and will not be bothered by having their plots given away; this review necessarily will do the same.

The approach to Heinlein

Both the passage of decades and the changing values of the science fiction community have been less than kind to Robert Heinlein. From the start of his writing career until not long before his end, he was the writer who set the standard for his genre — one that, as Willy Ley commented, was often too high for other writers to meet. Since his death, his literary skill has been not so much denied as found irrelevant, much as Kipling's was starting in the 1930s, when then notable poets such as W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot felt compelled to apologize for liking his work. In both cases, the issue was the author's unacceptability to the progressive ideology of the time: Kipling was charged with racism and imperialism, Heinlein with sexism, racism, and militarism.

In this context, the goals of Farah Mendlesohn's The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein will strike many Heinlein readers as a happy change. No less progressive than most other present-day critics of science fiction, Mendlesohn nonetheless is open to a more nuanced view of Heinlein. And even better, she undertakes to arrive at one through the project of reading the entirety of his fiction and examining what he actually says. She recognizes the American patriotism that endured all his life, and the libertarian sympathies of his later years, but also notes the socialist views of his earlier career, and his willingness to envision radical personal moralities at odds with the conservatism he's often identified with. She doesn't equate his ideas with those that are currently thought of as radical, but she does recognize that Heinlein's views are a form of radicalism — and one that, for the most part, she doesn't simply dismiss as wrong, even when she disagrees with it.

Heinlein definitely was a socialist when he began writing science fiction, though neither a Marxist nor a technocrat, an indigenous American variant (favored by Hugo Gernsback, who created "scientifiction" as a genre). His approach to socialism was more in the spirit of the "social credit" movement that gave its name to a Canadian political party. He always remained devoted to the Constitution of the United States and especially the Bill of Rights. Mendlesohn calls attention to this aspect of Heinlein's intellectual evolution, emphasizing the pragmatism of his original movement away from belief in a planned economy and the gradualness of his shift to libertarianism. She describes Heinlein as "alienated by the shift to both identity politics and a large government state" (though it seems odd to suppose that the Democratic Party, when Heinlein was active in it in the 1930s, didn't represent "large government"). She points out, though, that "Although many of Heinlein's political opinions changed over his forty-year writing career, it is important to understand that his underlying beliefs did not."

Mendlesohn also emphasizes a more contemporary version of leftist thought, seeing Heinlein as a precursor of present-day identity politics in his opposition to racism, advocacy of women's rights, and questioning of traditional ideas about "gender" or sex roles. She views much-criticized works such as Farnham's Freehold as errors of literary judgment that produce a novel that many readers will take as support for racism, not as expressions of actual racism; it's notable that in the epilogue she argues that the black American character in that novel is clearly portrayed as virtuous, indeed more so than the title character. It's also noteworthy that two of the themes she focuses on, Heinlein's consistent opposition to slavery and his emphasis on consent in sexual relationships, while clearly reflecting her own political outlook, are also entirely congruent with the libertarianism of Heinlein's later works.

Her approach to Heinlein also offers insights into his characters. I was particularly struck by Mendlesohn's recognition that Friday (in the novel titled for her, Friday) has been subjected to sustained denial of her own self-respect, to the point where she can only rebel without knowing that she's doing so; and by Mendlesohn's noting as significant Edith Stone's insistence, in The Rolling Stones, on putting her duty as a doctor ahead of her role as the mother of a family.

Mendlesohn explicitly views Heinlein as an experimental writer, and thus is prepared to pay close attention to his literary technique. This seems to be often underestimated by commenters who view Heinlein as a literary seat-of-the pants pilot with little self-awareness. A reading of his correspondence with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle about the problems of their first collaboration, The Mote in God's Eye, will dispel this illusion — and happily, Mendlesohn doesn't seem to have needed one.

A plethora of errors

Unfortunately, this creditable enterprise is flawed by a long series of factual errors, to the point where I'm tempted to say that there is at least one for everything Heinlein wrote.

Some are about facts of publication:

  • Rocket Ship Galileo was part of the same series as the other Heinlein juveniles, and they were not intended for "children": the label "juvenile" in the 1940s and 1950s included books for adolescent readers.
  • I Will Fear No Evil was not written in 1982, but in 1970.
  • The Number of the Beast has three parts, not four.

Some are simple textual errors, in which Heinlein is quoted inaccurately:

  • The Asian American man in The Day after Tomorrow (Sixth Column) is referred to as Franklin Mitsui Roosevelt and as Franklin Delano Mitsui; his name is Franklin Roosevelt Mitsui.
  • The name of the whirlwind in "Our Fair City" is not "Kitty" but "Kitten."
  • Mendlesohn refers to the woman character in "Delilah and the Space Rigger" as "Delilah," but her actual name is "G. Brooks McNye" (or "Brooksie" — though this may just be elliptical phrasing by Mendlesohn).
  • The protagonist of Double Star is called "Lorenzo Smith" rather than by his stage name, "Lorenzo Smythe," or his birth name, "Lawrence" (or "Larry") "Smith."
  • The title character of Stranger in a Strange Land is referred to once as Michael Valentine Smith, rather than Valentine Michael Smith.
  • It's stated that scout troops are named for important historical figures in Red Planet; that actually happens in Farmer in the Sky.

Others are errors about the events of the stories, some minor and others not:

  • Frank Mitsui in The Day after Tomorrow (Sixth Column) as "biracial" and his "Asian nature dominat[ing] his blood": There is no indication that he's other than Japanese in ancestry, though he's culturally American and his wife seems to have been of Chinese ancestry; he doesn't seem to have any white ancestry.
  • The statement that "Lost Legion" (later "Lost Legacy") begins with an experimental brain operation depriving a psychological research subject of telepathic abilities: the lost ability is actually seeing around corners (which Heinlein calls "clairvoyance") and the operation is treatment for head injury in an auto accident.
  • In "Lost Legion" they do not meet "an Asian guide, Mr. Ling." The man they meet, who guides them to the Mount Shasta community, is Ambrose Bierce; they meet Mr. Ling later.
  • Mendlesohn starts out describing "By His Bootstraps" as having only two iterations of Bob Wilson fight in Wilson's apartment; later she mentions a third, but the account is unclear. Similarly, she mentions that Bob's girlfriend "had called" the apartment, but without previous mention of her calling it.
  • The statement that "They" is about a doctor (later, a professor): Its protagonist's profession is never identified.
  • Mary Sperling in Methuselah's Children does not join the Jockaira, but the Little People, and she does it not to escape "emotional pain" but to escape human mortality, which terrifies her.
  • The statement that "Delilah and the Space Rigger" is set on an asteroid: It takes place on a space station under construction.
  • The statement that Speedtalk, in "Gulf", was invented by Alfred Korzybski: It's inspired by his theories of General Semantics but not credited to him.
  • In "Our Fair City", the man who befriended the whirlwind is described as a hobo: he's actually a parking lot attendant.
  • The boys in Rocket Ship Galileo are not in their early teens (later, "barely teenagers"), but have finished high school and are about to enter college (this is a plot point early in the novel).
  • Formal learning barely acknowledged in Rocket Ship Galileo: The boys' education is a crucial issue in their getting their parents' consent to participate, and Dr. Cargreaves undertakes to instruct them at university level — one chapter portrays his tutoring them in the philosophy of science.
  • "Pete Armand from Ganymede via France" in Space Cadet: Armand is culturally French (he's given the line "Every civilized man has two planets, his own and Ganymede") but there's no suggestion that he ever visited France on his way to the Academy.
  • The statement that at the end of Space Cadet "four young men" take off: It's actually three young men (Pierre Armand has gone back to Ganymede by this time) and their older (and disabled) officer.
  • The statement that George, the father in Farmer in the Sky, married "his co-worker Molly": Molly is his secretary, and thus presumably his subordinate.
  • Don's escape from a concentration camp in Between Planets at the price of another man's death: Don has already escaped when the Major attempts to follow him and is shot. And it's not a concentration camp; it's a holding pen for prisoners awaiting interrogation.
  • The Star Beast is narrated by Lummox: Not in a normal sense of "narrated," as Lummox barely speaks (any human language) and few scenes are from her viewpoint. Mendlesohn's alternate term "focaliser" seems more accurate.
  • Rod Walker in Tunnel in the Sky qualifying for Outland work, probably as a lawyer: Rod's best friend, Jimmy, speaks repeatedly of becoming a lawyer, but Rod never does so, and we last see him as the captain of a party of settlers.
  • The argument for Rod Walker being black turns partly on the hinted possibility of his romantic involvement with the Zulu Carolyn Mshiyeni and the impossibility of an interracial couple: Carolyn later in her diary notes being interested an an "M" who turns out to be interested in a Margery Chung, and at least one of those pairings must be interracial ("M" can't be both black and Chinese).
  • Alfred MacNeil and his great-niece in Time for the Stars described as "African American": The great-niece lives in Johannesburg, and since MacNeil was raising her that's probably where he's from too.
  • The statement that in Citizen of the Galaxy Thorby is finally supported only by a young woman who was set up to seduce him: the actual intent was that Leda and Thorby should marry and that she should invite a proposal.
  • The description of "Sky Lift" as about a man "realising his family is more important than glamour": that story's protagonist is single and actively dating (Mendlesohn may be thinking of "Space Jockey," which portrays a marriage strained by the husband's career as a pilot).
  • Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land rejecting advances until he meets a woman roughly his contemporary: The woman he has sexual relations with, Dawn Ardent, is virtually identical to Jill Boardman and probably the same age, and is certainly young enough to work as an exotic dancer, probably young enough to be Jubal's granddaughter.
  • Crèches for raising infants in Podkayne of Mars: In fact, as soon as the Fries babies are thawed out and identified, they are sent home with Podkayne's parents, and Podkayne is struck by the intensity of her mother's emotional involvement with them.
  • The statement that Podkayne is eighteen: Her father calls her "just short of husband high," which would be 9 Martian years old, or 16.9 Earth years. Shortly after arriving on Venus she gives her age as eight and a half years, which would be almost exactly 16 Earth years.
  • The statement "no real maths class" about Podkayne: She comments that she has studied differential equations the previous summer in a supplementary course, just not the difficult ones used in astrogation.
  • No one dancing with middle-aged but not old Girdie in Podkayne of Mars: Girdie is stated to be about twice Podkayne's age, and Podkayne is 16, so Girdie is 30-35. The captain has given explicit orders that no officer is to dance with Girdie (or Podkayne!) until they have danced with two other partners, who necessarily will be much older women; starting with the third dance, Podkayne and Girdie have their pick of partners.
  • Force-feeding meprobamate to Grace Farnham in Farnham's Freehold: Actually she breaks into the supply by stealth when denied access to (a scanty supply of) alcohol.
  • Mannie in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as descended from African, Irish, and Hispanic colonists: Mannie says that one of his grandmothers was a Tatar from near Samarkand.
  • Objections to taxation by Earth from Loonies in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress: There is no mention that Loonies are taxed, and when the question is raised Mannie asks for a list of things taxes pay for and describes nongovernmental sources for them on the Moon.
  • By Time Enough for Love, Lazarus is consistently in a kilt: It's his preferred garment in the much earlier Methuselah's Children.
  • The statement that in The Number of the Beast the crew dismissed all of Heinlein's work except Stranger in a Strange Land: In fact two of them picked that book and the other two the Future History.

The importance of details

This is a long and perhaps tedious list. But its very length shows that Mendlesohn didn't just miss one or two minor points, oversights such as can find their way into the best and most carefully checked book. She had a consistent pattern of missing them. Despite her laudable goal of basing her discussion on Heinlein's entire oeuvre, she didn't read it so closely as to get all these points right; nor, having completed her book on him, did she go back to the books she discussed and check that she had gotten everything right.

Does this matter? It might seem not; these are errors on small points, after all. But it's the practice of historical scholars to insist on getting small details right — for example, to quote a source exactly, word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark; academic copy editors are trained not to change such details, even if they go against a publisher's style guide. Petty details are important to the scholarly enterprise. And there are at least two reasons for this. First, not all details are as petty as they appear: an incorrect publication date may give a wrong impression of a book's historical context or its place in the author's development, or a character's misstated age may alter the literary effect of a story about them. Second, if an author consistently gets details wrong, the reader's confidence in their larger conclusions is undermined.

How trustworthy are Mendlesohn's larger conclusions? This isn't as straightforward a question. But I can suggest a few interpretations of Heinlein that I think unsound.

On Tunnel in the Sky

In the discussions of Tunnel in the Sky, Mendlesohn describes Grant Cowper, the leader of the "coup" that takes over the stranded colony from Rod Walker, as a "waste of space." This is at best oversimplified. During the swarming of the colony by the "dopy joes," seasonally turned vicious, Cowper leads the struggle against them and in the end dies fighting to keep them out, showing what Heinlein considers the ultimate virtue of caring more for the welfare of his community than for his own survival; this is at least a redemptive scene, like the death of Sam at the climax of Starman Jones.

Restored to leadership of the community, Walker names it "Cowpertown" and persuades the other residents not to leave the location, but to hold and fortify it, and at least part of his unwillingness to leave at the end seems to be resistance to letting Cowper's memory fade. And more fundamentally than that, Cowper's takeover clearly seeks to provide the colony with a survival tool that Walker doesn't understand or really know about: law and legitimacy, which transform it from a collection of individualists using engineering methods for their own personal benefit to a common enterprise — as shown by the discussion where Cowper recruits Walker to be his second-in-command. Mendlesohn tells us that Walker learns that "practical people can create tools, settlements and societies," but it's Cowper from whom he learns that final lesson, and who creates the society. She criticizes Cowper's treatment of women and especially his "sending them away from a fight," but biologically, the survival of a population depends on having enough female members to reproduce itself; males are expendable — and the lost colony is under primitive conditions where this argument applies with full force, as it doesn't back on overpopulated Earth where women such as Rod's sister can become soldiers. Heinlein uses one of his typical narrative tricks in this book, telling the story from the point of view of a character who is not its real hero, and who in fact is antagonistic to its hero and then "learns better"; and though Mendlesohn explicitly identifies this literary device in other Heinlein stories, she seems to have missed it here, even though Heinlein gives repeated pointers to it in the text of the novel.

On Farnham's Freehold

Mendlesohn takes Farnham's Freehold to be a racist work even though, first, she explicitly quotes a long passage that amounts to an argument that racial categories and attributes are socially constructed and are not based on actual evidence, which few people want; and second, she also quotes a passage where Barbara Farnham asks Hugh Farnham, "How many white men of today could be trusted with the power Ponse had and use it with as much gentleness as he did use it?" This is an explicit statement of the moral equivalence of white subordination to blacks and black subordination to whites, and one that Hugh simply accepts as valid. Mendlesohn actually accepts that Heinlein's intended meaning is not racist (and to me it seems anti-racist, in the style of a mathematical "without loss of generality" argument: if it's wrong for A to oppress and exploit B, it's equally wrong for B to oppress and exploit A), but concludes that because "most science-fiction readers" will take the novel simply as an attack on black people — and therefore it must be read as one. If so (and while many science fiction readers have taken it that way, the usual response has been to reject the putative message, not to embrace it, which would make the novel a failure as racist propaganda), it would argue that Heinlein's attempt at an anti-racist message did not get through to an audience responding to it as rhetoric (ironically, that is, it also failed as anti-racist propaganda), but not that its theme — which much be judged by the understanding of the most intelligent, sophisticated, and critical readers — is racist; if anything, it seems to be the evil effects of racism and of unequal power no matter who holds the greater power. Mendlesohn acknowledges the complexity of Heinlein's thought, but ends by reducing it to the simplicity of (some) readers' responses. (And I must note that when I read Farnham's Freehold at 14, I didn't get that racist message out of it; it seemed to me to say very clearly that racism in any form was evil.)

I would also note a key purely literary point about this. In Hugh Farnham's conversation with Joe, his former servant, he protests that Joe was a well treated servant, not a slave; Joe asks if Hugh has ever traveled through Alabama as a "nigger," and adds, "Then shut up. You don't know what you are talking about." Very few characters in Heinlein's writing tell people to shut up. But one notable previous case occurs in "If This Goes On—", when John Lyle, the viewpoint character, asks, in effect, "Why don't the Jews adopt our religion? We've told them often enough that it's the true faith" just after he and his roommate Zeb have seen a mob lynching a Jew, and Zeb angrily tells him "Shut up!" The phrase comes from a figure speaking with moral authority who is angered past endurance by racism. And Mendlesohn will go on to argue that Joe does have moral authority, and indeed is a better man than Hugh; the reader is clearly intended to accept the justice of his anger toward American racism. (I discuss this in more detail in my review of Farnham's Freehold.)


Given these difficulties, is The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein worthless? Not at all! Mendlesohn's goal, to assess Heinlein's literary work as a whole, based on reading all of it, is an admirable project. Moreover, many of her insights are worthwhile; even her discussion of Farnham's Freehold, which I have found flawed, also picks up some nuances I had not seen before. But given its many small errors and occasional dubious readings, The Pleasant Profession can't be taken as an authoritative guide to its subject; the reader is well advised to check its conclusions against the actual texts before adopting them. This is an interesting book, but had its original aim been carried out with more care it might have been a magnificent one.


© 2019 William H. Stoddard

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