Heinlein, pulp & greatness

By Razib Khan | April 2, 2009 3:58 am

Peter Suderman asks, Is Robert Heinlein Our Best Pulp Novelist? I suppose this hinges on what you mean by “best,” but it seems like Heinlein is probably at the front of any list. Form Isaac Asimov’s memoir in regards to Heinlein:

…From the moment his first story appeared, an awed science fiction world accepted him as the best science fiction writer in existence, and he held that post throughout his life. Certainly, I was impressed. I was among the very first to write letters of praise for him to the magazines.


Comments (16)

  1. notherfella

    I’m a little embarassed to admit I’ve only read Starship Troopers, which greatly surprised me. I’d certainly be prepared to believe he’s a great writer, on the basis of that.
    I really should explore further; where would you recommend I start?

  2. abb3w

    Andre Norton can give him a run for the money.

  3. JohnV

    His short stories might work well notherfella, as they don’t require much of an investment of time to read (like Starship Troopers). One collection is “The Man Who Sold The Moon”. It also serves to introduce you to the timeline in which he placed much of his short fiction into.
    Be aware that you’ll see some weird stuff in some of his work, I won’t get into it but you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

  4. Ted K.

    There’s no doubt that Heinlein was a trail blazer, but some of his novels could feel dated if read today. (science fiction, by its nature, tends to age in peculiar ways)
    If you want to read modern, cutting-edge sci-fi, pick up any one of the current Year’s Best volumes. There are four main anthologies printed every year from four different publishers, and they are supposed to contain the best science fiction short stories published in magazines the previous year. They are kind of like an All Star team for short stories. The best of the best.

  5. Joseph W.

    Nother – I recommend skipping his later work – especially The Number of the Beast and Job (the latter seemed pretty common in airport bookstores a year or two back, if I remember) – it isn’t like the earlier, and I found it very slow, and hard to pick up again.

  6. If by pulp you mean pulp sf, I’d say yeah. If by pulp you mean anyone who published in pulp magazines, regardless of genre, I’d go with Hammett or Chandler.
    That said, I might change my mind. This is based only on STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND (which I hated), THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, and STARSHIP TROOPERS.

  7. Blind Squirrel FCD

    Bah. Heinlein was a fascist and a misogynist who should be kept away from children and ignored by adults.

  8. Ender

    Your assumptions about Heinlein’s character aside, Blind Squirrel, his early works were fantastically written early sci-fi, and showcased none of the flaws you attribute to him.
    His latter stuff can safely be ignored though.
    If you read a few more of his books though, you will see that they showcase all sorts of different philosophies, military, hippie, libertarian, post-religious, hippie-religious, etc. Often informed strongly by whoever he was married to at the time. So your dismissal of him, and shallow opinion of who he was is really uninformed.
    Citizen of the Galaxy was great, particularly in the distinct changes in culture that the main character experiences. Between Planets, Space Cadet, and Red Planet are all fantastic, exciting and not over-written.
    They also contain many of his best philosophical themes, such as anti-racism and honest hard working self determination as the route to success.
    Orphans of the Sky was published later, but is really a combination of two earlier stories, which is noticeable as it is obviously much tighter than his later work. It’s also very sad, though the ending could be interpreted as hopeful, to the more optimistic.
    As for ‘dated’, Ted, you couldn’t be more right! His books are full of slide-rules. I didn’t even have a clue what a slide rule was when I first read them! Many of the stories involve massive calculations for FTL or other space travel – made by hand!
    It’s almost ironic* that in these older stories, the better more scientifically accurate ones have dated a lot faster than the ones that handwaved solutions away and had technology operate at the press of a button.
    p.s. Red Planet came before Stranger in a Strange Land and honestly puts the latter to shame. The Martians are very similar, but the first is concise, exotic and involves the awesome and amusing Willis the Bouncer, the second is turgid, didactic and overrated.
    *yes, colloquially.

  9. Matthew

    “Have Space Suit, Will Travel” was my first Heinlein book.
    His later books are definitely weird, but very flavorful. You don’t have to agree with his philosophies to enjoy them.

  10. Matthew is right: “You don’t have to agree with his philosophies to enjoy them.”
    I’d read that his works were anti-feminist, but then I read them – specifically “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” and Stranger In A Strange Land”. If feminism isn’t full recognition of the strength and power of the feminine, then what is it? Did Heinlein not pay homage to the power of the female?
    From a literary standpoint (why, yes at one time I was an English major) Heinlein sucks. In fact, a lot of science fiction sucks. There’s a tendency to preach rather than present or explain. I suppose that’s a problem inherent to the invention of new worlds and societies — the author has to preach their conventions for the story to make sense. Others have accomplished this much better than Heinlein.
    If one follows a reading a of “Stranger in a Strange Land” with Eric Hoffer’s “True Believer” it can lead to a better understanding of where Heinlein might have been heading. Maybe. Your mileage may vary.

  11. squiggzies

    Yeah. I aggree with Donna B. here. From a literary standpoint, Heinlen is pretty bad. His stuff is didactic. I thought that Starship Troopers read mostly like a (pretty banal) lecture, with some half-decently rendered action to thrown in to keep the kids reading. Good pulp needs prose. Hammett and Chandler. Those guys could write. I wish more sci fi authors could write like that.

  12. Ender, you wrote: “the better more scientifically accurate ones have dated a lot faster than the ones that handwaved solutions away and had technology operate at the press of a button.”
    –I agree completely! And let that be a lesson to all the current sci-fi writers out there. Handwavium has a longer half-life. 🙂

  13. Ender

    “Handwavium has a longer half-life. 🙂 ”
    😀 😀
    “From a literary standpoint, Heinlen is pretty bad. His stuff is didactic”
    It depends, do you mean his early brilliant work, or his didactic later stuff? 😀

  14. I think our myopic arboreal rodent was trolling. A pity to see you guys tossing acorns at it.
    Anyway I thought Asimov’s work was childish (I read a lot of it at age 11 or so) AND didactic, but at least his prose style was crisp and clean. It kept you turning pages. The ideas Asimov was getting across were pretty neat-o, too; especially in his early years. Nightfall, anyone? I, Robot? The first book-and-half of Foundation?

  15. Ender

    Whoops. I didn’t realise because that kind of position is one you commonly see. Heinlein gets a bad rap.
    Asimov was a pedestrian writer, with some fantastic ideas. Possibly the direct and slightly leaden prose actually benefited those ideas because he was able to present them clearly.

  16. As a literary stylist, Heinlein stuck to the 1939 pulp style for most of his life, but that’s a good mode to follow. As a stylist, I’d say Heinlein wasn’t far below Dashiel Hammett, but, of course, he was far below the great Raymond Chandler.
    One big difference between Hammett and Heinlein was that Hammett wasted a huge amount of words on describing what his characters looked like — he spent two full pages on Sam Spade’s appearance. And he didn’t look at all like Humphrey Bogart! (Hammett’s Spade was 6’3″ and blonde.) Coming along a decade later in the movie era, Heinlein never bothered to describe his characters, allowing him to pull that great joke on his readers in Starship Troopers where we finally discover what the narrator Johnnie looks like on the next to last page.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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