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Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 1 - Learning Curve (1907-1948) Hardcover – August 17, 2010
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Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) is generally considered the greatest American SF writer of the 20th century. A famous and bestselling author in later life, he started as a navy man and graduate of Annapolis who was forced to retire because of tuberculosis. A socialist politician in the 1930s, he became one of the sources of Libertarian politics in the USA in his later years. His most famous works include the Future History series (stories and novels collected in The Past Through Tomorrow and continued in later novels), Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Given his desire for privacy in the later decades of his life, he was both stranger and more interesting than one could ever have known. This is the first of two volumes of a major American biography. This volume is about Robert A. Heinlein's life up to the end of the 1940s and the mid-life crisis that changed him forever.
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About the Author
William Patterson lives in San Francisco, California.
- Publisher : Tor Books (August 17, 2010)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 624 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0765319608
- ISBN-13 : 978-0765319609
- Item Weight : 1.9 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.14 x 1.38 x 9.21 inches
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Heinlein had written while in the Navy, but after his forced medical retirement, turned his attention to writing science fiction for pulp magazines, and after receiving a cheque for US$ 70 for his first short story, “Life-Line”, he exclaimed, “How long has this racket been going on? And why didn't anybody tell me about it sooner?” Heinlein always viewed writing as a business, and kept a thermometer on which he charted his revenue toward paying off the mortgage on his house.
While Heinlein fit in very well with the Navy, and might have been, absent medical problems, a significant commander in the fleet in World War II, he was also, at heart, a bohemian, with a soul almost orthogonal to military tradition and discipline. His first marriage was a fling with a woman who introduced him to physical delights of which he was unaware. That ended quickly, and then he married Leslyn, who was his muse, copy-editor, and business manager in a marriage which persisted throughout World War II, when both were involved in war work. Leslyn worked herself in this effort into insanity and alcoholism, and they divorced in 1947.
It was Robert Heinlein who vaulted science fiction from the ghetto of the pulp magazines to the “slicks” such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. This was due to a technological transition in the publishing industry which is comparable to that presently underway in the migration from print to electronic publishing. Rationing of paper during World War II helped to create the “pocket book” or paperback publishing industry. After the end of the war, these new entrants in the publishing market saw a major opportunity in publishing anthologies of stories previously published in the pulps. The pulp publishers viewed this as an existential threat—who would buy a pulp magazine if, for almost the same price, one could buy a collection of the best stories from the last decade in all of those magazines?
Heinlein found his fiction entrapped in this struggle. While today, when you sell a story to a magazine in the U.S., you usually only sell “First North American serial rights”, in the 1930s and 1940s, authors sold all rights, and it was up to the publisher to release their rights for republication of a work in an anthology or adaptation into a screenplay. This is parallel to the contemporary battle between traditional publishers and independent publishing platforms, which have become the heart of science fiction.
Heinlein was complex. While an exemplary naval officer, he was a nudist, married three times, interested in the esoteric (and a close associate of Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard ). He was an enthusiastic supporter of Upton Sinclair's EPIC movement and his “Social Credit” agenda.
This authorised biography, with major contributions from Heinlein's widow, Virginia, chronicles the master storyteller's life in his first forty years—until he found, or created, an audience receptive to the tales of wonder he spun. If you've read all of Heinlein's fiction, it may be difficult to imagine how much of it was based in Heinlein's own life. If you thought Heinlein's later novels were weird, appreciate how the master was weird before you were born.
I had the privilege of meeting Robert and Virginia Heinlein in 1984. I shall always cherish that moment.
Heinlein expert William H. Patterson, Jr., with the full cooperation of Heinlein's widow Virginia and with unprecedented access to Heinlein's archives, notes and personal papers, has produced the first volume of a planned two-volume biography. "Learning Curve" spans the years 1907 through 1948, and thus stops well short of covering the period when Heinlein wrote some of his most impressive and important works. But his output during his first decade of writing (his first story, "Life-Line," was published in 1939) was nothing short of astounding (pun intended) in quantity, quality and influence on the genre. Many of the stories he wrote during that time were part of his justly famed "Future History" series, tied together in a rough but cohesive structure of days to come. By the end of that decade, he had just started to turn out his first juveniles, and the world of science fiction would never be the same.
Mr. Patterson's effort is equally astounding. He does a superb job of capturing the nature of the man behind the books and stories. I initially thought the parts about Heinlein's childhood and the time he spent at the Naval Academy and in the Navy before World War II would be a little boring, but I was wrong. The entire story is fascinating, well-told, fast-moving and easy to read. Many of the insights into Heinlein's character and motivations come from letters he exchanged with friends, fellow authors, editors, fans, etc., and Mr. Patterson quotes at length from this correspondence. One hundred pages of endnotes add specific citations and further information without interrupting the narrative. Once Mr. Patterson gets to the point in Heinlein's life when he began writing regularly, I was spellbound. The details of how many of his most memorable stories came to be, in the form we avid readers know them, are captivating. We learn about working titles, word counts, editorial demands for changes, payment rates, what it took in those pre-computer days to type a "clean" manuscript, and other minutia of the creative writing and science fiction marketing process. I'll never look at "By His Bootstraps," "The Green Hills of Earth" and "They" (to name just a few) the same way after learning what really went into creating and polishing them. This is absolutely fantastic stuff that ANY science fiction fan, young or old, should really enjoy. Buy "Learning Curve," read it, enjoy it--you can't go wrong.
I'll have to wait until Volume 2 is published to find out what happened in Heinlein's life to send him `round the bend with his fixation on pregnancies in his later works. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to re-reading a lot of his old classic stories...
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There are also gaps in the story, most noticeably at the time of Heinlein's activities for the Democratic Party - the chapter dealing with this period is little more than a large amount of historical padding describing events in which Heinlein was involved, but with scant specifics. The absent data isn't Patterson's fault - both Heinlein and his widow destroyed paperwork relating to certain areas of his life - but filling out the episode with vaguely related information isn't the solution to that problem.
However, there is much to fascinate in this account, particularly the insight into American society of the 1920s to 1940s, and into the glory years when science fiction made its transition from disposable formulaic pulp to a "literature of ideas".
We also get to see Heinlein's predisposition to monomania, and how it led to friction with those around him. And, as the book progresses, we see more and more flashes of his intolerance of those who held views different from his own, and of his desire to preach through his writing - the seed of those prolonged hectoring lectures that increasingly marred his later novels.
There's also mysticism, General Semantics, magick, astonishly impulsive behaviour, ghosts and reincarnation (of some kind) ... all very different from the rationalist Capable Man persona he would later construct for himself.
I'm looking forward to Volume 2.
First and foremost this is a biography of one of SF's greatest writers. His personal history and how he got involved in the SF field has been known for decades, but Patterson does a great job of bringing the stories into a cohesive timeline and entertaining the reader along the way. There's stuff here I didn't know, despite reading Heinlein's own words on his life. His autobiographies were lacking some of the detail Patterson brings, whether intentionally or not seems to depend on the subject!
More than a biography, though, this is also a tribute, with stories about Heinlein and his works from fans, critics, and general public. In some ways, those are the more interesting parts of this book, leading you to a deeper appreciated of RAH's work and influence. The book's writing is eminently readable, leading you through the chapters. And while this is a thick book (reminiscent of some of RAH's novels!) the time and pages go fast, drawing you on through the book.
After reading this, I was struck by several things: how little I knew about RAH (despite reading all his published work including autobiographies); how much influence RAH had on SF; how much influence RAH had on me, personally; and...when do we get Volume 2? If you have any interest in the great era of SF, or interest in the seminal novelist of the golden age, then this is a superb book to read.