Dust jacket, Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein, 1959 (wikipedia.org)

Robert A. Heinlein

JULY 7, 2023

Robert A. Heinlein, an American science fiction writer, was born in Butler, Missouri, on July 7, 1907.

Scientist of the Day - Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein, an American science fiction writer, was born in Butler, Missouri, on July 7, 1907. He was educated in Kansas City and at the US Naval Academy, where he studied engineering. He served in the Navy from 1931 to 1934, then was mustered out with pulmonary tuberculosis. He was politically active in California for some years, but not making any money, so he turned to writing science fiction (SF) to supplement his naval pension. He sold his first SF story to L. Sprague de Camp at Astounding Science Fiction and Fact Magazine in 1939, and thus became an early member of what has been called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He published many stories in Astounding, under de Camp’s editorship, including three of my favorites, “'—And He Built a Crooked House—'" and “By his Bootstraps”, both published in 1941, and "Waldo" in 1942. I will return to all three shortly.

By the 1950s, Heinlein was putting his energy and imagination into novels, some of which you will have heard of, whether you are a science-fiction fan or not. Starship Troopers was published in 1959 (first image), Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1966, all three of which won Hugo Awards, an annual honor bestowed by the members of the World Science Fiction Society. Heinlein's novels were noted for being socially inquisitive, investigating the relationships of people to their government, organized religion, and to each other, usually in future and/or other-worldly situations.

Many SF readers seem to have liked Heinlein's novels – he is commonly described as one of the Big Three SF authors of the fifties and sixties, the other two being Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. When the Science Fiction Writers of America created the lifetime achievement award called Grand Master in 1975, the first recipient was Heinlein.

I confess that I never finished any of those novels, because I didn’t much like them. When I think of Heinlein, I think of the short-story writer of the Golden Age. I had a number of collections of his stories when I was young, and I also ran across his work regularly in the annual anthologies edited by the likes of Judith Merrill. I think I encountered “'—And He Built a Crooked House—'" in an anthology edited by Clifton Fadiman, Fantasia Mathematica (1958), which I read in high school. I had just read One, Two, Three… Infinity (1947) by George Gamow and was fascinated by the idea of a fourth spatial dimension, but I couldn't really understand the idea of a tesseract, the 4- dimensional equivalent of a 3-dimensional cube or a 2-dimensional square. A tesseract has 8 "faces", each one a cube, and since we are limited to three dimensions, we can only view a tesseract as a projection into our 3-dimensional space, just as we can project a 3-dimensional cube onto a 2-dimensional piece of paper. I couldn’t really picture any of this, until I read Heinlein’s story, in which an architect designs a house based on a tesseract projected into 3-dimensional space, only to have it collapse into its 4-dimensional self with the new tenants inside. I still couldn’t understand the mathematics. But now I had something I could picture, embedded for good measure in a lively story.

I also remember “By his Bootstraps,” one of the first time-loop stories I ever read. If you go out to the movies, you have encountered time-loops in films such as Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, Predestination (based incidentally on another Heinlein story) and, of course, Groundhog Day. In “By his Bootstraps,” a graduate student trying to finish his dissertation encounters someone who has come through a time gate into his apartment and takes him back through to the future. The young man meets quite a few other people, during the course of the story, and most of them turn out to be different versions of himself. The astonishing thing about the story is that you (the reader) cannot find any inconsistencies. Paradoxes are always present in time-loop movies, but not in Heinlein’s story. I still cannot figure out how he did that.

“Waldo” was a story about a man named Waldo, born disabled, who invented devices that allowed him to survive in an unforgiving society. One of these was a gizmo that would take the muscular movements of his hands and scale them up or down so he could manipulate both very large and very small objects. You have certainly seen waldoes at work – I think of the old Michael Crichton film, Andromeda Strain – and they are called waldoes because that is what Heinlein called them, in his inventive story.

Finally, I should mention “The Green Hills of Earth.” This was a story published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947 – one of the first SF stories to appear in a mainstream magazine – and although I didn’t read it in my youth, plenty of people did. It is about a rocket mechanic named Rhysling who was blinded in an accident but who continues to travel back and forth across the solar system as a space poet and troubadour. He ultimately gives his life to save the crew of one of the ships he is travelling on. Many of his poems are about the desire of spacefarers to return to Earth, a unique body in the solar system:

We pray for one last landing
on the globe that gave us birth
To rest our eyes on fleecy skies
and the cool green hills of Earth.

I can’t begin to count the number of Apollo astronauts who were inspired by that story, both in cultivating their desire to go into space, and in capturing their feelings later, looking upon the Earth from space. Indeed, the crew of Apollo 15 spent some time discussing “The Green Hills of Earth” while standing on the Moon, even naming a nearby crater Rhysling. Those stories were Heinlein’s greatest legacy, for they inspired all sorts of airmen and mechanics to want to go into space, and all sorts of readers who wanted to vicariously experience the same thing. That is the Heinlein I prefer to remember and commemorate.

Heinlein in 2016 was inaugurated into the Hall of Famous Missourians in the State Capitol in Jefferson City. A bust was commissioned (fourth image), and it was installed in the northeast quadrant of the dome, with Stan Musial across the way on one side, and Josephine Baker on the other. You can see a list and the locations of every Famous Missourian at this link.

William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.