One of my favorite authors of all time is Robert Heinlein. I discovered his books the year after he died, and I read them voraciously throughout my teenage years. Through his books, I learned about things as varied as being resourceful and self-reliant, the value of honor and integrity, libertarianism and voluntaryism (though I didn’t learn those words until later), and polyamory. All of this was packaged into some amazing science fiction, with many different planets, spaceships, and even time lines. What’s not to love?
Plenty, according to criticism I’ve been hearing just in the past few years. Most of the criticism seems to be accusations of misogyny. It’s always a little upsetting to hear that somebody else hates something you love. The first reaction is defensive. I have to admit, though, that I have noticed more and more things in Heinlein’s books that are a bit bothersome as the years go by. He doesn’t have a lot of fully developed female characters in much of his early work (with some notable exceptions). You can see a lot of evidence of ideas that women belong in the home, that girls are just pretty sidekicks even if they are smart, as well as language and attitudes conveying racism. I can certainly see where the critics are coming from. The more time that passes between the writing of one of his books and my reading of it, the more I can see these problems.
My response is that Heinlein’s books were a product of their time, and they were in fact pretty visionary and free-thinking…for their time. Most of his writing was done in the 40’s and 50’s, in the form of short stories and serial novels for science fiction pulp magazines as well as juveniles aimed at teenage and preteen boys. There was zero publishable market at the time for female leads, strong women, feminism, or parity between the races and religions (civil rights for blacks didn’t come about until the 60’s, rights for women didn’t really begin to flourish until the 80’s, and both are still works in progress today). It would never have been published. The language used and the treatment of female and non-white characters in Heinlein’s books, therefore, reflect the time in which the books were written and the market the books were aimed at. I think it is a little unfair to apply the culture of our time to the literary works of another era…and the early-to-mid 20th century was most definitely a completely different era, irregardless of how many people are still alive who lived through that time. Today, I can pick up any science fiction magazine and find stories where women and girls feature prominently or as main characters, stories that would pass the Bechtel test or whatever its literary equivalent is. But those stories simply would not have been publishable in 1941. John Campbell would have sent it back with orders to change it.
This is not true across the board. This post does a very nice job of finding all of the wonderful examples where Heinlein was able to push the boundaries of sexism and racism beyond his culture a little bit, to give us a taste of things to come (although even the great Heinlein didn’t get a lot of this published until he had already established himself as a name). This is something Heinlein was very good at, looking into the future and seeing some of the ways the culture could potentially evolve. It is something all good science fiction does.
There are so many great messages buried in the science fiction of the 20th century, whether it is Heinlein, Asimov, H.G. Wells, or any of the other greats. None of them would pass modern feminist or civil rights muster by today’s standards, but I don’t think that diminishes their messages.
Today, it’s hard to imagine what taboos are left. You can find books in any given bookstore about virtually any subject. Culture is swiftly moving towards acceptance and tolerance of just about any lifestyle or belief that doesn’t hurt others. You can look at writings of the early 20th century, though, and find that the people living then felt the same way. How wonderful is our time, how free! How many different ways can people live now, how many religions and cultures and methods of dress! The same refrain, repeated again and again every few decades. I’m not naive enough to think that we really have come of age. There’s going to be something that will set our time apart once another hundred years have passed, something that we take for granted now that our descendants will find abhorrent.
I wonder what it will be. And I wonder how our own literature and legacy will fare when our descendants judge us by that thing we cannot now see.