The Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and the Fading Final Frontier

There are two concepts I want to express but I don’t know the words for them, if there are any, and I’m not creative enough to make up new words.  If these two concepts do have definitions please let me know.

The first concept deals with being so close to a belief that you can’t tell how widespread it is in the population at large.  The best I can come up with is the phrase “belief perspective.”  For example, back in the 1960s, kids who got high thought the whole world was joining their stoned revolution.

The second concept is about experiences that belong to a particular generation that are ineffable to earlier or later generations, and as people age, that particular quality of a generation fades away as their population die off.  The 1960s counter culture is a good example.  Kids growing up in the last two generations have no concept of what the sixties was like, in the same way my generation, the baby boomers, have no idea what WWII and the Great Depression was like.  I call this “fading generational identity.”

But these concepts don’t just apply to big beliefs or mass experiences.  For example, to young people of a certain age there is a huge identification with Star Wars movies that I just don’t get.  To this generation, Star Wars is huge in their belief perspective and it’s a touchstone to their language.  It’s  like Star Wars has infected their psyche.  

Kids today might love The Beatles  but they will never understand the impact of Beatles mania had on the music of 1964 and 1965, like I will never truly understand the success of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller on their generation even though I love their music.  Or look at the Beat Generation, what a tiny subculture, but their population is dying off, and the only way they will be remembered is a few books.  But no matter how many times I read On the Road I can never know how Jack Kerouac felt inside his subculture.

I grew up during the counter culture sixties but I also identified with a very small group of science fiction readers of the times.  In my belief perspective I thought Robert A. Heinlein was the Buddha, Gandhi, Einstein of a particular belief system dealing with space exploration.  Robert Heinlein defined my 1960s like Timothy Leary defined that era for acid heads.  From my perspective Heinlein was a major thinker, but my belief perspective totally distorted my worldview, because obviously he wasn’t.

Now on the Internet I’m finding other people like me, people in their fifties and sixties who have a generational identity with the same 1950s and 1960s science fiction that I have.  What we’re realizing is the beliefs we embraced weren’t widely embraced by the population at large and as new generations grow up, with their own beliefs, our ideas are fading.  The phrase “science fiction” means something totally different to the current generation than it did to mine.

It is sad, sometimes in a depressive way, and sometimes in a wistful accepting way, to see the ideas of your generational subculture belief system pass away.  You realize they really weren’t that big, or widespread, or even significant or meaningful, they were just beliefs you had, and they made life important to you in your time and place.

I grew up believing in the final frontier as proposed by 1950s and 1960s science fiction.  Like Christians or Muslims who thoroughly believe Jesus and Mohammed define their reality, not seeing that their beliefs are just ideas to believe in and not reality itself.  Colonizing the Moon and Mars was our Heaven to believe in, and Heinlein was our prophet.

I’m discovering two things now that I wish I could put into perspective.  I wish I knew how many people were like me that made Heinlein spiritually important to our final frontier beliefs.  Second I’d like to know how many people on Earth actually dream about colonizing space.  Space enthusiasts are actually separate from Heinlein, but I always tie the two together.

I have this hypothesis I’d like to test, but I don’t know how.  I think a small portion of the population believe in space as a kind of Manifest Destiny, but I don’t know how big that group is, and I’m also thinking it peaked in the 1960s because of the space race and because of 1950s science fiction.  I worry that in a hundred years that belief-perspective will be considered a minor 20th century fad.  Except for a handful of people I meet on the net I know very few people who share my religion.

We like to think the wonderful aspects of our generation are timeless, but they aren’t. They just fade when we age. Not only is my body wearing out and getting old, but so are all the ideas I loved.  That’s just another thing about getting old that we have to deal with.  And I’m not sure young people see this coming.  I certainly didn’t.

With the publication of the new authorized biography of Heinlein I’m afraid I’m discovering that his ideas and influence are already on the wane.  But I only have a few clues to go on.

Robert A. Heinlein is the Science Fiction Writers of America first Grand Master, selected for this honor in 1975.  It’s very hard to gauge the impact of Heinlein on science fiction fans of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, but if you search the web you can find hundreds of testimonials about how Heinlein imprinted on these writers.

With the publication of the biography I thought there would be an outpouring of reviews that would evaluate and elevate Heinlein’s literary status, but there have been damn few reviews, and most of them have been about Heinlein nostalgia.  Typical is the Washington Post review, which is the only national publication I found, all the rest were essentially blog reviews, like mine.

On the net I can rustle up plenty of folks to wax nostalgic about discovering Heinlein as kids, but among my normal friends, most haven’t read the man, and nearly all of them show a vacant expression when I mention his name.

To his fans from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Heinlein sold us on the future of colonizing the Moon and Mars and humanity heading out to the stars.  To the children of Heinlein, we all assumed everyone thought space was mankind’s final frontier, but in the forty years since, that hasn’t turned out to be true.  Most people never think about space exploration.

I’m reading Packing for Mars right now, by Mary Roach, and it’s about preparing astronauts for space flight.  If I had read Packing for Mars right after I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel in 1965 I probably wouldn’t have embraced the final frontier dream.  People really aren’t designed for traveling in space, and you have to be immensely driven and a bit of a masochist to try.

I started really worrying about Heinlein’s popularity in the last few days when I did Google searches on the new biography.  I typed “robert a. heinlein in dialogue with his century” on Google and found damn few major reviews.  I noticed my blog review was second in the Google listing behind the publisher.  Now that’s a bad sign.  I mean, I like my blog, but if some tenth rate blogger gets the second slot on Google what does that say?  Furthermore, I’m averaging 2 hits a day on my review, from both the great Google placement and from the link I put on Classics of Science Fiction, which usually brings me a steady stream of 40-80 hits a day to various blog essays and reviews of science fiction topics.

This leads me to believe my childhood hero Heinlein is far less popular than I ever imagined.  For years now when I visit bookstores I’ve noticed that the number of Heinlein books in the SF section is shrinking.  And it’s extremely rare to meet a young person that reads Heinlein.

Now I can accept that Heinlein’s fan base is shrinking, but I dread the thought that the true belief in the Manifest Destiny of Space is fading.  But it might be.  It’s terrible to have to become an atheist to your own belief system.  And for me, I think 1950s science fiction was my religious substitute growing up in the 1960s.

So, what is the word for when you discover your belief system turns out to be minor and insignificant and is fading away as its older believers die off?  Whatever that condition is called, I’ve got it.  I’m not depressed.  I’m just wistfully philosophical.

I used to think I’d die knowing how the future would unfold from reading science fiction, but now I realize I won’t pass away believing in those visions.  But then I’ve known since I was a teen that the future is everything I never imagined it to be.  I wanted to believe different but the Zen of reality taught me it didn’t give a shit about what we believe.

JWH – 9/9/10

17 Responses

  1. I came a bit later to science fiction, Jim, so I didn’t read Heinlein’s juveniles until I was a (young) adult. Maybe that makes a difference, because I never thought there was anything special about him. I loved science fiction, but there were a lot of classic SF authors that I enjoyed and Heinlein certainly wasn’t my favorite.

    Regarding generational changes, that’s something relatively new to human history. Through most of our existence, things didn’t change from generation to generation. Now that changes are rapid, each generation has different experiences – often VERY different.

    But the ideas of our generation haven’t died. In fact, in many respects, they’ve moved into the mainstream. Look at racial civil rights, for example, or environmentalism. Sure, there are still opponents, but even conservatives give them lip service these days.

    Women’s liberation has also won their war. Yeah, you still hear the rhetoric against it (often from women leaders of the right-wing, ironically enough), but look around you. Women aren’t going back into the kitchen. And the idealism of our generation certainly set the stage for gay rights, currently being fought right now.

    The problem with the “final frontier” is that reality has intruded. “Star Trek” is no less fantasy than “Star Wars.” And there doesn’t seem to be anything in our own solar system to justify the enormous expense in getting there. Eventually, yes, we might be able to terraform Mars and move out elsewhere in the solar system, too. But there’s nothing to draw us there. (And it WILL be a dead dream if we let Earth decline into pollution, resource depletion, and poverty. We need prosperity to even THINK about space exploration.)

    Personally, I worry about the rise in superstition and the growing lack of respect for science. As a child of the 60’s, I just assumed that religion would continue to die out. And as a science fiction fan, I’m dismayed at the growth in pseudoscience and magical thinking. Now, it’s all about fantasy. “Science fiction” on television or in the movies inevitably means fantasy. It’s like people can’t tell the difference anymore – not even in real life, where it’s increasingly common just to ignore reality and believe whatever you want to believe.

    Now THAT scares me. Somehow, we have to turn that around. Somehow, we need to respect evidence, respect science, respect… reality. If we don’t like reality, we need to work to change it, not just pretend it doesn’t exist. If we really want space exploration, we need to solve real problems in the real world. That’s going to take hard work by reality-based people. (And as I say, it’s going to take prosperity, too. As we’re busy destroying our own ecosystem, prosperity looks to be harder and harder to achieve in the future.)

    • Bill you have made some excellent points. That’s very true that until recently generations didn’t change much. We need a word for the new way where generations are so distinct because of fast change.

      And you’re definitely right that some concepts and beliefs are passed forward. I was just contemplating how some concepts pass away with their generation, but yes, real ideas, that are part of true liberal development, do grow and evolve. Conservatives might not like this, but they are flaming liberals compared to people 100, 200, 500 years ago, although I think some of them would like to de-evolve.

      And you are right that the real issue is science versus superstition. I think you believe its possible for everyone to become rational, scientific minded, with a good education. I’m skeptical about that. Here’s another word that needs inventing – one that describes the science barrier that most people can’t break through. It would be great to know what percentage of the population has broken through the science barrier, but I don’t know if that’s possible to know either.

    • “As a child of the 60′s, I just assumed that religion would continue to die out.”

      Religion has declined dramatically in most developed democratic countries. Refer to Gregory S. Paul’s research:

      http://www.gspaulscienceofreligion.com/

      Religion in the U.S. has lost influence even among conservatives. Just look at how many of them feel comfortable with Ayn Rand these days.

  2. I share your respect and affection for Heinlein and it has bugged me the last decade or so that I find very few people open to trying his work. It also seems that much of the bad PR that’s unfairly associated with him has supplanted positive views of the man. Maybe that’s partially at work here. As more people adopt a negative view of him, interest in his works begins to wane. Who knows? Anyway, it’s funny, really. Science Fiction fandom has always prided itself in being above the ordinary, scientific in outlook, rational, open-minded. Yet, much of today’s participants readily accept the nonsense Heinlein is accused of without ever opening a book he wrote. The recent discussions on Tor’s website surrounding the release of the biography were filled with tiresome repetitions of a lot of this.

    Heinlein aside, your post hits on the larger matter of watching the beliefs that you feel define you and your world fade away. It isn’t just the discovery that they weren’t shared by as many as you thought, it’s also discovering that they are shared by less with every passing year. I guess every generation has to deal with that, but it doesn’t console me much knowing it.

    Regarding your last line: “I wanted to believe different but the Zen of reality taught me it didn’t give a shit about what we believe.”
    Over the years, whenever I’ve discussed my fondness for Heinlein’s juveniles, I’ve always said that among the things Heinlein taught me was that the universe doesn’t give a crap whether you live or die, are happy or sad, or approve of how things are run. Some people find that view appalling, but we’re supposed to find it liberating.

    Anyway, an interesting and thought-provoking post, even if it was at bit of a downer. I sent a link to it to a good friend of mine after I read it. We’ve had many conversations around this very matter, so I knew he would be interested. He responded back with this: “I see a ghostly astronaut pausing to wave farewell as he passes over a lunar ridge.” I felt lousy the rest of the day.

    Mike

  3. I’m another who grew up with Heinlein, though I never though that he was a great thinker. He was, for me, a great story teller, who took the place that Homer must have for the Greeks. It was all about heroes and the tenacity of the human spirit

    I don’t think it’s died out. It just turned out to be a lot harder than we thought it would be. On the other hand, other things, like computers, turned out to be a lot easier and cheaper than we expected. Space is intimately woven into our economy, and eventually we’ll have to move out of Earth orbit to do other things that we justify locally. There just doesn’t seem to be much interest in heroics in space.

    This doesn’t bother me much. We have a lot of hard work to do getting the world in better shape so we can start reaching again. Heinlein wrote about that, too, and he didn’t see space travel as a solution to, for example, Nehemiah Scudder. In fact, having a big frontier just might let us slip away from solving our very real problem with superstition.

    So he tells a lot of good stories, which contain much truth. It’s the details where he wasn’t all that great a thinker. But then who was?

  4. Heinlein was a great storyteller. That’s why I always thought of him as the Charles Dickens of science fiction. I discovered Heinlein when my 8th grade teacher put him on an approved reading list. In the 1950s and 1960s Heinlein’s juveniles were recommended by school library associations.

    I’m hoping in the future his books will again be required reading in school. It might be too soon. But someday when teachers look back on the 20th century and want a book that represents the desire to explore space, I think they might pick one of Heinlein’s. The interesting question is: which one will it be? What book will be the Catcher in the Rye for the essence of science fiction of that era?

    To me, it’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. The title was a joke, playing off Have Gun-Will Travel, a popular TV western of the 1950s. Yet, the story defines the desire to go into space, and explains the potential problems, and imagines what the far future could bring.

  5. I find it interesting that Ayn Rand, Heinlein’s near comtemporary (both were born in the first decade of the 20th Century, and both died in the 1980’s), has experienced a resurgence of popularity, even though she couldn’t write as well as Heinlein, and she showed a narrower range of thinking. The two biographies about Rand which came out a year ago have both sold well, and their respective authors have gotten many opportunities in the media to discuss Rand and plug their books about her. Rand and the mature Heinlein displayed similar beliefs about politics and economics, and from the 1950’s through the 1980’s they probably had overlapping fan bases, so what accounts for the difference?

  6. That’s a fascinating question Mark.

    First, Ayn Rand wrote for the general public. Heinlein was pretty much stuck out in the ghetto of the science fiction genre readers. Science fiction just isn’t accepted by the literary world. Nor is it as widely read.

    Second, Ayn Rand had two big hits, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Heinlein had so many books that none stand out as his masterpieces.

    Third, an average reader has an easier time with Rand. Heinlein had lots of weird ideas in his stories, and probably the average reader thinks he’s strange. Heinlein kept wanting to sneak in nudism, plural marriage, group sex, etc. Plus, in his later adult books, his characters wanted to kill too many people for strange reasons. Rand also had extreme characters but I guess they were more acceptable to the general reader.

    Fourth, Heinlein’s best stories were fo young people.

    Fifth, Rand promoted her ideas in non-fiction writing. Heinlein was reclusive.

    • I suspect the answer to why Rand is more popular than Heinlein today is even simpler than what you wrote, James. It also, interestingly enough, has something to do with what you expressed as holding science fiction as a sort of religious expression …

      #1: Contemporary communication style:

      Yes, they were alive and writing at the same time, but …

      Rand’s modern and straightforward voice is easier to access for those readers who might otherwise be reading similar classical thought, but are wary of approaching the texts for whatever reason: Similar to how ‘Cliff’s Notes’ introduce students to ideas that might otherwise breeze past them because they don’t have time to read and ponder ‘War and Peace.’ I’m not saying people are dense, Cliff’s Notes are bad, or Rand is a hack. I only mean that everyone gets introduced to ideas in different ways, especially when method and style are taken into account … and so, speaking of ponder, Rand, in these most popular books, wrote directly about societies and systems. No interpretation needed. It is no longer the trend to couch a majority of our ideas in lyrical storytelling and expect the public to catch on to the underlying meaning. Possibly this is what you meant by pointing out that [those titles] were nonfiction as opposed to fiction but this also touches on fiction as expression. Emotions often relate meaning. They are often the exact way in which ideas are conveyed through a creation. Even in classical religions this technique is important. I could write a philosophical book about society, but if I used emotions to imply my meaning, the entire work would rely on my audience’s willingness to interpret meaning through their own responses. Not so with Rand.

      #2: The Apparent Subject and Saturation:

      People love talking about their society and political atmosphere, because whatever their personal viewpoint, they can always use another person’s theory to point out how they are right and someone else is wrong, or how they are talking about something important and another person is not. This is considered Very Important Adult Talk, and even the most relatively clueless person on the street feels happily justified having a ready opinion. This has worked in Rand’s favor in two ways. First, it has kept her books in print. Two, it makes her books valuable to invoke by anyone, regardless of having read them. Her name becomes a Very Important Brand. It’s not that she, as a personality or writer-in-total is popular — it’s whatever people use her name to imply.

  7. I thought a lot about this post while I was camping for 3 nights and away from the Internet.

    I think that while it’s true that future generations can’t understand what it was like for previous generations, if you study the history or the culture, you can get a pretty good idea.

    For instance, I’ll never know what it was like to experience Beatlemania first-hand, but because I’ve read numerous books and listened to concert CDs, etc. I just don’t feel like there is anything I “don’t get” because I wasn’t there.

    Maybe the Beatles aren’t a good example, I’ve never really quite understood the Counter Culture movement. I tried to read “Electric Kool-aid Acid Test” but I just wasn’t into it. But I think that’s just me, someone else my age might read the book and totally immerse themselves in that movement.

    To get back to the topic of Science Fiction and Heinlein. I’m of a younger generation and when I started reading science fiction I was told Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke were the big 3 and I still believe that. But the more I read from all three authors, the more I think Heinlein is the best of the three is terms of writing. Asimov and Clarke are his equals in terms of storytelling and ideas.

    And as far as your broader topic that the idea of the Manifest Destiny of space is fading. I think you are correct the concept is losing steam right now, but who knows what the future will hold. It could come into vogue again 2 or 3 generations from now when technology reaches new levels.

    John

  8. To go directly to your question:

    1. Deception, self-deception, artifice, vision, illusion

    2. Disillusionment

    Personal perspective is an illusion built on top of our time-sensitive understanding of the life that surrounds us. I don’t mean that mystically. I mean that how you think your days went, or how you think people react to you, or how the world is evolving around you, or what is correct or incorrect, is often only based on your own interpretation — interpretations that other people, in other situations, don’t or can’t share.

    Giving up one or more of these illusions is disillusionment.

    A lot of the difficulty inherent in the critical reading of past art and writing is that many readings don’t take into account the actual society or history of that person or place. They don’t exist for the reader, in many cases. What survives is often the art or writing that can, unfortunately, lose its own identity in the face of the reader’s own, or art or writing with grand enough themes to relate to other perspectives entirely. ‘On the Road’ was one such book — a great example — because that title alone out of his monstrous catalog is still read and related to, although the people reading are often reacting completely from their own, totally different perspectives, and this was true even in the 60s, as he was writing in the 50s about an even earlier time already passed. The time, and the feelings of that time, were part of what was being expressed, and the same goes for a lot of “golden aged” scifi. The feelings render the works still poignant in a deep and special way, but only if you can manage to approach them as they were intended.

    • Yes, Miri, I think you are right. I have committed a special kind of self-deception, and I think I’m experiencing a special kind of disillusionment. There are all kinds of self-deception. Unless we are forcibly brain-washed, everything we believe is a kind of self-deception. It would be interesting to explore the common kinds.

      I think in youth we imprint on beliefs, and most people hold those beliefs their whole life. I think with me I’ve concluded that a lifetime belief is no longer valid. It’s both depressing and freeing.

      • I hesitated to say “self-deception” because I didn’t want to sound too nihilistic, but I think you took my meaning. :D It is actually very freeing, as I see it, and also makes the word a more interesting place in minutiae. Fiction is all about artifice, so it follows that the worlds we create in books are as prone to investment or destruction as the worlds we construct for ourselves in everyday life.

        It has a lot to do with why one person may like one book or series and another dislikes it, to their friend’s consternation. It might not have anything to do with the quality of the writing. That particular series/book may personally strike a more meaningful chord in [person a] and their reaction to the book — the inspired world they build for themselves as they read, not necessarily the one the author built — is to what they are responding.

        Becoming disillusioned with something doesn’t have to be bad. We can’t live without illusions, so, it just means they are either altering or being replaced. It might even mean they are on their way to becoming more clarified as a philosophy.

  9. [...] and decided to check on some facts I knew I had written about before.  Then I found:  “The Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and The Fading of the Final Frontier” by James Wallace Harris.  That’s [...]

  10. How about “superstition” for “belief perspective.” It takes doubt to realize how circumspect (or stupid) one’s beliefs are. Doubt sometimes comes with age and experience, birthing philosophers. The second is “provincial,” but with respect to time rather than geography. Read history to understand it.

  11. Great blog, James! I too, agree about the sad, fading dream of the Space Race, and of Heinlein’s star. Heinlein is – bizarrely – less and less respected by SF aficionado’s these day’s and I think it is partly because of Political Correctness, in the sense that they see him as some kind of Fascist, or Far Right extremist (I’m very Left in my political views, but still love Heinlein’s work! They can’t separate the two)

    The thing is, my older siblings in my early 70’s second generation hippy family loved Heinlein’s more ‘far out’ books like Stranger in a Strange Land, so he wasn’t seen as one of the ‘straights’ in those days, but the exact opposite! Personally, I love I Will Fear no Evil, and find that his writing style, and content of course, is unduly criticised by today’s trendy ‘know it all’ SF geeks – they can’t understand how radical Heinlein was, at the time. I am about to start Starship Troopers for the first time – wish me luck!

    (I would say more about your fascinating, and true, to my mind, ideas about generational belief systems, etc, but am in a bit of a rush, right now)

    Cheers

  12. […] I have lived long enough to see books that were once very popular, and ones I loved, disappear from the pop culture consciousness.  My favorite writer growing up in the 1960s was Robert A. Heinlein.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the big three of science fiction writers were Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  I doubt many young science fiction readers today would pick any of them as their favorite writer, and older readers like me are dying off, so the fan base for Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov is shrinking.  Will any of their books survive the test of time and be deemed classics?  I’ve already written about Heinlein’s declining status. […]

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