Is Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel Satire?

Over at Locus Online, Gary Westfahl has proposed a new theory about Robert A. Heinlein in his essay “The Joke Is on Us:  The Two Careers of Robert A. Heinlein.”  Westfahl proposes:

Thus, I wish to argue instead that there were, in fact, only two periods in Heinlein’s career: from 1939 to 1957, Heinlein wrote science fiction, and from 1958 until his death in 1988, Heinlein wrote satires of science fiction. Or, if that language seems too strong, say that from 1939 to 1957, Heinlein took his science fiction very seriously, and after that, he no longer took his science fiction seriously.

Now Westfahl didn’t say Heinlien wrote satires, but satires on science fiction, and even makes a case that Heinlein is parodying his own earlier work.  Westfal starts his essay by claiming Heinlein is a golden age science fiction writer that still has impact:

Still, there is at least one classic writer that every science fiction reader must come to terms with; for when you visit a bookstore today, the science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.

I don’t agree.  Heinlein has always been my favorite SF writer, but I’ve watched his reputation’s slow decline in recent decades.  I am totally open to reevaluating Heinlein’s work like Gary Westfahl has done, but not to explain Heinlein’s continued success, but to rescue Heinlein’s work for contemporary readers.  I think we need to find and recognize Heinlein’s best work that will appeal to new readers.  In our Classics of Science Fiction Book Club we have many Heinlein fans but far from most, and his popularity is on the wane, especially with younger readers.

I don’t think repackaging Heinlein as a satirist will sell or fly.

Heinleinface

Claiming Heinlein’s later work is satire is not new, William H. Patterson Jr. was the first one I remember proposing this idea in his book The Martian Named Smith back in 2001.  But I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the satire theory of Heinlein.  To me Heinlein was always as serious as a rattlesnake, and even when he was being light hearted, as he was in Have Space Suit-Will Travel, a book for children, he was dealing with kidnapping, murder, torture, genocide and destroying planets.  Heinlein worked awful hard to make that book realistic, even though it had a silly title.

Westfahl believes Citizen of the Galaxy, the 11th juvenile was the culmination of Heinlein’s expansion of stories moving away from Earth starting with Rocket Ship Galileo.  However,  Have Space Suit-Will Travel went further than Citizen of the Galaxy, by leaving the Milky Way.  Have Space Suit-Will Travel is the logical conclusion of the series.  Starship Troopers is the first retreat.   Starship Troopers is the first of the preachy Heinlein novels.  Starship Troopers it the first of Heinlein’s books where Heinlein is flat out on his soap box arguing his philosophy and politics to the reader.  Starship Troopers is Heinlein’s first Putnam novel.

And that preaching has always been in Heinlein’s work, but I believe editors always reined Heinlein in until he went to Putnam.  Once Heinlein moved to G. P. Putnam, we finally get to see the naked Heinlein.  I don’t think he wanted to wear court jester attire, he was a nudist.  When Heinlein’s characters propose killing people for being rude I don’t think Heinlein was trying to be funny or satirical.  I think he really meant we should shoot rude people.  And this horrifies me.

Even at the end of Have Space Suit-Will Travel, when Kip is before the galactic tribunal and Earth is being judged, Kip gets mad and tells them, “All right, take away our star–  You will if you can and I guess you can.  Go ahead!  We’ll make a star!  Then, someday, we’ll come back and hunt you down—all of you!”

That wasn’t satire.  Heinlein meant it.  Heinlein has always believed that homo sapiens are the most dangerous creature in the galaxy.

The Daily Show is satire.  Saturday Night Live is satire.  Satire is something liberals do.  I don’t think deadly serious conservatives do satire.  When Heinlein was younger he had some liberal in him, but I’m pretty sure most of it was gone by 1958.

If you read Heinlein from beginning to end, over and over again, you’ll see he had certain pet ideas that were always present in his stories.  I believe Heinlein changed his writing style to fit his publisher.  In the early days those were pulp magazine editors.  Then he started writing for the slicks after the war, and finally snagged a lucrative deal at Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1947 and wrote twelve amazing juvenile novels.  Heinlein’s writing was confined by Alice Dalgliesh, his editor while at Charles Scribner’s Sons.  In the 1950s he also wrote a handful of adult books for Doubleday, and they were different from the Scribner titles.  Finally he went to Putnam, and his writing changed again.  I think Putnam let Heinlein be Heinlein.

Heinlein always claimed his number one reason for writing was money.  But after he got money, I think he wanted to express his own ideas.  As he got older, I believe Heinlein started expressing his personal fantasies.  I think all his later books are his own personal power and sex daydreams.  I don’t think Jubal Harshaw was Heinlein, but I believe Heinlein wanted to be Jubal Harshaw.

I believe Heinlein changed after Sputnik too, like Gary Westfahl suggests, but for different reasons.  Heinlein was savvy enough to realize that NASA was going to invalidate much of science fiction before the 1960s.  Heinlein knew space science was going to change science fiction and he wanted to be ahead of the curve, so he started writing social science fiction, political science fiction, sexual science fiction, fantasy science fiction, and got away from writing space travel science fiction.

Personally, I believe Heinlein’s writing got sloppy as he got old, and lost his ability to write structured novels.  He never was great at the structure of fiction, but the editors at Putnam let him run wild.  I don’t think Heinlein ever wanted to be Jonathan Swift but Patrick Henry.  Later in life Heinlein claimed his essential books were Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and A Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Oh, I agree some of Stranger does seem satirical, like the scenes with the angels, but I believe that was Heinlein being sentimental, more like A Wonderful Life for grownups.  Most of Heinlein’s political drama is simplistic, like out of a 1930s Frank Capra flick.

I believe all the scenes with Harshaw are Heinlein talking straight.  I believe the scenes with Mike are Heinlein’s power and sex fantasies.  The Fosterite Church scenes could be labeled satire on 1950s television preachers, but what is he satirizing?  One of Heinlein’s pet ideas was proving that the soul existed after death.  Do people attack beliefs they want to be true?  Mike, Foster and Digby become archangels in the end.  Is this satire or sentimentality?

Is Heinlein attacking “Thou art God” philosophy or proposing it?

Satirical writers have a target in mind for their writing.  They want to destroy people and ideas with humor.  Heinlein was cynical and angry, and didn’t think much of the average man, but I don’t think he was trying to kill people with humor, if Heinlein wanted to kill people he’d use a gun.  Heinlein was as funny as William F. Buckley, Jr.  Heinlein never struck me as a George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or even a Mark Twain.

Although Heinlein is my favorite writer, I’ve always felt he went downhill after he went to Putnam.  None of the Putnam books strike me as funny or satirical.  Heinlein is attacking people, ideas, customs and society, but I don’t believe its with humor.  Humor is a funny thing in that what I might not laugh at someone else will.  Maybe I’m just missing the satire.  Heinlein always seemed to be about getting what he wanted.  He was bad about developing conflict, and generally created faceless straw men to knock over.  Satire is all about the details of the enemy, and Heinlein was always about the details of people who got ahead and took what they wanted.

have-space-suit---will-travel

Have Space Suit-Will Travel has always been my favorite book because its about the overwhelming desire to go into space.  It’s about a boy wanting to go to the Moon, and I grew up wanting to go into space myself.  I took this novel seriously, even though it had a funny title.  Have Gun-Will Travel was a favorite show as a kid, and it wasn’t funny either.  Much of Have Space Suit-Will Travel is about space suits.  I loved those details.  Have Space Suit-Will Travel was a power fantasy for me at 13.  It was a story I wanted to live.

It never occurred to me to think Have Space Suit-Will Travel is satire.  What I worry about now is modern minds looking back on those old books and thinking them silly, and concluding the author must have written them for laughs.   And I can even see why Gary Westfahl claims Have Space Suit-Will Travel is poking fun at science fiction because in modern eyes the story might seem quaint, goofy and naïve, but back in 1964 it was my Bible, my dream, my fantasy for the future.  I would have exchanged places with Kip in a heartbeat.

I don’t consider Have Space Suit-Will Travel poking fun at science fiction, I consider it the ideal expression of science fiction.

JWH – 11/30/12

21 Responses

  1. One has to wonder if critics will look back on works by Sagan and others as “satire” in the decades ahead. That would be a tragedy just as calling Heinlein’s work is. Great analysis Jim and I agree with you whole-heartedly.

    • Me too. But, I think I might be in the camp of younger Heinlein critics who think he’s rather overrated…. especially his “masterpieces” — that does not mean I don’t place them in their time and place as important, and key works, of science fiction…. His juveniles, especially Starman Jones, were important in fostering my interest in sci-fi but, in the late 90s…

  2. Heinlein not only has fans at Classics of Science Fiction. He’s the most popular author among our group members. His books have been Group Reads 11 or 12 times. That’s more than any other author.

    • Perhaps his point was that younger readers generally like him less than older ones?

      • I haven’t seen any evidence to support that. But it would make sense as some of his opinions/politics seem more and more dated as the years go by.

      • I think some younger SF writers just never tried Heinlein. When they list their favorite writers they often mention more recent writers, or writers from the last 30 years.

    • That might be true John, but we’re a classic SF group, and Heinlein was a prolific writer, and the most famous of the classic SF writers. But when we get new people and you ask them about their favorite writers, Heinlein isn’t often mentioned. I’d say about a third of the time he’s mentioned, and usually with a long list of classic writers. Few people say he’s a favorite. And if you look at Google Trends, searches on Heinlein have declined over the years.

      • I think you are right that his popularity has been on the decline, but if Hollywood makes a movie out of one or two of his books, I’m sure the situation will be different. I mean, I’m 30 and I always look forward to reading one of his books because I think he’s a great writer. Even “The Sixth Column,” one of his earliest novels… it just moved. There is a rhythm that great writers have and I only know it by the way I pause and realize I’m 100 pages into a story and have been reading late into the night. In other words, they grab you.

        Anyway, also I don’t know how much you can depend on searches on Heinlein being down, maybe people look him up more often by his book titles. That’s a statement about Heinlein as a personality or a brand being on the decline, it doesn’t necessarily mean people aren’t reading his books. I’m sure searches for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are not particularly high, but I’m sure people still read Sherlock Holmes.

        And I’ve avoided Heinlein’s Future History novels so far, because so many people have said that his stories aren’t as good the older he gets, but I know when I’m done with the older stories I’ll also read the newer ones, because the day there are no more new Heinlein stories for me to read will be a very sad day indeed.

  3. Good piece, James.

    • I should have included a quote from you Alexei, my favorite about Have Space Suit-Will Travel, “Only a misanthrope could dislike Have Space Suit–Will Travel.” I’ve repeated it many times since 1968.

      Even though Have Space Suit-Will Travel has a funny title, and the premise is about a boy winning a space suit by writing slogans for a soap contest, I thought Heinlein took Have Space Suit-Will Travel very seriously. Even the humor of Kip’s dad arguing with the tax collector was Heinlein expressing his beliefs. The opening and ending of Have Space Suit-Will Travel is humorous and light, but end between is pretty serious.

      I’ve always thought Have Space Suit-Will Travel is Heinlein’s best book and the one he should be remembered for – and I think it’s fascinating that Gary picked it for the beginning of Heinlein’s second phase. You picked Starship Troopers as the beginning of his third period. I pick Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein did change, or at least the books he chose to write did.

      Whether Heinlein was writing satire in his new phase is a fascinating idea. It will be interesting to read Bill Patterson’s second volume of Heinlein’s biography. I think by 1960 Heinlein wanted to be more than a science fiction writer, and starting with Stranger in a Strange Land his ambition took a quantum leap forward. Unfortunately, his art suffered because he seemed to be using Ayn Rand as a model of success.

      I guess one reason I don’t want Heinlein labeled satirist is because I consider satire a low art form. His books after 1960 are so flawed that I don’t care what people call them, but I do care about Have Space Suit-Will Travel. I think it’s Heinlein’s last great book, and evidently Gary thinks it’s Heinlein first bad book.

  4. Heinlein was a very good storyteller in his early years. Even then, he had some weird ideas, but it was the storytelling that really stood out. Later, the weird seemed to take over, or so it seemed to me.

    But I didn’t read his books as a kid, so I don’t have any fond memories of that. I was an adult by the time I read his juveniles, so he was never one of my favorite authors.

  5. I’d argue that Heinlein never took the standard tropes of science fiction very seriously. Even in his earliest stories, there’s often an air of picking up a standard story-type and running changes on it. Methuselah’s Children, for example, seems to have started as Heinlein doing his own version of an EE Smith-style galactic epic, though it turned into something very different as it evolved.

    At the same time, there’s an undeniable element of social satire that’s especially pronounced in stories like “Lifeline” or “…We Also Walk Dogs.” Before World War II, Heinlein was thought of not as a hard science fiction writer but as the inventor of what was commonly described in the Astounding letter column as “psycho-sociological” science fiction, with Asimov as his chief disciple.

    And there’s a third manifestation of non-seriousness in what seems to be a frequent contempt on Heinlein’s part for his own readers. He tacks seemingly happy endings onto stories that are closer to tragedy, uses severely flawed protagonists whose limitations he mocks but never addresses directly, and at times seems to be playing games of “I know something you don’t know” with his audience.

    Some of Westfahl’s remarks about later Heinlein are on target — but they could all apply just as accurately to Heinlein-ab-initio.

    • I agree Cory, Heinlein had some ideas and writing traits he used consistently across all his various periods. I think part of the problem is Heinlein was an idea man more than he was a literary man. “Lifeline” was a pretty crappy story dominated by the idea. Heinlein had a knack for prose that people liked, and a fascination for ideas that attracted fans, but plotting was his weak link. I think his novels of the 1950s succeeded the best because he developed likable characters, decent plots, and good science fictional conflicts.

      But starting in the 1960s Heinlein began showing more contempt for people in general. You also feel he showed contempt for his readers by writing sloppy novels. Even in his earliest stories you could tell Heinlein didn’t suffer fools, but in his later writing he seemed to see enemies everywhere. The way he treated Alexei was particularly shameful. But I just don’t see Heinlein venting all this anger in satire.

      However, I’m pretty deaf to sarcasm, so I might also be deaf to satire.

  6. if you really want to get upset over contemporary treatment of Heinlein, check this out: http://ruthlessculture.com/2012/11/28/annoyed-with-the-history-of-science-fiction/. Heinlein’s later years are described thusly – “… Heinlein spent his later years lecturing readers on the joys of fascism and fucking 11 year-old girls.”

    The author of that piece – Jonathan McCalmont obviously has an axe to grind with both Westfahl and Heinlein.

    I don’t buy the satire theory either, though Gary does a good job of presenting it. The reason I think it fails is that he mentiones that RAH was always a bottomline kind of guy. If that were so, Bob would have had too much respect for his wallet to risk having all of his millions of readers finding out that he was not only laughing at them – but making fun of them/their society also.

    I think that it is also a mistake to apply conventional (circa late 50s till now conventional) political leanings to Heinlein as well. I don’t think he was a libertarian, a fascist, a democrat or a republican. I think he was a man who was evenly split – right down the middle, on his views of various issues. He opted for the rigidity of a military career, apparently quite liked it. He also opted for a free and open lifestyle (including sex) later in life.

    I don’t believe that this was a reaction to the earlier constrictions of his military experience, I believe it was Heinlein exploring the other side of the equation, and I will bet that if we could ask him, he would say that he actually enjoyed both and hasn’t quite made up his mind if one is better than the other. In fact, his life was a search for trying to find ways to blend this duality of nature into some kind of a coherent whole. (Which largely can’t be done because – surprise – the human race isn’t yet mature enough to be able to switch approaches on a dime depending on circumstances.)

    Heinlein probably wished that, when the immediate situation called for military action, everyone would adopt the proper military” psychology to deal with the situation. When dealing with other issues the same would apply. Morals and ethics do not always equally apply to every situation one faces in life and I think that the exploration of that, and its affects on people, is what Heinlein was mostly investigating – both in his personal life and in his writings.

    • Yeah Steve, I think Jonathan McCalmont shot himself in the ass with that statement about Heinlein. Totally ruined what would have been a reasonably good essay. I replied to him in case you want to read what I had to say.

      All old writers and historical figures are suffering from our modern liberal education, and I do think we judge them too harshly. But I also think Heinlein has gotten a lot of bad raps, smears and slanderous rumors thrown at him unfairly that have stuck in the mind of public opinion.

      But I think we need to stop thinking about Heinlein the man and spend more time thinking about Heinlein’s books. Which ones still stand up 50 years after they were written? Which of his books if given to an average bookworm today will still garner praise? And there are two groups to consider. Young science fiction fans and the general reader who hasn’t read science fiction at all. Really good science fiction can be read by people who normally don’t like to read science fiction.

      I’m meeting young science fiction readers (under 40) who are still discovering Heinlein and liking him, but it’s far less common than what it used to be. It’s as rare as as finding a 4-leaf clover of running into a general bookworm that knows the name Robert A. Heinlein, much less read any of his books.

      Library of America picked Philip K. Dick to remember. If they ever did a volume of Heinlein, what 3-4 novels would they pick? Heinlein wanted to be remembered for Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I might pick Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, The Rolling Stones and Starship Troopers. Not my four absolute favorites, but an interesting mixture of four books that promoted space travel back in the 1950s.

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  11. Have Space Suit Will Travel, which I read in the fifth grade—in1966—was the first true science fiction book I read. And when you consider that I was 10, and I had been clipping articles from the paper starting with Mercury space program and I was excited about men reaching the moon–I could relate to Kip and the book didn’t seem far-fetched at all.

    Over the next few years I read all of of Heinlein’s earlier work, along with Asimov, Clark, Alan E. Norse, Andre Norton, Silverberg and many others. But when I look back at what I consider my favorite books, Heinlein’s juveniles stand out.

    I would also say that the books Heinlein wrote after The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, were somehow less satisfying and harder to finish, maybe because they wandered around a bit.

    For a long time I thought it was just that I was growing up, or that maybe I just preferred a good story with believable characters and great dialogue and little preaching if any. Or maybe it was the 70s influence on Heinlein—I’m not sure.

    Thanks for very interesting article and all the comments here. Good food for thought!

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