Robert Heinlein and the Novelty of Science Fiction—Part 1 in a Series

I have no special expertise in science fiction. I’ve read little of it. But what I’ve read I’ve selected carefully and most of it has been a joy to read. The league of SF enthusiasts is intense if not immense. Though the SF genre has attracted a hefty percentage of readers, this result has been hard-won. This is my impression from the sidelines, as it were.

My limited direct experiences with science fiction may be of interest to those fiction readers who have long wondered what all the fuss is about, and to those enthusiasts who care to know what a neophyte like myself might say about what he’s found worthwhile.

So here is the first installment in my recounting of those experiences . . .

Image.Book Cover.Job Comedy of Justice.Robert HeinleinI think the first author I read was Robert A. Heinlein. An excellent choice, I’m sure the experts would agree. (You may know him through some of the films inspired by his work.) The trouble is remembering which book came first—and whether there were others. I’m pretty sure it was Job: A Comedy of Justice. I like sustained, serious comedy, and I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament book of Job. Putting the two together would be quite a feat. Those who subscribe to my webpages will likely find this novel a tempting entry point for reasons that resemble my own. (Others, who do judge a book by its cover, may be drawn first to his book Friday.)

As a philosopher, I can appreciate Heinlein’s talent as an observer of the human condition and what a future society might look like, if we continue on our present course, or if dramatic changes happen to us (notably through the development of technology). Heinlein had metaphysical and epistemological interests, as well, but his sensibilities were quite different than my own. This is no reason to pass over his ouvre. I’m an advocate for reading outside your comfort zone and conversing with diverse perspectives. It’s an aid to understanding your own worldview, and accepting it more responsibly. And fiction is among the best ways to access alternative perspectives on reality and human experience. Literate science fiction can do that for you. (I think, also, of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not SF, but imaginative and contemplative, a far distance from where I stand intellectually, but by a clever fellow-traveler—on a motorcycle, to boot!)

Heinlein lived to be 80 years old, but his output was comparatively meagre for one with so great a reputation and influence. It shows that quantity is no match for quality. His total cast of significant characters, on the other hand, is almost ridiculously extensive. And you know an author’s influence is substantial when there’s a thriving online society dedicated to his legacy.

So that’s how it all started for me, and for that, I suppose, I’m in debt to Heinlein. But deep as my appreciation goes, I will never be considered a “Heinleiner.”

Note: For an exposition of worldview analysis within literature, I recommend James Sire, the book among his many that had the greatest influence on me. When I read it in the late 1970s, the book was called How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. It’s now been adjusted to How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, which doesn’t quite get at the essence of the book, I feel. It’s a book I wish I had written. But I couldn’t have done so when I was 18. Probably still couldn’t.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking.

5 Responses to Robert Heinlein and the Novelty of Science Fiction—Part 1 in a Series

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Definitely. A very good novel. But, I read it when it came out so I don’t remember too much — ’96 or something? (haven’t read post-80s SF in multiple years).

    She wrote a sequel — which I haven’t read….

  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Joachim, are you familiar with the futuristic novel The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell?

    - Doug

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Ah, wasn’t suggesting the other Heinleins! Those are his worst… bloated wrecks of novels….

    I actually moved to sci-fi from fantasy as a teen (12 or so years ago I guess). I read all the Hugo award winners (goes to best sci-fi novel of the year) in order to find the authors I enjoyed. Then read their back catalogues… And then discovered that a lot of the more experimental works never won awards — Effinger’s brilliant rumination on the nature of creation and creative interference What Entropy Means to Me (1972) for example…

    As an academic in an unrelated field (history), I read sci-fi as a way to decompress but also, I have deep historical interest in the genre — namely 50s/60s/70s works, especially those on social themes. I avoid hard sci-fi (technologically driven ideas/worlds, low on character, uninterested in social issues etc).

    So, in short, if you want a more systematic approach then figure out what types of sci-fi you actually enjoy. What eras/sub genres… Social sci-fi? Philosophically inclined sci–fi? Feminist sci-fi? etc etc etc. What authors?

    An easy way to do that is the Nebula + Hugo award lists. But, remember, they are not all good because they were awarded to semi-popular works at the time and they have not necessarily help up as classics.

    I also recommend the site SF mistressworks which brings to fore female sci-fi authors.

    http://sfmistressworks.wordpress.com/

    And hehe, of course, my own ratings index ;) But, I think you can tell what types of sci-fi I enjoy so perhaps it will interest you.

    http://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/science-fiction-book-reviews-by-author/sci-fi-book-review-index-by-rating/

  4. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Joachim,

    My reading of Heinlein’s “Job” was long ago, and I stepped into his writings without guidance. I have since then read some of his short stories and liked them, as well. Thanks for your suggestions for other Heinleins.

    As for S. Lev, his work has been on my “get to” list. My future reading of SF should probably be somewhat more systematic. And your suggestions will help with that.

    What are your thoughts about his significance and point of view? How did you first begin reading SF, what kept you going?

  5. Joachim Boaz says:

    I’m strangely surprised that Heinlein bloated later works proved your entry point to sci-fi. Although Job a Comedy of Justice is more readable than some of his other extreme indulgences — a la Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls — it is still not one of his best. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    If you’re interested in philosophy in Sci-fi I recommend the Polish author Stanislaw Lem (wrote during the 60s/70s — died a few years ago). Solaris, His Masters Voice, Eden, etc are all brilliant novels.

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