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The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

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Robert A. Heinlein began publishing in the 1940s at the dawn of the Golden Age of science fiction, and today he is considered one of the genre's 'big three' alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. His short stories were instrumental in developing its structure and rhetoric, while novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers demonstrated that such writing could be a vehicle for political argument. Heinlein’s influence remains strong, but his legacy is fiercely contested. His vision of the future was sometimes radical, sometimes deeply conservative, and arguments have flared up recently about which faction has the most significant claim on his ideas. In this major critical study, Hugo Award-winner Farah Mendlesohn carries out a close reading of Heinlein’s work, including unpublished stories, essays, and speeches. It sets out not to interpret a single book, but to think through the arguments Heinlein made over a lifetime about the nature of science fiction, about American politics, and about himself.

457 pages, Kindle Edition

First published March 7, 2019

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About the author

Farah Mendlesohn

32 books139 followers
Farah Mendlesohn is a Hugo Award-winning British academic and writer on science fiction. In 2005 she won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, which she edited with Edward James.

Mendlesohn is Professor of Literary History at Anglia Ruskin University, where she is also Head of English and Media. She writes on Science Fiction, Fantasy, Children's Literature and Historical Fiction. She received her D.Phil. in History from the University of York in 1997.

Her book Rhetorics of Fantasy won the BSFA award for best non-fiction book in 2009; the book was also nominated for both Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

In 2010 she was twice nominated for Hugo Awards in the Best Related Books category.

She was the editor of Foundation - The International Review of Science Fiction from 2002 to 2007. She formerly was Reviews Editor of Quaker Studies.

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Displaying 1 - 26 of 26 reviews
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,121 reviews112 followers
March 25, 2020
This is a non-fic about the works of one of the greatest SF authors, Robert A. Heinlein. The book gives a short biography and then follows with discussing some aspects and views on the basis of Heinlein’s works. It is recommended to people to have read the master, for while this book gives rather detailed descriptions of the discussed works, the greater context and ‘knowledge of the lore’ is highly desirable.

There are the following chapters:
Chapter 1: Biography. Describes both his life and political views. He was married three times, two in ‘free marriages’, his political views shifted from Democrat to Republican (or more precisely Libertarian with a strong social security net, which sounds surprising), he tried himself in politics.

Chapter 2: Heinlein’s Narrative Arc. A chronological review, from early short stories to rambling later novels, his History of Future – the author insists that works fit there from the start, not attempt to hornshoe them later.

Chapter 3: Technique. His second wife was with Hollywood and his early works have a lot of Cinematic approach in them, as well as some allusions. Unlike most other authors, who write a hero, his protagonist is often a Sidekick, a person who helps the true hero.

Chapter 4: Rhetoric. In many of his works he follows the tradition of the Picaresque novels, where a picaro (rogue) changes the world and lives around him, but doesn’t character progress a lot.

Chapter 5: Heinlein and Civic Society. His view on how the society should be setup, with freedom and duty as paramount issues. He was childless and it seems had a great yearning for the family. Family and Childrearing are things that made people from children to adults and lack of a family means that a person is still unable to bear responsibility.

Chapter 6: Heinlein and the Civic Revolution. He was an active advocate of the 2nd amendment, his phrase ‘an armed society is a polite society’ is often quoted. However, in novel after novel guns fail to be useful: individuals are overpowered when they attempt to defend themselves; attackers (even government attackers) are overwhelmed by the angry and determined unarmed (a position possible to hold in the days before mass shooters went in with AR-15s). so while he was pro-gun, guns never solve a problem in his book, but exaggerate some. Another important issue is Disability: from his earliest stories there are disabled people around, quite ahead of times. His blind poet Rhysling is now the title of SFF Award, he has a person with (what we now describe as) Asperger as a protagonist in the 1940s; there are quite a lot of amputees…

Chapter 7: Racism, Anti-Racism and the Construction of Civic Society. One of the hardest issues. Heinlein himself clearly seen as anti-racist, not only having non-white characters (including Jews) in the 1940s and 50s. it is fascinating that in Tunnel in the Sky Rod Walker is never described, but it is said that his scars are long and white: more like keloids than the long red scars on white skin; there is a family resemblance: Rod looks like Caroline’s (who is black) little brother. Of course the most controversial is Farnham's Freehold, where after the nuclear war people of Africa (who weren’t bombed) form a society with whites as slaves. Moreover, following Swift’s A Modest Proposal he makes them cannibals, which on a surface may look not like a satire but as a prejudice against ‘black savages’

Chapter 8: The Right Ordering of Self. One of the most important themes are Personal Honour and Sexual Integrity. In order for society to be right-ordered in a Heinlein world, individuals need to be right-ordered. This is a directional relationship: a right-ordered society cannot create right-ordered individuals, since for Heinlein right-ordered individuals must make the right-ordered society. Without a clear sense of oneself as an individuated person, there can be no such thing as honour. Heinlein reserves a special place in his pantheon of evils for sexual hypocrisy. He maybe goes too far for modern sensibility basing personal integrity on sexual one, esp. for women, but if one takes into account that he grew up in the 1920s and the very fact that women can enjoy sex like men was almost a heresy back then.

Chapter 9: Heinlein’s Gendered Self. Heinlein’s understanding of what a man should be and do emerges is that the concept of the ‘Heinlein hero’ or the ‘competent man’. Note that most male protagonists are sidekicks, not ‘heroes’ or alfas. Where there are male leaders in Heinlein novels they tend to be older men, and they tend to be distanced. Also they are far from physically perfect: they are (if described at all) can be small, bold, pot-bellied, overweight, hairy. They often dress ‘unmanly’: kilts, earrings, make-up, garish colors. One aspect of Heinlein’s work on identity is his use and expression of alternative genders, esp. in ‘“All You Zombies’” and I Will Fear No Evil.

Overall a very interesting analysis, with which I mostly agree and it made me want to re-read the master
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,685 reviews347 followers
February 20, 2021
I read it in fits and starts. I don't think the author's writing style agrees with me. But she's done her homework, & has lots of new-to-me info. Such as, he was more of a feminist (of sorts) than is/was commonly thought. And was a leftist (of sorts) in his youth. And his romantic entanglements were... complex.

More back-and-forth in the comments. I will post a fuller review in due course? Maybe. DNF with prejudice. I have notes.

I liked Heinlein's books a lot when I was younger. Most of them. I read a few of the juveniles -- and, well, "eh." Except for Podkayne. I didn't much care for "Stranger in a Strange Land," and, like many, didn't like the late "Lazarus Long" novels and quit reading them.

So: I might be back when I get a chance, but in essence: more than I needed to know. 2.5 stars: extra half-star for all the research! But for enjoyment: 2 stars. I read about 60% before returning the library copy. I'm done with the book.

As a coda: my review of "Glory Road" (1963), https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Which got me in hot water with the [late] President of the Heinlein Society! Like many of his novels, this one hasn't aged well.
Profile Image for Glaurung.
1 review
April 19, 2019
Farah Mendlesohn's new book length study of Heinlein is, hands down, the best volume of Heinlein criticism yet published. Everyone with a non-trivial interest in deepening their grokking of SF's most famous, most controversial, and least understood author should read it.

Mendlesohn's book is the first posthumous book on Heinlein to not come from a card carrying member of the Church of Heinlein. Fannish essays and books that put Heinlein up on a pedestal, if not an altar, and decline to engage with the less savoury parts of his work and views, are easy to find, and pretty much useless for trying to understand the author, especially when it comes to his flaws and shortcomings.

Mendlesohn does not hesitate to discuss Heinlein's inadequacies as a writer. His literary heroes were mostly satirists like Twain, but he seemed to lack the ear for satire, as his own attempts in that mode mostly fail to come across as such. His (cold war motivated) decision to give up city living and move to small town Colorado, far from any nuclear targets (and later to small town California ditto) caused him to fall increasingly out of touch with America's cultural and political zeitgeist, but he never seems to realize just how out of touch he had become. Thus, for example, throughout his career, he modelled characters in intimate relationships on the interactions of romantic leads in the screwball comedies of the 30's, long after such comedies ceased to have much salience to most of his readers. He put a lot of trust into certain kinds of authority (military officers and America's mainstream media especially) and certain sources of information, without ever asking himself if those authorities were trustworthy or if the view of the world being conveyed by them was accurate. This left him woefully ignorant of the extent and nature of America's institutionalized racism, and ill served him when it came to understanding the cultural transformations of the 1960's. It also enabled him to maintain an incredibly shuttered view of foreign policy and the extent of America's imperialist activities and international bullying during the cold war.

The second chapter of the book, a thumbnail biography of Heinlein, is worth the price of admission all by itself, because unlike Patterson, Mendlesohn knows how to highlight what biographical events are important and use them to illuminate recurring themes and explain otherwise puzzling motifs in Heinlein's writing. I learned more about Heinlein from reading that single brief chapter than I learned from Patterson's huge "biography" of endless undifferentiated trivial details.

The third chapter provides an overview of Heinlein's body of work, divided into his short fiction, his juveniles, and his adult novels. The rest of the book abandons the usual work-by-work approach and instead delves deeply into Heinlein on a theme-by-theme basis.

In two brief chapters, Mendlesohn explicates Heinlein's most common storytelling techniques and rhetorical tropes, several of which I have never seen touched upon in any previous book of Heinlein criticism - such as his tendency to make the viewpoint character of the story a sidekick to the real protagonist, or his fondness, especially in his later books, for writing picaresques rather than novels. Then in five much longer chapters, she tackles Heinlein's politics and his ideas of the proper ordering of society, his views on racism and slavery, and his take on sexuality and gender. In each case, she is able to sort out and explain Heinlein's views far better than any previous Heinlein criticism that I have read.

Just as every person wishing to do a biographical study of Heinlein from now on will be forced to slog through Patterson (and I feel great pity for every one of them), so too every critic who wishes to write about Heinlein's fiction from now on will need to refer to Mendlesohn's book. Unlike Patterson, however, Farah Mendlesohn's book is well organized and well written, making it not only immensely informative and educational, but also a pleasure to read.
Profile Image for Al Lock.
707 reviews21 followers
May 6, 2019
I have mixed feelings about this book. As an analysis of Robert Heinlein's writing and what he may have felt, it is superb. It does take making an assumption that RAH's own writing denies - that his characters spoke for him.

As history? It has some serious issues. The author uses her own interpretation of events, people and the cultures of a given time in her discussion, without considering alternate views of those same issues. This range from her inability to understand how a man with such an aversion to slavery as RAH could admire Thomas Jefferson (demonstrating that she is unaware that Jefferson tried to eliminate slavery in both the United States and in Virginia) while ignoring that The Tale of the Twins Who Weren't could substitute Jefferson for Lazarus Long and work perfectly.

She also claims that despite RAH's support for the idea of an armed populace that guns are almost never used successfully in his writings (later she will point out that Eunice will use a gun successfully in I Will Fear No Evil and not even realize the contradiction). The problem here is that the author doesn't grasp that successful use of firearms does not necessarily mean someone is killed, and that despite his support for an armed populace, RAH was a product of the Naval Academy. She also claims something to the effect that "we all know an armed population can't withstand an armed state" - a statement I find absolutely bizarre from a historian.

There are more of these types of issues, which don't deal with RAH's writing so much as they deal with the author's views of history, sociology, and politics.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,169 reviews1,143 followers
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June 27, 2020
I only read three chapters which topics to me are more memorable from RAH's books I've read: civic society, civic revolution, and gender.

I know this is more of an academic account on an author, yet having read Gwyneth Jones's Joanna Russ, I think I prefer the later instead. It is more digestible/accessible. I often got lost when Mendlesohn weaved her narrative from one book/character/story to another.

I also enjoyed Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction which account on Heinlein was succinct and well thought.

I might return to this book but not in a hurry.

Profile Image for Zander.
5 reviews2 followers
April 9, 2019
To say that Robert A. Heinlein is one of the most consistently underrated science fiction writers in the history of the genre would be to invite at the very least a raised eyebrow. To be sure, there was a time when anyone's list of the top three sf authors would be likely to include his name; when his books were known even to people outside the small but vociferous fan community; when he was credited, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, with dragging sf away from the comic-book excesses of E. E. "Doc" Smith and Edmond Hamilton and towards stories about real people, real science, and the problems that occur when the two collide.

And yet I say: underrated. Underrated by those who think him overrated.

Facile, soundbite dismissals of Heinlein abound; he was a militaristic gun nut, he was a dirty old man, he was an unthinking cheerleader for The American Way, he was a decent writer who went soft in his old age when he was too successful to edit. At best, he has been described as a writer who thought his way almost to the hidden truth that leads to enlightenment, and then shied away from it and spent the rest of his career backing and filling, going over old ground because he could not take that last step. It's natural enough; we look back as adults, from the lofty eminence of our newly awakened (I beg your pardon: "woke") literary, social and political perspectives, on the authors who delighted and enchanted us through the Golden Age Of Science Fiction (which, it has been said, is twelve) and inevitably we find them wanting. I have done it myself, to this writer and others.

The antidote, for Heinlein, is this book.

Farah Mendlesohn's critical assessment of Heinlein's work, so far from being "over-reliant on secondary texts" as it was described by another reviewer, is steeped in her primary source. She has gone back to the text and examined it with care and discernment, and the Heinlein she describes is neither over-idolised nor glibly deprecated. It is faint praise to describe this book as "readable," since every book is readable if you know the language, but Ms Mendlesohn's authorial voice is as clear and as congenial as Heinlein's own, and her mastery of her subject is complete and insightful. She approaches the task, having first provided a brief biography of Heinlein by way of setting the scene, by taking Heinlein's principal areas of interest one by one and assessing each story, each novel, in terms of how it addresses those areas of interest.

In the process, each work of Heinlein's reveals some new perspective, some previously unconsidered sidelight on its author's personality. We discover that his position on feminism, on militarism, on race issues, on family, is nowhere near as clearly defined as those who delight in belittling him would have us believe; that his views on these subjects were in fact considered, nuanced, and not to be summarised in five words or less on the basis of any one text. Sometimes he was quite simply wrong, and Ms Mendlesohn points up the fact with simple, dispassionate clarity and then moves on. In most cases, though, even when one disagrees with his view, one is brought to understand that there is more to his reasons for being wrong than one has previously imagined.

I am going to have to re-read, as a result of reading this book, everything of Heinlein's I own (yes, even "The Number Of The Beast"), because I now know how much I have allowed myself to miss. I am looking forward to the task intensely, and am very thankful to Ms Mendlesohn for giving me this opportunity; the opportunity to read these books for the first time all over again.

If you know Heinlein's work, or think you do, I recommend this book most heartily.
Profile Image for Clyde.
817 reviews54 followers
August 6, 2019
Hands down, this is the best literary biography I have ever read. Farah Mendlesohn is a master wordsmith. This book not only gave insight into Heinlein's life, work, and times, it also increased my vocabulary!
Mendlesohn is perhaps a bit obsessed with sex and gender, but so was some of Heinlein's writing especially in his later years. So, OK then.
4.5 stars rounded up.
Profile Image for Chris.
107 reviews
March 20, 2019
I don't think anyone interested in science fiction could avoid knowing something about Robert Heinlein. He is acknowledged as one of the great writers of the "golden age" of science fiction, with an illustrious career. I have read most of his work, except the most recent models, which when I looked at in a cursory fashion, and thought they were rather self-indulgent and in need of a good edit. Some authors reach a stage of elevation so that they can have much greater control over how their text is published, and resist attempts to edit. So Professor Mendlesohn's also rather large text, enabled me to re-evaluate my view of the later works.

This is not a biography, but an academic but eminently readable study of some important themes in Heinlein's work. There have been a number of recent biographies which she refers to, as they are important in understanding Heinlein's concept of gender and race. I think it is relatively unusual to study the body of work of a genre author to examine themes such as gender and race. It is perhaps understandable given the enormously influential nature of Heinlein's work on the genres of science fiction and fantasy. What I found fascinating was the detailed unpicking of Heinlein's approach to the development of his characters in a fashion which clearly demonstrates that in some respects he was much in advance of most writers of his time in understanding gender and race. But it is also clear that he was a man of his times and certain of his attitudes reflect the person raised in the 1920s and 1930s through the depression and the Second World War.

I was not entirely sure whether this was intended to be an academic text or for wider circulation. The footnotes are not overbearing but demonstrate Professor Mendlesohn's impressive scholarship in this genre. The text occasionally becomes a little chatty, perhaps not entirely conventional for an academic text but did lighten the tone for what could have been more conventional academic turgidity, which fortunately is not found here.

It would be easy to label Heinlein as a right wing militarist, which has certainly been a criticism particularly after Starship Troopers and Farnham's Freehold. Professor Mendlesohn's carefully nuanced analysis does not hesitate to call out some of Heinlein's racism but places it in context. Similarly his views about women may not have passed the test with some feminists, but she carefully places his ideas in the context of the man as he was, and recognises his frequent use of strong women characters. A theme which I found somewhat sad was her perception that Heinlein's inability to have children was a great regret in his life. This appeared to underlie his enthusiasm for women as child bearers especially in his later works.

I am not sure any other science fiction and fantasy writers could be subjected to this same detail study. Heinlein's work is likely to survive far better than others because of his understanding of people in the context of his writing. Writers such as Isaac Asimov, also regarded as one of the golden age writers, simply cannot compare in the study and understanding of race and gender exhibited by Heinlein. And Professor Mendlesohn's impressive text will also be notable as one of the better studies of the science fiction and fantasy genres.
Profile Image for Nicholas Whyte.
4,798 reviews180 followers
April 8, 2020
https://nwhyte.livejournal.com/3366809.html

I was a huge fan of Heinlein's writing in my teenage years, but the last awful novels came out just around that time and somewhat tainted the memory of the pleasure I'd had a few years earlier. I have gone back to his work a couple of times in recent years, but bounced off it as often as not.

But here Farah Mendlesohn approaches Heinlein with a redemptive eye. It is an interesting comparison with Roberts' Wells book - it is shorter, because Heinlein didn't write as much despite living a bit longer; it is more consciously fannish; but it's a much deeper analysis of what Heinlein thought he was doing with his writing, grouped more thematically than by time line. Heinlein's politics, for good or ill, had much more influence on later science fiction than Wells'. Possibly Heinlein actually had more to say than Wells, even if Wells said more of it.

I learned a lot from this, including in particular what Heinlein thought he was doing with Farnham's Freehold and how it went so badly wrong.
Profile Image for Fábio Fernandes.
Author 183 books133 followers
August 5, 2019
This is a remarkable book written by a major researcher of the field. In The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn sheds light on the life and works of one of science fiction's Big Three. No bona fide SF reader is indifferent to Robert A. Heinlein, loving or hating him according to her/his personal experience with books so opposite as Starship Troppers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Mendlesohn guide us with precision through Heinlein's life and novels, showing us what a complex person he was. I can't think of a better biographical effort than one that does not necessarily praises the biographed, but at the same time doesn't bedevil him. And Farah Mendlesohn does this extremely well.
782 reviews5 followers
September 3, 2020
A fascinating exploration of the themes in the works of Robert Heinlein, the way that they repeat, and the way that they change over time. Mendlesohn does a fabulous job of articulating the reasons that Heinlein is problematic, as well as highlighting the reasons that I loved many of Heinlein's work (except Job, which I remember as baffling and unreadable).
Profile Image for Dan'l Danehy-Oakes.
565 reviews12 followers
June 13, 2019
Heinlein was notably intolerant of criticism about his work, claiming that the critics could not read what was right in front of them. I think he might have been reasonably tolerant of this book.

Armed with RAH's complete oeuvre, Patterson's biography, and a bunch of other stuff, Mendlesohn attempts to "tease out what I find fascinating about Heinlein, good, bad, and reprehensible, and to understand his work as a close-to-fifty-year-long argument with himself and those he admired." I have no idea whether she ended up teasing out what _she_ finds fascinating, but she certainly hit a lot of the spots for me, as well as teasing out a lot of good interpretation (if that's the word I want) new to em; and she certainly makes the case for the "argument".

This is no chronological study, for all it begins with a potted biography (heavily dependent upon Patterson). Rather than taking up Heinlein's texts individually, Mendlesohn identifies a set of characteristics (not exactly _themes_), gives each a chapter, and discusses the texts that contribute usefully to the argument for each characteristic.

It is also no hagiography, nor a slam job, but a balanced consideration of Heinlein's work as a whole. Much (not all!) of what appears horrific in RAH, especially late RAH, is explained - not excused - in ways that bring insight into the work and the mind that created it. Mendlesohn even partially rehabilitates _Farnham's Freehold_, noting that its biggest problem is simply that it goes on beyond its proper end point.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me, is the one on "Technique". Without claiming that Heinlein is a brilliant stylist, she identifies several "features" that wind through the texts. Observing that Heinlein's second marriage (during which he began his writing career) was to "a noted script editor", Mendlesohn makes a strong case for Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein as Heinlein's writing coach and editor, bringing out a strongly "cinematic" flavor to much of his work. Similarly, she points out that Heinlein's focal characters are often sidekicks, while the true protagonist is someone else.

Perhaps the strongest thread running through the book is Heinlein's attempt to discover and portray what is mature, responsible behavior. Throughout Heinlein's work there is the sense, not (as commonly thought, especially by the libertarian bunch) of the supreme value of the The Sovereign Individual, so much as the role of the individual, and especially the special individual, as a contributor to and shaper of civil/civic society. (Consider "Waldo" as the typecase for this.)

In all, Mendlesohn makes good arguments, and entertains while doing so. Her style is clear and generally demotic (though not "folksy": this is an academic book, after all) and her evidence clearly laid out.

More the pity then that the book desperately needed a copy editor familiar with the subject matter. It is riddled with small errors, which generally don't affect the quality of the anallysis, but which are _annoying_ to someone who _is_ familiar with the subject matter. They range from the petty - inconsistently naming Valentine Michael Smith as Michael Valentine Smith - to the egregious.

Probably the worst of these is a passage which speaks of _I Will Fear No Evil_in great detail. On pp 376-8, Mendlesohn describes _The Passion of New Eve, an Angela Carter novel published in 1970 - only it was really 1977. She then revers to IWFNE as being published 7 years earlier - which is true for the correct date - well, that _could_ be a typo, probably is, but should have been caught. What is _not_ a typo, however, is the placement on p 366: "...it's worth remembering that this book was written in 1982, just as Americans were becoming aware of AIDS and before it changed the face of American gay life." That kind of thing could, and should, have been caught, as could-should the rather sloppy indexing.

This is, of course, a quibble, though in places a rather large one. _The Pleasant Profession_ is a good book, an entertaining book, an informative book, and (to me at least) a valuable book.
Profile Image for Stephen.
344 reviews5 followers
April 21, 2019
Fulfilling a different purpose and agenda then the detailed history of his life Patterson did in his two volume biography (Robert Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century) and the sociocultural literary history in the outstanding Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee, Mendlesohn's book is much more in the tradition of academic analysis than either of the other cited works. As such it is a more demanding and perhaps a less enjoyable read but, particularly in comparison to Patterson's biography, much more thought provoking. Unusual in the amount of attention given to Heinlein's later works, especially Friday, Job: A Comedy of Justice and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Mendleson has provided a well thought out overview many of the major themes from the beginning of Heinlein's career through to the very end. If you are as interested in the writing of Robert Heinlein as you are in reading Robert Heinlein, this a very worthwhile book indeed.
Profile Image for Jim Mann.
638 reviews3 followers
April 21, 2019
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein provides an in-depth analysis of the works of Robert Heinlein, perhaps the most important SF writer ever (and certainly the most important for the years 1940 until about 1975 or thereabouts). Farah Mendlesohn's book looks at his works from a number of angles, looking at how, while in some ways he changed over the years, in others his views were solid from the start. She also looks at ways in which some readers have misunderstood or misread Heinlein over the years, providing other ways of looking at and thinking about his works. After reading this, I may go and re-read a few Heinlein books (including one or two I never thought I'd re-read).
Profile Image for AdiTurbo.
720 reviews79 followers
June 28, 2019
DNF. As a teenager Heinlein was my idol. I have read and re-read his later novels dozens of times, enjoying the humor, his ideas of freedom of all kinds (world as myth - anything you can think of exists - yay!). I knew there were problematic areas in his work, but I enjoyed the other parts so much that I just ignored these. I was very happy to discover this biography/literary analysis of Heinlein's work now, thirty years later. I was hoping to get insights on what made Heinlein's work so appealing and unique back then. Maybe I was also hoping to experience the thrill again. This did not happen.
The book certainly has its merits. The author clearly knows Heinlein's work inside and out. She has done her research, and has the theoretical background to support her conclusions. But it feels like she is trying very hard to turn Heinlein into a "serious" or "literary" author, one who deserves the critical appreciation she bestows on him. It seems that she skips unpleasant issues, only mentioning them in passing, and shies away from problems of quality of writing and attitudes that are obscene to modern eyes. To make sure my feelings had a basis, I started reading a few stories and a novel by Heinlein and knew that I was right. Heinlein's work may have had some interesting philosophical ideas in it and was much fun to read for teenagers, but he was no literary genius, and some of his writing is simply apalling to read today. Some parts are almost impossible to read, others make you want to go wash yourself to get rid of the disgust. I don't want to get myself into an internet war over general or sexual politics, so I would just say that the work does not measure to any modern standards. It's true that at least he was relatively open-minded about different kinds of sexuality, but it must be remembered that this included sexual relations between father and daughter, for example.
Since I'm finding it hard to agree with the direction Mendlesohn has taken in this book, I cannot go on reading it.
Profile Image for Ken Richards.
730 reviews3 followers
July 7, 2020
A very comprehensive analysis of Heinlein's oevre. Farah Mendlesohn's tome is nearly as weighty of one of RAHs latter career doorstoppers. But the breadth and length are required to give weight to the analysis and the benefit of the copious analyses of Heinlein's career long interests and themes.

The book is a great companion to the fine work of William H Patterson in detailing the man's life. Mendlesohn has given insight into the work, and how it changed and evolved as the writer likewise changed and evolved. I find it ironic that the late and unlamented Sad Puppies raise up Heinlein as the epitome of a 'traditional' hard SF writer, when it is blindingly obvious that his abiding interest is in how humans behaved and grew in the worlds into which his writing thrust them. If you were not so aware, this analysis should set you right. Be it sex, family, the building of a cooperative society populated by competent men and feisty and independent women, Heinlein's work is full to the brim with the accouterments of the Social Justice Warrior. And he loved cats too.

A worthy finalist for Best Related Work for the 2020 Hugo Awards. Perhaps it may prove that Heinlein could still win a Hugo Award (albeit indirectly!)
Profile Image for Timothy Dymond.
179 reviews9 followers
May 7, 2019
The Robert Heinlein whom I read in my youth had the reputation of being a classic ‘hard’ science fiction writer with a distinctly militarist bent. He had the strengths and the weaknesses of that genre - which has been disparaged as being written ‘by robots, for robots’. Farah Mendlesohn’s study of Heinlein - particularly his later work - is a revelation (for me) of Heinlein’s underrated interest in gender, or indeed what we would now call transgender issues. I had read his short story "'—All You Zombies—'" with its intersex time paradox, but Mendlesohn shows that Heinlein’s interests in this area persisted across his entire writing career. Heinlein was a popular writer in his day, but tends to judged as a quasi-fascist because of books such as ‘Starship Troopers’. Mendlesohn makes the case with great detail and care that there is much more to him.
Profile Image for Melissa.
771 reviews3 followers
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June 15, 2020
4 stars. This is a dissertation on the life and works of RAH - it contains masses of material and analysis - and as such, it isn't especially readable. In addition to his life and bibliography (divided into short stories, juveniles, and adult novels), Mendlesohn covers technique (cinematic, the use of a sidekick, "oh wow" engineering, and time tales), rhetoric (what emotions he was trying to evoke), society and how humans should fit into it, civic revolution/social justice (guns, disability, racism, feminism, sex and sexuality), and the use of a cat to denote individual worth. I read this for my 2020 Reading Challenge (Reading Women "by female historian") and the 2020 Hugo nominations (Best Related Work).
Profile Image for Greg Hodgkins.
12 reviews1 follower
November 20, 2019
Excellent review of Heinlein's history and all of his fiction and non-fiction. The "dean" of Science Fiction had hundreds of facets, his political life changing from Democratic Socialist to Libertarian and right wing conspirationist. His best writing is still divided between his adult fiction and his juvenile fiction. The author does an excellent job of doing a deep dive into the themes within RAH's work and dissecting the various aspects of his life that affected his fiction. This book along with Patterson's overly long authorized biography form the basis of a great work on one of the best fantasy & Science Fiction writers of the genres.
753 reviews
March 2, 2021
To read this book you need to have read most of Heinlein's Sci-Fi. The Author whilst critical of the Heinlein's position on race gender and politics is not at all dismissive but whilst sympathetic to Heinlein she I feel misses and fails to write about the narrowness of Heinlein's patriotism in the form of not being aware of his placement in US culture. I also feel that she has a narrow view of what is acceptable which I feel needs to be on a spectrum rather than an individual point.
Profile Image for Kerry.
1,517 reviews87 followers
July 4, 2020
I don't think I know Heinlein's work well enough to appreciate this, as there is an underlying assumption that you've read his books and remember what happened in which. I haven't done either.

I was reading this for Hugo voting, so I read the beginning, then skimmed to the areas that interested me the most.

This is a decent scholarly work, but not really the thing for me.
Profile Image for Sarz.
494 reviews13 followers
June 14, 2019
Excellent, in-depth, close reading of Heinlein's massive body of work. And while Farah Mendlesohn is every inch the academic, this book is not pitched over the head of people who are not. For anyone with an interest in Heinlein and/or the history of SF, highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jenni.
30 reviews3 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
July 12, 2020
This seems like a very good book, but I'm just not interested enough in Heinlein to keep going with it. I've read enough to work out where to put it on my Hugo ballot, and am calling it there for now.
Profile Image for Diana Brown.
Author 5 books7 followers
January 22, 2020
A treasure trove of information and fascinating to dig into, but I am still not certain what the author's point/thesis statement was...
Profile Image for Sara Gabai.
200 reviews
August 31, 2019
Very interesting. Sent me to read some of his short stories I had never read, and to reread some of the novels . A shame that there were a few typos. And that the book suddenly ends without a conclusion. But all in all, well written and interesting!
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