Reclaiming Heinlein

This is cross-posted at my LiveJournal blog here. Do feel free to comment in either space.

1. Reclaiming Heinlein

[1.1] At the 2007 SFRA/Heinlein Centennial meeting, at a panel about Heinlein’s importance in the field of SF literature chaired by prominent SF writers, several people in the audience noted that Heinlein was their gateway into SF. They wished their children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews to share the joy they remembered with Heinlein’s juveniles, and so they gave them as gifts. But, as many audience members noted, these children perceived Heinlein as irrelevant, and they did not enjoy the texts.

[1.2] Why would this be? Some people at the panel thought that it was the fault of the children—that they were not sophisticated enough readers, perhaps; or their minds had been taken over by video games, rendering them unfit for texts that require some kind of attention span. Others thought that the texts dealt with things (like…Nazis) that current children find irrelevant.

[1.3] Although it certainly seems a truism that excellent literature is always relevant, if only for the beauty of its writing, I’d argue something quite different. Yes, Heinlein is dated. His sexual politics in particular are problematic: his characterizations of female characters are definitely a product of their time, and they haven’t aged well; and as the panelists and audience agreed, Heinlein’s later writing wasn’t as fine as his middle-era stuff. Still, we read, for example, Shakespeare and consider him vitally important.

[1.4] I argue that there are two reasons why we consider Shakespeare relevant for today. First, and most importantly, Shakespeare is crucially important in understanding the English-language literature that came after. There are so many allusions and citations by other authors to Shakespeare that to know nothing about Shakespeare means that you will miss the joke, an entire other layer of meaning implied with a single phrase that evokes an entire other text. You simply can’t hear “to be or not to be” or think of Juliet on a balcony without the entirety of the texts tingeing the context.

[1.5] But second, we continually reinvent Shakespeare, and thus we ensure he remains relevant. In short, Shakespeare is relevant because we make him so. Producers stage Shakespeare interestingly, perhaps by setting it in the Nazi era or some other time period, to comment on current events or to imply certain things about the characters; they may use casting choices laden with contemporary meaning; and scholars analyze Shakespeare in terms he’d find most surprising, such as feminism and deconstruction.

[1.6] If Heinlein is to be relevant to today’s youth, then we must make him so. As teachers, we must reclaim the texts in such a way that it is placed within a framework that new readers will find meaningful. (Perhaps a dense deconstructive or feminist or posthuman reading of Heinlein’s juveniles is in order? Although I’m sure such texts exist and I simply know nothing about them.) Shakespeare’s legacy informs countless other texts; not so with Heinlein. The question then becomes, is Heinlein worth the trouble of reclaiming? Is his work so important to the field of SF that we need to ensure that Heinlein remains perennially relevant? And if he is so darn important, then why isn’t this work being done?

[1.7] I admit that my answer to my question above—is Heinlein worth reclaiming?—would be no. It’s hard to look at a cultural moment so close in time to ours, without the benefit of hindsight, but Heinlein’s prose is not ravishing, his characters timeless, his struggles truly epic, even if they take place on the Moon. It was Philip K. Dick, after all, not Heinlein, who was chosen to expand the pantheon of canonical American writers in the Library of America. I would read Heinlein not for the sheer joy of it, but because he is an important SF figure at a particular moment in time. In short, I would read his books for historical completeness. Of course it’s hard to say where Heinlein will be in twenty years’ time. Dick seems relevant today because he deals with ontological concerns that relate to the human condition. That translates better into today’s climate, although he shares with Heinlein the problem with women characters (when they appear) so endemic in work of, say, the 1950s. Heinlein writes adventure stories about boys and men (and occasionally girls and women), often to teach a lesson, but it’s hard to make didacticism compelling. That’s part of the problem.

[1.8] Of course, it’s unfair to compare Heinlein with Shakespeare. Still, my analogy remains valid: if Heinlein is really that important in the SF pantheon, then we must ensure that he remains so by doing the work that goes along with handing someone a book—work that is apparently not in the process of being done, if the anecdotes told at the panel hold true. Instead of a pat on the head and an “Enjoy!” (which is all that is necessary for Harry Potter), the text may need a gloss: “This one is about individualism,” one may advise; or “When I read this, I thought x, but it strikes me that you might find y more relevant.” Certain books, such as Starship Troopers, may seem more relevant in today’s era of war, of fighting an enemy without ever winning. Teachers need to teach his work, and scholars need to study it for it to be truly reclaimed.

[1.9] Heinlein needs to be analyzed in such a way that we find relevance for today, not merely remembered for its importance at a crucial time in our lives—that golden era when we discover SF and its boundless possibilities, and the direction of our lives is changed forever. That’s what we’re remembering when we hand Heinlein to children. We aren’t remembering Heinlein’s greatness as much as feeling nostalgia for a moment of wonder. To foster that sense of wonder in children today, we should consider choosing another text.

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One thought on “Reclaiming Heinlein

  1. Pingback: Everything Old Is New Again « Karen Hellekson

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