The Heinlein Voice
Posted by hyperpat on January 29, 2007
I re-read Heinlein’s Friday last week, and then started reading Melanie Rawn’s The Ruins of Ambrai, and was struck by the difference in the reading experience between the two works. With the Heinlein, I found myself reading at something like 700 wpm, whereas Rawn’s work slowed me down to somewhere around 400. Both works are good. Why is there such a difference?
An analysis shows the following points:
1. Heinlein’s choice of character names makes for easy reading. He consistently picked names that are both easy to pronounce and assimilate, and he was very careful about it, as in many of his works, the names he chose have meanings relevant to the story, or are allusions to either literary or historical characters. Now when trying to portray an alien, a far future or fantasy culture, it certainly provides a distinct ambiance if your character is named “Gnzdhnt” or some other combination remarkably lacking in vowels, but it also means that every time you eyes run into the name, your brain does a mental hiccup as it tries to process this strange thing. Even Heinlein’s aliens had easy names, such as The Mother Thing (PeeWee’s name for her, as her real name was effectively unpronounceable by mere humans). But Heinlein very rarely named individual aliens; most of the time he merely had names for the species, which were just as simple (the ‘Bugs’ of Starship Troopers or the ‘stobor’ of Tunnel in the Sky). Along these same lines, Heinlein would normally call a rabbit a rabbit, not a ‘mammalian grass nibbler’ or worse, a ‘gazellion’ to try and give an other-worldly feel to things. Made-up words do a lot to slow the reader down.
2. Heinlein’s works are very heavily dialog oriented. Reading conversations between characters usually goes faster than other kinds of discourse, partially because there is usually some amount “Hey, how’re you doing?” and other such trivial lines present in conversation, but also because heavy philosophical musings must be presented in such a manner that the ‘audience’ (i.e., the other person(s) who make up the conversation) can follow the logical thought process. This means that when Heinlein got on his soapbox (frequent), he almost invariably sprinkled these types of ramblings with concrete examples, analogies, mini-stories, and parables. Which makes following all this as a reader much easier.
3. Limited description of the surroundings. Some authors can carry on for twenty pages describing the interior of one room, a sunset, or what he had for lunch. Heinlein does not do this, except in the case of the lunch – it’s quite noticeable, especially in later books, how many times he does go into detail about what was on the menu. But as far as describing other things, he is almost invariably brief and to the point, describing just enough of the surrounding that you know where you are, but without making you wallow in endless trivia about it. Which means that the plot gets to move forward that much more rapidly. As his characters get about the same level of physical description as the surroundings, this also has a side-effect of allowing the reader to imagine themselves as the narrator, or to put their own fanciful ‘dressings’ on the character, which certainly helps with reader involvement. It can also lead to a little bit of a shock, when you find out that Juan Rico of Starship Troopers is from the Philippines, or that Rod Walker of Tunnel in the Sky is black.
4. Along the same lines as his approach to description was his general use of the English language. Some have described his prose as ‘folksy’ or American Colloquial, but I don’t really think this is true. He uses almost no slang terms, and neither does he often use a polysyllabic word when a simpler one is available, but his overall vocabulary level is fairly high. However, his use of rare words is just that – rare, and only used when they served a point. What his prose most often strikes me as is a written example of a Mid-Western radio announcer, almost accent-less, treading that middle ground where most people can easily understand what is said, without feeling that they are the object of condescension. The one great exception to this was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, done in his own made up future Lunar dialect, but even here the ‘flavor’ is more a case of left-out prepositions and definite articles plus a few well-known foreign language words.
5. Technical info-dumps is one area where a great many sf writers fail, often presenting such information in large expository blocks that interrupt the story flow, and just as frequently fly over the reader’s head. Heinlein tried very hard to integrate such information directly into the story line and make it comprehensible to people who do not have a technical background. The long chapter on the care and maintenance of space suits in Have Space Suit, Will Travel is a prime example – all the information given about these things is relevant to later plot developments, and this chapter is structured so that each piece of information develops naturally from the problems the narrator runs into. Heinlein was not always so good at doing this; his first novel, For Us the Living, is actually a pretty good example of how not to do it. But he got much better with practice.
6. Heinlein’s plots, characters, and settings are done very straightforwardly. No fancy stylistic gimmicks, his use of symbol and metaphor was very limited, most of his stories are told in a quite linear fashion, and his characters, while almost always very intelligent and resourceful, feel like your neighbor across the street, or that voice just inside your skull. This does not mean that his stories had no deeper meaning, merely that, while reading it, only the immediate story need concern you. It’s when you close the book that you find yourself thinking (a lot) about what he was driving at.
7. The situations and societies that Heinlein portrayed were almost always simple extrapolations of trends obvious to even casual observers of our current world. They are worlds that it is very easy to imagine existing, and yourself living in them. That last impression was mightily aided by Heinlein’s trick of presenting the future gee-whiz gadget as merely an item of commonplace everyday living.
Heinlein has, at times, been ignored or excoriated by various critics for some of the above writing traits. To some critics (not all, by any means, but too many of them to ignore), if a work does not advertise its ‘high art’ status via vocabulary, style, or lots of buried meaning, it is not worthy of consideration. To my mind, at least, story must come first, and all these other traits must remain subsidiary to that story. Heinlein, I think, never forgot that.