The Pessimistic Heinlein
Posted by hyperpat on August 7, 2008
I originally posted this as a comment over on tor.com in response to Jo Walton’s musings on why so many of Heinlein’s juveniles seem to have a dystopian world/society as their background. Looking it over, I decided it might make a good introduction to something I’ve been working on for some time, a fairly detailed look at all of his juvenile novels, which many consider to be his best work, although personally I think that several of his adult novels are better. There has been little critical work done on these juveniles, with perhaps the most prominent example being Joseph T. Major’s Heinlein’s Children: The Juveniles, which unfortunately is not very good as a work of criticism, but does collect in one place a very detailed synopsis of all of these works. Part of my own investigation into these works is to analyze just why these works are so readable, still work well today, and have inspired so many people to choose a career in the sciences. Part of that analysis is below: just what drives and motivates his characters? At least a partial answer is his background societies which have obvious things wrong with them, often very dystopian in nature, driving his characters to do something about it.
For Heinlein’s stories to work, he needed to have his protagonists feel dissatisfied with the way things currently were. This shows up in a lot more than just his juveniles. Even in one of his very early works, Beyond this Horizon, where the portrayed society is one that most people would consider to be a utopia (no hunger, work only if you really wanted to, everyone healthy – well, except for the control ‘naturals’), Hamilton is driven to action because he feels that there must be more to life than just existing, that being a dilettante was not the proper role for man.
Even one of the least dystopian juveniles, Have Space Suit – Will Travel, shows a dissatisfaction with people as sheep, content to just get by (reference his comments about the education system, his parents decision to leave the academic rat-race to raise their son as a role model for non-sheep, his father’s methods of dealing with society’s regimentation via how he files his taxes – and with only such short strokes, defining what was wrong with the fifties conformist culture).
So the various dystopian backgrounds of many of his novels become part of the driving force for his major characters, helping to define why they take the actions they do, while at the same time serving as a strong warning of just what will happen “…If This Goes On”.
Heinlein was definitely a fan of the ‘restless’ spirit, the pioneer, those who drive to change the world, and it wasn’t limited to just his juveniles, but within them he set an achievement bar for all his young readers to try and reach. And that’s the message that I think resonates with young readers, that they can achieve their dreams if they just work at it. It’s a timeless message that runs across all cultures and societies, and is probably why he’s still so enjoyable to read today.
Many times I’ve seen Heinlein portrayed as a pessimist, based largely on these dystopian backgrounds for so many of his works. I don’t think this is really true; rather, he was very much an optimist, as his characters continuously managed to do things to improve at least their own personal situation and often improving the world at large, regardless of how messed up that world was. And this trait is most visible in his juveniles.