Heinlein Biography – Review

Just finished reading the second volume of William H. Patterson, Jr.’s authorized biography of Heinlein.

I suspect the book would have been better had it been divided into two volumes. Each of the as-published volumes cover roughly forty years of Heinlein’s life, but there was so much to cover in the latter forty that Patterson can’t go into as much detail on some matters as I would have liked to see.

Or indeed that I expected to see, given his subject. He spends far too much space on topics incidental to Heinlein’s writing (his involvement with blood drives in particular), and far too little on the major novels. He mentions them largely in passing – incidental to detailed recountings of conflict with publishers and agents, thorny editing issues, disagreements over royalties, and other business minutiae. What I expected to see was more detail about the origins of each of his books (or at least the major ones) – not merely that he sat down to write, a month later had 150,000 words, had to cut it to 100,000, changed the name to “[published title]”, wrangled with Mrs. Dalgleish again, and it was finally released on such-and-such date. And while we’re presented with a meticulous recitation of the events and experiences of Heinlein’s later life, there’s little effort to explain the significance of those events and experiences to him – for example, we are given a summary of the trips detailed in Tramp Royale, and told that they altered his views on socialism, world government, etc., but the specific influence those experiences had on Heinlein’s writing (influences any observant reader can perceive at some level if they’ve read both his fiction and travelogues) aren’t explored in depth.

Patterson gives us the facts and figures, but little of the magic of the process. What were the inspirations for each major story and book? Who inspired the various characters? What were some surprising changes made to these elements during writing and subsequent editing? There are small tastes of these things, but not enough.

Nor do we learn much of the process’ workings – we learn a few bits and pieces about how Heinlein worked (as a chronic index-card user, I found that part of his process interesting), but without enough detail or examples to see a clear picture of how he employed those bits and pieces.

My biggest hope for the book was that Patterson would reveal whether there was a book in the works to follow To Sail Beyond the Sunset, but he doesn’t (which isn’t necessarily a critique of Patterson). He does suggest that any follow-on book would have been a further tying-together of Heinlein’s other works under the “World as Myth” theme, and as described Heinlein was not able to work again after Sunset was completed, but surely there were notes or cards giving some more detailed indication of what the book would have been about. (My guess has always been that it would have been focused on Ira Johnson.)

Despite these shortcomings, it’s still an interesting read for any Heinlein fan.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 2- The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988.