Robert A. Heinlein

I have been asked, “Which authors do you enjoy reading and which ones have influenced you most?” Well, that is a tough question. I think that most people assume that I would naturally gravitate to science fiction authors, and I will mention a few that have captured my interest and help shape my views. However, I must express that I hope that I am like most people and have many authors of many different genre that all bring something very different to the table on a personal level. I feel that it is very important that people regularly make it a point to pick up a book of a theme or style that they might not pick up on first choice. By exposing ourselves to something different and getting out of our comfort zone, we allow new ideas and experiences in our life that might normally lie well outside. And for those that might be shy, or adverse to, major life changes (in reality) then exploring life, a very different life, via a book is a safe way to go about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes; if I may use the metaphor.

It is my opinion that without the variety of experiencing other lives, cultures, histories, viewpoints, etc. we limit ourselves, our perspectives and our potentials for this world.  And those that know me well, know that I value my very diverse group of friends from all of the different phases of my life who are scattered across the globe, in most of the different religious and socioeconomic groups. I hold that important in my personal relationships as I do in what I expose myself to in terms of books, music, and of course movies. To make the point: while someone who likes to read Plato, who can recite Shakespeare and can provide all of the trivia associated with both are obviously impressive. However, the people who are equally comfortable and regular in reading sci-fi, auto-biographies, history, fictional history, thrillers, etc. I find to be much more impressive and personally inspiring to me. They are the ones who are willing to take the chance on something very different, open their minds to the new and unfamiliar – and sometimes uncomfortable – ideas. But I digress …

Each category of literature brings to the table its own unique quality that no other can, and that is what I find so rewarding to read and write in each. For example in general terms to name a few: History allows the victors to document what transpired (and I say that only half tongue-in-cheek), Fiction allows you to tell a story that might have happened or one that is almost too incredible (and comes in two flavors by the way) to happen to most of us. Romance: see fiction, but with more sweaty sheets and pillow talk; Western, reliving the west the way we wished it could have been; and Biographies, a spotlight on the life of one person. Thrillers/Horror allows us to talk about directly, or embody figuratively, what it is that is making us nervous as a society; Fantasy allows us to explore worlds that would exist if the laws of physics were merely suggestions. And where I stop tonight: Science Fiction – the place were we can let the imagination explore all the possible permutations of our future in terms of technology, biology, science and space, and even other worlds and cultures, but in general you still are bound to the possible. The great part is that within each one you are allowed near limitless freedom!

In all honesty as a pre-teen I started with the Hardy Boys mysteries and then ventured into the world of fantasy and sci-fi with Piers Anthony. Later I thoroughly enjoyed many of the works of Joel Rosenberg, his series of The Guardians of the Flame, and other fantasy authors. I can go into any of these later if anyone would like.  Later, as a teenager and twenty-something, I began to focus on the classics (required reading often, but still enjoyable), science fiction, theology, religious texts of other cultures, advanced mathematics for the masses, and random works of fiction.

And in hind-sight, I should add a sub-group to the science fiction realm. You have the authors that are there to tell you a fantastic story and provide a little escapism, and them there are those that are the Steinbeck’s of sci-fi. They are there to yank you out of your comfort zone, throw this big, ugly socio problem in your face, but framed in an alternate reality, in a galaxy far, far way – far enough away so that we are comfortable enough to pick it up and to really allow ourselves to address it in part. Tonight I will focus on one of the first science fiction author that fell into the latter category and caught my attention and helped me step back and rethink parts of my everyday life. Others may disagree with me, and that is okay – that is their reality.  I speak of Robert A. Heinlein.

History: I could not begin to do justice in capturing the life of this man. Some might say that he was a free spirit that was not bound by the traditional roles and constraints of his time. Others would say that he was a man that was lost most of his life not knowing where to set his anchor.  Growing up in Missouri, spending his formative years as a young man in the military during the late twenties and early thirties, various stints at participating in state and local politics, associations with Isaac Asimov, silver mining, worked as an aeronautical engineer for the Navy during WWII, real estate sales – these were many of the endeavors he explored during his life, with a healthy dose of writing everything from Boy’s Life to controversial science fiction. Not surprising, during that very varied life, he wore out his welcome with two wives, but found his true mate in Virginia “Ginny” Gerstenfeld, wife number three, whom stayed with him for his last forty years.

The first book of his I read of his was Stranger in a Strange Land. I won’t go to the effort of writing something that is equally well as you can find in Wikipedia:

“Protagonist Valentine Michael Smith is the son of astronauts of the first expedition to the planet Mars. Orphaned after the crew died, Smith was raised in the culture of the Martian natives, who possess full control over their minds and bodies (learned skills which Smith acquires). A second expedition some twenty years later brings Smith to Earth. Because he is heir to the fortunes of the entire exploration party, which includes several valuable inventions (most particularly his mother’s Lyle Drive, which makes interplanetary travel economical), Smith becomes a political pawn in government struggles. Moreover, despite the existence of the Martians, under terrestrial law Mars was terra nullius, wherefore according to some interpretations of law, Smith could be considered to own the planet Mars itself.”

This is not a book report for this novel, but suffice it to say that I first read the unabridged version of the novel that his wife made available in 1991 after Heinlein’s death in 1988. Originally the work was required by the editors at Putnam to drastically cut its original 220,000-word length down to 160,067 words, but she later released the original as a tribute to what he would have wanted and to have the work been understood as it was initially intended. At the time, it was probably the longest novel I had ever read and found it a bit daunting in the beginning, but once I was pulled in by the first few chapters, there was not doubt that I would stay along for the ride.

While the book obviously has significant space and future technology elements, the focus of the story is more about analyzing many of the social and political norms at the time from the perspective of a human that had been raised by a completely different species, and through the various attempts to re-integrate him into his “rightful” culture and social families.

Naively, not realizing the statements that Heinlein had laid within the novel, it caught me a bit off guard when it was presented to me during the journey of the story. In short it was the first time that I had been required to re-evaluate much of my society and cultural values, and in hindsight probably was influential to later values and ideas that I still hold true.

P.S. I am a strong supporter of editors and English majors – they make me look good as is evident by the raw content found here. Smilie: :-)

Terry R. Hill

Category(s): Reviews

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