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Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century: Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, by William H. Patterson, Jr.

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

You would think that Robert Heinlein was a writer who could, if he chose, offend plenty of people all on his own without any help. But he has not been left to his own post mortem devices in this! Oh no! No, he has the assistance of William H. Patterson, Jr., to make sure that no stone is left unturned if it might have creeping, crawling things under it that represent stomach-turning levels of ignorance to pass off on the reading public as somehow relevant to the first SFWA Grand Master’s career.

Oh, sorry, maybe I should start this review more straightforwardly: I did not like and do not recommend this book.

Let’s go with the paragraph that brought actual tears of rage to my eyes:

They [the Heinleins] had both fallen in love with the northern countries on their earlier trips, but Finland (which does not consider itself to be “Scandinavian”) was special even among them, with a national character of fierce resoluteness–sisu–that precisely suited their mood on this occasion. The Suomic “do what must be done” was the only attitude that a free people could possibly take, living next door to the Soviet Union. The Baltic states–Latvia, estonia, Lithuania–did not have it, and they had been eaten up by the USSR.

That last piece of toxically inaccurate drivel, friends, has no footnote. No. Footnote. That is not Robert Heinlein talking in any sense. That is William Patterson slandering the people of the Baltic states–using Finland to do it, no less!–on his own hook. For fun. Because it suits his own political agenda to declare, ex cathedra, that if only they had wanted it badly enough, the facts of geography and political support of the 1940s would have been different for those small countries. He knows less than nothing about the Singing Revolution. Nothing about the resisters who went to the camps or who lived in the forests resisting Soviet rule for years and in some amazing cases decades. He knows nothing about what the west did on behalf of Finland–“brave little Finland”–that it never once considered doing for any of the Baltics. No. William Patterson was an American of the Baby Boom generation who decided that what a biography of Robert Heinlein most needed–what people reading about Robert Heinlein most needed–was to have lies about these people just tossed into their reading material for giggles. Because, you know, most people who pick up biographies of mid-century science fiction writers read reams about the history of the Baltic region and can easily have this kind of blatant falsehood countered rather than lodged in the back of their brain as the truth about the people of this region.

Most of my regular readers know that I am a serious Finnophile. I find it all the more offensive to have Finland used as a club on other countries that did not have the advantages of geography and political support. This is just wrong. I used up all my obscenities on this yesterday when I was reading, and believe me, I used many. Today I’m left drained. Today I can just say: this is so very wrong.

I wish that was only one thing. I wish that was the only time that the staggering arrogance of Patterson’s ignorance made itself known in this volume. But alas. If I was the sort to write in books, the single most common thing I would have written in the margins of this one would have been, “Who asked you?” When Patterson was reporting that Heinlein decided to vote for Eisenhower in 1956, he notes, “He was not a Republican, but he voted for Eisenhower–probably the least harmful choice that year.” Who asked you? Seriously, who needed this bozo to be patting his biographical subject on the back at every turn? And on what grounds? What research did he do other than reading Robert A. Heinlein on the subject? Here’s another of Patterson’s un-footnoted long-winded political digressions:

Perhaps there had been embedded in Roosevelt’s New Deal the seeds of this current leftism that was softening the brains of otherwise bright and well-intentioned people, who seemed not to realize that they had conceded important intellectual and moral ground to that stunted and malign child of socialism, as Wells had called Lenin’s and Stalin’s Communism. America’s leftism now had no room for that strain of American progressive optimism and benevolent patriotism that married love of country to love of the great ideals of the Founders, that went back to the last century, through Emerson and back even to that old Puritan thunderer Jonathan Edwards.

This is notable because 1) again, this is all Patterson, not a word of it Heinlein; 2) Heinlein was himself a New Deal Democrat; 3) citation, please? What exactly makes Patterson an expert of any kind on the state of the American left or the Democratic Party as an institution at mid-century or in fact at any time? He can tell you how Robert Heinlein was feeling or at least writing about it, certainly; he had unprecedented access to the letters that would do that. But to just bloviate about what America’s leftism had or had not room for: pics or it didn’t happen, basically.

And this is sprinkled throughout, sometimes in a phrase or two and sometimes at far, far greater length. We are treated to an expansion of Heinlein’s view of Joe McCarthy in which, Patterson opines, “the worst that happened was that some people had reputations blackened, possibly deservedly if they had in fact been engaged in treasonous activities.” (Loss of livelihood to Americans exercising their Constitutional rights of free speech and free association: eh, whatever, no big, as long as William H. Patterson Jr. still finds them suspicious. Nor does he feel the need to actually look into what happened. Reading one single reputable book on the matter would be too much to ask; he’s got pontificating to do.) His citation of Emerson is particularly hilarious given that he’s not at all clear who and what Fourier influenced in American politics, even given a footnote to expand on the matter, and the surrounding material about European liberalism or lack of same is not worth the paper it’s printed on. And again: who asked him? As fascinated as we all are with the 1848 revolution, why on earth does it belong in a Heinlein bio that is already bloated in two volumes?

Various places in the book, Patterson cites Heinlein’s letters feeling that America had moved to the left without him after the Second World War. However, Patterson expands upon this at length and adds his own feelings about it without citing a single political position that would support it. I spent a pretty good chunk of yesterday reading platforms and campaign speeches for Adlai Stevenson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just to see if I was completely mad, and the single place that I could find where Roosevelt looked considerably less “leftist” was on the matter of race–where Patterson is careful to cite letter after letter showing that Heinlein was pleased at the direction of the Democratic party away from segregation. So what would a responsible biographer do here? At most, a responsible biographer merely says that this is how Heinlein felt. It’s also responsible to interrogate that feeling–to say that this is how Heinlein felt but to note an inclarity as to why he felt that way. Patterson does not. He takes it as given that everything, everything Heinlein felt must be right.

Even in non-political issues (or inter-field political issues), this leads the biography to be a lesser work than it could have been. For example, in writing about a falling-out with Ben Bova over an Alexei Panshin review of Expanded Universe, Patterson does not apparently contact Dr. Bova for any memories he has of this incident. Last I saw or heard, Dr. Bova was alive and well, and his perspective could at least be noted. If it was so “clearly polemical” and “simply malicious,” why did Bova commission a “hatchet job” of one of the most notable writers in the field at the time? Patterson doesn’t care to know–even to dismiss the point of view directly. For him Bova’s point of view simply doesn’t exist. The only place that Patterson notes anywhere that Heinlein might have been wrong is in a dispute with the L5 board over SDI, where he notes that the situation was “more complex” than Heinlein was predisposed to see it. Everything else gets a rubber stamp–not only does Heinlein apparently learn better, he never fails to learn better.

That’s not biography, it’s hagiography.

And the worst of it is, some of this stuff is going to get attributed to Heinlein. Some of this stuff is going to get attributed to Heinlein by the people who think he could do no wrong, and some of it is going to get attributed to Heinlein by the people who think he could do no right, and especially it will be attributed to Heinlein by people who think that he is a symbol of everything right-wing about America today, whether they personally love it or hate it, whether he actually said or thought any such thing. Patterson had unprecedented levels of access to Heinlein’s papers. He could have written a real biography. With the first volume, it almost looked like he was going to. And instead this. It has immensely detailed information about what Heinlein wrote when, which drafts were called what and how they developed. In places there are the sketched outlines of a touching portrait of how a married couple can work together as a team for the benefit of the career of one of them. It’s just interspersed with a pointless, ill-informed, and occasionally sickening slog through What William H. Patterson Jr. Thinks Of Every Damn Thing (Without Actually Looking It Up).

(The most hilarious line of WWHPJTOEDT(WALIU): when he was shocked, just shocked, that even some figure skaters might not be nice people. Golly. Even some figure skaters? If you can’t trust the profession that brought us the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal, indeed, what profession can you trust? That was twenty years ago. No one has any excuse for still thinking that figure skaters are all sweetness and light. Twenty. Years. Yeah. We’ve got some real depth going here, people.)

12 thoughts on “Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century: Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, by William H. Patterson, Jr.

  1. How did you find the patience to even read this book? Or was it more a matter of righteous indignation that kept you going?

    1. Once I got to the paragraph about the Baltics, there was no stopping me. That’s very personal for me. The American politics stuff was obnoxious, but going after the Baltics was simply shameful.

      Sadly there does not seem to be a recording of Cantus’s concert of the songs of the Singing Revolution, which was practically made for me. I would be recommending the CD far and wide at this point if there was. It was incredibly moving, and more Americans should be exposed to this beautiful stuff.

      1. I can see why that would get under your skin, even if you were just a casual reader–but feeling passionately about the Baltic states would make it that much worse!

        Even just a cursory Google search has me intrigued in the Singing Revolution! I need to do some more research to make up for the horrible gaps in my education. 🙂

        1. I feel good about this! 🙂

      2. What’s the time period the Heinlein interest in Finland is associated with in the book? I’d have thought the Bircherite direction he went would have made him one of those disgusted with Finland for its accommodations with the USSR – weren’t hawks always saying “if we aren’t vigilant all Europe will go the way of Finland”? But maybe this was before the treaty, which is why I ask. (Speaking also as a mild Finnophile.)

        1. Well, Paasikivi Doctrine dates from ’48, and the Heinleins visited Finland on the same trip as they went to the USSR, which was 1960. So if they were going to buy into the lie of “Finlandization” (somebody use that word in front of me and watch me go up like a rocket!), it would seem like plenty of time in which to do it. I think he still had the story of Brave Little Finland in his mind from the Winter War–a lot of people in the West did–as they should–and having just come from the USSR directly to Finland would probably stir those feelings back up again. That’s just my surmise, though.

  2. Hi — I agree with your critique. My own comments on the Patterson books are similar: — I noticed Patterson’s idiotic comment about the Baltic countries. I wish I had commented on that. Best, Jeet Heer

    1. I’m so glad you stopped by! I have already seen your post and liked it very much–you took the time to engage much more, whereas I really wanted to limit my remarks to this one bio due to time limitations. Thanks for including the link–people should see your thoughts on this too.

  3. “… and especially it will be attributed to Heinlein by people who think that he is a symbol of everything right-wing about America today, whether they personally love it or hate it, …”

    Damn… I pretty much stopped reading Heinlein in the 80s, when I felt he’d moved too far right and it was bleeding all over the pages. Then, recently, I reread some early stuff and remembered why exactly I originally loved his work. So, as I read your review, this was exactly what came to mind.

    Such a shame. I don’t read much biography, but thought I might want to read this…

  4. Alexei Panshin is famously opinionated, and one of the leading lights of science fiction criticism. Funny to think anyone would think he’s a hired hatchet.

  5. When I was reading the biography, I assumed those opinions were summarized Heinlein, but now that I’ve read your review, I can see where Patterson was adding his own opinion. However, I assumed Patterson was selected to write the authorized biography of Heinlein by Heinlein’s wife because Patterson would speak the Heinlein line about everything.

    I reviewed the book differently at my blog but like you I was surprised Patterson didn’t at least interview Panshin. Sure most of the prime people involved in Heinlein’s live are, but Panshin and Bova are now.

  6. Patterson also got things wrong in his intros to the Heinlein novels that Baen published. I complained to Baen about his intros, which also helpfully gave away the complete plots of the novels in question, in the intros, before readers started reading the novels in question.

    My impression of Patterson, from meeting him at SF conventions, was that he was a “keeper of the flame”, someone whose hero could no ill. I thought him a pompous fool, and ended up avoiding him.

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