enhanced] DD-B

Book Note: William H. Patterson, Jr., Robert A. Heinlein: Learning Curve (1907-1948)

I read this book about 2010-06-25. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2010. This note was last modified Tuesday, 27-Jul-2010 12:43:18 PDT.

This note does not contain major spoilers for the book.


Nonfiction, so I always check "no spoilers". There are a few things that have been held out as surprises by the Heinlein community that some people might want to come upon in context rather than reading about in a review, however.

Heinlein is arguably the most important science fiction author there will ever be. He revolutionized the field, improved the quality of the writing, and made it much more mainstream. He's the one who cracked the "slick" magazines for the genre (briefly), and was early in being published by mainstream publishers in hardcover.

Like J.R.R. Tolkien in fantasy and John W. Campbell as an editor, their achievements can't be bettered. The field is so much bigger and more diverse and more developed that one person can't be that important ever again.

Isaac Asimov described Heinlein as one of the three novas of science fiction (with Doc Smith and Stanley G. Weinbaum; in his introduction to the 1974 Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum). This is a good description. These three writers burst on the field and changed it instantly. Heinlein, for example, was guest of honor at the World Science Fiction convention only two years after his first published story (and Doc Smith had been the guest of honor the previous year). All his fiction seems to be still in print more than 20 years after his death (and Doc smith comes close, 45 years after his death).

So, for somebody that feels that way, it seems pretty natural to be interested in reading a biography of Heinlein. I got access to an advance proof; this book is due to be published in August, though, so it's not too long to wait.

Patterson is the founder of the Heinlein Society, and was chosen by UCSC to be the Heinlein Scholar for 2003-04 (the UCSC archives house Heinleins papers). He was chosen by Virginia Heinlein to write this biography, and a lot of the copious footnotes refer to emails, IMs, and private conversations between them; but she did not live to see the book published (she died January 18, 2003).

The biography task had originally gone to Leon Stover; apparently he had some sort of falling out with Virginia. Patterson clearly had access to much of Stover's material, but he makes mention of batches of original letters and such that went to a private collector after being in Stover's hands, and were unavailable to him. So some stuff is sourced only to Stover's unpublished manuscript.

My first big hope for more biographical information was Grumbles from the Grave. What I actually got was terribly disappointing; Virginia's editing was far too protective, and not focused on the parts of his life that were important to outsiders. Having read this first part of the biography, I'm more confident than ever that there was nothing she was concealing that would actually have hurt her husband's reputation.

This book seems to me to hit the balance very nicely; neither sensationalized, nor overly protective (those of us paying attention already knew Heinlein was a nudist and strongly suspect that some of his marriages were open). While Heinlein was a fairly private person, and didn't seem to want to be a celebrity as such, he had lots of friends among science fiction authors and others, so there probably aren't any huge surprises in store.

The footnotes come fast and dense; there are 100 pages of footnotes. Many chapters exceed 50 footnotes. Most of the claims in the book are cited to some specific source. I have no idea how a biographer manages to keep track of that much information in that much detail with any semblance of accuracy (perfection is generally not achievable).

This volume covers family history, and takes him through the Naval Academy, service in the Navy, WWII and his war work in Philadelphia (which he seems to have liked as much as W.C. Fields, though there's no reference to Fields' famous remark), his political career, starting to write, his first two marriages, and just up to his marriage with Virginia.

Interestingly, there are no photos or illustrations in this volume. Having them is fairly conventional for a biography, and in this case Heinlein was a photographer himself (already by 1948 he's had his own darkroom). And Heinlein seems to have been fairly social with a wide range of friends, so there should be a large collection of snapshots out there. [Added 2010-07-27: Michael Walsh, who saw early copies at Confluence, tells me that the actual volume does have photos. John Clute's online review also says so.]

I picked out several interesting bits of information from this book about future publishing projects. There will apparently be a third volume of the John W. Campbell letters giving their complete correspondence, and three volumes of letters in the "Virginia Edition" of Heinlein's work

This would seem to be the biography we've all been hoping for. Go buy it and gulp it down!

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David Dyer-Bennet