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Book Note: Farah Mendlesohn, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

I read this book about 8-Mar-2019. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2019. This note was last modified Tuesday, 09-Apr-2019 15:56:31 PDT.

This note does not contain major spoilers for the book.


A new overview of Robert Heinlein's literary career! And, I think, quite a good one; in cases we disagree, she has arguments on her side, or occasionally it just comes down to personal opinion.

I was a supporter of the Kickstarter that helped get this written and published, and I interact with the author online, and we have a number of actual friends in common, but I have never run into her in person.

These notes aren't very well attached to their places in the text, and some will make no sense until you find that place and compare the book to my note. I'd like to fix that, and may some day do so, but I'm going to publish this note in its current form and worry about that later. That means don't hold your breath.

Being me, of course these notes will contain more nit-picking of details than actual agreement. That just means I couldn't find anything bigger to take issue with—and that I consider the work (and its author) worth engaging with. I do try to say so explicitly when she has illuminated something new for me, or even agreed with me on something few do.

Gender fluidity isn't what I Will Fear No Evil (#2) deals with; Johann Sebastian Bach Smith hasn't contemplated a gender change (though in hindsight he thinks he wouldn't have reduced his odds by ½ through barring female bodies), and he doesn't deal with anything recognizably related to gender dysphoria in adapting to his new body (which, arguably, by modern theories he should have). And Heinlein dealt with sex change much earlier in "All You Zombies" (which was a reaction to Jorgensen in 1951).

The cell phone in Space Cadet (#2) was nowhere near the first mobile phone in SF. The "Perkins radio telephone" appeared in 1928 in Edward E. Smith's The Skylark of Space (it's prominent in the magazine version of the novel; its role is much reduced in the changes made before book publication). Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio appeared in 1946. And what was interesting in Heinlein's treatment of the phone was the cadet wanting to not be reachable on it (and Heinlein's failure to consider that it could be turned off; which in turn means he hadn't thought at all about power consumption and battery life issues).

"Sky Lift" (1953) predates Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" by a year, and had the same basic plot.

"Heinlein is strongly associated with the hard SF wing of the field, but this is problematic on two grounds: first, because what Heinlein is truly interested in is how people respond to the future; second, because he has a sentimental streak that inflects almost everything he writes." (chapter 4). Strongly agree that Heinlein is frequently sentimental. (And, later in that chapter, "Sentiment is a handmaiden to the sense of wonder".)

In discussing Oscar as a picaresque hero in Glory Road (#3), she says Oscar chooses his hero name in chapter 4. But Star actually chooses it; the interchange is:

I shrugged. "Oh, Scar is a good enough name."

"'Oscar,'" she repeated, broadening the "O" into "Aw," and stressing both syllables. "A noble name. A hero's name. Oscar." She caressed it with her voice.

"No, no! Not 'Oscar'—'Scar.' 'Scarface.' For this."

"Oscar is your name," she said firmly. "Oscar and Aster. Scar and Star." She barely touched the scar.

(As with many of these minor errors I comment on, this is a nit, not a substantive error. It's significant to viewing the narrative of Glory Road as picaresque that the protagonist acquires, early on, a Hero's name. It doesn't seem to me important whether he chooses it himself, or it's assigned by his companion.)

Meanings of "have" aren't clear to me, and the ones Farah cites aren't believable. [Can't find what this note refers to?]

In "Our Fair City" the whirlwind is named "Kitten", not "Kitty". Also, the parking lot attendant (identified as James Metcalf in the story, but only once) is not indicated to be a hobo, or homeless, or anything like that. The newspaper article that names him (in the story) just calls him a citizen.

Footnote 4 to chapter 4— engineers are not good obstetricians. But yes, the fact that the mentions she lists are present means Heinlein thought it was important, and I would suggest may have doubted the common wisdom—even though the characters that attempted to innovate away from common wisdom appear to have done badly according to modern experts. The interest in the topic is a little surprising for these books.

She keeps saying "passing forward"; it's "pay it forward". (Later in the book she correctly quotes Heinlein; perhaps it's changed when in her voice because of some issue of British English I'm not aware of?)

Functionalism in the roads must roll—group, not individual

Starman Jones is anti-guild, as distinct from anti-union. At least, somewhat distinct; powerful unions sometimes start functioning as guilds. That's a plot point in Edward E. Smith's Subspace Explorers (#7), too.

The course which must be taken but is not graded (and cannot be failed) in Starship Troopers (#2) is "History and Moral Philosophy", not civics. Civics courses are about how the political entity functions; H&MP is about why they do it this way, and that distinction is emphasized in the book.

The reference to Castor and Pollux almost killing their baby brother being an important point in The Rolling Stones (#2) threw me for a while, but on reflection I think she means the later episode where failing to red-tag the scooter as out of service (or telling anybody) nearly results in the loss of both Buster and Hazel (the twins also manage to rescue them with just the help of Old Charlie and his scooter), not the episode when Buster is allergic to the sedative his mother uses for their pass around Earth at the beginning of the trip). Leaving Hazel out of the description made it sound to me like the first episode, where the twins do not seem in any way at fault. At least to me, Hazel is a vastly more important character than Buster; the later event is one where the twins nearly kill Hazel.

Ch 6.

In Red Planet (#3), I don't see "little guns" losing to "big guns". The Company deploys an automated weapon to kill people leaving the school, which claims at least one victim, but I saw nothing indicating it was more powerful than the guns the colonists carried; in fact my impression was that it was one of those guns, with an automated trigger.

And, while discussing the uselessness of guns, she ignores that they are carried primarily to kill water seekers and such, and are used for that successfully in the book.

In Tunnel in the Sky (#2), there is more than one boy who takes a gun. In fact most do. The gun inventory (made up later, when the town is organizing) is 53, and that's only half the people in the region. Students do in fact have guns. Jackie's dart gun is important, and there's a rifle shown (unloaded). Wait, Jackie isn't a boy, either; I hope that isn't the point being made here, though.

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (#2), they manufacture their own laser pistols, that is important. But also, that environment is inherently against powerful weapons; too easy to breach pressure.

Ch. 7

She missed an ethnic marker for Juan Rico; Ramon Magsaysay as hero.

Her phrase that the color of many characters, particularly Rod Walker, is "painted on" is very to the point.

"In none of the three books in which slavery and the release from slavery is the storyline—Citizen of the Galaxy, Time Enough for Love and Friday—is race an element regarding who is enslaved." I guess she's not including Farnham's Freehold there; but I think maybe it needs some more argument to really say that's not the storyline.

Ch. 8

The shelter can't protect them, actually, from the big bomb hit; very true. But it's not intended or claimed to; it's a fallout shelter, not a bomb shelter (it's much sturdier than most fallout shelters, intended to survive a nearer miss than they are, but Hugh never thought it would protect them from anything near a direct hit with a nuclear weapon).

For Stranger in a Strange Land she says "Complications in the inheritance customs of the crew members mean that the man is heir to the entire crew." The issue is not in any way with customs; it's with a specific contract that that crew signed before undertaking the voyage. The issue is explicitly contractual, not customary.

Trapping Lazarus with offspring—I'm pretty sure Justin is being unethical but values the Senior's genes so much. The twins are explicitly a proscribed procedure.

Prof. Bernardo de la Paz is widely seen as an authorial voice, but is omitted from that list.

Ch. 9

"(paying homage to E. E. Smith’s family-camping-in-space sagas)" say what? Not sure what camping means in this context maybe. I've never heard Smith described anything like that, and the only thing that's like "camping" occurs in Spacehounds of IPC.

Footnote 13: in The Rolling Stones Roger and Hazel are the only candidates for Captain; the twins don't have full licenses because they are too young, Mead doesn't have the licenses (she is old enough, and does talk with the twins about getting them; but we see in the book that her astrogation isn't up to the demands of actual spaceflight, yet), Dr. Stone doesn't have the licenses. It doesn't actually say Hazel has the licenses, but I'm willing to assume it, and she does demonstrate proficiency in astrogation. Some of the characters aren't in other ways suited to being Captain as well, but starting with the basic legal requirements pares the last down really fast.

There's feminist content in The Rolling Stones that probably deserves more attention. The most blatant bit is the piece of Hazel's backstory where she missed two promotions as a nuclear engineer or technician that she was better-qualified for than the males who got them, so she took a job dealing blackjack. This is a clear description of the "glass ceiling", taken from a book published in 1952 very specifically for boys, 25 years before the term came into use. There's another blatant signal from the author that this is intentional; the list of names proposed by the family members for the ship included only one actual historical name, and that name was Susan B. Anthony. Also, of course, Dr. Stone reigns supreme on medical matters, and when her husband tries to stop her risking her life by going over to the War God to fight their plague that has already killed their medical officer he is shut down pretty thoroughly. (In other ways Dr. Stone is strangely lacking in agency, and daughter Meade is a typical non-technical floof-head as found in many "boy's books".)


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