Friday, July 02, 2010


This is something I posted on the blog Crooked Timber.
Thanks for the links to Kessel and Moorcock. I enjoyed the Moorcock essay a lot. It reminded me why I liked New Worlds so much. I think Kessel is wrong. I can still remember the night—rereading The Green Hills of Earth at the house of a friend of a friend in Altoona, PA circa 1970—when I realized what an awful writer Heinlein was.

The links mentioned were to an essay by John Kessel on Heinlein and one by Moorcook on the politics of sf and fantasy, which he considered mostly right wing and awful.

(Moorcock's essay is Starship Stormtroopers, easy to find on the Internet, but I'm having trouble linking to it.)

What interested me is I can remember when I decided Heinlein was a bad writer: the place, the book, the time of day. This tells me it was an important and disturbing experience.

Kessel is impressed by Heinlein's early short stories and compares his style favorably to Hemingway. Some of the early stories are quite amazing. I especially like "All You Zombies," which foreshadows Heinlein's later work: closed systems, populated by young Heinleins, old Heinleins, male Heinleins and female Heinleins.

Kessel's field is literature. He knows this stuff better than I do, and I respect his opinion. But I find Heinlein's work ultimately false. He is best when he deals with an individual or a very limited group of people, who are often -- usually? -- idealized images of himself. He had -- in his early work -- some really neat ideas, which have stayed with me for decades. But you can only go so far with an inward-turning narcissism.

I loved his work when I was a kid, the short stories and the young adult novels. But I don't think his stories ever hit me the same way as work by Tenn, Leiber, Davidson, Kornbluth, Knight, Bester... Think of the size of Clifford Simac's City or Asimov's Foundation stories, compared to the size of Heinlein's world, which was always tiny. He could never see beyond himself.

When I say this, I have to add -- I haven't read Heinlein for decades. I gave up on his novels after Stranger in a Strange Land and I gave up on his short fiction on that night in Altoona.


Blogger confluence said...

That "All You Zombies" remark is very quotable. :)

I'm glad I discovered Heinlein as a young teen, because if I read his work now I would not be able to enjoy it.

I dropped him almost completely after attempting to read "I Will Fear No Evil", which I started skimming a short way in because I found it unreadably awful.

12:05 PM  

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