Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Prophet Gets No Respect

Sarah's been blogging up a storm over on for the new Heinlein biography, along with a bunch of - no surprise here - Tor authors. It shouldn't surprise anyone who reads here that the discussion has been a tad... shall we say contentious? There seems to be a Rule (one of those rules no-one ever talks about but applies all the time) that any discussion about Heinlein will inevitably degenerate into name-calling and snarky implications that those who like Heinlein are racist, sexist, and quite possibly eat babies for breakfast (Please. Babies for breakfast is so passe).

It's actually rather amusing to watch the frothing at the mouth that starts up any time someone dares mention Heinlein in a favorable light without the cop out backhand "man of his time" excuse. See, that particular argument is horribly misused most of the time. It's used to dismiss the visionary aspects of someone's achievements because they - duh - had some of the blind spots of their era. Instead, it should be a recognition of how extraordinary the achievements are in view of the time when they occurred.

Of course, that's not what causes the frothing. It's that Heinlein forces you to think. My experience is that very few people willingly examine their assumptions about how the world works. The folks here at MGC are something of an exception for a number of reasons, not least of which is that of the six of us, half of us have uprooted and moved to another country. Another reason is even simpler - much of the debate about Heinlein, genre fiction - and even Western culture - is US-centered. Amanda is the only regular MGC poster who is 'Merkin by birth. Sarah and I adopted the place, Dave is South African recently relocated to Australia, and Rowena and Chris are Aussies. Even Amanda isn't 'typical' 'Merkin - she's traveled to parts of the world most USians couldn't find on a map, and even learned other languages. Our readers are a mixed bunch, too - which we appreciate.

Why do I mention this? Because someone who's moved country, or who does a lot of work with people from a different country, is in a situation where their assumptions about how the world operates get questioned or they get smacked in the face with evidence to the contrary.

This is of course a staple of fiction, forcing a character to question and change their world view, but it's an uncomfortable thing when it happens to you. Most people get very aggressive-defensive when their basic ideas are challenged - and funnily enough that's the exact tone of the anti-Heinlein frothing.

And that, dear reader, is the reason why there is a proverb to the effect that the prophet is without honor in his own country. He's - pretty much by definition - challenging people to confront their deepest assumptions. If people can't just dismiss him, they get aggressive and try to belittle him by any means available.

Heinlein - obviously - is one of SF and fantasy's prophets. Pratchett is another. Who would you nominate?


Anonymous said...

As much as I detest quite a few of his books, Piers Anthony.

Da Curly Wolf said...

*shug* I keep telling sarah to send them to me and they'll cease to be a problem..forever. No I not a homicidal maniac...but I play one on the intarwebs. :P

MataPam said...

I first encountered Heinlein in junior high, at pretty much the target age, if the wrong gender, for his YA books. Speaking of writing to market, he was writing for Boy's Life, the Boy Scouts' magazine. So there was a male slant to it all. Duh. I didn't like some of his more adult fiction, but some of that, SST and TMIAHM are some of the best fiction ever written.

Mind you, I'm not sure he understood the vast spread of female types, but then I don't either. Especially boy-crazed teenage girls, fashionistas, Liberals ... Very alien species, IMO. As a writer, I regret having only sons, who opened my eyes to a new perspective. I never got to observe and learn to appreciate the growing female. As a Parent, I thank anything that is omnipotent enough to be the responsible party and sentient enough to understand.

RAH is right up there with Andre Norton as my most influential author. But somehow she dodged all the controversy that surrounds Heinlein.

Stephen Simmons said...

Prophets aren't the same as Masters, necessarily ...

I think there can be little dispute that "1984" has begun seeming more prophetic every year. And while I don't think it quite matches Scott Card's vision, the growing gulf of estrangement between families like mine (with long traditions of multi-generational military service) and the folks who populate "Code Pink" rallies sometimes makes me think we're already several steps along the path toward the world of "Ender's Game".

Cutting-edge Japanese engineers, in combining the concepts of "smart" and "green" buildings while trying to pack ever more stuff into Tokyo's finite land-space, are well on their way to producing buildings that have started resembling the self-contained cities of Niven & Pournelle's "Oath of Fealty".

As for holding up a truly unforgiving mirror and challenging us to take a real look at ourselves, as Heinlein did so incredibly well ... Weber's suggestion that Earth would find a way to resurrect the concept of slavery, centuries in the future, in the current direction he has taken the Honorverse. Spider Robinson, with the insights hidden under his ... unique handling and presentation in the "Callahan's" series.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pratchett, definitely.

I think Heinlein aroused infinite hostility for making people consider the unthinkable. "would I be the same if my brain were transplanted to a body of another genre?" "What kind of effect on our morals would near infinite lifestyles have?" "Why would something that's a crime for individuals be okay for governments? Does the fact it's a group doing it make it all right?" etc.
Pratchett just gets people saying "oh, well, he's JUST funny. There's nothing profound there."

I think with half a shot of luck and a little more push our very own Dave Freer will one day be regarded as Heinlein and Pratchett.

Synova said...

I think that you got it just right... it's not so much living "somewhere else" as it is having moved from one culture to another culture (and perhaps back again.) And I'd add, it's not traveling... it's living in that place and getting to know locals as neighbors.

Not that this automatically turns everyone into a sensible person, but it does give someone prone to the study of human nature a baseline that has at least a chance of sifting out common threads of human reality from socially accepted but skewed perspectives.

Kate said...


Why would you nominate Piers Anthony despite detesting his books? I'm curious - not many people are able to make that distinction.

Kate said...


Good puppy! Nice puppy. Sarah could use a guard wolf now and then - it's much more effective than dictionaries.

Kate said...


I'm not sure anyone can understand all the different flavors of human, no matter how hard we try - it's the people who avoid trying at any cost that piss me off.

Andre Norton I think gets a free pass because she was a Woman Author and - at least initially - was considered "lightweight fantasy". I suspect it's the same reason people dismiss PTerry as "fluff".

Kate said...


Prophets are not the same as Masters. And I mean precisely what I said. Prophets.

Heinlein's Crazy Years espoused in more than a few places are unquestionably prophetic. So are his explorations of what kinds of things are likely to happen when sex and babies can be separated. Then there's Friday's divided, eternally warring nations and the everpresent surveillance.

As for Pratchett, you've only got to look at the deep dwarves - and dwarf culture generally - in Thud! to see some... interesting commentary and observations of what could happen with certain cultures here.

There's generally a pretty hefty feedback loop with genre - SF and fantasy has rather more scientists than any other genre, so there tends to be a lot of "hey, that's cool, I wonder how you could make that happen?"

Kate said...


Absolutely. Pratchett is sliding his messages in masked in the humor. Heinlein's speculations were out there for all to see - and IMO scare the living crap out of people who like to stay in their nice cozy little self-delusional fuzz (Of course, I happen to think there's no place for self-delusional fuzz in science-fiction or fantasy, so...).

I'd agree with you about Dave. He's one of the most underappreciated authors around - which alas is not a good thing.

Kate said...


Yeah, living in another culture, even one as superficially similar to your home culture as the US is to Australia, is quite the eye-opener. So many of the basic assumptions are different.

I'm expecting to have an... interesting experience when I go back to Oz to visit for WorldCon and some time with Dave and time with my parents and sibs. Somehow, I suspect I'll find that Oz isn't quite "home" anymore, that I've grown and changed enough to make the culture seem different.

Synova said...

Kate, you might find that Oz is home in ways you didn't notice before.

After I'd been "gone" for a while I actually got to a church pot luck and I think all the ladies must have thought I was off my rocker. Everything was *right*, even the stuff I didn't like when I was a kid. All the dishes were *right*. And then I sang in church and happened to gush to exactly the right person (when she thanked me afterward) that the acoustics in the new church my Dad had designed and built made it wonderful to sing there. Later my mom mentioned that this woman had fussed about the acoustics a *lot*. And we laughed for about half an hour. The humor, like the food, was *right*. All the interconnections that made everything make sense were there, still, right where I left them.

I think you'll find everything right where you left it, too.

Kate said...


I'm looking forward to finding out. It's been nearly eight years since I was last there, so there's been quite a bit of change since then.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


With me it's always a mix of the two when I go back, but more the "this is not home". I think because I don't expect to go back to Portugal to live. Also because Portugal isn't as "COMFORTABLE" as the US.
Also, each time I go back -- twenty five years is a LONG time -- I have fewer things that feel like home. One of the things I loved as a kid were the "Festas" of saints which were like dinky mobile amusement parks -- the rides, the cotton candy, the crowds. Well, they don't even DO those anymore. So I find more of an echo of my childhood at the cheap amusement park in Denver. Broa, which local farmers use to make (think rye-corn bread) is now only available from factories and it does not taste the same. And, oh, yeah, the village of my birth was bissected by a highway and has sprouted stack-a-prole apartments all over.
Sometimes you can't go back again.


Synova said...

I don't think it ought to matter, really, if Heinlein was sexist, racist, whatever-ist, though I suppose that if he ate babies for breakfast we'd have to exhume his bones and put him on trial and then give his bones a lethal injection before burying him again. I don't think that even death is a statute of limitations for baby eating.

Certainly we're all men or women of our time, but a person should be judged on how they related to their time, not how they relate to ours... and ours is going to be pretty harshly judged I think, no matter how deliberately and aggressively enlightened we are.

I've not studied Heinlein or read him lately, but my remembered reaction to his YA fiction was mixed to mostly favorable and I enjoyed Friday and Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land even while finding some of the suggestions unlikely in the extreme or off-putting. I didn't *expect* to be made comfortable! I lost interest before getting to Cat Who Walks Through Walls or Number of the Beast, so about those I couldn't say at all.

I really did like _Friday_, though. I understand that is one of the books certain folks get all hot and bothered over. And the thing is... I don't remember anything in it that was objectionable *and* was portrayed indisputably as a good thing in the end.

Am I wrong? I don't recall at all being told how I was supposed to *feel* about any of it.

Synova said...

Sarah, I actually got homesick in the Philippines because of the things that so strongly evoked feelings of home. The poverty was one, actually. The people, certainly. The cows in the road. Not that things tracked all that closely, but it really was not at all hard to relate.

Some people go places and see other-ness. I don't know how that works.

Brendan said...

I don't know if Heinlein was sexist(I have my suspicions though) but if you base your opinion on his stories he also promoted serfdom/slavery(Logic of Empire), a form of fascism(Starship Troopers), was against military dictatorship(The Long Watch), and encouraged female involvement in traditionaly male occupations(Delilah and the Space Rigger).

Many of the great authors had an axe to grind when writing. One of the joys is reading a book not just for the story, but for the message(s) within. We talk about the great writers and their subtexts because it is hard to write a message story properly(it is hard enough to write a normal story well). The mediocre got dropped for being too preachy. Either that or started their own religion.

Brendan said...


The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is one of Heinlein's confronting stories that people complain about and Number of the Beast was just plain boring(I gave up on that after the fifth change of leader in a group of four). So well missed in my opinion!

Dave Freer said...

I live in dread of being considered a prophet in the country of sf/fantasy for just this reason ;-). Eric Frank Russell maybe.

It's curious, though how many Flinders Islanders have already read my books, compared to people in my old home district. Even the sf community (tiny and feeble, and, well tiny and feeble) in SA were not really keen on admitting I was there too much. For a start I published in the US. (a Bad mark. America = EVIL, unless you happen to be American). And for a second I didn't sing the accepted tune. I was a bit of an embarrassment :-). I've found Australia a lot more tolerant and curious and pleasant. Which, BTW, I found about US publishing after my intial experience with SA and UK publishing.

Anonymous said...

Kate: I detest his books but his ideas and concepts are revolutionary. I don't like his style of writing (especially the Xanth books) but it wasn't about liking someone's writing so much as respecting it. Right? Or did I screw that up again?

luagha said...

I admittedly read 'Friday' a long time ago when I was but a wee lad.

Like, wasn't she better, stronger, faster, more educated, and smarter than any ordinary man could ever be?

Kate said...


There is this. I honestly don't know which way it will tip. Although the way things are right now, it's not looking good.

Kate said...


Of course it doesn't matter, except in terms of how representative he was of his time and how much he was able to transcend his time.

I'm quite sure that future generations will laugh at our aggressive political correctness and shake their heads in disbelief at the way our society ignored existential threats in favor of faux enlightenment. But then, I'm known to be weird.

Kate said...


I found with moving from Oz to the US that the similarity kept tripping me up. Things would be so similar that I'd slip into full Aussie, and get hauled back to reality by the stunned and/or horrified expressions around me.

I think you get both - the differences and the similarities. What you take away from the experience depends on what you're focusing on in the first place.

Kate said...


The authors with axes to grind are using the wrong tool. Books make lousy whetstones.

That said, anything someone really feels strongly about will leak into their writing. Regardless of the different ideas Heinlein plays with and the different social structures and societal mores, one thing that shows through just about all of it is the ability of individuals to make a difference.

Kate said...


That's exactly the kind of thing I mean. Your books are very good at taking the piss out of sacred cows, and South Africa seems to be a tad nervous about that.

Aussies, so long as you can give as good as you get, will - mostly, there are exceptions usually in politics - happily take the piss right along with you.

Kate said...


Yes, that is part of it. I was curious because a lot of people will dismiss something as rubbish if they don't like it - it takes an unusual level of intellectual honesty to recognize skill and visionary ideas in something you loathe :)

Kate said...


Yes, Friday was all that - as well as being a second-class person or non-person because she was genetically engineered to be all that.

She mentions not being a "real" person rather a lot during the course of the book, and only really abandons the idea that she's not right at the end of the book.