Books / Media

Robert Heinlein, Baen Books, and Purity in Science-Fiction/Fantasy Culture

Some of the most exciting stuff happening in genre and fan culture right now are the challenges to homogeneity. Fan cultures–or fandoms–have been changing their demographic make-up rapidly. Not everyone likes that change, but change is never welcomed by all. Fandoms are in part about finding and connecting to individuals with similar passions. Open the door too wide, and you stop recognizing your peers. We’re seeing this in comic-book culture (which I’ve written of here often) but it’s happening just as clearly in the world of science-fiction/fantasy (SFF) as well.

The SFF fandom fight isn’t hard to recognize but, again like comics, seems to be peaking with the expanding cultural reach of conventions. The battle lines have been growing tighter for some time, and now we’ve gotten at least one definition of the exact distinction in SFF fandoms: readers who HAVE read Robert Heinlein vs. readers who HAVE NOT read Robert Heinlein.


So what’s going on in this SFF fight?

The terms in these kinds of arguments are always difficult to define. Definitions immediately declare sides and leave little room for debate. For example, at Melville House, the conventions argument is between “those who want a safe space for all” and those who have “a cultural nostalgia for decades past when a safe space meant, essentially, that white men were safe to replicate in miniature the terrible structures of power that victimized them, as geeks, in the world outside.”

If you hop onto the other side we find the inverse. Toni Weisskopf, publisher at the sci-fi house Baen Books sees “the politically correct, self-appointed guardians of … everything, apparently” as outsiders, who don’t belong among the real SFF fandom, because as Weisskopf says “they do not share our values, they do not share our culture.”

It makes for great blog-fighting, and book promotion. Real SFF fans vs. Johnny-come-Latelies. Insiders with the secret knowledge, and outsiders who just want to ride along because geek culture is cool. Now, thanks to Toni Weisskopf, we can get even more specific: Heinlein vs. No-Heinlein. It could have been a number of authors, but for the sake of this fight, Heinlein is the secret knowledge.

“We all read Heinlein and have an opinion about his work. How can you be a fan and not?” This is the key point in Wiesskopf’s long article. How Can You Be a Fan and NOT read Heinlein? The password is Heinlein, if you don’t have it, your are not one of us; you do not share our values. It is the mark of exclusion. These new SFF “fans” do not even read, let alone read Robert Heinlein. “These days,” Weisskopf laments, “you can watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book.”

To be honest, I understand this impulse. The feeling of ownership is important in life. And if you love science-fiction–truly love sci-fi and spend your days thinking about it or writing it and your night’s reading it–seeing it in the hands of the uninitiated is painful.

But this impulse is false. As much as you love sci-fi, you don’t have any ownership. There is no secret knowledge that numbers you among the insiders. And, frankly, there’s so much great science-fiction on film and television now, it is possible to be an avid lover of sci-fi without trying to decipher a path through the mountains of sci-fi books on the shelves. This is all just a ploy.

It’s an efficient ploy, though, meant to capitalize on a cultural divide. If you are Weisskopf, and in charge of selling Baen Books, then of course you believe Baen Books publishes real SFF, and the push towards inclusiveness and diversity that ultimately leads readers away from, say, the kind of manly-sexy-space-stories that Baen sometimes publishes, is going to be opposed.

The great John Scalzi responded to Weisskopf’s piece, and he summarizes the Baen position well: “Baen fans are the real science fiction fans, and real science fiction fans want real science fiction, which comes from Baen. It’s a nice bit of commercial epistemic closure. So good job, Ms. Weisskopf.”

But I want to step back from the intra-genre fight and talk about Robert Heinlein.

If you’re not a SFF reader over 40, it’s quite possible you’ve never read Robert Heinlein. Don’t be ashamed, readers. This happens in every medium and every genre of art. Figures arise who command almost absolute authority in a given creative field, and they dominate the era in which he or she works. In sci-fi, that was Heinlein. Shakespeare not withstanding, such figures tend to lose their might with the passing of generations and the birth of new readers and publication of new books–or movies, or television shows.starshiptrooper

This is not to say that Heinlein’s day is over. Heinlein’s books are excellent. Many are still beloved by millions of SFF readers, and will be discovered by new readers every year.  His impact on the genre will be felt for decades to come. But we cannot deny that fewer SFF readers are coming to the genre through the works of Robert Heinlein. Or that many sci-fi readers will be content reading sci-fi for a lifetime and never think to go back and read him.

If you count yourself among the folks who have not read Robert Heinlein, here’s a quick rundown from a long-time lover of science-fiction who has.

Robert Heinlein is a fantastic and imaginative writer, who wrote during what my father’s generation would consider the apex of the science-fiction genre. Author of Starship Troopers, Strangers in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and many, many other titles, Heinlein is as celebrated and award-winning an author as you are likely to find in this or any genre. He was even named the first “Grand Master of Science Fiction,” in 1974, by the SFWA. A powerhouse figure in SFF. If you like science-fiction, Heinlein’s worth reading.

That said, his stories can also be very difficult for unfamiliar readers. Writing from the 1940s until his death in 1988, Heinlein’s science-fiction work reflects a great deal of the time in which he lived. Like all artists, ever, Heinlein’s culture influenced the work he left behind.

Heinlein’s sexism, for example, is rampant. This is a problem in a great deal of SFF writing, and Heinlein alone is not a guilty party concerning sexism. But in some ways, he does stand apart. Unlike other masters of the genre–Asimov for example–Heinlein does not just ignore or exclude women from the action, but instead welcomes female–often hyper-eroticized–characters into his stories. If you’re inclined to return to Heinlein to discover his feminist politics through his female characters, you might shrink quickly away.

Likewise, Heinlein’s stories often embrace highly militant and violent politics. Not just as the subjects for stories but as morals or lessons for the reader. Reading Starship Troopers today, it’s not difficult to see how many describe it as a glorification of military violence, if not fascism (an interpretation that is controversial, but defensible). Heinlein’s stories are frequently committed to a libertarian/conservative political and religious worldview, one that has been made into an idyll by some contemporary readers (and political groups). That political worldview is his own, and itself is not a criticism. But, not unlike Ayn Rand, Heinlein’s stories of liberty and freedom from political strictures carry such moral weight and on-the-nose lecturing in the action of his stories, that they have become idealized–romanticized even–as to create a defensiveness in his most ardent admirers against any criticism or rejection of Heinlein. To criticize Heinlein is to admit your misunderstanding of the inherent righteousness of Heinlein’s thought.

moonisaharshI mention these significant criticisms of Heinlein’s work because they are central to the fandom debate that is going on today. Toni Weisskopf, who looks to Heinlein as the apparent line on which SFF fans are measured, wants to keep things pure. That call echoes a great deal of Heinlein’s political elements. Purity is a common theme in the libertarian and sci-fi landscape. Purity must be maintained. SFF fandom–conventions and books and all aspects of the culture–deserves to be protected from those who would dilute it.

This is Wiesskopf’s language. Fandom, she says, “has grown, expanded and diluted.”  The fear of dilution is not difficult to find in the work of Heinlein, or in those who look to Heinlein for guidance (Weisskopf also quotes the Constitution in her defense of SFF fandom, to hit that point). One must fight to protect the purity of fan culture, even if you know you cannot win. Another lesson Weisskopf takes from Heinlein.

Which all sounds principled and upright and thoughtful but is built on a false reduction of the work of a great, and complicated author. Sexism, militarism, preachy libertarianism, these themes are all present in Heinlein’s work. But they are not all that one finds in Heinlein’s stories. And while many of Heinlein’s novels are uncomplicated in their moral teachings (another problem with Heinlein: he packages lessons much too tidily), as a gifted and creative individual with complex social and political views, he cannot help but complicate his own texts.

And unfortunately for the argument of the purists, those complications define Heinlein’s work just as much as his moralizing and highly quotable political commentary. Take Heinlein’s sexism. It’s real, and many of his female characters  leave much to be desired. But some of Heinlein’s ideas around gender are quite elaborate, even radical. Sexual purity is of little concern in many of Heinlein’s texts, and the impulse towards nudity, sex, and sexual desire is rarely accompanied by shame. Or, the computer with consciousness in Moon is a Harsh Mistress, who operates equally as “Mike” and “Michelle.” Without a biological edict, “Mike/Michelle” has no gender assignation. Gendered values and roles, which the novel’s protagonist seeks to impose, are rejected by “Mike/Michelle”. Ursula K. Le Guin took that notion further in her masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness, but there’s clear antecedent in Heinlein.

Weisskopf clearly loves Heinlein. But she’s putting him to ill use here. The lovers (worshipers?) of Heinlein see not only a master of science-fiction who deserves the accolades in the genre he has earned, but also a writer committed to liberty and a passionate defender of the rights of the individual against the state. And so he was. But this is not equal, or even similar, to passionately defending the status of science-fiction fan culture against those who do not meet your definition of fans. There is no definition of fans, fandom, or sci-fi culture. And if there is, that definition is not up to Baen Books to create.

Instead of retreating inward and protecting SFF from the dilution of others, why not spread the gospel of science-fiction, and open the door to those who are interested? Let the new fan know why she should read the work of Robert Heinlein, and if she’s not interested, fine. Tell her why she might like Ursula Le Guin, or Octavia Butler instead. If you have something that you love, share it. There’s plenty of precedence for that impulse, too, in the work of Robert Heinlein.

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2 thoughts on “Robert Heinlein, Baen Books, and Purity in Science-Fiction/Fantasy Culture

  1. Sci-fi angles aside, how can people stand behind the “You’ve never read ________?!” mindset when we live in this world of infinite output? I’d like to get around to Stranger in a Strange Land, but so far I’ve never read Heinlein. I’ve never read Dickens, or Nabokov, or Atwood, or Auster, or Pynchon, or that one lady who seems crushingly boring to attempt…. Austen. It’s not a lack of interest, it’s a lack of that devil, time! Let’s not accuse people for not being immortal.

    • I assume you are not referring to Jane Austen cuz Jane Austen is the best. Best.

      But OTHERWISE, I totally agree. There’s no way to read everything, so don’t punish folks for reading what they can. Once you’re out of college, there’s just not enough time to read to spend a few months on a book you don’t enjoy.

      If you read 1 book a week from when you’re 25 to 80, that’s only 2800 books. No one does that, but even if you did, that’s not that many books. If you read one a month, well, that’s less than 700. Really really not that many.

      Read what you love then. (also, read Austen).

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