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Marissa Lingen

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Robert Heinlein today and reaching for the world [May. 8th, 2014|01:12 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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On this day in 1988, Robert Heinlein died. I was ten; I hadn’t yet read any of his books or realized that the label “science fiction” was going to sort out a lot of the books I wanted to read. I’ve run into blog posts lately either claiming that Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today (apparently because of the bad bad liberal politics of the field?) or refuting that claim pretty effectively (either on the grounds of non-uniformity of politics of the field or on the idea that Heinlein would not have stood still as a writer or both).

But I was thinking about Heinlein’s life influences, and look. If Heinlein was of an age to still be reasonably alive and writing today–say, if he was my age, even–he would have gone to an integrated Annapolis. His Navy would have been racially integrated, and it would have been gender integrated, not as an event, but for his entire life. As something he would have taken for granted. And for all the back and forth about how enlightened he was for his time, or was not, depending on which side you take, it changes a person to have their formative educational/professional experience segregated that way. He managed to fight against those assumptions some, as good people of his generation did. But the formative experience was like that.

I just keep thinking about this stuff as a young friend of mine approaches her physics undergrad degree, nearly twenty years after I started mine. At the good liberal arts colleges around here, the places where she applied, physics majors are pretty routinely a third women now. A third! Can you imagine? I can’t. I honestly can’t. I get a lump in my throat thinking about all the other varied young people she’ll have around her while she learns. Why, it’ll be like…it’ll be like….

Shit, it’ll be like being a science fiction writer.

That’s amazing.

I look back at my early writing, when I was coming out of that life, and how natural Smurfette casting still felt. I look at how often I wrote just one significant female character not just in short stories with small casts but in longer works–not all the time, but often. Because that was my life. Not all the time. But often. And I was the girl. Smurfette was me. Princess Leia was me. Think how much easier it would have been not to bounce back from it, not to reach for the women influences from the rest of my life, the entire tapestry of influences from the rest of my life, if I had been in that environment as a guy. If I’d lived that life and come out of that life and when there was only one girl in my class it was someone outside my own skin. And then think if there were no girls at all, inside my own skin or not. I think people often misread this as “I want to have a message to have X women in things as a quota,” when in fact I mean: it was really broken to have things draw from that lopsided a pool, and the rest of life is not that broken, and I don’t want my stories to feel that broken. I want to be able to reach for the world and have the whole world there to reach for. And when you’ve been in that segregated an environment, you’re reaching for the world with only one arm, and that arm’s got a pulled muscle in the shoulder and a broken wrist.

The Naval Academy is still 4:1, male:female. But when there was no ratio, it had to have affected him. Had to. The idea that “if Robert Heinlein was writing today” would result in anything even remotely like what we saw–I mean, even aside from the Great Depression, World War II, the existence of SF as a maturing field, anything like that. Just thinking about where and how he did his education. Guys, you can’t change just one thing. You can’t pick people up and put them down in history. “If your grandfather was alive to see this,” we say, and with our grandfathers, with the artists who are the ages of our grandfathers or our great-grandfathers, we have the delusion that we could just keep them going as they were, without having them change with the triumphs and the setbacks and all the things that happen in a life, because their lives were somewhat close to ours. We don’t bother to say, “If Rembrandt was alive today, could he win a Chesley Award?”, because we’re more aware of the remove. But the remove is still there. It doesn’t make excuses. It does make changes. It does make differences.

It’s up to us to make them good ones. It’s up to us to build on those differences. My God, a third of her classmates women! I think that’s an expanded universe we can all believe in, regardless of what we think of Robert Heinlein’s Hugo chances.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: brithistorian
2014-05-08 07:37 pm (UTC)
On this day in 1988, I was 14. The only Heinlein I had read was Friday (which probably accounts for some of my continued outsized affection for that particular one of his books). I was stunned when I read of Heinlein's death (in the newspaper!) and realized that he was 7 years older than my grandfather. He was, I would say, an interesting combination of "of his time" and "ahead of his time."

When the "Heinlein couldn't win a Hugo today" crowd seem to overlook is that Heinlein changed over the course of his life. Instead, they seem to mentally freeze him in time as he was when he wrote Starship Troopers and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1960 and 1965, respectively - roughly his late 50s). The Heinlein who wrote Friday 20 years later was a different man, and were he still alive today, the Heinlein of 30 years after Friday would be more different still - at this point he'd be further removed in time from the publication of Starship Troopers than Starship Troopers was from his birth.
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[User Picture]From: davesmusictank
2014-05-09 02:22 am (UTC)
He is one sci-fi author i have seemed to pass by. maybe i should get to read him but where yo start?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-05-09 02:44 am (UTC)
Depends on how you feel about the old-school stuff, but if you do, aim for the thinner rather than the thicker ones, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress maybe, or some short stories.
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[User Picture]From: davesmusictank
2014-05-09 03:12 am (UTC)
Thanks, i shall start with the short stories then.
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[User Picture]From: brithistorian
2014-05-09 03:43 am (UTC)
I was going to recommend the story stories too. Expanded Universe is a good collection.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2014-05-09 04:28 am (UTC)
I'd recommend The Past Through Tomorrow if you can find a copy in good enough shape to read. It collects all the short stories in Heinlein's major timeline.

Expanded Universe has some good stories, but half of it is nonfiction that's really only interesting as historical context, so I don't think it's a very useful place to start.
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-05-09 03:55 am (UTC)
To my taste, the best Heinlein is the Scribner's juveniles. Skip the first, but the rest are good: Space Cadet (a sustained meditation on Plato's political philosophy embedded in a school novel), Red Planet, Between Planets, Farmer in the Sky (interesting in having a blending family, something rarely shown in 1950s YA fiction, and in having realistic conflict within that family), The Rolling Stones, Starman Jones, Time for the Stars, Tunnel in the Sky (RAHs answer to Lord of the Flies), The Star Beast (nominally a juvenile, but the real hero is a permanent undersecretary in the planetary civil service—a black Kenyan struggling to overcome his prejudice against an alien race!), Citizen of the Galaxy (a very strong expression of Heinlein's hatred of slavery), and Have Space Suit—Will Travel. (Starship Troopers was supposed to be the thirteenth, but the publisher bounced it, and really I don't think it's as good, because it spends too much time being preachy—though the hero being from the Philippines was also daring for the time.)

He mostly wrote the short stories in the 1940s, and to my taste his distinctive literary method hadn't matured as much then.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2014-05-09 05:30 am (UTC)
My undergrad CS program in the late 2000s was about 40% women, so I was shocked to get out into the professional world and discover just how skewed the ratio there was. The 40% balance is still "normal" to me. As much as I can, I'm trying to work for places more like that, and to drag them further. Which I say not for a pat on the head but to share in your wonderment.

(It's self-interested, too, since places which have closer ratios also tend in my experience to be more accepting of my less-visible forms of non-normativity, but, well, never do anything for only one reason.)
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2014-05-09 07:27 pm (UTC)
My undergrad CS program in the late 2000s was about 40% women

Wow. In 1999 I was "the girl" in my advanced computer science classes.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2014-05-10 03:50 am (UTC)
Looks like I overstated by a bit. The cite I found says 23% in CS, 30% in CE (which overlapped with CS and EE), and 33% in EE for 32% in the department overall in 2008 -- CE was the overwhelmingly most popular major of the three. Which is not 40% but more than a handful. I was actually CE but tend to gloss that to CS when talking about it. Depending on who decided to attend you might have still been "the girl" in the advanced CS classes, given the distribution, but the story overall has gotten better.

Edit: Oh, so there's a complication, that data doesn't track double-majors (only counts the "primary major", whatever the fuck that means), and many of my pure-CS friends were math-CS double majors and might have been math-primary. Aaand I see a correction stating that the numbers were actually 29% in CS, 32% CE, and 37% in EE. Anyway. The point remains.

Edited at 2014-05-10 04:00 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: matociquala
2014-05-09 06:18 pm (UTC)
You are the best Mriss.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-05-09 07:24 pm (UTC)
Best Bear.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2014-05-09 07:25 pm (UTC)
physics majors are pretty routinely a third women now

I read this as "there are three women per class" and still thought, wow, that's amazing!

Things have changed a whole lot since my undergrad days.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-05-09 07:29 pm (UTC)
I know, I know! If I was out sick, a lot of my classes were no longer gender-integrated. Not all of them. But a lot. I remember standing in a doorway once thinking of putting my foot back and forth to go, "I'm integrating your classroom, I'm not integrating your classroom...."

And when I took my young friend on a tour of my old department and one of my favorite old professor was saying, "Our department is about a third women," I said to her, "It's going to be so different for you," and she said, "I know, but I think I'm ready to handle it." And I just looked at her. And I thought, oh, honey. Because she honestly thought I meant it was going to be so different from what she was living with in high school, the 50/50. Instead of, it's going to be so different for you than it was for me. And I said to her, "Sweetie, I know you are."
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[User Picture]From: minnehaha
2014-05-10 04:34 pm (UTC)
I have been thinking about this for a while, and I am uncertain how valid the supposition is that Heinlein's college career was the most important influence on his writing. I say "most important" here because it is the only one you mention, and is the one that you draw a parallel to your own experience. And twice you describe it as formative.

Admittedly, I don't identify with college as a formative experience. And on some other hand, I think that formative experiences come at every age. In the particular case of Heinlein, I think that his emotional and physical connections to people --youth through adulthood--had at least as great an influence on his body of work as his military college experience. Where those connecting experiences inform his writing, his work is at its most modern. And I think Patterson makes the case for Virginia being the greatest influence on his work.

Maybe your meta point is that the long arc of history keeps things changing for the better. And in that we are in complete agreement.


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[User Picture]From: mkille
2014-05-10 06:15 pm (UTC)
I remember being in high school (late 80s), when TV shows started showing racially integrated social groups as a regular thing. And my reaction was, "Oh, they're just doing that to make a point, it's so artificial." Because that was my life, in North Carolina, in the late 80s. And I lived in *Chapel Hill*, the liberal college town, the place where Jesse Helms said we didn't need the state zoo in Asheboro because we could just put a fence around Chapel Hill. I still return to that experience as somehow key to how I try to be a decent person. What was it that irritated me, even offended me, about depictions of reality that differed from my own? It wasn't a simple, straightforward expression of privilege as the word is commonly used today. (Would be an essay to expand that. Apologies for just baldly stating it.) Anyway. Formative circumstances. Yes.
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