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Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century: Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, by William H. Patterson, Jr. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century: Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, by William H. Patterson, Jr. [Jun. 2nd, 2014|01:55 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

You would think that Robert Heinlein was a writer who could, if he chose, offend plenty of people all on his own without any help. But he has not been left to his own post mortem devices in this! Oh no! No, he has the assistance of William H. Patterson, Jr., to make sure that no stone is left unturned if it might have creeping, crawling things under it that represent stomach-turning levels of ignorance to pass off on the reading public as somehow relevant to the first SFWA Grand Master’s career.

Oh, sorry, maybe I should start this review more straightforwardly: I did not like and do not recommend this book.

Let’s go with the paragraph that brought actual tears of rage to my eyes:

They [the Heinleins] had both fallen in love with the northern countries on their earlier trips, but Finland (which does not consider itself to be “Scandinavian”) was special even among them, with a national character of fierce resoluteness–sisu–that precisely suited their mood on this occasion. The Suomic “do what must be done” was the only attitude that a free people could possibly take, living next door to the Soviet Union. The Baltic states–Latvia, estonia, Lithuania–did not have it, and they had been eaten up by the USSR.

That last piece of toxically inaccurate drivel, friends, has no footnote. No. Footnote. That is not Robert Heinlein talking in any sense. That is William Patterson slandering the people of the Baltic states–using Finland to do it, no less!–on his own hook. For fun. Because it suits his own political agenda to declare, ex cathedra, that if only they had wanted it badly enough, the facts of geography and political support of the 1940s would have been different for those small countries. He knows less than nothing about the Singing Revolution. Nothing about the resisters who went to the camps or who lived in the forests resisting Soviet rule for years and in some amazing cases decades. He knows nothing about what the west did on behalf of Finland–”brave little Finland”–that it never once considered doing for any of the Baltics. No. William Patterson was an American of the Baby Boom generation who decided that what a biography of Robert Heinlein most needed–what people reading about Robert Heinlein most needed–was to have lies about these people just tossed into their reading material for giggles. Because, you know, most people who pick up biographies of mid-century science fiction writers read reams about the history of the Baltic region and can easily have this kind of blatant falsehood countered rather than lodged in the back of their brain as the truth about the people of this region.

Most of my regular readers know that I am a serious Finnophile. I find it all the more offensive to have Finland used as a club on other countries that did not have the advantages of geography and political support. This is just wrong. I used up all my obscenities on this yesterday when I was reading, and believe me, I used many. Today I’m left drained. Today I can just say: this is so very wrong.

I wish that was only one thing. I wish that was the only time that the staggering arrogance of Patterson’s ignorance made itself known in this volume. But alas. If I was the sort to write in books, the single most common thing I would have written in the margins of this one would have been, “Who asked you?” When Patterson was reporting that Heinlein decided to vote for Eisenhower in 1956, he notes, “He was not a Republican, but he voted for Eisenhower–probably the least harmful choice that year.” Who asked you? Seriously, who needed this bozo to be patting his biographical subject on the back at every turn? And on what grounds? What research did he do other than reading Robert A. Heinlein on the subject? Here’s another of Patterson’s un-footnoted long-winded political digressions:

Perhaps there had been embedded in Roosevelt’s New Deal the seeds of this current leftism that was softening the brains of otherwise bright and well-intentioned people, who seemed not to realize that they had conceded important intellectual and moral ground to that stunted and malign child of socialism, as Wells had called Lenin’s and Stalin’s Communism. America’s leftism now had no room for that strain of American progressive optimism and benevolent patriotism that married love of country to love of the great ideals of the Founders, that went back to the last century, through Emerson and back even to that old Puritan thunderer Jonathan Edwards.

This is notable because 1) again, this is all Patterson, not a word of it Heinlein; 2) Heinlein was himself a New Deal Democrat; 3) citation, please? What exactly makes Patterson an expert of any kind on the state of the American left or the Democratic Party as an institution at mid-century or in fact at any time? He can tell you how Robert Heinlein was feeling or at least writing about it, certainly; he had unprecedented access to the letters that would do that. But to just bloviate about what America’s leftism had or had not room for: pics or it didn’t happen, basically.

And this is sprinkled throughout, sometimes in a phrase or two and sometimes at far, far greater length. We are treated to an expansion of Heinlein’s view of Joe McCarthy in which, Patterson opines, “the worst that happened was that some people had reputations blackened, possibly deservedly if they had in fact been engaged in treasonous activities.” (Loss of livelihood to Americans exercising their Constitutional rights of free speech and free association: eh, whatever, no big, as long as William H. Patterson Jr. still finds them suspicious. Nor does he feel the need to actually look into what happened. Reading one single reputable book on the matter would be too much to ask; he’s got pontificating to do.) His citation of Emerson is particularly hilarious given that he’s not at all clear who and what Fourier influenced in American politics, even given a footnote to expand on the matter, and the surrounding material about European liberalism or lack of same is not worth the paper it’s printed on. And again: who asked him? As fascinated as we all are with the 1848 revolution, why on earth does it belong in a Heinlein bio that is already bloated in two volumes?

Various places in the book, Patterson cites Heinlein’s letters feeling that America had moved to the left without him after the Second World War. However, Patterson expands upon this at length and adds his own feelings about it without citing a single political position that would support it. I spent a pretty good chunk of yesterday reading platforms and campaign speeches for Adlai Stevenson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just to see if I was completely mad, and the single place that I could find where Roosevelt looked considerably less “leftist” was on the matter of race–where Patterson is careful to cite letter after letter showing that Heinlein was pleased at the direction of the Democratic party away from segregation. So what would a responsible biographer do here? At most, a responsible biographer merely says that this is how Heinlein felt. It’s also responsible to interrogate that feeling–to say that this is how Heinlein felt but to note an inclarity as to why he felt that way. Patterson does not. He takes it as given that everything, everything Heinlein felt must be right.

Even in non-political issues (or inter-field political issues), this leads the biography to be a lesser work than it could have been. For example, in writing about a falling-out with Ben Bova over an Alexei Panshin review of Expanded Universe, Patterson does not apparently contact Dr. Bova for any memories he has of this incident. Last I saw or heard, Dr. Bova was alive and well, and his perspective could at least be noted. If it was so “clearly polemical” and “simply malicious,” why did Bova commission a “hatchet job” of one of the most notable writers in the field at the time? Patterson doesn’t care to know–even to dismiss the point of view directly. For him Bova’s point of view simply doesn’t exist. The only place that Patterson notes anywhere that Heinlein might have been wrong is in a dispute with the L5 board over SDI, where he notes that the situation was “more complex” than Heinlein was predisposed to see it. Everything else gets a rubber stamp–not only does Heinlein apparently learn better, he never fails to learn better.

That’s not biography, it’s hagiography.

And the worst of it is, some of this stuff is going to get attributed to Heinlein. Some of this stuff is going to get attributed to Heinlein by the people who think he could do no wrong, and some of it is going to get attributed to Heinlein by the people who think he could do no right, and especially it will be attributed to Heinlein by people who think that he is a symbol of everything right-wing about America today, whether they personally love it or hate it, whether he actually said or thought any such thing. Patterson had unprecedented levels of access to Heinlein’s papers. He could have written a real biography. With the first volume, it almost looked like he was going to. And instead this. It has immensely detailed information about what Heinlein wrote when, which drafts were called what and how they developed. In places there are the sketched outlines of a touching portrait of how a married couple can work together as a team for the benefit of the career of one of them. It’s just interspersed with a pointless, ill-informed, and occasionally sickening slog through What William H. Patterson Jr. Thinks Of Every Damn Thing (Without Actually Looking It Up).

(The most hilarious line of WWHPJTOEDT(WALIU): when he was shocked, just shocked, that even some figure skaters might not be nice people. Golly. Even some figure skaters? If you can’t trust the profession that brought us the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal, indeed, what profession can you trust? That was twenty years ago. No one has any excuse for still thinking that figure skaters are all sweetness and light. Twenty. Years. Yeah. We’ve got some real depth going here, people.)

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


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[User Picture]From: juliansinger
2014-06-02 08:43 pm (UTC)
Oy. Thank you for this review, it is heartfelt in its desire for a /better book/.
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[User Picture]From: juliansinger
2014-06-04 06:17 am (UTC)
(Also, I went to Estonia in what I thought was 1990 but seems to have to have been 1989, as part of a choral group, and sang at the Estonian Song Festival, so I have a minor dog in this hunt, which is in vast agreement with yours.)
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2014-06-02 09:08 pm (UTC)
I will note that if the Baltics are relevant to the history of the genre, it's probably via Algis Budrys, who described himself in an F&SF column (I think in the 1980s) as the youngest Free Lithuanian citizen in the world.

The U.S. paid the bills for the Estonian consulate in New York City for decades, but that didn't do much for the Estonians actually in Estonia.

Also, it was easy for Patterson to announce, from sixty years and half a world away, that the only acceptable attitude for a free people is to fight, if necessary, until everyone is dead.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2014-06-02 09:32 pm (UTC)
More sorry than ever that we lost Tom Clareson before he could finish his Heinlein bio.
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[User Picture]From: supergee
2014-06-03 12:20 am (UTC)
Joe Sanders finished the Clareson book. It's a critical study, rather than a bio; it's called The Heritage of Heinlein; and it's excellent.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2014-06-02 09:53 pm (UTC)
You would think that Robert Heinlein was a writer who could, if he chose, offend plenty of people all on his own without any help. But he has not been left to his own post mortem devices in this! Oh no! No, he has the assistance of William H. Patterson, Jr., to make sure that no stone is left unturned if it might have creeping, crawling things under it that represent stomach-turning levels of ignorance to pass off on the reading public as somehow relevant to the first SFWA Grand Master’s career.

Laughed out loud at work!
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[User Picture]From: lydy
2014-06-03 01:38 pm (UTC)
Yep, me too. Especially the "left to his own post mortem devices" part.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2014-06-02 11:24 pm (UTC)
My old Estonian friend Ira is cursing him in five or six languages from her grave.
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2014-06-02 11:53 pm (UTC)
My father had a colleague who was first pretty much out out of work by the Nazis and then put out of work by Stalin--to say nothing of the bombing, shooting, blowing up, and artillery targeting that comes along with any invasions, and the fear, distrust, surveillance, informants, and bullying that come with life under a police state. We'll skip the shortages of everything you can imagine, including diapers for the baby.

But those unsupported, minimally-defended Baltic states just lacked determination! Fuck the Green Lantern Theory of Life. Sideways, with the main gun of a panzer.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2014-06-03 12:36 am (UTC)
Oh dear.

Alas, if I recall correctly that bit about McCarthy is a direct paraphrase from Expanded Universe (not that this is an excuse for the lack of interrogation). The rest of it...
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-06-03 01:14 am (UTC)
Don't get me wrong, Heinlein's separately quoted position on McCarthyism near the Patterson bit I quoted was not anything like what I would call ideal either. But doubling down on it, going even further, and in biographer's authorial voice rather than "Heinlein felt" or "he told his brother Clare" or what-have-you--especially with the perspective of decades available--ew. Just, ew.
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From: athenais
2014-06-03 01:02 am (UTC)
Bill was a muy pompous guy. I am not really surprised to read this review, but I am sorry the book is a hagiography and so deeply ignorant about so much.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-06-03 02:08 am (UTC)
I don't know the gentleman personally, and I have heard that he was very kind to some people I value and also less so to some people I value, so: people. They are complicated, personally. But this book is sadly less complicated, professionally.
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[User Picture]From: brithistorian
2014-06-03 05:20 am (UTC)
I had been looking forward to this book, and I'm very disappointed to hear that it wasn't better than this.

I think Heinlein wrote enough things, over a long enough period of time, about enough different subjects, to pretty much guarantee that everyone will be able to find something he wrote that they agree with and something he wrote that pisses them off.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-06-03 10:36 am (UTC)
Pretty much!
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From: swan_tower
2014-06-03 06:04 am (UTC)
I'm not sure whether my icon or the following emoticon better encapsulates my reaction:

O _ O

Edited at 2014-06-03 06:05 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-06-03 03:35 pm (UTC)
Any time somebody says, "Who cares about bloody Latvia," the answer is Mris. Mris cares about bloody Latvia. You can tell them.

No one paid me for Adlai Stevenson either, but here we are, and anyway you are wonderful too and I will see you soon.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2014-06-04 02:14 am (UTC)
It is a rare book to make me say, "Well, hopefully this will piss someone off enough that they go write the kind of biography which corrects the errors of its predecessors." Sounds like this might be that book.
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From: mme_hardy
2014-06-10 03:05 pm (UTC)
Bear in mind that the Heinlein estate controls the right to quote from the letters. See: problems Plath and Salinger biographers have had in the past.
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[User Picture]From: tithenai
2014-06-10 10:24 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for writing this. It's wonderful.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-06-10 11:16 am (UTC)
Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: princejvstin
2014-06-10 12:21 pm (UTC)
>>That’s not biography, it’s hagiography>>

Yup. I haven't read the book. Another review (at the New Republic) comes to conclusions similar to yours in regard to that, though.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-06-10 12:31 pm (UTC)
I saw that. The New Republic writer engaged a lot more with Heinlein outside the scope of the bio, which wasn't my intent here but is of course everyone's prerogative if they choose. I felt like it would require a lot more rereading for me to do it properly, so I just stuck with this book.
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[User Picture]From: pnh
2014-06-10 01:59 pm (UTC)
I knew Bill when both he and I were decades younger, and while he was often a bit full of himself, he had a kindly and tolerant side. I'm frankly shocked at the breezy nastiness of some of the passages I'm seeing quoted.

The really consistent thread is that Bill seems to have spoken to absolutely nobody on the other side of Heinlein's various gripes and disputes, so that the book simply reproduces as fact assertions like, for instance, the notion that David Gerrold plagiarized his "tribbles" from Red Planet's flat cats. I can't imagine that the victims of these pot shots, actually-living individuals such as David Gerrold and Ben Bova, are thrilled by this.

I've been an engaged Heinlein reader all my life; I'll certainly defend the proposition that his work is worth reading and arguing with. But somehow, a non-zero number of people in our field seem to have wandered into a tunnel reality in which every single one of Heinlein's crotchets, animuses, eccentricities, and other imperfections is actually a further illustration of the Great Man's, "Mr. Heinlein"'s, unquestionable perfection. This book appears to have been written from a long way down inside that tunnel.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-06-10 02:35 pm (UTC)
I wondered about the tribbles and flat cats. I didn't want to absolutely say "nuh uh" without rereading Red Planet and rewatching the tribble eps, which I am otherwise unmotivated to do, but it seemed....

Well, here's my thing. I don't know whether Patterson wrote fiction or not. But there are times when the lens you're looking through makes it really easy to see homage or plagiarism (depending on how kind you're feeling) when what's there is mild similarity. I remember showing my grandfather Meet the Robinsons, and when a gold-colored robot turned up, he poked me and said, "C-3PO!" Because Grandpa really loved Star Wars, he was more inclined to see 3PO in basically any gold-colored robot...even though the one in Meet the Robinsons is not very similar in form, voice, function, or role in the plot.

I think this happens to some of the people who have imprinted gigantically on Heinlein. Every small spaceship becomes a ripoff of the Stones'; every moonbase is All About The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. And sometimes Heinlein really was massively influential! And sometimes a rocketship is just a rocketship. The more you tell yourself that Heinlein is The Most, Nay, Only Influential--the more you reread and reread him instead of going on and reading Octavia Butler and Alastair Reynolds and so on--the more you're only going to see Heinlein, no matter what fuzzy critter you see on your screen.

Overidentifying with one's biographical subject is a common hazard of the field, but this really took it to extremes. I sometimes want to keep a crate of the Morris bio trilogy of Theodore Roosevelt to ship to other biographers to say, "Look! See how he is engaged with his subject and yet does not find him a paragon? See that? Go do that." And stacking that biographer tendency on top of the tunnel you describe is...quite a thing to behold.
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