Heinlein: Breaking the Rules

Heinlein. Breaking the rules, always.As a writer, I have been asked, “Do you like showing off? Does confidence sit easily with your soul? Is controversy something you court, or are you content to let others dictate the way you think and behave?” Good writers SHOULD break rules. But… 

It’s sad, isn’t it, that the society we live in today has narrowed the margins of an arena in which people could, once, completely speak their minds, have a rogue opinion, or live their lives entirely without risk of castigation or censure.

“Freedom of thought is a scarce commodity.”

When you look back at documented history, much was discovered by being outspoken and taking an iconoclastic approach to societal norms. Start with epicurean philosophy. End with Einstein. Dilly-dally in the middle, run a finger along shelves that are heavy with the work of science-fiction authors, and I guarantee you’ll find a hedonistic association between their well-told stories and the liberation of ideas, individualism, libertarianism, and scientific advances.

If you read a Heinlein novel, then you must prepare to have your sense of decorum and tolerance for free speech challenged in almost every chapter. He questioned the world; physics; the expectations and norms for social acceptance; he challenged us to answer big questions about the universe by asking us to step outside the universe. He pushed all of the boundaries, acceptable and not.

Yes, it pays to remember that Heinlein’s main corpus was written during decades of discovery and shifts in attitudes to both sex and science – he also coined the phrase ‘pay it forward’, by the way – but while his work is often categorised into niches, every story he wrote was infused with the scent of his own moral code. Pungent. 

In The Number of the Beast, for example, we’re asked to suspend all of our pre-conceived ideas about time; space; acceptable sexual conduct; and, of course, the relationship between metaphysic fiction and religious fact. Or should that be metaphysic fact and religious fiction: a rhetorical question.

This is what I loved – still love – about Heinlein’s writing: asking that question IS the point. Heinlein would have proffered that NOT answering it provides the pointed response. The first time I read that book? I had to read it twice.

The third time I read it, I was on a train. There was a knowing look from the man opposite me (another ardent Heinlein fan, clearly), and that was my introduction to a somewhat sordid strain of voyeurism you may experience if other people know what’s on the page you’re reading.

Wife-swapping. Lascivious intent and word-play; linguistic purpose and foreplay. A starship called the ‘Gay Deceiver’. Time travel and incest, long phrases like ‘pantheistic anthropomorphic solipsism’ designed (I use the word advisedly), to separate the reader from The Reader – and then back to wife-swapping in the next chapter.

Heinlein is an author who hoped his readers would man up to the occasion: he celebrated the moment and, in it, he entertained his most competent audience. The late, and inimitably great, L.J.K. Setright took the same approach.

The problem with that approach, however, is a simple one. If, as a reader, you do not slog through pages of verbose scientific theory or plot exposition, then you are unlikely to be rewarded – or masochistically reviled, perhaps – by didactic passages exploring sexual jealousy and the exploration of incest. Or right-wing militant theories on the benefits of space exploration. Or a treatise on advances in technology that may have seemed untenable to one generation, but now seems rather flaccid to the next: Heinlein’s Space Cadet gave us a mobile phone, three full decades before they existed.

The Number of the Beast was just one of Heinlein’s masterpieces that pinned a ribbon to my chest. I had dog-eared pages marking passages in Stranger in a Strange Land, each one marking another insightful step closer to the meaning of relations – and relations.

Time Enough For Love was a favourite: I remember getting into trouble, regularly, at school for inserting Lazarus Long quotes into my homework. As the son – and sometimes lover – of my most recent literary heroine at the time (a lovely lady called Maureen), Long delivered worldly-wise aphorisms that were incisive in my view. In my English homework: ‘Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but you should do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.’ In biology: ‘An elephant is a mouse that’s built to government specifications.’ And in religious studies: ‘One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh’, and, ‘God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent – it says so right here on the label.’ Man, was I popular in those lessons.

Opening the pages to the escapist reality of a Heinlein novel is a freedom in itself. There’s a candour in Heinlein’s science-fiction that’s collusive; conspiratorial, even. He wrote with abandon. His books are a reminder that is was, once, alright to tell stories that visited every mobian strip-joint of the human psyche, with wry and rueful intent.

Today, every time I travel the Glory Road, I set out knowing it’s okay to read and write stories that let me – for a moment – be brave enough to break some of the rules.