Politics & Policy

Heinlein’s Conservatism

A new biography explores the political evolution of a first-rate science-fiction writer.

Ask a science-fiction fan who the three greatest writers of the 20th century were and you’ll start an argument that will last all day, but the consensus remains that they were Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. Clarke kept politics out of his novels. Asimov was a devoutly liberal Democrat; liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has repeatedly stated that his teenage enjoyment of Asimov’s Foundation series, which depicts a precisely planned and controlled future, inspired him to become an economist and a man of the Left.

Robert A. Heinlein, however, was a conservative. Heinlein had a libertarian streak to him, and if you meet a Heinlein fan that has named his cat “Adam Selene,” you’ll find someone who believes Heinlein to be a simon-pure libertarian. But Heinlein’s patriotism and strong support of the military ensure that he must be thought of as a conservative.

Heinlein’s conservatism extended to his non-political juvenile fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. There are hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers who read such books as The Star Beast (1954) and Have Space Suit, Will Travel (1958) and discovered exciting novels, set in a future of limitless wonder and exploration, told by a writer who seemed like a kindly uncle who whispered, “Yes, I know being a teenager is a struggle. But knowledge is important. And I know math is hard, but you’ve got to understand math if you want to do well in life.”

Heinlein, in his juvenile novels, taught conservative virtues. “I have been writing the Horatio Alger books of my generation,” he wrote to his editor, Alice Dalgliesh, in 1959, “always with the same strongly moral purpose that runs through the Horatio Alger books (which strongly influenced me; I read them all). ‘Honesty is the best policy.’ — ‘Hard work is rewarded.’ — ‘There is no easy road to success.’ — ‘Courage above all.’ — ‘Studying hard pays off, in happiness as well as money.’ — ‘Stand on your own feet.’ — ‘Don’t ever be bullied.’ — ‘Take your medicine.’ — ‘The world always has a place for a man who works, but none for a loafer.’ These are the things the Alger books said to me, in the idiom suited for my generation; I believed them when I read them, I believe them now, and I have constantly tried to say them to a younger generation which I believe has been shamefully neglected by many of the elders responsible for its moral training.”

As William Patterson shows in Learning Curve: 1907–1948, the first volume of his authorized biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Heinlein’s political evolution was somewhat comparable to that of Ronald Reagan. Until the 1950s, Heinlein thought of himself as a liberal. After 1945, he thought that the only way to prevent global atomic annihilation was a strong world government. In his 1949 novel Space Cadet, Heinlein depicts a future where peace is preserved through a global government controlled by the military.

Reagan and Heinlein both moved to the right in the 1950s, partially due to wives who were more ardently conservative than they were. Heinlein’s discovery of conservatism must wait for the sequel to this book, but Patterson provides one clue: In 1954, Heinlein read an article that was critical of the official U.S. government story about Pearl Harbor. This led Heinlein to become more skeptical of the state, and he quit being a Democrat.

Robert A. Heinlein was born in Butler, Mo., in 1907. As a child, Heinlein loved to read. As a teenager, he read every book he could find by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Mark Twain. H. G. Wells was a particular favorite, and Heinlein absorbed Wells’s sf novels and his socialist politics. Heinlein, writes Patterson, “read everything, in fact, except the usual run of nauseating Victorian children’s literature.”

The Heinlein family had a strong military tradition. Heinlein’s father, Rex, was a Spanish–American War veteran. His older brother Lawrence was a captain in World War I, and became a major general in World War II, becoming one of Douglas MacArthur’s key aides during the occupation of Japan. Heinlein’s younger brother Jay served in World War II and Korea before beginning a distinguished career as a political scientist.

Heinlein would have liked to have had a naval career. He entered the Naval Academy in 1925, an era so far in the past that he trained on coal-fired ships and even once came down with scurvy when the food rotted during a training voyage. After he graduated in 1929, Heinlein rose to the rank of lieutenant. Two of the captains under whom he served — Ernest King and William “Bull” Halsey — later became two of World War II’s greatest commanders.

In 1933, Heinlein came down with a case of tuberculosis so severe that he was forced to retire from the military. He then entered politics. After working on the failed effort of Upton Sinclair to become governor of California in 1934, Heinlein became an anti-Communist Democratic activist. But his loss for a California State Assembly seat in a 1938 primary led him to start writing.

Heinlein’s skill rapidly led him to become one of the leading sf writers of the 1940s, He helped steer science fiction away from stories about space battles and tedious scientific lectures and toward serious efforts to show what the future might be like. Patterson reminds us that Heinlein’s most important stories of this period — the novellas “Magic, Inc.” and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” the novels Revolt in 2100 and Methuselah’s Children — are important milestones of the field that remain readable and entertaining today.

The first volume of William Patterson’s life of Robert Heinlein shows how Heinlein became one of the greatest sf writers of the 20th century. Patterson’s concluding volume, due in 2012, should show how Heinlein became the most important conservative voice in the genre.

– Martin Morse Wooster, a former editor of The Wilson Quarterly and The American Enterprise, frequently reviews science fiction and fantasy. The Hudson Institute has just published the revised edition of his book Great Philanthropic Mistakes.

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