I have just finished reading Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century Volume 2: 1948-1988 The Man Who Learned Better. That’s a long title, and it doesn’t even include the words “The Authorized Biography,” which appear on the front cover.
It’s an exhaustive biography. This volume is 671 pages, counting the index and 157 pages of notes. I urge you to consider all possible meanings of the word “exhaustive.” If you’re only a little interesting in Robert Heinlein, you won’t even consider reading this, and that’s for the best.
Me, though, I like his writing. I’m not signing onto all of his political opinions, but I enjoy all but three or four of his forty or so books. I remember the day he died (May 8, 1988) because it was my eighteenth birthday. I had ridden my bicycle two miles to a bookstore to purchase the latest Heinlein paperback, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, and when I got home, I learned that he had died that day. That gave the book an extra touch of weirdness. Incidentally, it’s a weird experience to read a biography of someone when you know the exact date of their death, because you can really feel the countdown toward the end of the book.
The most interesting thing I learned from the first volume was that I had Heinlein’s chronology all wrong. If you put his books in order, they start with juveniles, then move to the more adult stuff. But he actually started with short stories for adults! It’s just that there was no market for books for that market, so the first novels were juveniles, then the shorter adult stuff got collected, then he eventually had the clout to write novels for adults.
I had a couple of takeaways from this volume. First, Heinlein’s writing stopped being edited right about the time I had always assumed it did: with The Number of the Beast. The books right after that are Friday, Job: A Comedy of Justice, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, all of which are…kind of strange. I enjoy the weirdness of some of them (The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset) )and can’t stand the weirdness of others (Friday and Job), but I guess that’s what happens when someone who was heavily edited through his entire career breaks free at exactly the time he wants to start getting experimental. And is also undergoing serious medical problems so (and this is just my speculation) he can’t give everything the attention he used to.
I also thought it was interesting that to Heinlein, Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land (which was written immediately after it) were about exactly the same thing. That’s not how they strike pretty much anyone else, since two entirely different sets of people like each book. But he seemed annoyed by people who thought they had a somewhat different point of view. In fact, he seems to have been annoyed a lot. If you want to read letters where a famous science fiction author takes offense at people, this is a great biography.