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The Quiet Diversity of Robert Anson Heinlein -by Christopher Nuttall

 

The Quiet Diversity of Robert Anson Heinlein – -by Christopher Nuttall

 

To cut a long story short, I wrote three reviews of Heinlein’s most popular and influential books for Amazing Stories.  (You can find the first here.)  In doing so, I realised that Heinlein had practiced a form of ‘quiet diversity.’  It seemed a good topic for an essay.

‘Diversity’ is a word that brings out some pretty mixed feelings in me.

On one hand, I appreciate being able to eat food from many different cultures and explore the history of many different societies.  On the other hand, I frown at the idea that all cultures must be treated as equal when it is self-evidently true that they are not.  And, on the gripping hand, I feel very strongly that characters must not serve as politically-correct mouthpieces for a writer (or a company’s) views on society.  That does not lead to well-rounded characters, but to flat entities that are either instantly forgettable or laughable.

Diversity does not exist when a character is feted as the first [insert minority group character] to exist.  Diversity exists when the presence of such characters is seen as unquestionable. 

There was a great deal of amusement – and entirely understandable nerd-rage – when the lead actress of Star Trek Discovery proudly proclaimed herself to be the first black lead in Star Trek.  This was hastily revised to first black female lead, which is rather more accurate.  But the first version suggested, very strongly, that Ben Sisko had been erased from history … even though Sisko was not only the first black lead on Star Trek, he was also the most well-rounded lead and one of the very few stars to portray a genuine father-son relationship.

Looking back at the Heinlein triad – Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – it is easy to feel that Heinlein’s contributions to diversity have been ret-conned out of existence.  Indeed, the charge that Heinlein was ‘racist as f***’ is simply nonsense.  By the standards of his time, Heinlein was strikingly progressive.

Heinlein did not, by and large, make a big song and dance about diversity.  But he did sneak it in as part of the background – an unquestioned part of the background.  A black communications officer or chief engineer on the starship Enterprise, both utterly unquestioned in their roles, is more indicative of a diverse society – and one we can all get behind – than going on and on about the ‘first’ black character.  The ideal world is one where race is no longer regarded as important, which is clearly impossible if people keep talking about race.

Consider Starship Troopers.  The list of recruits for the Mobile Infantry includes names from all over the world.  (The Sergeant even comments that he couldn’t speak English when he arrived for training.)  There’s no suggestion that any of the non-whites are automatically inferior; indeed, Heinlein goes out of his way to show a German and a Japanese recruit in a good light.  And, of course, Rico himself is Filipino.

Heinlein does not make an issue out of this.  He doesn’t act as though he’s being delightfully transgressive, nor does he call excessive attention to it.  It just is.  This is a world that has left racism behind long ago.  And it works.

Consider Stranger in a Strange Land.  Again, there are plenty of ethnic roles that simply are – most notably, the Islamic Doctor Mahmoud.  There is less that can be said about race and Stranger, although Smith clearly doesn’t think much of tiny little differences like colour, but it’s worth nothing.

Consider The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Again, we have a plethora of ethnic names – and a great deal of cultural influence from Russia.  More importantly – and this is one of the times when Heinlein does make an issue of it – Mannie’s group-marriage includes men and women of different races.  This leads to a minor clash with the more restrictive society on Earth after Mannie showed off his family picture to a reporter, one that was apparently anticipated by more experienced Loonies than Mannie and turned into propaganda.  Heinlein’s good guys, in short, embraced mixed-race marriages that would have been regarded as iffy at the time when he was writing.

There are other such moments of quiet diversity throughout Heinlein’s writings.  Podkayne of Mars, for example, features a mixed-race couple (Poddy and Clark’s parents) who – we are informed – are considered superior breeding stock.  Tunnel in the Sky features a black hero; indeed, Heinlein was very insistent that a Jewish character be kept in one of his early novels.  Farnham’s Freehold presents Joe, the houseboy, as smarter than his masters; To Sail Beyond The Sunset is actually quite sympathetic to black Americans.  Indeed, for all of its controversial nature (not all of which was intended by Heinlein), even Sixth Column doesn’t present all Asians as evil.

Farnham’s Freehold is highly controversial, probably the first real example of a race-flipped novel.  (Basically, Farnham and his family are thrown into a distant future where blacks rule and whites are slaves.)  It’s easy to see why so many people dislike it, even when they’re not using it as Exhibit A for ‘Robert Heinlein was a racist.’  And yet, the book does raise a number of important points that many would have considered unthinkable in that era.  The fundamental contradictions in Farnham’s character may be Heinlein’s way of highlighting similar fundamental contradictions in his time, not least because Farnham is a flat-out hypocrite – just like his enemies.   They are human too.  And also raising the obvious question about why people you treated badly should not treat you badly in return, something that almost everyone on both sides of the current political divide appears to have forgotten.

At the same time, it must be noted that Heinlein’s diversity had its limits.

He was, very much, an American.  The world was a great deal larger before the internet.  He thought, I believe, that the idealised view of Middle America was the best way for a society to be.  His characters might be ethnically diverse, but they were not always intellectually or culturally diverse.  The Professor from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has a Latin name, but his political ideas are straight out of radical America – not Latin America.  In some ways, the underlying sameness of his societies gave them a stability that the real world disdains.  There are places on Earth where a man’s word is his bond, but also places where anyone who isn’t actually related to you is defined as ‘the sucker;’ places where people work for a living, even if it’s just a pittance, and places where people will just take all they can get from the government (which comes from the taxpayers).

Even in his later years, when he started to design different societies – and imagine what people would be like without their emotional or legal chains – he rarely showed internal dissent.  His societies expected newcomers to conform – a reasonable demand, and one that hasn’t been made often enough, but oddly different to the ideal.  But this does make sense, for better or worse.  Two societies with different ideas of how to act – and what constitutes acceptable behaviour – are a recipe for conflict, if there isn’t sufficient distance between them.

He also had problems writing females, although – again – there is a great deal of quiet diversity.  Starship Troopers makes it clear that women are better pilots than men – I don’t know if this is actually true, but no one doubts Carmen’s competence, or that of the female naval officers encountered by the protagonist.  Stranger in a Strange Land mentions Smith’s mother, who invented the space drive used by the mission to Mars; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress mentioned plenty of strong women.  And so does both Podkayne of Mars and The Rolling Stones, where Poddy’s mother is an engineer (as is Hazel Stone) and Edith Stone is a doctor.  (And a very firm-willed woman, even to the point of willingly going into danger.)

On the other hand, he was quite poor at presenting women as viewpoint characters.  Podkayne is a likeable girl in many ways, but she’s also quite manipulative; she might get what she wants, but she does it in a manner that is unlikely to win her any respect.  Other characters, most notably Maureen Smith of To Sail Beyond The Sunset, are likeable, yet … off.  Heinlein appears to have believed that women, once freed of society’s chains, would become like men – sexually, at least.  Maureen is undeniably feminine, but she’s also sexual in a manner that is strikingly mannish.  Heinlein did not predict the effects of feminism and the sexual revolution, but … well, he was hardly the first person to fail to see how new technology and attitudes would change society.  And, as he grew older (and more concerned with demographic decline) he started to believe that having babies was a woman’s first role, with a career coming a distant second.

He was, in many ways, a man of his time.  He speaks of ‘Mrs Grundy’ as a foe all young women needed to dread – “freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go fly a kite” – and yet he was aware that women were often more vulnerable than men.  A young woman could not assert herself in society, unlike a man of the same era.  Getting pregnant outside wedlock could be disastrous, if there wasn’t a hasty marriage.  The girls he would have known as a child – and a young man – had to be adapt at concealing their intelligence and manipulating men.  It was often the only way to survive.  He was, judging by his work, acutely sympathetic to the restrictions on female lives.  But he was honest enough not to ignore them.

His heroines often faced challenges that would send our current generation of college students into shock.  Even his most progressive societies feature men who address women as ‘little lady’ or think nothing of commenting on a woman’s fashion choice.  This was a staple of the times, like it or not.  The women who entered male roles often faced resistance, which was – again – something true to life.  It reads as deeply problematic today.

And yet, Heinlein also understood that respect was something that had to be earned, not demanded.  The female characters who are taken seriously are the ones who have earned it through quiet strength and persistence, not through demanding respect.  Delilah and the Space Rigger, for example, shows a woman winning respect from a superior who believes that women have no place in such a demanding job.  Heinlein also understood that not everyone grasps that the rules have suddenly changed, an understanding that is lacking in far too many people today.  Change brings with it uncertainty and uncertainty breeds doubt.  This is natural.  The mindset that demands immense punishment for transgressions against a rule that has suddenly changed is a mindset that is the enemy of all humanity.

Heinlein was, like I said before and will say again, a man of his times.  In others, as I said above, he was strikingly progressive.  He understood, I believe, that endlessly commenting on racial matters only made racism worse, a point also largely understood by Ben Sisko’s writers.  And while Heinlein was not blind to racial and sexual injustice, he also understood that such matters have to be left in the past.  The rise of identity politics – and the election of Donald Trump – is a direct cause of failing to leave such matters behind.  So too is the willingness to pardon transgressions from so-called victim groups because they are victims.  A man may have a bad life, but that doesn’t excuse bad acts.

Very little annoys me more, these days, than people who look at famous authors from the past – and other historical figures – and judge them by modern-day standards.  Heinlein was not a man of our times.  He faced publishers who operated by a different set of rules, publishers who would object to black or female stars; he knew little, like it or not, of the world outside the United States.  If – today – publishers are wary about putting black faces on covers, or publishing books featuring gay couples, how much harder do you think it would have been for Heinlein?

Heinlein was not an out, loud and proud diversity advocate.  He couldn’t be, at least at first – I think he understood people well enough to know he wouldn’t be.  Forcing diversity – forcing anything – down someone’s throat, in the firm belief that you know better, provokes contempt, hatred and eventual resistance.  Social justice leads to the absence of real justice and Heinlein knew it, by fact if not in name.  But by practicing quiet diversity, by not making an issue of it, he advocated for racial and even sexual harmony.

He was human.  He had human flaws.  And his views changed over time, something that appears to be unthinkable now.  But he was also a great man.

And that really deserves to be remembered.

Visit Chris at home, here.

40 Comments
  1. c4c

    January 3, 2018
  2. Joe in PNG #

    “…when the lead actress of Star Trek Discovery proudly proclaimed herself to be the first black lead in Star Trek.”

    And here you have one of the really annoying things about modern Progressives in entertainment- the pathological need to be “groundbreaking” and “cutting edge”.
    And in doing so, they work to minimize and overshadow that which has gone on before.

    January 3, 2018
    • Or look at Kris Rusch’s introduction to her anthology of women in sci-fi/fantasy about how so many great writers, who happened to be female, disappeared from the record in part because of the flat denial of later academics who need to insist that “patriarchy…suppression of women…LeGuin was the first… Handmaid’s Tale” and so on.

      January 3, 2018
      • magpie #

        Alice Mary Norton (a.k.a Andre Norton) filled a bookshelf over her SF career…
        But that was back when authors wrote books to be sold to libraries readable by teenagers — different times, different market dynamics.

        January 5, 2018
      • David #

        Reminds me of an article I read about a female author of the 1920s. The article writer said she got a particular story published in Weird Tales “despite being a woman.” I looked up the issue in question and almost every author was a woman. Apparently the article writer had some pretty well set prejudices of his own.

        As a former university history lecturer, I find our modern attitude toward the past exasperating.

        January 5, 2018
        • Robert Carnegie #

          I presume you checked that it wasn’t the magazine’s “The Other Sex Special Edition” published for Halloween 😉

          In a selection of scanned copies of “Weird Tales” at
          https://www.pulpmags.org/content/view/issues/weird-tales.html
          women appear mainly in various delightful artistically drawn poses on the covers – but that may be how these issues were selected to be scanned… and these are from the 1930s; in the 20s, it was publishing H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard. And, sure, other people.

          January 6, 2018
    • You don’t always need to push the envelope.

      January 3, 2018
      • Mike Houst #

        Those who continually push the envelope often crash and burn; as most test pilots understand.

        January 4, 2018
    • Like self-absorbed teens, Progressives think the world began with them. It says much that they form their ideas without knowing, or wanting to know, what came before.

      January 4, 2018
      • Mike Houst #

        “I deserve more because my ancestors were slaves!”

        “Okay, my ancestors were serfs. Does that mean you have to pay me a bigger portion now?”

        “No. Because you’re white privileged!”

        /sigh

        January 4, 2018
        • Matt B #

          Hell, my ancestors were slaves in Egypt! So fracking what. I live in my time. Not theirs. I work to do my best in my time. Not that of my ancestors. We have today and tomorrow. Learn from the mistakes of the past, but make a real effort not to repeat them.

          January 4, 2018
    • JFM #

      Avery Brooks said in an interview that he didn’t audition as the Black Comander of Deep Space Nine , but just as Comander. He said that he was very excited that race wasn’t a consideration in the casting. That he was cast because of his acting not his race.

      January 5, 2018
  3. Mary #

    Was noting one day that the sort of SF not lauded for diversity often has it beyond the dreams of diversity mongers. Characters who observe they are descended from every ethnic group on Earth! And then some (with ethnicities from colonized planets)!

    January 3, 2018
  4. In light of this post, I thought it amusing that Star Trek did take time to point out that in their time, race was no longer something to get worked up about:

    January 3, 2018
    • ❤ Thank you for linking that.

      January 4, 2018
    • GWB #

      Yes, that was one of the few times ST:TOS actually made a point about it in dialog. Otherwise, it was that “quiet diversity” of just a fact.

      January 5, 2018
  5. Nicely written piece. Covers all the bases.

    January 4, 2018
  6. Even with all its flaws, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of my favorite SF novels. I was willing to put up with the relegation of women to somewhat secondary status because the physics were so magnificent. I agree he was not great at writing women, and completely missed it from the inside of their heads. But I would read the story again at any time.

    Because there are no unflawed novels. And he gave the appearance of being practically sexist rather than institutionally sexist (babies and the next generation of settlers are a higher priority for pioneer societies – or they die out).

    As a woman engineer, I can credit Heinlein partly for my career choice. Because of things such as those better women pilots.

    Very nice review. Brought back many fond memories – and a reminder that I should go read more of his books I missed.

    January 4, 2018
  7. sam57l0 #

    Chris, have you read “Tramp Royale”? RAH and Virginia took a cruise around the world (’50s or ’60s). Visited South America (forget which countries, and the book’s somewhere in storage), South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (estimated them as 20-30 and 40-50 years behind the US . I recall they went to Russia some years later (Virginia learned the language).

    January 4, 2018
    • Exactly.
      “… he knew little, like it or not, of the world outside the United States.” – is not true. If the author hasn’t, he needs to read the excellent two volume biography by William H. Patterson, Jr., published in 2014.

      January 5, 2018
      • rccjr #

        Good point I missed. Somehow professor Bernardo de la Paz would only have supported political thought that comes from despotism and the barrel of a gun like the banana republics of the current South American countries? How very provincial of you, Mr. Nuttall.

        Someone actually knowledgable about history wouldn’t have noted that both the greatest strides and accomplishments of the human race largely have their genesis in the thinking or the people that brought us Western Civilization?

        January 5, 2018
        • Christopher Nuttall is not American and doesn’t live in a western country.
          HOWEVER he’s also not from a Latin country. I didn’t find it necessary to dispute his point, but when I first read the book I lived in a Latin country where I was raised. Professor de la Paz rang entirely credible to me.

          January 5, 2018
        • Oh. Heinlein’s women rang entirely credible to me too. And I am (checks) a woman.
          I just didn’t see any point disputing these points.

          January 5, 2018
  8. A good analysis and review of Heinlein’s works. Thank you for sharing it!

    January 4, 2018
  9. theo more #

    A good guy. Today good guys are not wanted. But as surely as we are human we will need the person, individually and severally, for defense and to provide safe homes for darling children.
    Thanks for your review. Will review what and when I might buy at a later time. Already had some.

    January 5, 2018
    • GWB #

      A good guy.
      Accck!!! How cis-hetero-normative patriarchal of you!!! Aaaarrrrggghhhh!!!!
      *runs around like an idiot with hair on fire, screaming*
      /prog

      Oh yeah, I much prefer Heinlein’s way of doing it.

      January 5, 2018
  10. brucehoffman #

    I once read a novel about the captain of a destroyer who was an exceptional naval officer (by David Poyer if I recall.) About 3/4 of the way through the story, in a conversation that is almost an aside, you learn that he’s black. There was zero moralizing, and it made me stop for a moment to reexamine my assumptions. At that moment I thought, “Now that’s how you do it.” It just was.

    BTW, I don’t think that Heinlein necessarily thought that diversity was a good thing. In some areas maybe, but I think he was pretty committed to Western Civilization.

    January 5, 2018
  11. Chris Nelson #

    Heinlein was diverse enough to support Walter Breen and not mention the rest of the child abusers in early science fiction writing and fandom. When you read his later works knowing those facts, you really start to view him in the words of Jubal Harshaw, a hack writing for the money…

    January 5, 2018
    • William Dewhurst #

      What are you talking about exactly?

      January 5, 2018
      • Der VolkDeutsche Expatriate’s slandering of Heinlein, thereby proving he is just like the left and hates those bigger than him.
        Actually Heinlein knew Breen and MZB only by correspondence and, having had disputes with fans, ASSUMED this was all it was.
        But, AH, he was supposed to be omniscient, or he’s a bad bad man.
        Revisionist historians disgust me.

        January 5, 2018
  12. pst314 #

    “Tunnel in the Sky features a black hero”

    Is Rod Walker black? I remember that one of the main female characters was black. Citation appreciated.

    January 5, 2018
    • Diane Roberts #

      It’s heavily implied. The character you probably mean is Caroline, who’s explicitly described as African, and at a couple of points she is compared physically to Rod’s sister. I think Rod also compares himself to a “sleek black leopard” once. (Working from memory here, excuse me if I have mixed my juveniles.”
      Finally, when someone asked Heinlein, he answered (paraphrased) Yes, of course he’s black.

      January 6, 2018
  13. Along these same lines, several years ago I was listening to a sports show out of Denver. One of the talking heads, Dave Logan I think it was. Was just spewing forth about how wonderful it was that both head coaches in the Super Bowl were black and how far “we’ve” come.

    I just about never call into anything, but this one rankled enough that I called in and pointed out that we will only have come far when nobody notices the point that he was so effusive about.

    Naturally I was the villain in the piece. Funny how people don’t recognize they are just as much ethnic bigots by the soft bigotry they expose, and their self-satisfaction at being so.

    January 5, 2018
  14. Alex VanderWoude #

    It was my understanding that Joe and Eunice Branca in “I Will Fear No Evil” were black. There are some subtle hints about that, but for the most part it goes unremarked.

    January 5, 2018
    • Diane Roberts #

      Eunice was, Joe was not. Hence the series of nasty guilt-trips levelled at Joe by his mother, along lines of “you left your family for one of THEM.”

      January 6, 2018
  15. CN>>> {RAH} knew little, like it or not, of the world outside the United States.

    More than many Americans, possibly due to his training as a USN officer.

    Thus in _Double Star_ he has a Prime Minister as the one doubled (and a constitutional monarchy). The average would bring us “President of Canada” and the weird review comments on Turtledove’s _The Two Georges.

    January 6, 2018

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