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.