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A look at Robert Heinlein

This caught my attention, at a site called “The Smart Set”.

“If the zeitgeist has a face, it supposedly belongs to Ayn Rand and her capitalist philosophy of Objectivism. Talk radio hosts adore the author’s demands for limited government; Congressman Paul Ryan insists that his staffers read her overstuffed opus Atlas Shrugged; picket signs at Tea Party rallies suggest that we all “READ AYN RAND.” And yet, some pieces are missing. Ayn Rand was anti-war, but spending for hundreds of military bases and two-and-a-half wars remains sacrosanct even as Congress made the debt ceiling a major issue. She found homosexuality “immoral” and “disgusting,” and yet gay marriage has regained the initiative in the public square. And Randian heroes are explicitly — nay, objectively — elitist. They are genius millionaire square-jawed heroes who walked right off the screen at the movie matinee. The average Tea Party rallier, not so much.”

A bit of a jumble. Rand was anti-war, certainly, but she certainly was no pacifist, either about the Nazis or any other totalitarian regimes. She had a problem about homosexuality, but I doubt she favoured the state using its violence-backed powers to suppress it; indeed, from my reading of her journals and other material, I don’t know if she had developed views on this subject at all. As for the line about her support for “elitism”, it does rather depend on what you mean. For Rand, and most who broadly support her views (as I do), the idea was that people are entitled to develop their lives and talents to the greatest extent possible in free trade with their fellows. There is plenty of room for upward mobility, striving and competition. This has nothing to do with privilege, which is often what can be meant by an “elite”, for example. (Elitism is, of course, a boo word for the egalitarian left, and I suspect the author of the piece tilts in that direction).

“There is another writer whose political and philosophical influence is finally being felt in the public sphere. You may have read one of his books as a child. His name is Robert A. Heinlein, and he wrote science fiction. He was a libertarian enamored of military might, a conservative who championed free love. His heroes are certainly competent. They’re also folks who hack the systems in which they live, not elitists who abandon a corrupt world full of moochers and looters to worship the dollar as an end unto itself. And unlike Rand, most of Heinlein’s work is actually readable.”

Some of this is true, though I don’t think Heinlein was “enamoured” of military might; he understood that values need to be defended, of course, so to that extent he understood the warrior ethic and code, but he also understood the trader ethic, too. He was able to see how military codes develop and why they exist (his book, Starship Troopers, is about this very issue).

The idea that the characters in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged “worship the dollar as an end unto itself” proves that the author of this article clearly has not thought straight. The point for Rand is that the dollar, preferably a gold-backed dollar, is a symbol of liberty, not something that you worship as a totem.

It is sometimes instructive when a writer from outside the usual field opines about something about which you know quite a lot, as I do about Rand and Heinlein, having read pretty much everything they wrote. The author of this article hits on some good points, so don’t be put off by my nit-picking.

19 comments to A look at Robert Heinlein

  • Steven Rockwell

    I still love how Dagny Taggart and Dominque Francon are both strong willed and independent women until they meet a man who completely overpowers them physically, mentally, and emotionally and then they swoon like teenage girls at a Beatles concert. Rand had some serious issues when it came to relationships and sex.

    And let’s not even get started on why Howard Roark was wrong in just about everything he did, or how the elites in Atlas Shrugged found Shangri-La and everyone worked to the best of his abilities and everyone was so happy, but there wasn’t a ditch digger or janitor or any of the little people to do the brutish, yet necessary, things to keep the world turning in sight, allowing the Galts and Taggarts and Reardons of the world to go happily about their business.

  • Well to be honest I also find Rand almost unreadable, with the long ponderous expositions. I am also more of a Heinlein kind of guy, hahaha.

  • RRS

    As to the role of money:

    Somewhere in the piles of stuff accumulated, but as yet unlocated, I recall a cry attributed to Voltaire, roughly to the effect:

    “Money is Liberty! Those Estates General that would destroy the value of money destroy Liberty”

  • Mark Green

    To be honest, I agree with Perry on this one. Ayn Rand, while her heart was in the right place, did tend to fall into the Russian stereotype of expounding her beliefs, repeatedly and at length until one believed them. Heinlein was very much more my type of libertarian – laying it out there and showing you what he thought, inviting you to agree but dismissing you with a curl of contempt of you disagreed with him. Having said that, the Randian model is probably the one to follow when the revolution comes.

    Are there any studies on how a libertarian revolutionary vanguard intends to impose freedom on the population?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    “And let’s not even get started on why Howard Roark was wrong in just about everything he did, or how the elites in Atlas Shrugged found Shangri-La and everyone worked to the best of his abilities and everyone was so happy, but there wasn’t a ditch digger or janitor or any of the little people to do the brutish, yet necessary, things to keep the world turning in sight, allowing the Galts and Taggarts and Reardons of the world to go happily about their business.”

    Steven Rockwell, you really are wrong here; I don;t sense from her books that menial tasks were airbrushed out, just not focused on as much as what AR saw as the prime, creative stuff of the folks she chose to write about. And she was projecting an image of an ideal: “where everyone worked to the best of his abilities”. That would include everyone, from architect to receptionist.

    Actually, there are some labourers in her novels; one of them, Mike, is a hero. But naturally, in fiction like this, she is going to focus on the the prime movers of events, as she saw it.

    Perhaps you could justify your statement that Roark “was wrong in just about everything he did”. The point of the book was about how this man refused to let his ideas be compromised, even if it meant he lost out on some lucrative contracts to design buildings he did not like the look of. Maybe that is not a smart business strategy if you want to be mega-rich or super popular. But that is not what the book is about.

  • Laird

    No argument about Rand’s “long ponderous expositions”, although I still find her work worthwhile. But I agree that Heinlein is certainly more readable, and overall more fun. I reread The Moon is a Harsh Mistress every decade or so, and Stranger, Glory Road, Starship Troopers (not the abysmal movie version) and even the juvenile novels are great reads. But he certainly can be uneven; the comment in the linked article that “his later books are didactic, rambling self-parodies” is dead on. And his obsession with sex is a recurring theme which, frankly, I could do without. It mostly gets in the way of the story.

    Heinlein’s first (and posthumously published) novel For Us, The Living is utter trash. It was written during his Leftist phase, and it shows: the economics is bizarre, and if you think Rand can be didactic try this piece. Overall I think his memory was done no favors by publishing it; he was clearly right not to have done so, and his judgment should have been honored.

    I think it was a good article; the author certainly knows his Heinlein. Whether he truly groks Rand is a little less clear.

  • ManikMonkee

    Have to agree with him, I can’t really see anything appealing about the woman or her writing, I have her pegged more as a conservative. Heinlein and Robert Anton Wilson were libertarians, pretty cool people and quote amazingly readable books that make libertarianism sound cool.

  • Richard Thomas

    It should be borne in mind that Henlein said that what he wrote did not necessarily reflect his beliefs (Though they surely cannot be all that far removed). He was a writer of speculative fiction and that would mean exploring ideas as well as technological advances. I believe one of his characters even advocates for LVT at one point.

    I actually found “For us the Living”, despite some shoddy writing, the lecturing and a completely fallacious explanation of fractional reserve banking (that threw me for several years) interesting reading. The idea of heritage payments, that our ancestors have improved our environment and productivity sufficiently that everyone should collect on the dividends is interesting (but ultimately flawed) but the idea that there should be no taxation but the government simply print the money that it wishes to spend has grown on me more and more in the years since I read the book (Obviously, this would have no appeal to those who want a commodity backed currency but those who are comfortable with a floating currency would do well to ponder the implications).

    As to Raynd? Still haven’t read her yet. I suppose I probably should but it’s a rare occasion that I step out of science fiction (and the occasional horror or fantasy) for my fiction reading.

  • Are there any studies on how a libertarian revolutionary vanguard intends to impose freedom on the population?

    By shooting anyone who tries to expand the remit of politics beyond the most basic minarchist levels, that is what revolutionary vanguards do… so why would a libertarian revolutionary vanguard be any different? If not, they aren’t ‘revolutionary’, are they? 🙂

  • I’ll vote for Rand over Heinlein as the more readable writer on the basis of coherence. If you’re going to write a philosophical novel, then say something with it. Heinlein’s books read like philosophical novels, but I’m never sure what the central point is. Additionally, in Rand’s novels there’s a real sense of the possibility of redemption. People (like the Wet Nurse in Atlas Shrugged) who have been mistaken can be saved. In Heinlein, it always feels like you’re either born into the clique or too bad for you (witness membership in the Howard family).

    Finally and most importantly, I have trouble finishing Heinlein(‘s later) novels because they come across as smug. The purpose seems to be for the reader to pat himself on the back for nodding in broad agreement. It’s no coincidence that Spider Robinson is Heinlein’s unofficial intellectual heir – because, was there ever a writer more smug than Spider Robinson? Whatever else she is, Rand is not smug. She spells out her ideas clearly, and they’re meant for everyone. Nothing is secret, and there is no winking.

  • Heinlein’s books read like philosophical novels, but I’m never sure what the central point is

    But that is the difference, Heinlein’s books are *not* “philosophical novels”, they are just novels… sure you can draw philosophical points from but that is not the same thing at all. Rand’s books are all about making her philosophical points, Heinlein’s are about telling a story.

    Which is why I find Heinlen vastly preferable.

    If I want to read about Rand’s philosophy, I will re-read ‘An introduction to Objectivitist Epistemology’, not slog through the interminable Castro-length declaimings of her various fictional heroes 😛

  • Dale Amon

    Perhaps I am biased because Rand was not in my social circles, where as RAH and Virginia were. Robert was every bit the curmudgeon and Virginia was Granny Stone if there ever was one. I worked with her in a small team on a lunar base concept design in 1982 and that was a great experience. She was quite libertarian in outlook as well. Not the ideological type, just the ‘let people sort themselves out’ type.

  • Look, I gotta say, I found Rand unreadable.

    I have tried Atlas Shrugged a couple of times but can’t get past the first few of chapters. The characters are cardboard cutouts and the setup, as I was reading it, was contrived.

    Heinlein on the other hand, yeah. As I have said here before, Prof de la Paz and Manuel Garcia O’Kelly were two of the greatest early influences on my understanding of the philosophy I was inching towards. I might have read Starship Troopers a couple of times in my younger days, but I didn’t see the message embed in it, and was therefore uninfluenced by it other than as a rollicking yarn, until I re read it as an adult.

    But yeah, the later books generally started good, but petered out. Pity.

    As for Heinleins attitude to trade, consider Lazarus Long. He might have been presented as an adventurer, with this aspect of his life highlighted, but he spent most of his oh so very long existence making a living from trade in one form or another.

    Ditto Mannie, both on the farm and selling his own services. Then we have the twins in Space Family Stone, encouraged by both their father and Hazel, and there is Johnnie Ricos father – trade is not something which is central to the stories, but there is no question but that RAH acknowledged its importance. His characters didn’t live in a world where things ‘just happened’, unlike EE ‘Doc’ Smith.


    Name dropper. God, how I envy you.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I’m not a great fan of Heinlein’s later works, which seem to consist of people flying around the Universe arguing about sex and who’s in charge, but in one of them a character suggests that the ideal form of government is a ‘constitutional tyranny’: strict limits on government power and no election pother.

    Now, that’s minarchism.

  • Laird

    I’d vote for “constitutional tyranny”, too (that is, if I had a vote, but I guess that’s not the way it works).

  • Ed Snack

    Taste in writing is personal, and I’ve struggled to read Rand, but Heinlein, apart from TMIAHM (which I rather like), and perhaps the juvenile thrill of reading Stranger in a Strange Land, is an execrable writer in general IMHO. I saw somewhere that his general style could be described as “He tells you, then tells what he told you, then tells you that he told you, then repeats again just in case you missed before”. Truer of his later books, but very much in evidence at some point in almost every novel he wrote.

    Still, taste is as taste does, or YMMV.

  • In my experience, when I overpowered strong willed, independent women physically, mentally, and emotionally, they swooned like teenage girls at a Beatles concert. So I believe Rand got that right.

    One of those I have kept, coming up on 20 years now. Cheers 😉

  • Paul Marks

    I like both writers – although I think that Heinlein was at his best as a short story writer.

    As for the sneer that Ayn Rand’s work is not “readable”…..

    Yes that is why the lady sold more copies than any other 20th century novelist.

    All those people (such as me) who bought her work did not “really” read such books as the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

    “The Smart Set” – make that the “Retarted Set”.

    As for defence spending.

    It is presently 4% of GDP (under Jack Kennedy, BEFORE the Vietnam war, it was 9% of GDP) – and the radical reduction in the percentage of the economy that is devoted to defence is showing.

    For example, the U.S. Navy is showing clear signs of strain (the budget just can not maintain the navy – even at its reduced level), at the very time when China is advancing into the Pacific (claming islands and waters that historically have nothing to do with China).

    Again the not so “Smart” Set.

  • Laird

    Paul, the US military is far from being starved for cash: even if it’s only 4% of GDP (I haven’t checked that figure but I’ll take your word) it’s still more than is spent on defense by the next 15 largest nations combined, and it’s far too much money. If the Navy is showing “signs of strain” it’s only because all that money is being spent in stupid ways (and not only on stupid wars). Carve it back to something remotely approaching its legitimate function (national defense) and I’d bet the current military budget could be easily cut in half, and probably even farther.