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Heinlein, Robert A

Entry updated 19 February 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1907-1988) US author, educated at the University of Missouri and the US Naval Academy, Annapolis. After serving as a naval officer for five years, he retired due to ill-health in 1934, studied physics at the University of California Los Angeles for a time, then took a variety of jobs before beginning to publish sf in August 1939 with "Life-Line" for Astounding, a magazine whose Golden Age he would profoundly shape, just as he rewrote US sf as a whole in his own image. Heinlein may have been the all-time most important writer of American Genre SF; along with H G Wells, who established the Scientific Romance as well as formulating in usable form many of sf's central tropes, he was not only an initial shaper of genre but the central maker of stories in the genre he had shaped.

Though not sf's finest sf writer in strictly literary terms, Heinlein's grasp of narrative strategy was unparalleled in the field, and his presentation of the future as a venue where people actually lived was innovative and definitive; his pre-eminence from 1940 to 1960 was both earned and unassailable. In a style which exuded assurance and savvy, his early writing blended slang, folk aphorism, technical jargon, clever understatement, apparent casualness, a concentration on people rather than gadgets, and a sense that the world described was real; it was a kind of writing able to incorporate the great mass of necessary sf data necessary without recourse to the long descriptive passages and deadening explanations common to earlier sf, so that his stories spoke with a smoothness and authority which came to seem the very tone of things to come. His characters were competent men of action, equally at home with their fists and a slide-rule (see Edisonade) and actively involved in the processes and procedures (political, legal, military, industrial, etc.) which make the world turn. Described in tales whose apparent openness concealed very considerable narrative craft and cunning, these characters seemed genuinely to inhabit the worlds of tomorrow. By the end of his first three years of writing, Heinlein had domesticated the future. For the next half a century he was the father – loved, resisted, emulated – of the dominant US form of the genre.

He came to the role naturally. Unlike most of John W Campbell Jr's pre-World War Two recruits to Astounding, he entered the field as a mature man, already in his thirties, with one genuine career (the military) honourably behind him. He was smart, aggressive, collegial, competent and highly inventive. And he had already worked out, apparently on his own hook, what it was he needed to accomplish in order to gain the kind of influence he clearly aspired to. Before writing his first Genre SF stories he had, however, already composed a competent, modestly flamboyant Utopia – published nearly two decades after his death as For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs (written circa 1938; 2004) – whose protagonist visits a future society via a form of Time Travel based on J W Dunne's theories, which Heinlein had encountered through reading H G Wells's "New Light on Mental Life: Mr J W Dunne's Experiments with Dreaming" (10 July 1927 New York Times Magazine). Like most utopias, For Us, the Living ultimately sacrificed narrative drive and verisimilitude in order to convey its cognitive gist, and was probably not publishable in 1938. Fascinatingly, however, the ideas and images boxed into this somewhat unalluring package constitute the germ – indeed the underlying rhythm of thought and aspiration – of much of Heinlein's work over the rest of his life, and demonstrate the strong and enduring influence of his second wife Leslyn's character and convictions (they were married 1932-1947): the use of California as a template from which to generate various speculations; the rough structure of his Future History; the interest in nudism and Sex in general; the advocacy of various forms of group marriage, which culminated in the line marriage structure brilliantly advocated in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966); the argumentative uneasiness about state power over individuals; the radical bent of his thought on almost every issue. Clearly the naked foregrounding of so much opinion, so much of it unacceptable in 1930s America, helped keep the book from publication before the War broke out; it is also arguable that Heinlein, having learned his lesson, came to sf in 1939 with the secret yearning ultimately to sabotage – or at the very least liberate – the genre whose "domestic" acceptability in the world of American letters he did so much to create. It is a case which can be carried too far – but certainly his work from Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959) on represents not only something new in Heinlein's vision of the world, but something old as well.

By 1942 – when he stopped writing to do his World War Two service as an engineer at the Naval Air Experimental Station, Philadelphia – Heinlein had already published almost thirty stories, including three novels which would only later be released in book form. Moreover, it had soon been made clear that those stories published under his own name – like "Requiem" (January 1940 Astounding), "The Roads Must Roll" (June 1940 Astounding), "Blowups Happen" (September 1940 Astounding) and the short novel "If This Goes On –" (February-March 1940 Astounding; rev in Revolt in 2100 coll 1953) – fitted into a loose Future History, the schema for which Campbell published in Astounding in 1941; in sf criticism, the term Future History is based on Campbell's use of the term. As a device for tying together otherwise disparate stories, and for establishing a privileged (and loyal) group of readers familiar with the overall structure into which individual units were magically inserted, Heinlein's outline of the future was an extraordinarily acute idea. It was imitated by many other writers (with considerable success by Poul Anderson and Larry Niven, to name but two), but for many years only Heinlein's and perhaps Isaac Asimov's similar scheme – by priority, and by claiming imaginative copyright on the imagined future – were able to generate a sense of genuine Conceptual Breakthrough. Heinlein himself largely abandoned his Future History after 1950 (if the Recursive novels of his last years are discounted for the moment); all the short stories in the sequence were soon assembled in book form as The Man Who Sold the Moon (coll 1950; with 2 stories cut 1951), The Green Hills of Earth (coll 1951) and Revolt in 2100 (coll 1953; cut 1959). Two early novels also belonged to the series: Methuselah's Children (July-September 1941 Astounding; rev 1958), which introduces Lazarus Long and the Families, a Pariah Elite whose near-Immortality has come about through selected breeding (see Eugenics), and Universe (May 1941 Astounding; 1951 chap; exp as fixup with "Common Sense" [October 1941 Astounding], vt Orphans of the Sky 1963) which contains an innovative presentation of the Generation Starship concept. With Methuselah's Children, the three collections were republished – "Let There Be Light" (May 1940 Super Science Stories as by Lyle Monroe) being omitted and "The Menace from Earth" (August 1957 F&SF) and "Searchlight" (August 1962 Scientific American) added – in The Past Through Tomorrow (omni 1967; with Methuselah's Children omitted, cut 1977).

Not all of Heinlein's early writing consisted of Future History stories, although most of his non-series work was initially published under the pseudonyms Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside and Caleb Saunders, including the novels Sixth Column (January-March 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951) and Beyond This Horizon (April-May 1942 Astounding as Anson MacDonald; 1948 as Heinlein). In Sixth Column an Asiatic Invasion of the USA is defeated by a resistance – disguised as a Religion – which uses superscientific Ray-emitting gadgets to accomplish "miracles". The original idea came from Campbell, who had incorporated it in the then unpublished novella "All" (in Campbell's The Space Beyond [coll 1976]). Beyond This Horizon describes a future society of material plenty where people spend their time seeking the meaning of life (see Genetic Engineering). Some of Heinlein's best stories belong to this period: "– And He Built a Crooked House" (February 1941 Astounding), about an architect who inadvertently builds into another Dimension; "By His Bootstraps" (October 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald), a superb Time-Paradox fantasia; and "They" (April 1941 Unknown), a fantasy about solipsism. "Waldo" (August 1942 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald), about a crippled inventor who lives in a satellite, gave rise to a significant item of Terminology, the real-life equivalents of the protagonist's remote-control lifting and manipulation devices subsequently being known as Waldoes. The astonishingly thorough destruction of Los Angeles (see again California) unpacked in "The Year of the Jackpot" (March 1952 Galaxy) has a prescient focus on the overuse of dwindling water resources. These stories, and the later non-series stories, are collected in various volumes: Waldo and Magic, Inc. (coll 1950; vt Waldo: Genius in Orbit 1958), Assignment in Eternity: Four Long Science Fiction Stories (coll 1953; vt 2vols Assignment in Eternity 1960 UK and Lost Legacy 1960), The Menace from Earth (coll 1959), The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (coll 1959; vt 6 X H 1961), The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein (coll 1966 cut 1970 UK much exp vt Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A Heinlein 1980) and Requiem: New Collected Works and Tributes to the Grand Master (coll 1992) edited by Eric Kotani.

In the years 1943-1946 Heinlein published no fiction, but in 1947 he expanded his career – and the potential reach of genre sf as a marketable literature – in two new directions. He began selling short stories to the Slick magazine the Saturday Evening Post, beginning with "The Green Hills of Earth" (8 February 1947 Saturday Evening Post) and followed by three more in that same year; and he published – with Scribner's, a highly respectable mainstream firm – the first US juvenile sf novel to reflect the new levels of characterization, style and scientific plausibility now expected in the field. Only the first of his Scribner's titles, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), reflects a pre-War model for boys's stories, with its three mutually reinforcing protagonists, its backyard Invention of a Spaceship powered by an unknown Element, and its climax on the Moon, where the chums confront and defeat a gaggle of conspiring Nazis. But the tale did remotely form the basis of a film, Destination Moon (1950), scripted by Heinlein; background information and other material are contained in Destination Moon (coll 1979). Unremarkable in itself, it was the first in a series that represents the most important contribution any single writer has made to Children's SF. Space Cadet (1948), the second in the series, renders Heinlein's own experiences at Annapolis in sf terms; it includes a classic Space Station with the big-wheel construction. With the third, Red Planet: A Colonial Boy on Mars (1949; text restored 1989) (see Mars), which recounts the adventures of two young colonists and their Martian "pet", Heinlein came fully into his own as a writer of sf for teenagers. A strong narrative line, carefully worked-out technical detail, realistic characters and brisk dialogue are the leading virtues of this and most of his later juveniles, which include Farmer in the Sky (August-November 1950 Boys' Life as "Satellite Scout"; exp 1950), a sober and enlightening tale set in the mode of a farmer-oriented Western Ganymede (see Jupiter), as human settlers Terraform their new home, Between Planets (September-October 1951 The Blue Book Magazine as "Planets in Combat"; 1951), The Rolling Stones (September-December 1952 Boys' Life as "Tramp Space Ship"; 1952; vt Space Family Stone 1969), Starman Jones (1953), The Star Beast (May-July 1954 F&SF as "Star Lummox"; 1954), Tunnel in the Sky (1955) (see Colonization of Other Worlds; Matter Transmission; Stargates), Time for the Stars (1956) (see Telepathy), Citizen of the Galaxy (September-December 1957 Astounding; 1957) with its numerous links to Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901), and Have Space Suit – Will Travel (August-October 1958 F&SF; 1958). The last three of these, along with Starman Jones and The Star Beast, rank among the very best juvenile sf ever written; their compulsive narrative drive, their shapeliness and their relative freedom from the didactic rancour Heinlein was beginning to show when addressing adults in the later 1950s, all make these books arguably his finest works.

After 1950 Heinlein wrote very little short fiction – the most notable piece is the Time-Paradox tale "All You Zombies –" (March 1959 F&SF) – concentrating for some years on his highly successful output of juveniles, although never abandoning the adult novel. The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990) is an effective if rather hysterical Invasion story featuring alien parasites (see Parasitism and Symbiosis) who control human minds, and a prime example of Paranoia in 1950s sf; a loose and entirely unauthorized film adaptation is The Brain Eaters (1958), and the official film version of the novel – not, alas, notably successful – did not appear until The Puppet Masters (1994). Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956), about a failed actor who impersonates a galactic politician (see Identity; Ruritania), won a Hugo, and is probably his best adult novel of the 1950s, although the mellow and charming The Door into Summer (October-December 1956 F&SF; 1957), a Time-Travel story, is also much admired; all three books were assembled as A Heinlein Trio (omni 1980).

His next novel, however, was something else entirely. Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959), originally written as a juvenile but rejected by Scribner's because of its violence, is the first title in which Heinlein expressed his opinions with unfettered vigour. A tale of interstellar Future War which helped establish the subgenre of Military SF and whose powered battlesuits inspired Japanese Mecha, it won a 1960 Hugo but also gained Heinlein the reputation of being a militarist, even a "fascist". The plot as usual confers an earned adulthood upon its young protagonist, but in this case by transforming him from an uncertain pacifist into a professional soldier. This transformation, in itself dubious, is rendered exceedingly unpleasant (for those who might demur from its implications) by the hectoring didacticism of Heinlein's presentation of his case. Father-figures, always important in his fiction, tended from this point on to utter unstoppable monologues in their author's voice, and dialogue and action become traps in which any opposing versions of reality were hamstrung by the author's aggrieved partiality. The novel was adapted as a Board Game, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1976), and filmed as Starship Troopers (1997).

But this, for good and for ill, was the fully unleashed Heinlein. His next novel, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1991), a stronger work which won him another Hugo, is even more radical. Valentine Michael Smith ("Mike"), of human stock but raised on Mars, returns to Earth armed with his innocence and the Psi Powers bequeathed to him by the Martians (see Martian). After meeting Jubal Harshaw and being tutored by this ultimate surrogate-father and know-all voicebox for Heinlein himself, Mike begins his transformation into a Messiah-figure; demonstrates the nature of grokking – Grok (which see) being a term which Heinlein created for this book, and which can be defined as the gaining, sometimes more or less instantly, of deep spiritual understanding; eliminates those he deems unworthy through "discorporation", a form of dying which is painless and which can be freely imposed upon others; and eventually undergoes a deliberate, calculated martyrdom to further his self-founded Religion. Mike's costless discorporation of human beings (without moral qualms owing to the here demonstrable existence of an afterlife and Reincarnation) marks the book as a Fantasy, and not, perhaps, as one very markedly adult; and it was unfortunate for Sharon Tate that its dreamlike smoothness (a smoothness even more winningly evident in the much longer restored version) could, if his claims are to be credited, be translated into this-worldly action by the sociopathic murderer Charles Manson. However, among those capable of understanding the nature of a fiction, it has proved to be Heinlein's most popular novel, in the later 1960s becoming a cult-book among students (who were drawn to it, presumably, by its Iconoclasm and by Heinlein's apparent espousal of free love and mysticism), and remains by far the best of the books he wrote in his late manner.

There followed two minor works, Podkayne of Mars: Her Life and Times (November 1962-January 1963 If; 1963), an inferior juvenile which proved to be his last, and Glory Road (July-December 1963 F&SF; 1963), a largely unsuccessful attempt at Sword and Sorcery, albeit with a kind of Galactic Empire background. Farnham's Freehold (July-October 1964 If; 1964), another long and opinionated novel of ideas, invokes rather unpleasantly a Black despotism in the USA of the Far Future (see also Race in SF; Survivalist Fiction; Timeslip), and begins to fully articulate a theme that obsessed the late Heinlein: the notion of the family as utterly central. From this time onward, hugely extended father-dominated families, sustained by incest and enlarged by mating patterns whose complex ramifications required an increasing use of Time Travel and Alternate History, would tend to generate the plots of his novels. Before he plunged fully into this final phase, however, Heinlein published The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966), which won a 1967 Hugo and marked a partial return to his best form. About a revolution among Moon-colonists – many historical parallels being made evident with the US War of Independence – it is of value partly because it shows the nature of Heinlein's political views very clearly. Rather than being a fascist, he was a right-wing anarchist, or "libertarian" (see Libertarianism), much influenced by Social Darwinism, as expressed more straightforwardly in Take Back Your Government: A Practical Handbook for the Private Citizen Who Wants Democracy to Work (1992), a text drafted in 1946.

But the fact that Heinlein's politics are a prime concern in discussions of his later novels points to the sad decline in the quality of dramatization in his sf. As Alexei Panshin, the most astute of his earlier critics, pointed out, Heinlein once dealt in "facts" but latterly he dealt only in "opinions-as-facts". And as these opinions-as-facts were uttered in Heinlein's voice by domineering monologuists, his last novels increasingly conveyed a sense of flouncing solitude, and were frequently described – with justice – as exercises in solipsism; for, no matter how many characters filled the foreground of the tale, his casts ultimately proved either cruelly disposable or members of the one enormous intertwined family whose begetter bore the countenance, and spieled the antic but ultimately dyspeptic tracts, of the author. I Will Fear No Evil (July-December 1970 Galaxy; 1970) is an interminable novel about a rich centenarian who has his mind transferred to the body of his young female secretary; it brought into the open the espousal of free Sex (and inevitable babies begat upon wisecracking women who long to become gravid for their guys) first published in Stranger in a Strange Land (though see For Us, the Living above). Time Enough for Love, or The Lives of Lazarus Long (1973), a late coda to the Future History series, was perhaps the most important of the late books in that it established the immortal Long, a central character in Methuselah's Children, as Heinlein's final – and most enduring – alter ego. Other novels which revolve around Lazarus Long, and must therefore be deemed somehow connected to the Future History from four decades earlier, include "The Number of the Beast" (October-November 1979 Omni; 1980), The Cat Who Walks through Walls: A Comedy of Manners (1985) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset: The Life and Loves of Maureen Johnson: (Being the Memoirs of a Somewhat Irregular Lady) (1987), which features, among other Recursive elements, the presence of Mark Twain. Assembled from manuscript fragments long after his death, The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes (2020) duplicates the first 159 pages of "The Number of the Beast", then diverges into different Parallel Worlds. As a set, these late titles argue a kind of Magic Realism through generic exfoliation, and their melding of all genres and all characters, does something to justify the World as Myth surtitle which has been suggested for them. The final effect of these novels, however, – in direct contrast to their joke-saturated telling – is one of embitterment. It remains arguable that, by devaluing everything in the Universe except for the one polymorphic phoenix family, Heinlein effectively repudiated the genre whose mature tone he had himself almost singlehandedly established, and the America whose complex populism he had so vividly expressed. In the end, by seeming to embrace them into one all-consuming pyre, the father of sf abandoned his children. A not uncritical but more sympathetic view of the work of his later years can be found in Farah Mendlesohn's The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein (2019).

Two late novels, following "The Number of the Beast" but separate from the Lazarus Long sequence, were hailed with some relief by Heinlein admirers despite not equalling the drive and clarity of his best work. Friday (1982) is a loose sequel to "Gulf" (November-December 1949 Astounding), whose titular heroine – a highly competent special agent, though plagued by a sense of inferiority about her Android status – travels through a fragmented future America and eventually via Starship to the prospect of a pioneering life, and babies. Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) nods to the subtitle of James Branch Cabell's Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919; rev 1921), and likewise treats Religion ironically. A tour of Parallel Worlds culminates with the Last Trump and visits to Heaven and Hell; the usual role of all-knowing, wisecracking father-figure is played by Satan.

Heinlein was guest of honour at three World SF Conventions (see Worldcon): in 1941, 1961 and 1976. His works remained constantly in print. He has repeatedly been voted "best all-time author" in readers' polls such as those held by Locus in 1973 and 1977, and in 1975 he was recipient of the first SFWA Grand Master Award. His death in 1988 was deeply felt. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1998. Awards given in his memory include the Robert A Heinlein Award for creators of fiction (invariably sf) and nonfiction that inspire space exploration. [JC/DP]

see also: Agriculture; AI; Aliens; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Arts; Astounding Science-Fiction; Automation; Cats; Children in SF; Clones; Computers; Crime and Punishment; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Cybernetics; Definitions of SF; Dystopias; Ecology; Economics; End of the World; Eschatology; Evolution; Fantastic Voyages; Faster Than Light; Fermi Paradox; Galaxy Science Fiction; Gamebook; Gods and Demons; History in SF; History of SF; Hive Minds; Holocaust; Hypnosis; Juvenile Series; Laws; Lie Detectors; Linguistics; Longevity in Writers; Machines; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Magic; Mathematics; Monsters; Mutants; Near Future; Nuclear Energy; Optimism and Pessimism; Pastoral; Physics; Pocket Universe; Power Sources; Prediction; Psychology; Publishing; Pyramid Books; Radio; Rockets; SF in the Classroom; SF Music; Secret Masters; Seiun Award; Sociology; Space Elevator; Space Flight; Speculative Fiction; Stasis Field; Sun; Superman; Technology; Telekinesis; Time Loop; Time Viewer; Transportation; UFOs; Villains; Weapons; Women in SF.

Robert Anson Heinlein

born Butler, Missouri: 7 July 1907

died Carmel, California: 8 May 1988



Future History

Lazarus Long/Future History/World as Myth

individual titles: adult novels

individual titles: young adult novels


Excluding Future History titles, listed above under that heading.


works as editor

  • Tomorrow, the Stars (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1951) [anth: anonymous co-editors include Walter Bradbury, Judith Merril and Frederik Pohl: hb/Richard Powers]

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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