Sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein bio is extraordinarily detailed but a frustrating read

(Tor Books)

Tor Books has recently released William H. Patterson’s second volume of the authorized biography of Robert A. Heinlein, lengthily titled Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 2 – The Man Who Learned Better. Despite being volume two, this ponderous tome clock in at 500 pages not including notes, which add an additional 150 to the count. This would almost certainly be a book better read in electronic format to allow for easy back-and-forth from the text and sub-text.

Volume 1 covered the formative years, childhood in Kansas City, career in the navy, up to the cusp of his breakthrough as one of the greatest science fiction writers to date. Book reviewer Lee Sandlin of the Wall Street Journal calls volume 1 a “vivid portrait of a knockabout, eccentric, thoroughly American life.”  If Volume 1 was a descriptive of his young, wild days, then Volume 2 is a much more settled account of a highly productive writer and his travels and life with his third and final wife, Virginia. That is not to say that the eccentricity has completely disappeared – there are plenty of odd moments, including a purported call from inspired fan Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme freshly on the run after the murders at Roman Polanski’s house orchestrated by Charles Manson.

I cannot say that this was an easy book to wade through, nor was it particularly well-written. Patterson jumps from event to event with no segue between leaving the reader feeling as though one is riding a bucking horse rather than reading a book. For example, we transition immediately from a discussion of rewrites and quote from Heinlein:

“I do a certain amount of true rewriting these days (other than rewriting to editorial order, which is always admissible)—but I still do damned little and I would never advise a beginner to rewrite. He can learn more by starting a brand-new story and doing his best on it.”

To the following apropos of nothing comment by Patterson:

“There was a lot of promiscuous kissing at the New Year’s Eve party that year, and Heinlein caught a case of flu—his first real illness in four years. But he also got an idea for his next Scribner book.”

Thus endeth Chapter 6.

To be fair though, what this jerky narrative almost certainly arises from is Patterson’s absolute, uncompromising attention to detail in chronicling Heinlein’s life. Much of the time we are working week-to-week through the personal account and only rarely do we pass up a month in the forty-year time span covered by the book. The unpremeditated design of the book is an attestation to the utterly random walk a life almost always follows.

And therein also lies the value of reading this biography. It is a thoroughly educational, unadulterated view of the process of a successful writer – where the story ideas originate from, the missteps, dealing with critical reviews, editors, publishers, copyrights, etc. I am not sure if one will like Heinlein the man better or worse after reading this, but the reader absolutely comes away with a much clearer understanding of what was behind all those fantastic stories he produced.

About Andrea Sefler

Andrea Sefler
Andrea is a consultant and technical writer for various scientific software and instrumentation companies. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Berkeley and has never met a genre of music or books that she hasn’t liked. As a gamer since the days of the Apple II, Andrea can relate any number of hair-raising tales about role-playing games stored on 360 kB 5.25” floppy disks and may, someday, put them to paper.

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