Robert Heinlein transformed sci-fi with his intimate knowledge of science and life in the military. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
From first-person alien shooter video games to the Star Wars cinema universe, much of modern science fiction traces its roots to Robert Heinlein. Heinlein was a Navy veteran and aerospace engineer, and much of his fiction featured futuristic weapons and machines. Because of Heinlein, what was once considered mere children’s entertainment became a respected class of literature that often predicts real-world innovations.
Frequently dubbed the dean of science fiction, Heinlein is considered one of the “big three” authors of sci-fi, alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.
His novels combine his own military service, libertarian political views, and hawkish foreign policy beliefs, all delivered in fantastical sci-fi settings that midcentury audiences had never encountered. Without him, there would be no Halo, Blade Runner, or Dune.
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Heinlein was initially rejected from the United States Naval Academy but was admitted after he wrote 50 letters to his senator, begging for a recommendation. Heinlein completed plebe summer in June of 1925 and followed the academic track to become an engineer. He graduated in 1929 and commissioned as an ensign. Despite ranking fifth among his peers in academics, Heinlein’s final class rank was much lower due to disciplinary demerits, a path later taken by John McCain, among others.
Despite being in a pulp magazine popular with young readers, “Life-Line” immediately garnered attention for its fictional, yet seemingly plausible, technology. Heinlein followed “Life-Line” with another short story three months later. He continued to write for pulp magazines until the onset of World War II.
When the war broke out, Heinlein took a job as a civilian contractor for the US Navy, for which he helped brainstorm unconventional techniques for combating kamikazes. The war changed Heinlein’s perception of his own work, and he began to deem it too juvenile. Weapons had drastically changed over the course of the war with the advent of new technology like jets and nuclear bombs, and Heinlein was inspired to begin writing for older audiences. It was with his full-length novels that Heinlein’s work took a sharp, militaristic turn.
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In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced a ban on atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. Heinlein viewed the decision as a grievous foreign policy mistake. That view is at the heart of what would become his most famous novel — Starship Troopers.
Heinlein completed the novel in a matter of weeks. Starship Troopers was an immediate hit. The book details a single world government, in which citizens earn the right to vote by serving in the armed forces. Heinlein’s radical service-for-suffrage concept was celebrated by readers who shared Heinlein’s belief that civilian oversight weakened the US Armed Forces.
The novel won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel — the most prestigious literary award for science fiction and fantasy writers. It was also the first science-fiction book to land on The New York Times bestseller list, marking a clear change in the way sci-fi was perceived in literary circles.
In 2012, Stranger in a Strange Land was listed on the Library of Congress’s list of Books That Shaped America. The novel was so farsighted that it even described waterbeds, seven years before the first real waterbed was built.
Heinlein continued to write successful sci-fi novels for the remainder of his life. He was nominated for six Hugo Awards and was named the first grand master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. In the last decade of his life, as his health declined, Heinlein’s books delved into darker themes such as incest and pedophilia, costing him some of his readership. Heinlein died of emphysema in 1988 at the age of 80.
The dean of science fiction elevated the genre from trashy magazines for kids to its own class of literature. His critiques of organized religion and social reform may have influenced the hippie movement, but it’s Heinlein’s militaristic portrayal of the future and plausible technology that endures.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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