Robert Heinlein: The Navy Vet Who Pioneered Sci-Fi

January 27, 2023Mac Caltrider
Robert Heinlein

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. 

Related: Truth in Fiction: A Collection of Must-Read Quotes About War, Part II

In the Navy

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.

USS Lexington

The US Navy aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) at anchor, in 1938. US Navy photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1931, Heinlein served on board the aircraft carrier USS Lexington as a radio communications officer. At the time, radio communication was cutting-edge technology. This early access to tech left a permanent impact on Heinlein. It sparked a lifelong fascination with military technology and science’s ability to suddenly and drastically alter how war is waged. 

Heinlein later served as a gunner on the destroyer USS Roper, giving him a front-row view to the immense destructive power of modern weaponry. In addition to his own time in the Navy, Heinlein was surrounded by others who valued military service. His wife, Virginia Heinlein, also served in the Navy and reached the rank of lieutenant commander. Heinlein’s brother served in the Army, the Air Force, and the Missouri National Guard, reaching the rank of major general. 

Related: J.R.R. Tolkien Started Building His Lord of the Rings Universe as a Soldier in WWI

Pulp Fiction

Heinlein left the Navy after five years and worked various jobs ranging from silver miner to local politician, before attempting to write for a living. His first published work was “Life-Line” — a short story that appeared in the August 1939 edition of Astounding Science Fiction.

science fiction

Robert Heinlein first wrote pulp fiction before moving on to novels. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

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. 

Related: Before Stephen King, America’s ‘King of Horror’ Was a Civil War Vet With TBI

Starship Troopers

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.

Starship Troopers

The 1997 movie adaptation of Starship Troopers barely resembles the novel. The film's director, Paul Verhoeven, claimed he tried to finish the book but found it too boring. Screenshot from Starship Troopers.

The fictional war between humans and bugs provided a thin veil for Heinlein to advocate his hawkish foreign policy views. To him, resolution through force was the best foreign policy stance. 

The novel — which saw human soldiers deploy to foreign shores and fight hordes of insect-type aliens — established several long-lasting sci-fi staples such as space marines and powered armor. It influenced director Ridley Scott so deeply that he modeled the Colonial Marines in Alien after the book’s Mobile Infantry. The novel’s success launched Heinlein’s career as a respected author.

Related: The 5 Movies That Gave Us ‘Star Wars’

Stranger in a Strange Land

Following the success of Starship Troopers, Heinlein wrote a more ambitious novel — Stranger in a Strange Land.

The novel follows Valentine Smith, a human who was raised on Mars but is sent back to Earth to study human culture. Smith finds Earth run by organized religions that have demilitarized the world’s nations in the wake of a third world war. Smith then strives to transform Earth’s single culture by introducing the idea of God being within every human. 

The novel is aggressively libertarian and challenges religious and societal institutions. The book’s indirect criticism of American culture (which Heinlein believed was in moral decline) struck a chord with readers.

Robert Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land became the first sci-fi novel to make The New York Times bestseller list. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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. 

Lasting Legacy

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. 

Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, at which he was the guest of honor. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“Anyone who thinks Science Fiction can be written without science deserves to go and room with the person who thinks that historical novels can be written without a knowledge of history,” Heinlein said during a 1978 speech at the World Science Fiction Convention.

Today, Starship Troopers remains on the United States Naval Academy reading list and the Marine Corps Commandant’s reading list. Without Heinlein’s pioneering work, we would never have seen Master Chief defend the human race, Darth Vader use the Force, or Iron Man form the Avengers. Without him, sci-fi would likely still be little more than bubble gum literature. 

Read Next: Ernest Hemingway: The Highly Decorated Soldier Who Never Served

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

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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