I was recently asked which authors had most influenced my writing, and the question got me reminiscing about my childhood. To my surprise, I could think of few authors from that period of my life who really affected me much as a writer. Of course, it’s possible that I’m actually deeply affected by them, but can’t recognize it because their influences were introduced so early that they formed the foundations of both my reading and writing, but let’s be honest: I don’t write like A. A. Milne. At least I don’t think I do.
If I had to pick one author whose writing I’d most like to emulate, it would be Robert Heinlein. I was a pretty late addition to the RAH fan club, being over thirty years old when my mother finally got around to introducing his books to me. I’m not sure why it took her so long, since she was the one who got me into science fiction and fantasy in the first place, but it may have to do with some of the adult themes in his later books.
At any rate, I was hooked from the first book I read, which was “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel,” the last of what are known as his “juveniles.” Since my mother didn’t like his older works as much, that’s what was available to me, and I worked my way through her library until I was forced to reach out on my own and collect the rest, including his more adult-oriented works.
What draws me to Heinlein is the way he conveys his settings. I love his way of describing scenes almost in passing, often using dialog, rather than long, prosaic passages outlining every last detail. I notice what the characters notice; the rest is filled in by my imagination, or left blank as desired. His characters, too, are admirable: not full of themselves, but reliable and determined in a stubborn sort of way, and probably smarter than they (the characters) believe themselves to be. His snappy, sassy dialog is fun to read, and I found myself devouring book after book.
As I delved into his later works, I was intrigued and challenged by his socially liberal viewpoints. These are sometimes introduced under the guise of “smart people make their own rules,” but I eventually came to understand that his philosophy was more along the lines of “if it doesn’t hurt anyone, it ought to be allowed.” It might be too much to say that Heinlein was groundbreaking, but he did challenge prevailing morals fairly early in his career, at a time when it was dangerous to do so, including premarital and extra-marital sex, homosexuality, plural marriage, transgenderism, and even incest. At no time, however, does he ever condone anything non-consensual—although I did find his undercurrents of preadolescent sexuality a trifle troubling.
Heinlein’s social views were part of a larger libertarian stance that is often echoed in his work. The older I get, the less appealing this is to me, but he didn’t trowel it on so thickly that I can’t enjoy his work today. Some of the underlying aspects—such as personal responsibility and accountability—still ring true, but I can’t help thinking that he might have changed his mind about weakening the power of government if he saw today’s governance in action. Then again, he may be spinning in his grave at the loss of privacy in the name of security. I find it difficult to label him politically—today’s libertarians are not the same species as those of his day—but all of his stories lean heavily on the idea of justice, especially for the individual over the collective, whether it be country, corporation, or church. He was staunchly anti-racist, although imperfectly so, and decidedly feminist while still harboring some unexorcised prejudices.
Years later I find myself trying to emulate him, perhaps more than any other author. My characters are modeled in part after his, and I’ve borrowed some of his socio-political themes, which I’ve tempered with my own leanings. But before I start writing something descriptive, I often ask myself if Heinlein would have thought it important. The answer frequently saves me some typing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Tolkein as much as the next geek, but let’s face it: it can be slog to read, and I don’t want to do that to my readers.
What I try NOT to do is to limit my female characters the way he did. While they are usually smart, confident, competent, and complex, they are almost NEVER in a position of authority—unless it’s at the head of a household. Plus, they were always horny. Not to the exclusion of other important things, but much more so than his male characters ever were. How much of this was due to the time he grew up in is hard to say, but I feel like he came so far and refused to take the final step. Was it laziness? Male fantasy? Or just some out-dated, quasi-romantic viewpoint that he clung to? Whatever the reason, it’s something I strive to avoid.
That and all the sex. I certainly don’t mind reading about sex, but I can’t write it. Maybe it’s because I initially intended to write for a younger audience, but even now I’m just not comfortable delving into that subject on paper. Who knows…maybe I’ll change in my old age.
Are any of you Heinlein fans? If so, which were your favorites works? I think I’ve read most of what he’s written, aside from some posthumously published short stories that he himself referred to as “stinkeroos,” but maybe I’ll get around to those too.