Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn

More than a decade ago, I was in the audience to see my clever friend Farah Mendlesohn interview Iain Banks. In preparation, Farah had read all his books again - the sci-fi and the non sci-fi - and was brilliant at spotting links and themes between them that seemed wholly original to me (I'd studied Banks as part of my MA and published a paper on his stuff in the academic journal Foundation). That evening was a perfect example of what I hanker for in criticism: diligent research to dig out something new.

Farah's new book The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein (2019) does the same thing: she picks carefully through everything Heinlein produced in a long and prolific career, and joins the dots between them. After an initial chapter of biography, there are sections devoted to: Heinlein's Narrative Arc; Technique; Rhetoric; Heinlein and Civic Society; Heinlein and the Civic Revolution; Racism, Anti-Racism and the Construction of Civic Society; The Right Ordering of Self; and Heinlein's Gendered Self.

I'd thought this might be a counterpoint to the description of Heinlein in Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding, which I so enjoyed last year (and reviewed for the Lancet Psychiatry). It is in some ways, but it's more a deep dig into the meaning and context of the work he produced. It's exemplary and exhaustive, often witty and insightful, packed with academic rigour in an engaging plain style. I like, too, that it's often very personal: Farah's own life experience informs her judgements and insights. If I struggled at times, it's simply because I don't know Heinlein's work very well. Farah has made me want to correct that, and then try her assessment again.

One thing in particular has really stayed me: a caveat in the preface that I think has much wider application to those of us who love old fictions of one sort or another:
"It is not terribly clear how much more influential Heinlein will become. The critical voices are getting louder, and although as a historian I frequently want critics to have a stronger sense of context ... we live now, in our context, and what was radical once we can recognise as problematic, and something to be argued against. For all I value Heinlein I do not require him to continue to be read or valued as contemporary fiction. Because I am a historian, discussing the really terrible Heinlein works can be enfolded into a discussion of his limitations (both rhetorical and political) and understood without serving as some kind of justification. As a historian, I am perfectly happy to know that I like Heinlein without feeling that it is essential that newcomers to science fiction need to read him," (pp. xii-xiii)

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