Robert A. Heinlein
the universe as fiction
Robert A. Heinlein is sometimes referred to as the Master by his fans, and the title is only deserved. Heinlein's career began during the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1940's and continued until his death some four decades later. Moreover, even the more dated of his books are still quite readable. He's best known for his 1960's work Stranger in a Strange Land, and through that book and others has been remarkably influential. To him we owe the words "grok" and "waldo", the latter being a remote manipulator used to isolate operators from dangerous environments. He was the first author to self-consciously write a series of otherwise unrelated science fiction stories taking place in a common future; this was his Future History. If he wasn't the first to come up with the idea of powered battle armor, his description of it in Starship Troopers has become one of the standard props of space opera, right alongside Faster-Than-Light travel and anti-gravity.
I'm not fond of everything Heinlein wrote; I've never been much attracted to his early books, the juveniles (Have Spacesuit Will Travel, Between Planets, etc.), and I found The Number of the Beast and Job sufficiently unpleasant that I never read anything he wrote after those two pieces. In between those two eras, however, are a dozen or so really excellent and enjoyable books. I'd like to call attention to my particular favorites.
Glory Road is, I think, Heinlein's only excursion into heroic fantasy; there's a science-fictional explanation for everything, but it's swords and dragons and horse-like beasts of burden and (in large measure) vaguely medieval settings, so I think the fantasy tag fits. It's a delightful romp, in which a Korean War vet named Evelyn Cyril (E.C., or Easy) Gordon is recruited by the Queen of the Universes to help save the Phoenix Egg. It's swash-buckling and thought-provoking both, an unusual combination, and has the best descriptions of sword fights I've come across. Heinlein had studied fencing once upon a time, and he describes each fight as a fencer would, using the terms appropriate to the sport. Even though "he parried in quarte" conveys less to me than a precise description of the movement of the two blades would, the increase in atmosphere and authority more than makes up for it. This book is also unusual in posing (and answering) the question, "What do you with heroes when the quest is over?" (They marry the girl and live happily ever after...don't they? Perhaps not...)
Starship Troopers is one of Heinlein's more controversial, being equal parts military adventure and rightwing political theory; the same folks who embrace the sexual freedom of Stranger in a Strange Land recoil from this one, which is their loss. It's the story of a young man who joins the marines, and so is like any other story of boot camp and courage under fire; but these marines wear powered battle armor and are dropped onto the planet's surface by spacecraft. Much of the book, though, consists of the lead's memories of his classes in moral and political philosophy, and these, more than the action sequences, are what drive it.
In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a Lunar colony has been established as a penal colony. Political prisoners, gangsters, and so forth are transported there, to survive as best they can. By this time, the colony has been in existence long enough that many generations of native citizens have been born to the original transportees, and the colony is ripe for rebellion. The novel is the story of that rebellion, but it's also the story of a computer tech named Manny, his remarkably unusual family, and a really nice self-aware computer named Mike. This is my favorite of all Heinlein's work.
Stranger in a Strange Land is, as I've said, Heinlein's best known work. It's about a young man raised entirely by aliens, and the effect of that upbringing on his character; more than that, it's the story of his impact on the nations of Earth. It's got some memorable characters, but I think it's somewhat overrated, and also somewhat dated; many bits calculated to shock in the 60's are now, through the medium of daytime TV talk shows, simply dull.
Time Enough For Love is, on the other hand, Heinlein's masterwork. It's a grand, sprawling tale, the memoirs of Lazarus Long, nee Woodrow Wilson Smith, born in 1912 and still alive over 2000 years later. Like so many of Heinlein's later books it's thoroughly saturated with the whole "free love" thing he launched in Stranger in a Strange Land, something I find rather tiresome, but despite that it's an engaging, enjoyable, compelling read, and I recommend it highly.
Now, having lauded my favorites I feel I should give equal time to some of his failures, beginning with I Will Fear No Evil. The most I want to say about this book is that I mentioned that I was reading it to another Heinlein fan, he asked "Why?". After finishing it, I had to agree. It's got sex in it, but that's about the only draw; and as I've said, Heinlein's take on sex grows tiresome.
The Number of the Beast is the turning point between Heinlein's best work and a string of real dogs. In theory it looks good: it's an homage to , and it has a nifty gimmick: the universes we know as fiction really exist. And in every universe, some subset of the others exist in fiction. This gimmick allows his heroes to travel to Barsoom, Oz, and a number of other delightful places, ultimately meeting many of his other characters. There's a long sequence with Lazarus Long and his family, post-Time Enough For Love, for example, and the book ends with a blowout which brings characters from most of Heinlein's books together at a single huge party. I liked it the first time I read it. Some years later, though, I tried to re-read it, and discovered that the gimmick was all it had going for it: once the novelty had worn off, it was simply dull and overwhelmingly tedious.
I read one or two of the books written after this one, but things never seemed to improve. Job was the deathblow; I didn't like it even the first time.
Books by Robert A. Heinlein
This is by no means a complete list of Heinlein's work; rather, I've listed those books I find particularly good or otherwise commented on above.