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Robert Anson Heinlein

Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907 – May 8, 1988) was an American science fiction writer. Often called "the dean of science fiction writers", he was one of the most popular, influential, and controversial authors of the genre. He set a high standard for science and engineering plausibility and helped to raise the genre's standards of literary quality. He was one of the first writers to break into mainstream, general magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, in the late 1940s, with unvarnished science fiction. He was among the first authors of bestselling, novel-length science fiction in the modern, mass-market era. For many years, Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke were known as the "Big Three" of science fiction.

Heinlein was a notable writer of science-fiction short stories, and he was one of a group of writers who were groomed in their writing by John W. Campbell, Jr. the editor of Astounding magazine—though Heinlein himself denied that Campbell influenced his writing to any great degree.

Within the framework of his science fiction stories, Heinlein repeatedly integrated recognizable social themes: The importance of individual liberty and self-reliance, the obligation individuals owe to their societies, the influence of organized religion on culture and government, and the tendency of society to repress non-conformist thought. He also examined the relationship between physical and emotional love, explored various unorthodox family structures, and speculated on the influence of space travel on human cultural practices. His iconoclastic approach to these themes led to wildly divergent perceptions of his works and attempts to place mutually contradictory labels on his work. For example, his 1959 novel Starship Troopers was regarded by some as advocating militarism and to some extent fascism, although many passages in the book disparage the inflexibility and stupidity of a purely militaristic mindset. By contrast, his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land put him in the unexpected role of a pied piper of the sexual revolution, and of the counterculture, and through this book he was credited with popularizing the notion of polyamory.

Heinlein won Hugo Awards for four of his novels; in addition, fifty years after publication, three of his works were awarded "Retro Hugos"—awards given retrospectively for years in which Hugo Awards had not been awarded. He also won the first Grand Master Award given by the Science Fiction Writers of America for his lifetime achievement. In his fiction, Heinlein coined words that have become part of the English language, including "grok" and "waldo", and popularized the term "TANSTAAFL" (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.)

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988)
Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988)

Early work, 1939-1958

The first novel that Heinlein wrote, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (1939), did not see print during his lifetime, but Robert James later tracked down the manuscript and it was published in 2003. Widely regarded as a failure as a novel, being little more than a disguised lecture on Heinlein's social theories, it is intriguing as a window into the development of Heinlein's radical ideas about man as a social animal, including his interest in free love. The root of many themes found in his later stories can be found in this book. It also contained much material that could be considered background for his other novels, including a detailed description of the protagonist's treatment to avoid being banned into Coventry (a place in the Heinlein mythos where unrepentant law-breakers are sent to experience actual anarchy).

It appears that Heinlein at least attempted to live in a manner consistent with these ideals, even in the 1930s, and had an open relationship in his marriage to his second wife, Leslyn. He was also a nudist; nudism and body taboos are frequently discussed in his work. At the height of the cold war, he built a bomb shelter under his house, like the one featured in Farnham's Freehold.

After For Us, The Living, Heinlein began selling (to magazines) first short stories, then novels, set in a Future History, complete with a time line of significant political, cultural, and technological changes. A chart of the future history was published in the May 1941 issue of Astounding. Over time, Heinlein wrote many novels and short stories that deviated freely from the Future History on some points, while maintaining consistency in some other areas. The Future History was also eventually overtaken by actual events. These discrepancies were explained, after a fashion, in his later World as Myth stories.

Heinlein's first novel published as a book, Rocket Ship Galileo, was initially rejected because going to the moon was considered too far out, but he soon found a publisher, Scribner's, that began publishing a Heinlein juvenile once a year for the Christmas season. Eight of these books were illustrated by Clifford Geary in a distinctive white-on-black scratchboard style. Some representative novels of this type are Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Farmer in the Sky, and Starman Jones. Many of these were first published in serial form under other titles, e.g., Farmer in the Sky was published as Satellite Scout in the Boy Scout magazine Boys' Life. There has been speculation that Heinlein's intense obsession with his privacy was due at least in part to the apparent contradiction between his unconventional private life and his career as an author of books for children, but For Us, The Living also explicitly discusses the political importance Heinlein attached to privacy as a matter of principle.

The novels that Heinlein wrote for a young audience are commonly referred to as "the Heinlein juveniles", and they feature a mixture of adolescent and adult themes. Many of the issues that he takes on in these books have to do with the kinds of problems that adolescents experience. His protagonists are usually very intelligent teenagers who have to make their way in the adult society they see around them. On the surface, they are simple tales of adventure, achievement, and dealing with stupid teachers and jealous peers. However, Heinlein was a vocal proponent of the notion that juvenile readers were far more sophisticated and able to handle complex or difficult themes than most people realized. Thus even his juvenile stories often had a maturity to them that made them readable for adults. Red Planet, for example, portrays some very subversive themes, including a revolution in which young students are involved; his editor demanded substantial changes in this book's discussion of topics such as the use of weapons by children and the misidentified sex of the Martian character. Heinlein was always aware of the editorial limitations put in place by the editors of his novels and stories, and while he observed those restrictions on the surface, was often successful in introducing ideas not often seen in other authors' juvenile SF.

In 1957, James Blish wrote that one reason for Heinlein's success "has been the high grade of machinery which goes, today as always, into his story-telling. Heinlein seems to have known from the beginning, as if instinctively, technical lessons about fiction which other writers must learn the hard way (or often enough, never learn). He does not always operate the machinery to the best advantage, but he always seems to be aware of it." 

Middle period work, 1959-1973

(1959-1960

Heinlein decisively ended his juvenile novels with Starship Troopers (1959), a controversial work and his personal riposte to leftists calling for President Dwight D. Eisenhower to stop nuclear testing in 1958. "[Heinlein] called for the formation of the Patrick Henry League and spent the next several weeks writing and publishing his own polemic that lambasted 'Communist-line goals concealed in idealistic-sounding nonsense' and urged Americans not to become 'soft-headed'. ... Critics labeled Heinlein everything from a Nazi to a racist."

"The "Patrick Henry" ad shocked 'em,' he wrote many years later. "Starship Troopers outraged 'em."

Starship Troopers is a coming-of-age story about duty, citizenship, and the role of the military in society. The book portrays a society in which suffrage is given only to those who earn it through government service, in the protagonist's case, military service. Later, in Expanded Universe, Heinlein said that it was his intention in the novel that service would include positions outside strictly military functions and would include teachers, police officers, and other government positions. The primary thing was, the individual didn't get to decide what job they got—it was a "take me, I'm yours" scenario. In addition, suffrage was only attained after leaving the assigned service, thus (in defiance of those who claim his proposed society was jingoist, militaristic, or fascist) the active military itself was excluded from exercising any franchise. Career military were completely disenfranchised until retirement. 

Later work, 1980–1987 

After a seven-year hiatus brought on by poor health, Heinlein produced five new novels in the period from 1980 (The Number of the Beast) to 1987 (To Sail Beyond the Sunset). These books have a thread of common characters and time and place. They most explicitly communicated Heinlein's philosophies and beliefs, and many long, didactic passages of dialog and exposition deal with government, sex, and religion. These novels are controversial among his readers, and some critics have written about them very negatively. Heinlein's four Hugo awards were all for books written before this period. All of the books are written with the more heavily didactic style introduced with Starship Troopers.

Some of these books, such as The Number of the Beast and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, start out as tightly constructed adventure stories, but transform into philosophical fantasias at the end. It is a matter of opinion whether this demonstrates a lack of attention to craftsmanship or a conscious effort to expand the boundaries of science fiction, either into a kind of magical realism, continuing the process of literary exploration that he had begun with Stranger in a Strange Land, or into a kind of literary metaphor of quantum science (The Number of the Beast dealing with the Observer problem, and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls being a direct reference to the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment). Most of the novels from this period are recognized by critics as forming an offshoot from the Future History series, and referred to by the term World as Myth.

The tendency toward authorial self-reference begun in Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love becomes even more evident in novels such as The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, whose first-person protagonist is a disabled military veteran who becomes a writer, and finds love with a female character who, like many of Heinlein's strong female characters, appears to be based closely on his wife Ginny.

The 1982 novel Friday, a more conventional adventure story (borrowing a character and backstory from the earlier short story Gulf, also containing suggestions of connection to The Puppet Masters) continued a Heinlein theme of expecting what he saw as the continued disintegration of Earth's society, to the point where the title character is strongly encouraged to seek a new life off-planet. It concludes with a traditional Heinlein note, as in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Time Enough for Love that freedom is to be found on the frontiers.

The 1984 novel Job: A Comedy of Justice is a sharp satire of organized religion. 

Posthumous publications

Several Heinlein works have been published since his death, including the aforementioned For Us, The Living as well as 1989's Grumbles from the Grave, a collection of letters between Heinlein and his editors and agent; 1992's Tramp Royale, a travelogue of a southern hemisphere tour the Heinleins took in the 1950s; Take Back Your Government, a how-to book about participatory democracy written in 1946; and a tribute volume called Requiem: Collected Works and Tributes to the Grand Master, containing some additional short works previously unpublished in book form. Off the Main Sequence, published in 2005, includes three short stories never before collected in any Heinlein book (Heinlein called them "stinkeroos").

Spider Robinson, a colleague, friend, and admirer of Heinlein, wrote Variable Star, based on an outline and notes for a juvenile novel that Heinlein prepared in 1955. The novel was published as a collaboration, with Heinlein's name above Robinson's on the cover, in 2006.

A complete collection of Heinlein's published work, conformed and copyedited by several Heinlein scholars including biographer William H. Patterson is being published by the Heinlein Trust as the "Virginia Edition", after his wife; the volumes are printed on 50 lb acid-free archival paper and bound in leather. The series price for 44 volumes is $1500.