Category Archives: Heinlein, Robert A.

Attributing opinions to an author

Can we ever attribute comments that a character in a story makes to be the opinions of the author who wrote them?

This question comes to me often when reading various authors like Robert Heinlein, and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinleinrecently, to a lesser extent, Ursula Le Guin.  When an author writes about something “political”, we seem to automatically ask that question.  Should we attribute certain remarks in a book as being of the author’s true political opinion?

I would venture to say that most science fiction authors (or rather, most authors) do not state strong opinions in their writing.  They neither state them nor dwell on them, because they run the risk of becoming “political” or siding with a certain political or religious group.

Statements by certain characters, such as the “good guy”, may indicate a leaning by the author. I say “good guy” because that is a major factor.  A good guy (forgive my simplicity here regarding good vs bad) who gives an opinion should be more likely to be representative of what the author thinks, than if a “bad guy” gives it.  Simple enough.

In general I regard this as a dangerous practice, attributing an opinion to the author, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

Oftentimes good guys are of mixed morals.  (Some would say the best good guys are of mixed morals!)  They follow the good “moral” path only after certain events and perhaps emotions goad them into doing so.  So it would be dangerous to assume anything that this type of character says to be what the author believes, for that and other reasons.  But perhaps a long-time good guy or elder in a story, may give more indication of the author’s true beliefs.

Ayn RandI’ve deemed certain authors political, like John Barnes, Heinlein, and Ayn Rand, but I came to that conclusion only after a pattern emerged that led me there.  And maybe that’s what it comes down to.  There must be an overt pattern in a story or an author’s books that all of them point in one direction, toward that opinion, before you should safely make that claim.

Regardless of all of this, I think nearly all authors are trying to get a point across about humanity and if they can let you figure it out, without being explicit, but lead you to the answers piece by piece, their job has been to some extent completed.

At least that’s my take on it.

Clarke vs Heinlein: polar opposites

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. ClarkeRendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

This book was a truly wonderful experience after reading so much Heinlein.  It was my first Clarke book, but even though, I could tell that he and Heinlein are absolute polar opposites in their writing styles and content.

Heinlein’s copious dialogue, over the top personality quirks, and political opinions are tiring over time.  He seems to put his two cents in wherever it will fit into a story.  Clarke, on the other hand, is light on drama and personality, and heavy on straight forward information and scientific realism.

This is a book without human drama, instead filled with human “history” (future history) and significant detail about a fascinating scientific phenomenon.

Rendezvous with Rama highlights the moment in human history when we have our first encounter with an alien civilization.  No aliens actually appear in the book but we get beautiful glimpses of a civilization with technology far surpassing ours that is traveling in a manner we do not understand, and whom we may never meet.

Don’t get me wrong, there are human characters and we hear about their lives to some extent, which are very different than ours, both in function and philosophy, but if you need a break from the endless drama of the average fiction book, look to Arthur C. Clarke.

Interstellar: A nod to Heinlein?

Interstellar:  a question & a nod to Heinlein? (MOVIE SPOILER)

InterstellarThis is an awe-inspiring wonderful film and I highly recommend it.  But one part at the end left me puzzled a bit.

When Cooper is saved by the humans who left Earth, and many years have passed for them while only a few for him, he is directed in to where his aged dying daughter lies amid family.  He is still about 40 years old or so, while his daughter is quite old.  Her family, hence his family, surrounds her bed.  Why doesn’t he greet them as family?  They would have undoubtedly seen his photo before and would recognize him and want to meet their grandfather or great-grandfather, or whatever.  And wouldn’t he be curious to know who they were since they were his decedents?  At least say hi?

I know it would have stalled the end of the movie, but I think it would have been good to have a brief interaction between them to clear this strangeness up.


When he is led into the hospital room where his daughter is, the nurse refers to “the family” being there around his daughter.  Perhaps this is the detached attitude of a nurse but wouldn’t she say “her” family?  Or even “your” family?  But no she says “the family”. Could this be a nod to Heinlein’s “The Family” from his Future History series?

Another possible nod to Heinlein could be the name Lazarus that is mentioned multiple times.  The Lazarus Missions are the ones that went through the worm hole 10 years before our protagonists do.  The name Lazarus is a historical and biblical name that conjures resurrection and coming back from death, so it is certainly applicable in this use in Interstellar, but it is also one of the most well-known characters in Heinlein’s works, Lazarus Long, being the head of “The Family” in the Future History series.

(There are various comments about Interstellar in regards to Heinlein and other sci-fi writers if you do a Google search.  A couple of people see some of the philosophical or political statements as being Heinlein-influenced.)

Just speculation, but it could be that the creators of this film read Heinlein in their younger adult lives and wanted to do a little shout out to him, that man of science fiction who made us familiar with aliens, the stars, and ourselves over many a decade…

Heinlein quote


How did “space cadet” come to mean airhead?

Space Cadet by Robert A. HeinleinEver wonder how the term “space cadet” became synonymous with “airhead”?

Heinlein wasn’t the only one using the term when Space Cadet was published in 1948; Joseph Greene had already submitted a radio script with it in the title.

Wikipedia tries to explain:

Space Cadet - Tom Corbett“As Greene had submitted his radio script for “Tom Ranger and the Space Cadets” on January 16, 1946, prior to Robert A. Heinlein’s 1948 Space Cadet but Heinlein influenced the evolution of “Tom Ranger” into “Tom Corbett” and launched his student astronaut title’s common mention, they share credit for the popularity of both formal and later slang uses of “space cadet…

The Tom Corbett, Space Cadet television series and radio show made “space cadet” a household phrase. By 1955, Jackie Gleason spoke the phrase on The Honeymooners television show in an episode called ‘TV Tom Corbett, Space Cadetor not to TV’, original air date October 1st, 1955.

The popular meanings of “space cadet” later shifted in popular culture away from astronaut-in-training to indicate, by the 1960s, an “eccentric person disconnected with reality” (often implying an intimacy with hallucinogenic drugs) although by the 2010s, drug abuse was rarely implied by this phrase, nor was low intelligence implied; “space cadet” was more simply associated with “spacing out,” wandering from present concerns, especially of others present, and being a “space case” with its alliterative rhyme. Both the “trainee astronaut” and “person regarded as being out of touch with reality” entered the Oxford Dictionary for English language, though by 2014 Oxford notes that in American English, the phrase had also recouped the positive connotations originally meant by Heinlein and Joseph Greene, the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet writer: ‘An enthusiast for space travel, typically a young person.'”

Heinlein’s Interplanetary Patrol

Book:  Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein (1948)

Space Cadet by Robert A. HeinleinAfter reading a handful of Heinlein novels, I’ve come to view him as a realist when it comes to human behavior.  But his optimistic side is also quite apparent, not just with the idea that humans can make it into space and travel all over the solar system and galaxy, but also the way he organizes his future societies.

The “Interplanetary Patrol” in this book is a military organization that keeps the peace, partly with the threat of being the only organization that wields nuclear power (called atomic power by Heinlein).  But the Patrol’s ultimate goal is to protect the inhabitants of the solar system (humans have colonized planets and aliens inhabit some of them also), and they take their jobs seriously.  This is the oath they take:

“Of my own free will, without reservation –

I swear to uphold the peace of the solar system –

to protect the lawful liberties of its inhabitants –

to defend the constitution of the Solar Federation –

to carry out the duties of the position to which I am now appointed –

and to obey the lawful orders of my superior officers.

To these ends I subordinate all other loyalties and renounce utterly any that may conflict with them.”

Heinlein also describes how people who go into the “Patrol” have a higher purpose than marines or money-seeking individuals.  Marines value loyalty and obedience, while the Patrol goes to great lengths to keep the peace, using negotiation over brute force and not sending troops until all else has been exhausted.

It’s nice to think that humans would not immediately send troops into a skirmish on Venus, that they would have rules to reign in their own violent tendencies, but it’s hard to fathom in light of all the violence in the world today.  I’m all for Heinlein’s optimism though.  Great fun read for young adults as well as for those who are not so young like me.  🙂

Race Prejudice on Venus (Heinlein)

Book:  Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein (1948)

Heinlein tackles the concept of racism in this book.  It’s a pretty gutsy move, but you have to keep in mind that Heinlein must have been a generally ballsy dude to even speculate about things like space travel and future technology.

Considering this is a young adult sci-fi book, you have to hand it to him for trying to steer kids in the right direction when it comes to prejudice and discrimination.

Space Cadet by Robert A. HeinleinThe planet Venus is inhabited by aliens called frog people; humans also live on Venus and have surveyed the surface and concluded that there are valuable metals to be mined.  Humans kidnap the leader of the Venusians, causing warfare that leads to many deaths including most of the human surveying crew.  This leaves only the captain of the crew who then encounters our heroes (space cadets who have been sent to investigate the unrest on Venus) when they are being held by the Venusians.

While all of them are being held they speak candidly about the aliens.  The captain has racist feelings toward the “Venerians” and is enraged by the killing of his crew even though his actions are what caused them.  He calls them “beasts” and “brutes” and “frogs”, while our heroes insist they are “people”.  The captain accuses one of the space cadets of siding with the frog people against a man.

Good thing then that one of the young men lived on Venus before going into the space academy, and he had been able to set the record straight to his friends beforehand.  Some dialogue:

“Matt [the main character] nodded.  ‘I know that they are described as being a gentle, unwarlike race.  I can’t imagine becoming really fond of them, but the spools I studied showed them as friendly.’

‘That’s just race prejudice. A Venerian is easier to like than a man.’

‘Oz, that’s not fair,’ Tex protested. Matt hasn’t got any race prejudice and neither have I.  Take Lieutenant Peters – did it make any difference to us that he’s as black as the ace of spades?’

‘That’s not the same thing – a Venerian is really different.’”

Not exactly how we would speak now, but still on the right track to tell young adults that there is no difference between white people and black people, and to point out how subtle “race prejudice” is.


The frog people of Venus (Heinlein)

Book:  Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein (1948)

The most striking thing to me about this story is how humans want to exploit resources on another planet and will be deceptive in order to reach those ends.

Space Cadet by Robert A. HeinleinIn Space Cadet, the planet Venus is inhabited by what humans call Little People since they are short, or “frog people” because they are like amphibians.  Unfortunately, Heinlein gives very little description of what they look like and that is one of my few complaints about this book.

The Venusians are pretty good-natured according to one of the young men who lived on Venus.  He says that they “don’t have the cussedness in them that humans have.”

The females are the only ones any humans have seen, and they speak using the term “mother” for nearly all individuals who are of high rank.

The fact that Venus is inhabited doesn’t stop humans from determining what valuable metals exist there and strong-arming the inhabitants in order to get access to them.

When watching Avatar, I had not realized this storyline had been developed so many years prior.  Avatar takes it to a much more detailed and exciting conclusion, but the idea is planted by Heinlein with Space Cadet.   Fun book with lots of great ideas for the time.

The Temperature of Space (Heinlein)

Book:  Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

This is a fun young adult sci-fi novel first published in 1948, which makes it a study of the past more than a study of the future.

Space Cadet by Robert A. HeinleinThe main character, Matt Dodson, goes through a space academy and eventually has a real space adventure.  When in the academy he learns by using something like microfilm.

“When class was dismissed he hurried to his room and into his own cubicle, selected a spool on Martian history, inserted it in his projector, and began to study.”

In other books, Heinlein’s characters read using a projector that projects onto the ceiling while they are laying down.  I actually love this idea and it solves the problem of holding up a heavy book at night!

But no, we have not solved that problem yet have we (unless you count a reading pad but you still have to hold that up!).

Later, Matt becomes “air-conditioning engineer” when he travels to the outer reaches of the solar system on his first mission.  This means something different than we would first assume.  The ship’s air is conditioned by living plants so that it can achieve the correct balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.  The plants “scavenge carbon dioxide from the air and replace it with oxygen.” 

But when too many plants are growing at one time “the air in the ship would get too fresh and the plants would start to fail for lack of carbon dioxide to feed on.  Matt had to watch his CO2 count and sometimes build it up by burning waste paper or plant cuttings.”

You’ve got to give Heinlein props for creativity and for simply going out on a limb to make his story well-rounded.

Later, when Matt and the rest of the crew find a ship that has not returned to Earth, they find it was punctured by a meteor and lost pressure, killing all on board.

“The plants in the air conditioner had died for lack of attention and carbon dioxide.”

Not from freezing though.  You can read about the temperature of space by doing a simple Google search, and Heinlein was right that heat can be a problem when the sun’s rays hit a piece of metal, but perhaps he didn’t know that in the shade, an object (space has no temperature which Heinlein knew) can reach as low as -100 degrees Celsius.

Understandable, and a fun quick read.

Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

Book:  Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

Space Cadet by Robert A. HeinleinLike many stories, this one was a little dry at the beginning put picked up in the middle and was pretty action-packed toward the end.  As a young adult novella, Space Cadet is full of interesting futuristic ideas as viewed from 1948 when it was first published.

Heinlein gives just the right amount of wonk and tech-talk to satisfy the young scientifically aspiring mind, but not too much to overwhelm him (or her!).

The story is essentially the coming of age of several young space cadets who eventually have an adventure on the inhabited planet of Venus.

Heinlein had to make up some stuff here, plain and simple. The earth had never been viewed from space by humans so he has to fill in the blanks:

Earth From Space Wallpaper from
Earth From Space Wallpaper from

“It was high noon over the Atlantic.  Beyond it, bright in the afternoon sunlight, hecould make out the British Isles, Spain and the brassy Sahara.  The browns and greens of land were in great contrast to the deep purple of the ocean.  In still greater contrast stood the white dazzle of cloud.  As his eye approached the distant, rounded horizon the details softened, giving a strong effect of stereo, of depth, of three-dimensional globularness – the world indeed was round! … Round and green and beautiful!”

Seeing the roundness of Earth from space, through a spaceship window, would certainly be a thrill.  Heinlein intones it with wonder.   More on this book in the next post.

Joe the Robot Pilot (Heinlein)

Book: Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein

Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A HeinleinI have now finally read a really good space cowboy adventure!

The story started out slow, even boring, since teenage-boy-rocket-stuff is not my thing.  But the second half was truly action packed with a surprise around every corner.

The fun really starts when the boys and the doctor get into the rocket and fly to the moon.

After initially steering the rocket in the general direction of the moon, the doctor lets “Joe the Robot” correct his course, steering toward where the moon will be, not where it was then.

This robot pilot is part of the computer, not an actual object, mind you.

“He turned full control over to Joe, the robot pilot.  That mindless mechanical-and-electronic worthy figuratively shook his non-existent head and decided he did not like the course.  The image of the moon swung ‘down’ and toward the bow, in terms of the ordinary directions in the ship, until the rocket was headed in a direction nearly forty degrees further east than was the image of the moon.”

Very specific!

(Interesting that he used the word “worthy” as a noun.  According to a worthy is a person of eminent worth, merit, or position.)

A little more about Joe:

“Joe had not been invented by Cargraves [the main character]. Thousands of scientists, engineers and mathematicians had contributed to his existence. His grandfathers had guided the Nazi V-2 rockets in the horror-haunted last days of World War II.  His fathers had been developed for the deadly, ocean-spanning guided-missiles of the UN world police force.  His brothers and sisters were found in every rocket ship, private and commercial, passenger-carrying or unmanned, that cleft the skies of earth.”

Fun book.