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Writing this so I can point to it in the future.

After reading for the nth time someone saying they once tried reading (insert title of mid-late Heinlein novel here) and ran away screaming, I thought I'd write up a little primer on how to discover if Heinlein wrote anything you might want to read.

Because if you pick up a highly recommended and easy to find Heinlein novel, chances are you're going to find yourself reading something written by a half-senile right-wingnut elitist libertarian nudist with an incest fetish who regularly interrupts his story to lecture you at length on his really quite peculiar ideas about sex and the virtues of polyamorous marriages. Chances are you're going put the book down and make a mental note that one should avoid Heinlein at all costs.

Which is just fine, except that not all Heinlein is like that. Early in his career, he was a left-wing socialist. Later on, he wrote a lot of books for boys that attempted to preach racial equality and tolerance. Then around 1959, he suddenly turned into an angry old man who wrote books full of ranting and lectures to the reader about politics and sex. Even then, he still managed to write some good books that weren't too annoyingly in-your-face with his politics and fetishes.

So, the question for Heinlein is not so much "what should I read first" as "what should I avoid as my first exposure to this person?" The problem is that as he got older, he got less and less able to keep his fetishes and quirks under control, and tended to let it all hang out. Which, given that he was a devoted nudist, is definitely not what you want to be exposed to when trying to get to know someone.

The last place to start with Heinlein are the brick sized novels he wrote in his dotage (after 1970). Not only are they long rambling books full of lectures about sex and group marriage and how people on welfare are parasites, but they tend not to work all that well as novels either. Some of them are fun if flawed, but you don't want to read one to find out if you're going to enjoy "books by Heinlein" or not.

The novels he wrote between 1959 and 1970 tend to be much better plotted, but they're just as full of angry lectures about sex and politics, so, likewise, not for a first go. Which means just about all of the award-winning and famous novels Heinlein wrote are not good places to start.

The place to start is with his early work. Not only are the books much shorter (so you'll be wasting less of your time if they're not for you) but they're also less angry and politically seem to come from an entirely different galaxy than the later works.

There are a few exceptions -- "Sixth Column" is a nasty example of "yellow peril" racism which he wrote on spec based on an outline by John W Campbell. The racist views in it are Campbell's, and it's best avoided. "The Puppet Masters" is a horror novel and a specimen of Cold War paranoia, kind of dated. The love interest for the hero in "The Door into Summer" is a young girl to whom he is a father figure of sorts (time travel lets him still be young when she finally gets old enough to marry), so, squick.

But in general, if you want to find out why it is that Heinlein became famous in SF before he was adopted as a patron saint of libertarians, if you want to find out why he remains so influential in the field of SF that numerous left-wing, non-libertarian authors, from Varley to Stross and Doctorow write homages and pastiches of his work, then the place to start is, first, with the short stories and novels that he wrote for magazine publication in the 30's and 40's, and second, with the novels that he wrote in the 50's (most but not all of which were written for teenage boys). Then, and only then, if you like what you've read so far, would I recommend picking up some of his famous work from the 60's (Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, and Glory Road, but not Podykane of Mars or Farnham's Freehold). His later brick-sized novels are best left till last (Time Enough For Love and Friday are the stand-outs there).
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Being a review of William Patterson's "Robert A. Heinlein In dialogue with his century: Vol 1, Learning curve."

I didn't have high expectations for this book -- after reading Jo Walton's critique of its poor fact-checking (and saw the author arguing with the reviewer in the comments of that post, which did not leave me a good impression of him), I knew it wasn't going to be great. Sadly, it failed to even be good. TL:DR version: incredibly poor scholarship is incredibly poor )

These failings aren't academic esoterica, but very basic issues of scholarship that anyone trying to write a serious biography really needs to have mastered. And they wouldn't stand out so much if the biography was an interesting and insightful account of Heinlein's life... but it isn't. TL:DR version: it's somehow simultaneously boringly overlong and breezily superficial )

Right from the first page of the introduction, we learn that this book is going to be hagiographical to a fault, when Patterson, with a straight face, claims that the day Heinlein died was comparable to such events as the Challenger disaster, the Kennedy assassination, or September 11, 2001.

As best I can tell, the only reason it was not rejected by the publisher is that Heinlein has a massive following of rabid fans who do see him as a saint, if not a god, and that it is an "authorized" biography that benefited from extensive interviews with Mrs Heinlein before her death.

As a massive compilation of notes and source materials for a biography, this book is great. As a biography, it's piss poor. If you are a Heinlein fan and want to know the story of his life, do your wallet a favour and check it out from the library -- and then be prepared to do a lot of skimming.


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