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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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I've just finished "James Tiptree, Jr: the double life of Alice B Sheldon," by Julie Phillips. It's a terrific book, which tells a very sad story.

It's a biography, though, and aside from speculating the Alice suffered from a mild form of bipolar disorder (where the highs stop short of paranoid mania, but the lows as just as lethally low), the author avoids drawing conclusions about the social sources of Alli's emotional troubles and torments. So let's do that, shall we?

Alice Sheldon was an example of the tragic kind of person best described as an "intense artist": lots of "emo," lots of sturm und drang, plus setting impossibly high standards for oneself. She desperately wanted to paint, to write masterpieces... but every time she set brush to canvas or pen to paper, the result wasn't as good as the idea in her head, and fell far short of her exacting standards of accomplishment, so she gave up on painting, and gave up on writing, too, until late in life she found that she could write by pretending to herself that it was only SF, it wasn't serious, it wasn't Literature or Her Life's Work, and what's more, she wasn't writing it anyway, it was the work of her male alter ego, a mask she wore that enabled her to write without worrying about whether what she wrote was good enough.

She was also, by orientation, a stone butch lesbian, a woman who desired women but didn't feel comfortable being a woman herself. The sort of butch who, today, would at least consider taking testosterone and transitioning to male:

My god in so far as I am an artist I can wish for women beautiful women women women with soft asses (arses to you) and breasts goddamn I want to ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man to come in coming flesh I love women I will never be happy. [p. 85, from a note probably scribbled while drunk]

And here is the tragedy: she was born to wealthy parents who (when they weren't taking her with them on African safaris) brought her up as a high society girl in the 20's and 30's. High society, as in conspicuous consumption wedded to noblesse oblige; for a woman, it meant (and still means, for some) wearing silk gloves while handing out charity, total selflessness and self-sacrifice without ever dropping the mask of gentility and reserve.

And I think it was that total mismatch, between her reserved, genteel high society upbringing, and her "intense artist" personality, between the extremely restrictive role she had to play as a debutante and socialite, and her inner nature as a queer: this mismatch was, I think, what prevented her from ever claiming her writerly voice in her own person. Once she started writing as Tiptree, that same upbringing made it impossible for her to drop the facade and tell the truth. Tiptree could acknowlege his pain, his anger, and talk about them, at least a little, in correspondence; could access them, and incorporate them into stories. Alli Sheldon could not; she had to stay on her pedestal, keep her gloves on while giving herself to others until she had nothing left.

So I guess the tragedy of Alice Sheldon, from one side, is the tragedy of someone who imbibed the lessons of femininity too well. And from the other side, the tragedy of all women brought up in the culture of high society, of debutantes and evening gown charity balls.


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October 2017



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