Last reviewed: June 2018
American novelist and short-story writer.
July 7, 1907
May 8, 1988
Robert Anson Heinlein was one of the leading figures—many would say the leading figure—in the development of American science fiction. He was born in 1907 in Butler, Missouri, to Bam Lyle and Rex Ivar Heinlein, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. As an undergraduate, he attended the University of Missouri, but he yearned to see more of the world and eventually transferred to the United States Naval Academy. After graduating in 1929, he served five years as a naval officer but was forced to retire for reasons of ill health in 1934. After doing graduate work in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, he served during World War II as an engineer at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia. This strong background in science and engineering, coupled with firsthand knowledge of the military, is reflected in Heinlein’s stories, novels, and other writings and gives them a credibility that has appealed to generations of readers. Heinlein was married three times: to Elinor Curry, from 1929 to 1930; to Leslyn MacDonald, from 1932 to 1947; and to Virginia Doris Gerstenfeld, known as Ginny, from 1948 until his death in 1988. He had no children. Robert A. Heinlein.
Robert A. Heinlein.
Heinlein began his long and impressive career as a published science-fiction writer with the appearance of his short story “Life-Line” in the popular magazine Astounding Science-Fiction in 1939. Thereafter, he published numerous short stories in various magazines, most often Astounding Science-Fiction, writing not only under his own name but also under the pseudonyms Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, Caleb Saunders, and John Riverside (some of which he reused as character names in later works). In 1941, in Astounding Science-Fiction, Heinlein first defined his Future History series (of which “Life-Line” was the first), a device for tying together disparate stories that was thereafter widely imitated by other writers of the genre. Many of these stories were eventually collected and published in such highly successful books as The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950), The Green Hills of Earth (1951), Revolt in 2100 (1953), and The Past through Tomorrow (1967), among others.
With his novel Rocket Ship Galileo, published in 1947, Heinlein initiated a series of works intended primarily for young adult readers. Works such as Space Cadet (1948), Between Planets (1951), and especially Red Planet (1949) elevated him to arguably the most important science-fiction writer for this audience. Heinlein’s best young-adult fiction also developed a strong adult following and is among his best work. Rocket Ship Galileo became the basis for the George Pal film Destination Moon (1950), for which Heinlein wrote a screenplay that stressed scientific accuracy throughout. This film led to a boom in science-fiction films in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1956 Heinlein won his first Hugo Award for the year’s best science-fiction novel, for Double Star (1956); he would later win three more Hugo Awards for best novel, for Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). In 1975, Heinlein was the inaugural recipient of the Grand Master Nebula Award for lifetime achievement, given by the Science Fiction Writers of America (now the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). By the time of his death in 1988, in Carmel, California, Heinlein’s books had sold more than forty million copies.
Heinlein grew up reading the works of Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Hugo Gernsback, the founder of modern American science fiction. Early in his career, Heinlein was also influenced by John W. Campbell Jr., the longtime editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, who was the first to publish him and who gave him ideas to develop into stories. Heinlein mastered a powerful, deceptively simple style that combined technological language with slang and an often irreverent, folksy wit. He created people-centered stories, usually featuring strong, well-rounded male heroes, though his attempts to create equally strong women heroes, as in Podkayne of Mars (1963), I Will Fear No Evil (1970), and Friday (1982), usually fell short. The last two of these books also reflect the preoccupation with sex that marked his later years, a topic to which his writing seemed ill suited. He was more successful with such alien types as Willis the Martian in Red Planet, Joe-Jim the two-headed human mutant in Orphans of the Sky (1963), and Mike the computer in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Starship Troopers, which became the basis for a popular military simulation game of the same name, earned for Heinlein a reputation as a neofascist and a militarist, yet his most popular novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, became a counterculture favorite in the 1960s. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the story of a successful computer-run revolution on the moon, became the joy of the New Right in the United States for its promotion of libertarian politics.
Heinlein’s science fiction is grounded in good science. As in the case of his short story “Waldo” (1942), with the protagonist’s remote-controlled limbs—the real versions of which were developed in 1945 and were commonly referred to as “waldoes,” in reference to the story—Heinlein’s fiction often anticipated later scientific and technological advances. Despite the major controversies generated by his later novels, Robert A. Heinlein left his mark permanently on science fiction and, along with figures such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, is universally acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the genre.