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672 pages, Hardcover
First published June 3, 2014
[Imported automatically from my blog. Some formatting there may not have translated here.]
Spoiler: he dies at the end.
(Sorry. But I would like to think it's the kind of joke he'd appreciate.)
This is the second volume of the massive "official" biography of Robert A. Heinlein by William H. Patterson. (Sadly, Patterson did not see it in print: he died earlier this year at — gulp! — my own age. I hate it when that happens.) The full title is a mouthful: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century: Volume 2: 1948-1988: The Man Who Learned Better. My impressions of Volume 1 from back in 2010 are here.
To recap from that post: back when I compiled a list of the ten most personally influential books Heinlein had two entries. And that didn't include Red Planet as the first big-boy book I read, checking it out from the Oakland, Iowa Public Library. So I'm more than a fan; Heinlein nudged my life in significant ways.
The book kicks off with Heinlein's third marriage, to his beloved Virginia ("Ginny"). The third time was definitely the charm, because Ginny became not only his wife, but also an unofficial business partner, secretary, critic, travel companion. And, at the end, caregiver. Their mutual devotion is perhaps the major theme of this volume. (There is a truly touching letter written by Ginny to her late husband in an Appendix at the end.)
The book is (like Volume 1) a little heavy going, with a hodgepodge of details, not all of them of equal interest. Want to know about the construction details of Heinlein's dwellings? Travel itineraries? Health problems (his and Ginny's)? Legal battles over Destination Moon? Squabbles with editors and publishers? It's all here, and much more. Would have much appreciated a "good parts" version.
In addition, Patterson seems to have made a concious decision to leave meaty discussion of Heinlein's writings to the literary critics. Which is (of course) his call, but for those of us who love a lot of his works, it's an absence.
Patterson is an admirer of Heinlein (and Ginny) right down the line. What emerges from the book is an entirely admirable portrait of a complex person. Example: Heinlein's devotion to the socialist Upton Sinclair in the 1930s was transformed into an enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. (Heinlein himself didn't consider this a major shift, but come on.) He despised Ike. He became an ardent proponent of "Star Wars" (the Strategic Defense Initiative) in the early years of the Reagan Administration.
He was generous to his friends, and also to causes that struck his fancy. For a while he and Ginny were active participants in blood donation campaigns, an effort that the Heinlein Society continues today. Adversaries were seemingly few, but their spats were epic. Alexei Panshin, author of an early book of Heinlein criticism, especially drew his ire; his antagonism toward Panshin ran for a couple decades. American Maoist academic H. Bruce Franklin also comes off poorly here.
Overall, I learned that I was not alone: Heinlein affected a lot of people. I plan to put a few books on by to-be-read (in this case, to-be-re-read) pile, especially the "uncut" versions that have become available since his demise: Stranger in a Strange Land, Red Planet, and The Puppet Masters. (As it turns out, Red Planet was cut back in the 1950s because the publisher thought it was a little too gun-friendly! Plus ça change!
[And thanks once again to the Dimond Library of the University Near Here, who purchased this volume at my request. Even though I was, they admitted, the only person who had ever checked out Volume One.]
Nevertheless, the second half of Heinlein's life is well worth study, and Patterson's heavily footnoted tome provides details large and small, woven together engagingly. Oh, every now and then we might quibble over a turn of phrase that is not quite as adroit as it could be, and yet while reviewers occasionally comment on Patterson's seeming agreement with, say, Heinlein's distaste of Alexei Panshin or H. Bruce Franklin or his support of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, I doubt that the same people would fault him for sympathizing with Heinlein's zeal to defeat the Axis in the Second World War--I myself prefer to allow a biographer his opinions, as I would any other human. And of course the final chapters, detailing Heinlein's decline in health, and ultimate death, and painful--and yet they must be read.
In short, Patterson's two-volume biography of Robert A. Heinlein is wide and deep, an invaluable resource to any reader of the most famous and influential name in modern science fiction, and the second half is as grand a treat as the first.