Farah Mendlesohn on Robert Heinlein

A major new critical study of the writings of a giant of the SF genre by a Hugo award-winning critic and historian.


At the time of writing, this incredible project, a critical study on Robert Heinlein, is only 4% short of reaching its full target on Unbound and we have no doubt it will make it. Robert Heinlein is, for many, a giant of Science Fiction and this new study of his work will be a joy to read for his many fans.

I have just pledged, by the way, and I am really looking forward to get my copy of the book!

I spoke to the woman behind the project, Hugo award-winning critic and historian Farah Mendlesohn, whose passion for Heinlein’s work began at the age of twelve.

FTB: When did you first learn of Robert Heinlein and how would you describe the encounter?

FJM: In a story I tell a lot, a friend of my Dad’s gave me a suitcase full of books and told me to take the lot (no sorting). They were all sf and by the end I’d read at least I Will Fear No Evil (which I didn’t understand, I was only 12) and Friday which I loved then, hated later, loved again, hated again and am back to loving again. But when I got to the school library I also found the Heinlein Juveniles. The two that made the most impression on me were Space Cadet and Citizen of the Galaxy. Space Cadet is all about personal honour and self discipline. This was congruent with the values that held in my home, and oddly enough so was the peace patrol as my family were very much internationalists. Citizen of the Galaxy (which is about how a company is involved in a slavery illegal on its own world) may have been my first introduction to the idea of infrastructural evil.

FTB: Tell us about the genesis of this project. What made you think: “We need such book!”

FJM: I wrote my undergrad dissertation on six writers: I got a little bored (in an academic sense, not as a fan reader) with five of them, but Heinlein was so changeable and argumentative against himself as much as anything that I got ever more immersed. I wrote a couple of papers on his work. Then in 1994 I went to the Eaton collection as a first year PhD student to work on sf magazines. That PhD project is still on the back burner until I can get funding, which is depressing, but while there I met the late, great sf scholar George Slusser. George and I were chalk and cheese. He was a GOP, NRA man. By that time I was an anarcho Quaker feminist. But we totally bonded over our love of Heinlein. He said I should write a book on him. I said “yes” and forgot all about it.

Then in 2013 Illinois University Press approached a set of scholars to write introductions to a number of major authors. My partner reminded me that I had always enthused about RAH whenever given the chance. So I put in a very straightforward proposal and it was rejected. So I tried again and we agreed that I would approach RAH from fresh, read everything and look for a new angle. That turned into a major mistake length wise as the book kept growing, and I want to emphasise to everyone that I am immensely grateful to Illinois as the book would not have existed without that commission. But no publisher can be expected to take a book 2.5 x longer than the contract, and although they stretched as far as they could, not one reader could suggest cuts (most wanted me to expand on certain sections. It’s been a labour of love though and I have no regrets.

FTB: The campaign is going really well so far. For our readers who have not yet committed, what can they hope to learn from this publication?

FJM: First and foremost that you can’t align Heinlein politically in any easy fashion: he was economically a classical liberal but in social terms a radical left winger. He was an ant-racist but could still write a shockingly racist text because he had no idea how to handle a body of material, or how his work could be used, or even how infrastructural racism works; that for a 2nd amendment man there are remarkably few demonstrations of guns as effective weapons of either offense or defense; that he loved women and cats; that he believed passionately in the rights of the individual and also in their duty to the civic body. That he believe in his neighbour.

It’s time to visit Unbound!

Remember: After the first target is reached, Unbound carry on campaigning until the book goes to press to ensure commitment to the print run. In this case it is also important to sign up because the author’s royalties are going to Con or Bust, and to America’s Blood Centres, in honour of Heinlein’s support for other fans, and his commitment to running blood drives at conventions.