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Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. HeinleinAKA Robert Anson Heinlein

Born: 7-Jul-1907
Birthplace: Butler, MO
Died: 8-May-1988
Location of death: Carmel, CA
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Cremated (ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean)

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Author

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Starship Troopers

Military service: US Navy (1929-34)

Regarded as the most influential writer of modern science fiction, author Robert Heinlein is ranked as one of the four luminaries of the Golden Age of science fiction, along with Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E. van Vogt. He is also credited with evolving science fiction as a genre from the gee-whiz gadgetry obsessions of Hugo Gernsback and the testosterone soaked pulp fiction of Robert E. Howard into an impressively diverse and sophisticated literature. Under the influence of Heinlein science fiction became a recognized vehicle for exploring major themes of human existence and for describing not just new technologies, but whole new realities, all while telling gripping tales of mystery, romance, and adventure. Even the idea of creating "future histories" and laying out the political, technological, and historical development of peoples and worlds (i.e. "world building") -- as a prelude to writing the novels and short stories to be set there -- had its start with Robert Heinlein. In all of the above, Heinlein set the new standard and other writers strove to follow.

But Heinlein's influence was hardly limited to the genre of science fiction, or to his fellow writers. He also managed to insert himself into mainstream popular culture -- influencing language ("waldo" and "grok"), politics, sexuality, and even spirituality. His 1962 Hugo-winning Stranger in a Strange Land was not only a kind of guidance manual for the 1960s free love counterculture but it actually spawned a number of imitative churches. To a lesser but no less noteworthy extent his 1966 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is credited with drawing many young people to Libertarianism and to the Libertarian party itself.

Although Robert Heinlein was actually most prolific, and perhaps most influential upon the genre of science fiction, with his short fiction, he was also the first science fiction author to produce a best selling novel. Other long works of note include the Hugo Award winners Double Star (1956) and Starship Troopers (1959) as well as the thought provoking Methuselah's Children (1958), and Time Enough For Love (1973). Another groundbreaking novel I Will Fear No Evil (1970) is noteworthy for it's daring exploration of transexualism. Farnham's Freehold (1965), which deals with the futuristic racial oppression of white Americans by cannibalistic black Muslims, is considered by some to be one of the most controversial novels in the genre of science fiction. Finally, "For Us, the Living" (2004) was so scandalously racy that when Heinlein first sought publication for it in 1939, the book was deemed unpublishable. (Note that even if the book had been published at that time, it would have been illegal to ship it through the U.S. mail.)

Born in 1907 to Bam Lyle and Rex Ivar Heinlein in Butler, Missouri, Robert Anson Heinlein was the third of seven children. In 1910, when he was only a small child, the buzz over the approaching Halley's Comet sparked his interest in astronomy. By the time the young Heinlein had entered Kansas City's Central High School, in 1920, he had already read every astronomy book in the Kansas City Public Library. Similarly, by the age of 16 he had read every science fiction book he could get his hands on. Like many others of his age and era he devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, Olaf Stapledon, and of course the Tom Swift books. But the greatest impact on the young Heinlein may have come from the works of H. G. Wells, whose urging to "domesticate the impossible hypothesis" would later form the backbone of Heinlein's own fiction, allowing him to depict alternative realities with conviction and believability.

Nonetheless, despite his interest in the stars and in science fiction, by the time Heinlein graduated high school in 1924, his burning ambition was to become a Naval Officer. Unfortunately for him, older brother Rex Heinlein had already entered the Naval Academy and regulations strongly discouraged having more than one family member enrolled at a time. So the pragmatic younger Heinlein enrolled himself instead at Kansas City Community College -- while he began an ambitious letter writing campaign. That year senator James A. Reed received a total of 100 letters requesting appointment to Annapolis; fully half of these were from one young man, Robert Anson Heinlein. Heinlein was admitted to the Naval Academy at Annapolis in June of 1925.

By 1929 he had graduated with the equivalent of a B.A. in Naval Engineering. He ranked fifth in his class academically, but unfortunately for Heinlein demerits for discipline issues (such as taking off on a self-declared holiday for two weeks) lowered his standing to 20th in his class of 243. Interestingly his records show that he was initially to be a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship, but the entry was crossed out, and no such honor was ever conferred.

Although Heinlein received the rank of Ensign and entered service after graduation, his naval career was soon cut short by a bout of pulmonary tuberculosis; he recovered but was left permanently weakened. Shortly after, he began to experience chronic sea sickness, which further weakened his physical state. He was granted early retirement, with the rank of lieutenant, in 1934. Meanwhile Heinlein had two years earlier married feisty would-be riveter Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein, who may have been the role model for many of his early science fiction heroines. With Leslyn by his side he tempered his need for rest and recuperation, with his efforts to find a new career. They traveled to Colorado where Heinlein tried silver mining, but soon quit the venture when his financial backer was gunned down. He then enrolled at UCLA's graduate school for Advanced Engineering, Mathematics, and Architecture, but left after several weeks.

Then in 1938 his work with EPIC (End Poverty In California), and Socialist politician Upton Sinclair, led Heinlein to consider becoming a politician. He had strong ideals and a lot of powerful notions about the proper relationship between citizen and government (many of them embodied in his posthumously published For Us the Living), but he lost his bid for the 59th District California State Assembly seat to incumbent Republican candidate Charles W. Lyons. He may have lost because the EPIC movement, with which he was associated, was simply losing its following -- but he was not helped by the fact that the wily and more experienced Lyons had cross-filed his name on the Democratic ticket.

It was sometime after the election, as the defeated Heinlein was struggling to scrape by on his meager retirement salary -- while also making payments on a new house -- that he read about a short story contest offered by Thrilling Wonder Stories. A prize of $50 awaited the author of the best short story, and amateurs would be allowed to contribute. Feeling he could surely turn out something as good as the pulp schlock printed in Thrilling Wonder, the determined Heinlein sat down and began writing. But when he was done he found he had surpassed his goal. The story, "Life Line", seemed too good for the likes of Thrilling Wonder. Instead he decided to send it off to the better caliber Astounding Science Fiction, where he met success at last. Not only did editor John W. Campbell Jr. publish the story (it appeared in August, 1939), but also he paid Heinlein a handsome $70. Furthermore, he saw Heinlein as being just the sort of writer he had been looking for -- someone with the imagination, talent, and class to take science fiction stories to the next level -- and he encouraged him to write more.

Over the next 10 years Campbell published most of Heinlein's work (including longer, serialized works, such as Methuselah's Children). In fact, at one point, so much of Robert Heinlein's fiction filled the magazine that Campbell had to print some of the stories under aliases. Among the more noteworthy stories from this period include "Solution Unsatisfactory" (May 1941), which foreshadowed the nuclear stalemate; "By His Bootstraps" (October 1941), a story which is still considered one of the most ingenious of all time travel tales; and "Universe" (May 1941), the story that introduced the concept of generation starships.

So rapid and thorough was Heinlein's rise in popularity during this period that in July of 1941 he was the Guest of Honor at the 3rd annual World Science Fiction Convention -- even though his first story had only been published a couple years earlier. (His speech at the convention was entitled "The Discovery of the Future".) Ironically it was in mid-1941 that Heinlein, discouraged over Campbell's rejection of a fairly important story, decided to leave the field. Following on his earlier promise to quit while on top, Heinlein quietly retired to fiddle with his hobbies -- photography and masonry. Fortunately he was soon coaxed back to writing, but in December of 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Heinlein was eager to support the American war effort, but his attempt to re-enlist was denied, due to his myopia and previous health difficulties, but he found work as a civilian engineer at the Naval Air Experiment Center in Philadelphia.

Here he managed to finagle work for writer friends Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Although he was trained as a "mechanical engineer specializing in linkages", Heinlein's earlier experience with aircraft on the U.S.S. Lexington geared him toward work in the Navy's aircraft program -- which is where, while working in close proximity with two other of science fiction's most fertile minds, Robert Heinlein hatched the notion that the Navy should branch out into space exploration. He submitted two formal letters on the topic (one of which actually made it all the way to Truman's cabinet), but the proposal was ultimately killed. No one believed that space ships could be launched from seagoing vessels.

Heinlein's interest in spaceflight and his fears of Nazis gaining supremacy on the moon would later find expression in Young Atomic Engineers, finally published in 1947 as Rocket Ship Galileo. (It was incidentally his first book for young people. His second juvenile novel, Space Cadet, would go on to become the inspiration for the 1950s TV series Tom Corbett: Space Cadet.) Ironically these very novels and programs would inspire many of the young people that later peopled the American space program.

Meanwhile, one Heinlein concept the Navy, and other branches of the service, did latch onto was the "waldo". Although it's uncertain whether Heinlein was really the inspiration for the first of these devices, he certainly did furnish their name. Borrowed from a novel finished just before the war, the waldo was "a mechanical agent, such as a gripper arm, controlled by a human limb." The waldo's most important application was in the nuclear industry that sprang up during WWII.

After the war, Heinlein returned full time to writing. And not only did he successfully branch out into the juvenile market (with Rocket Ship Galileo), publishing at least a dozen stories over the next decade, but he also broke into mainstream magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers -- an unheard of accomplishment for a science fiction writer. Meanwhile however, Heinlein's relationship with wife Leslyn was deteriorating. She was sinking deeper into alcoholism, possibly further fueled by hereditary schizophrenia. The situation culminated in Heinlein moving out (aided by a young Navy WAVE named Virginia "Ginny" Gerstenfeld) and Leslyn filing for divorce. Strangely the divorce papers show that Heinlein had already been married and divorced prior to the marriage to Leslyn; the identity and fate of the first Mrs. Heinlein have remained a closely guarded secret.

Meanwhile, one year later, Heinlein married Gerstenfeld. Holding B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Psychology from N.Y.U., she had also earned varsity letters in swimming, diving, basketball, and field hockey, and in her spare time she was a competitive skater. She had served three years in the WAVES (she would serve 9 more as a reservist), and had worked as an aviation test engineer -- all of this destining her to inspire a slew of superachiever science fiction heroines. As his wife, she was Heinlein's business manager, secretary, story collaborator, first reader, and -- as his health failed in later life -- his caregiver, helping him pull forth his last novels.

Seeking a quiet spot, far from nuclear targets (other world powers were now racing to build the bomb), the couple relocated to Colorado, where Heinlein designed and built his own home and bomb shelter. The 1950s were to prove a fruitful era for the author: his books were appearing at the rate of three or four a year. But fate had an ironic twist in store for Heinlein. Only a decade after he had built his own personal Farnham's Freehold, NORAD began building its Cheyenne Mountain installation, the number one nuclear target in the United States, practically in his backyard. The bitter icing on the cake was that the Heinleins were forced to admit that a "strange illness" afflicting Ginny for the last several years was actually altitude sickness.

They began to search for a new home and, in the mid 1960s, relocated to Bonny Doon, California, just north of Santa Cruz and on the fringe of a constellation of hippie communes leaking south from San Francisco. Yet little did Heinlein suspect that the 1963 reprint of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land would become a hippie "bible", and a best seller. The novel's protagonist Valentine Michael Smith, an earthling raised by Martians, ultimately evolves into on a Jesus-like persona and starts a new church. The members of "The Church of All Worlds", who live together in a "nest" or commune practice nudity and free love as they seek to grok each other ("to understand, to love, to be one with") and pursue deeper mystical understanding and psychic powers.

The novel's success in the 60s was largely the result of a synchronistic meshing between the ideas and lifestyles depicted in the book and those that were beginning to find prominence in the counter-culture. Eerily, in the 1980s astute Stranger readers noticed the synchronistic similarities between characters and situations in the novel and an unfolding drama in the Reagan Whitehouse. On 11 May 1988 San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen commented on the similarity, saying:

That was an amazing coincidence on the front pages yesterday -- the spread on Nancy Reagan's professional stargazer, S.F.'s Joan Quigley-Wiggly, and the obituary of the great science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein, who died in Carmel at the age of 80. In his best-known book, Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961, Heinlein writes about the leader of the free world, Joseph E. Douglas, who bases all his decisions on advice his wife receives from her astrologer, a San Francisco woman named Becky Vesant. As if that weren't close enough to the mark -- in fact, Joan Quigley lives VERY close to the Mark -- Heinlein describes the leader of the free world as "a smiling nincompoop." Science fiction indeed.

In another vision of the future, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) imagines the Earth overrun with a dysfunctional totalitarian socialism while a colony on its moon boasts a society with virtually no government and no taxes. It the lunar culture, social security is replaced by group marriages in which newer members look after their elders. Although many readers took Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land as depicting the wonders of the communal life, there is actually reason to believe Heinlein intended the book more as a warning -- about the dangers of giving up personal power to the group or to a charismatic leader; in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the message is made larger and bolder to the point of being unmistakable. Large numbers of white middleclass teenage boys, still the biggest demographic of science fiction readers, embraced Heinlein's ideals of personal freedom and minimal governmental control. As a result many of them also joined the Libertarian party.

From the socialism he embraced in the late 1930s to the Libertarianism and conservative Republicanism he embraced in the late 1960s and 70s was a big shift, one which offended those who agreed with the free love socialism in some of his novels. Suddenly, Heinlein was a conservative old fart: his female characters were not believable, and of course his seemingly pro-conservative works were "preachy".

On the surface, many of these complaints seem true. Heinlein's women differ from what we expect of women characters nowadays. Yet it is worth remembering that for roughly three or four decades they were light years ahead what anyone else had imagined for women. Heinlein's fictious women were smart, aggressive, and not ashamed of their sexuality. True, they were generally what Robert Heinlein found appealing in a woman, as opposed to representative of what women thought about themselves. But then Heinlein was fairly disgusted with what most women in the 50s thought about themselves. He thought they should aspire to be more than domestic serfs and housewives.

As for conservative, Heinlein never gave up writing about people with innovative relationships and frank sexuality. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress depicts a matriarchy with multiple mates. In I Will Fear No Evil, a man finds his brain surgically transplanted into a female body and eventually develops romantic relationships with men. Heinlein's personal literary influences had been men like Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, Alfred Korzybski (intellectuals dedicated to breaking out of the mental straitjackets imposed by conservative society), as well as the more mystical Peter D. Ouspensky and others. Heinlein was himself a nudist and a believer in self-determination. He relished living his own individualistic, idiosyncratic life -- and allowing others to do the same.

In 1987 Heinlein abandoned his peculiar self-designed round house in Bonny Doon and moved across the bay to Carmel, where he could have immediate access to medical facilities. On 8 May 1988 he suffered a heart attack during a morning nap. His body was eventually cremated and his ashes scattered over the Pacific from the deck of a warship.

In addition to the legacy of 46 novels and scores of short stories, Robert Heinlein also inspired a number of film and television productions: Destination Moon (1950), Project Moonbase (1953), Ring Around the Moon, The Brain Eaters (1956), Uchu no senshi (the Japanese anime version of Starship Troopers, 1989), Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1994), Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet (1994), Starship Troopers (1997), and Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles (2000).

As is appropriate for a man who inspired so many in NASA, Heinlein has been memorialized by the naming of various hunks of space property in his honor. The crew of the Apollo 15 mission acknowledged him during their 1971 mission and named a lunar crater, the Luna Rie Rhysling Crater, after a Heinlein character in The Green Hills of Earth. And in 1994 a small crater on Mars was named for Heinlein.

Father: Rex Ivar Heinlein
Mother: Bam Lyle Heinlein
Brother: Rex Heinlein Jr.
Brother: Lawrence "Larry" Heinlein
Brother: Jesse Heinlein
Sister: Mary Jean Heinlein Lermer
Sister: Rose Betty Heinlein
Sister: Louise Heinlein Bacchus
Wife: Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein (m. 1932, div. 1947)
Wife: Virginia Doris Gerstenfeld Heinlein ("Ginny", m. 1948, d. 18-Jan-2003)

    High School: Central High School, Kansas City, MO (1924)
    University: Kansas City Community College
    University: BS Naval Engineering, US Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD (1929)
    University: University of California at Los Angeles

    Hugo 4 times
    Heart Bypass Operation 1978
    Martian Crater Heinlein
    Risk Factors: Tuberculosis

Official Website:

Author of books:
Beyond this Horizon (1948)
Sixth Column (1949)
The Puppet Masters (1951)
Double Star (1956)
The Door Into Summer (1957)
Starship Troopers (1959)
Stranger in A Strange Land (1961)
Glory Road (1963)
Farnham's Freehold (1964)
The Moon is A Harsh Mistress (1966)
I Will Fear No Evil (1970)
The Number of the Beast (1979)
Friday (1982)
J.O.B. A Comedy of Justice (1984)
The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985)
To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987)
For Us The Living (2004)
The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950, Anthology)
The Green Hills of Earth (1951, Anthology)
Revolt in 2100 (1953, Anthology)
Methuselah's Children (1958)
Orphans in the Sky (1963, Anthology)
The Past Through Tomorrow (1967)
Time Enough for Love (1973)
Rocket Ship Galileo (1947, Juvenile)
Space Cadet (1948, Juvenile)
Red Planet (1949, Juvenile)
Farmer in the Sky (1950, Juvenile)
Between Planets (1951, Juvenile)
The Rolling Stones (1952, Juvenile)
Starman Jones (1953, Juvenile)
The Star Beast (1954, Juvenile)
Tunnel in the Sky (1955, Juvenile)
Time for the Stars (1956, Juvenile)
Citizen of the Galaxy (1957, Juvenile)
Have Space Suit Will Travel (1958, Juvenile)
Podkayne of Mars (1963, Juvenile)

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