Having read every one of Heinlein's novels, short stories, and non-fiction articles that I could get hold of, I was keen to learn more about the great man and so snapped up this first of two volumes in William Patterson's authorized biography. My expectations were fairly low. Biographies of SF writers tend to be amateurish, enthusiastic, or condemnatory; in any case, they don't often measure up to the highest standards. Patterson, however, has done a scrupulously thorough job - as witness the 453 fact-packed pages he devotes to the first 41 years of Heinlein's life (1907-1948). Not only is this an authorized biography; Mr Patterson was actually invited to write it by Mrs Virginia Heinlein (Heinlein's third wife and widow), who gave him complete access to all the surviving documents as well as introducing him to many invaluable sources. While it is possible to argue that Heinlein is given an easy ride, in the sense that Patterson does not overtly condemn any of his behavior, I think it is fair to say that the biographer stands back and lets the facts speak for themselves. Whether you end up idolizing Heinlein, finding him flawed but admirable, or detesting him, is a matter for you and depends on how you choose the interpret the facts. The book is very well written, in fluent prose that never gets in the way of the story, and is full of interesting quotations from letters, conversations, and the like.
Even if you already knew, it is a shock to realize that Heinlein was born in the age of the horse and buggy, when motor cars, the telephone, and electricity were still quite recent inventions, and when Mark Twain still had a couple of years to live (and H.G. Wells another 39!) Indeed, Heinlein was 7 years old when the First World War began - and 10 when the USA became a combatant. He was 32 when the Second World War began (and 34 when the USA began to fight); and he spent over a third of his life in a world without technology that we take for granted, such as antibiotics, nuclear power, and miniaturized electronics. Probably not many of his readers know that he commanded a gun turret on the battleship USS Oklahoma in the 1920s, and as captain's aide even brought the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (at that time the world's largest warship) into port.
It is hard to say how much Heinlein's distinctive personality owed to nature, and how much to nurture (or lack of it). Born into a large and steadily expanding family with barely adequate resources, young Bobby began earning his own living as early as 12 - the year he entered high school - and was completely self-supporting by the age of 15. Somehow he managed to combine this life of what would now be considered "child labor" with a Matilda-like affinity for books - everything from Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz to Mark Twain, Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, T.H. Huxley, H.G. Wells, and Conan Doyle. Perhaps because his childhood (in the modern sense) was so short, he had very clear memories going back to a very early age. Seeing few possible escapes from the life of routine drudgery that so many of his friends and family endured, Heinlein pulled off the remarkable feat of getting himself appointed to the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, in 1925. The thoroughness of his preparation for this bid beggars belief - for instance, the US senator who sponsored him said that each of the 50 other candidates submitted one letter of recommendation... whereas Heinlein submitted 50 letters!
His four years at Annapolis shaped Heinlein's views in many ways, further strengthening his patriotism and love of the USA and giving him unusual insights into the nature of command and other military/naval relationships. This contributed to some of the apparently puzzling contradictions in his personality: a conservative with anarchic beliefs; a loving, sentimental, emotionally vulnerable man who could come across as authoritarian and insensitive; an intellectual who understood that there is sometimes no substitute for decisive action. Although he would have liked to be an admiral, ill health forced him out of the US Navy and eventually left him struggling to earn a living. The story of how he campaigned on behalf of Upton Sinclair's EPIC ("End Poverty in California") party, then stood for office as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district and suffered a crushing defeat, also casts a lot of light on some of his plots and the familiarity with practical politics which informed his writing. Then there was the abortive silver mine venture (very briefly described by Patterson) before taking up a public offer to submit a story to Astounding Science Fiction magazine. That story, "Lifeline" still reads very well today, and told editor John W Campbell that he had a talented new writer. Heinlein's reaction, when he gazed at the resulting check for $70 (worth a little over $1000 today), was characteristic: "How long has this racket been going on? And why didn't anybody tell me about it sooner?" That was 1939, the dawn of a new era in many ways, and the start of a brief few years when Heinlein wrote mostly for the pulp magazines. By 1948 (the year I was born) he had several novels in print, and had broken out of the pulp ghetto to sell stories to glossy magazines. From then on, he was to be almost exclusively a novelist.
It's hard to judge Heinlein's personal life without a better understanding of the period than most of us nowadays can muster. He seems to have had an overpowering urge to marry - certainly his first marriage, to Elinor Curry the moment he graduated from Annapolis, seems inexplicable otherwise. They had already slept together, and she had made it clear to him that she did not consider their marriage exclusive. So what difference did it make to either of them, except to make them unhappy? In the first place, it destroyed Heinlein's hopes for a Rhodes Scholarship, which would have paid for three years at Oxford University and could have opened the doors to a career in astronomy. His second marriage was no less singular: Cal Laning, one of his best friends from Annapolis, invited Heinlein to meet his new fiancee Leslyn Macdonald - a brilliant, mystical waif - only to hear, the following morning, that Leslyn was going to marry Heinlein instead! Nevertheless, they all remained firm friends. Reading about such events, it's sometimes hard to believe that we are getting the whole story. Either that, or people were different in the 1930s. Leslyn seems to have thrived on hard times, of which there were plenty as the two of them threw themselves into the war effort, but later (it seems) took to drink and suffered something like a nervous breakdown. And so Heinlein ended up with wife number three, Lieutenant Virginia Gerstenfeld (Ginny), who was to be his partner and helpmeet for the rest of his life.
In addition to its 32 chapters, this chunky hardback features a brief Introduction, over 30 good black-and-white photographs, a couple of pages of acknowledgments, a substantial appendix on the genealogy of the Heinlein and Lyle families, a brief one on Heinlein's political campaigns, a full 100 pages of detailed notes on the text and sources, and a good index. Even my critical eye found no editing oversights of any kind. Now I shall be biting my nails until I can get hold of Volume 2!