“I am submitting the enclosed short story ‘LIFE-LINE‘ for either ‘Astounding’ or ‘Unknown,'” Robert A. Heinlein wrote to editor John Campbell in 1939, “because I am not sure which policy it fits the better.”
The former magazine published science fiction, the latter fantasy. Heinlein’s short story — the first he had attempted professionally, at age 31 — concerns a machine that can predict when a person will die. That he sold this neophyte production, on first submission, to a top pulp editor (kicking off an intense friendship and correspondence) is exciting in and of itself. Heinlein’s uncertainty about to which slice of genre this story belonged is an ironic and humanizing detail, given what a titan Heinlein would become as the author of everything from juvenile SF in character-building Horatio Alger mode to the counterculture touchstone “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961).
Reading about “Life-Line” (and the unpublished novel, “For Us, the Living,” begun the previous year) marks the point at which William H. Patterson Jr.’s “Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century” (Tor: 622 pp., $29.99) becomes an engrossing rather than a dutiful biography.
This volume, the first of two, bears the workmanlike title “Learning Curve: 1907–1948,” and at times the slope is hard to discern. Perhaps because this is an authorized biography (commissioned by Heinlein’s late widow, Virginia, in 2000), an impressive amount of material remains lightly processed, establishing chronology but often overpowering the thematic richness of the material. Knowing that he contracted TB in 1933 is important; seeing the hourly breakdown of his treatment regimen (“1:30–1:45 Air Bath”) adds granular data but is a drag on momentum.
There’s a plodding quality in Heinlein himself during the years that “Learning Curve” covers. (By contrast, the cameos in these pages of his charismatic friends Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard — in pre-Scientology mode — can make you want to leave Heinlein and follow them into their respective life stories.) This quality is the grit that makes the pearl; the trick for the biographer is how to dramatize it. Heinlein saw himself through childhood poverty, various professional failures, poor health and a complicated marriage, equipped with his intelligence, moral compass and patriotism. In retrospect, his path looks inevitable. But he could not have predicted, even two years before that first sale, that he would find salvation and fame with his pen.
Patterson notes that “Life-Line” refers to “a crease in the palm that fortune-tellers use to tell the length of a person’s life. It is also what sailors call the rope they throw to a man overboard, to save his life.” The implication might be brought out more forcefully: Science fiction saved his life.
The early portions of this volume evoke Heinlein’s hardscrabble upbringing in Kansas City, Mo. He was one of seven children, far from the favorite, and more or less left to fend for himself. (For three years, he slept “on a pallet on the floor of the living room, bedding put away in a closet during the day.”) His way out is the United States Naval Academy, which he enters after byzantine political maneuvering. Though Patterson’s description of the culture at Annapolis is immersive, he doesn’t quite harness the minutiae into a compelling narrative. Heinlein’s post-graduate adventures aboard the Lexington, under the command of Capt. Ernest J. King, are a high point in his naval career, which founders all too soon, mostly because of his ill health.
At some point Heinlein turns decidedly iconoclastic, which comes as something of a surprise, despite some mild mystical leanings at the academy. In 1932 he stole and married his friend’s girlfriend, the bright and “intense” Leslyn MacDonald, who held a master’s degree in philosophy, worked in the music department at Columbia Pictures and who would later serve as his talented in-house “story doctor.” She also practiced “white witchcraft,” had a Theosophist mother and shared Heinlein’s interest in nudism. Such traits should be far from dull, but somehow in this biography her anarchic energies feel tamped down, at least until her alcoholism contributes to the unraveling of their marriage…
THERE’S MORE, READ THE REST
– Ed Park
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