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Robert A. Heinlein: Volume 1 - Learning Curve 1907-1948    by William H. Patterson, Jr. order for
Robert A. Heinlein
by Jr., William H. Patterson
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2011 (2010)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Though I have read every book by Robert Anson Heinlein that I could lay my hands on since my teens and thought I knew something about the life of this giant of science fiction, I realized that I knew very little after reading Robert A. Heinlein: Volume 1 - Learning Curve 1907-1948 - In Dialogue With His Century.

In his Introduction, the author speaks of Heinlein's 'hard-core un-common sense, dosed out mostly as entertainment' as offering 'life wisdom' to a generation. Of his impact on SF, he tells us that 'Heinlein's writing career spans the transformation of a subliterary pulp genre into a significant dialogue partner at the interface of science and public policy - a transformation for which he is in no small degree responsible.' Of Heinlein's broader impact, Patterson, Jr. asserts that 'He galvanized not one, but four social movements of his century: science fiction and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement.' And his books 'continue to speak to the indomitable human spirit.'

How did such a strong character form? The biographer first takes us from Heinlein's childhood in the 'horse-and-buggy Midwest of Kansas City' through his Jazz Age teen years, reading Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells and Charles Darwin. He worked hard for a place at Annapolis and graduated there in 1929. An early marriage didn't last long, but his second union (an open marriage) with Leslyn MacDonald ('astonishingly intelligent, widely read, and extremely liberal') in 1932 influenced him greatly. After health problems forced Heinlein's retirement from the Navy in 1934 (during the Great Depression), he and Leslyn moved to Southern California, where they became very active in Democratic politics.

When that interest paled (though it continued off and on), Heinlein started to write for science fiction magazines, and formed a lifelong relationship with editor John W. Campbell, Jr.. Then came the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, after which both Heinleins threw themselves into the war effort. Over the years, overwork and stress pushed Leslyn into alcoholism, while Heinlein's friendship with Lieutenant Virginia Gerstenfeld (another strong and able woman) grew warmer. And the author became increasingly focused - in his writing and political action - on the looming prospect of atomic war. Heinlein's divorce from Leslyn came through in 1948 and he and Ginny married, which is where this first biography volume ends.

More than a hundred pages of Notes at the end show how thoroughly this biography was researched by the author. It portrays Heinlein as a true Renaissance man who lived what he later wrote - his broad experiences at Naval Academy and in wartime, deep involvement in political activism, and relationships with two intelligent women who were his equals. It was also a life of service and intentional social impact. This first of two volumes of authorized biography, undertaken by William H. Patterson, Jr., will be totally fascinating to any Heinlein fan and I, for one, am anxious to read volume two.

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