I'm back from my trip--still getting settled back in and readjusting to Pacific Standard Time.
I've been catching up on the Wall Street Journal, and there is a fascinating review of a biography of Robert Heinlein in it. The really interesting bit is that the reviewer puts their finger on something about Heinlein that I think is really true: His early books are much more political/persuasive (I am of the school that feels they can be propaganda-ish and annoying), but his later books are just kind of meaningless.
From the review:
The novels for adults that followed were just as emotionally compelling. And that's exactly the problem. "Starship Troopers" is about a future society facing a total war against an implacably hostile alien species: Heinlein does not just describe the war with his typical vividness; he conjures up a high-tech military culture, with a worldview and ruling ideology to fit (among other things, only veterans have the right to vote), and hurls the reader into its midst with such imaginative force that its rationale seems not only inevitable but somehow desirable. Many readers have been deeply moved (I know of more than one enlistment in the real-world military inspired by it); others have felt that they're being bullied by a brilliant piece of fascist propaganda. Five decades on, it remains the most bitterly divisive book in the history of sci-fi.
Heinlein himself was greatly upset by the controversy. He wrote that he had no idea whether the militaristic society in the book would really work. . . . And when, in 1974, the young Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman published a direct attack on the politics of "Starship Troopers" in his own sci-fi novel "The Forever War," Heinlein repeatedly went out of his way to praise it.
Heinlein grew to be just as ambivalent about his other masterworks. "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" is a visionary epic of a lunar colony breaking free from earth's government and establishing an anarchist-libertarian utopia. But even as it was being enshrined by the libertarian movement as a foundational text (it was endorsed by Milton Friedman), Heinlein turned cagey and evasive about whether he was advocating its revolutionary agenda. Once again, it was as though his own persuasiveness was making him uncomfortable. This discomfort escalated exponentially into nightmare with "Stranger in a Strange Land." Heinlein always insisted that he meant it as nothing more than a satirical and ironic fantasy à la "Candide" (the working title was "The Man From Mars"); he was both amused and appalled when the hippies took it up, enchanted by his luxuriantly sybaritic portrait of a Martian free-love commune. . . . But he was horrified to discover that the novel was the bible of the Manson cult.
I don't think it's entirely a coincidence that the catastrophic fall-off in Heinlein's work began after the 1969 Manson murders. The novels he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s wholly lack his old persuasiveness. Nothing in them is real, nothing is at stake and nobody takes anything seriously. . . . The overall effect is so low-energy and stupefying that it's hard to believe it isn't somehow deliberate—as though Heinlein is out to repudiate his greatest talent and make sure no reader is inspired to take any action whatever.
That really does kind of sum up Heinlein, right? More generally, you can never know how people are going to take a piece of science fiction, especially one that engages with political ideas. Firefly, for example, is sometimes touted by libertarians as depicting a sort of paradise--you know, the kind of paradise where slavery exists and where you have to ready a firearm before you answer a knock at the door.