Disclaimer: I was recruited into my professional career by reading Heinlein in my formative years, especially the juveniles. I didn’t even pretend to be unbiased when writing this. So read on at your own peril.
When modern SF began, there were two kinds of SF writers: those who broke into print at the top of their powers, like Burroughs and Van Vogt, and those whose later work showed significant improvement. In spite of Heinlein’s early reputation, his writing grew steadily in skill and power, particularly in stories at the longer lengths. Heinlein’s early stories were better than those of a beginner, perhaps because he was 32 when he started, but they were appealing more for their philosophy, toughness, and ability to evoke societies economically than their narrative skills. This is not to say that Heinlein did not publish significant fiction in his early years. He soon was producing short stories of revolutionary insight and developing artfulness: “Coventry”, “The Roads Must Roll…”, “The Long Watch”, “Solution Unsatisfactory”, “The Man Who Traveled In Elephants”. I still remember my first reaction when I read “The Puppet Masters” (first in Portuguese, and later on in English):”Oh, no! not the parasitic aliens again!” And then my surprise faded into admiration at the way Heinlein had rejuvenated that ancient idea. Heinlein had a talent to rehash old ideas and making them new again: solipsism, time paradox, immortality, superman, you name it. His skill made the parasitic aliens the reader’s nightmare as well.
In Heinlein’s body of work I always came across a great deal of process. I always sensed that Heinlein himself was fascinated by the way things were done and had one hell of a kick by describing it (eg, the way spaceships fly, the way revolutions are made, the way society works). Process makes fascinating reading when it’s properly handled, ie, when it’s implied rather than lecture about (eg, in the short story “Universe” the process by which reality becomes myth is implied by the way the reality of the self-contained spaceship is translated into religious imagery). Is “The Puppet Masters” just an adventure novel? Not by a long shot. It’s also aBildungsroman. The main character’s competence evolves throughout the novel.
(my own Heinlein personal library at home)
I’ve seen and read lots of Heinlein bashing regarding the competence (or lack of it) issue. It just seems elitist and is sometimes condemned .by people who are committed to democracy and a belief in the collective wisdom of the people under any circumstances. My reading of this issue is that many fail to see that Heinlein’s worlds are worlds in crises. Civilization are threatened, and competence is the single important quality. What would be the qualities Heinlein would value in a world without crises? It’s anybody’s guess. It’s not in Heinlein’s scope.
I haven’t read Heinlein in a long time. When I was actively reading everything I could lay my hands on about him, I started to get the feeling that the more I looked into his work, the more difficult he was to pin down. After reading more than 1300 pages (2 volumes) of his biography, I can surely understand why that is.
Patterson’s 2-volume take on Heinlein is not top-notch, but to dismiss it as a failed biography – because literary critique and close reading are missing, because of its open fandomness, and so forth – would be to deny by omission the translucent, effortless ephiphanousness of both books, which resides less in its nature as biography than in the fact that it reads as a kind of elated fannish elegy regarding Heinlein. As a fan myself this is the book that I’d have liked (almost) to have written.
Bottom-line: If you are an Heinlein fan read the 2 volumes. I won’t promise you’ll get an unbiased account of Heinlein’s life; if you are not an Heinlein fan, read it anyway. You’ll get to hear the Old Man’s voice through numerous letters. That’s a real treat all by itself.
NB: In own “my personal” Heinlein library I always pretend that the books after “Time Enough for Love” (including “The Number of the Beast”) were never published, and go re-read again “Citizen of the Galaxy”(my personal favourite), “The Past through Tomorrow”, ”Have Space – Will Travel”, “Double Star”, “The Star Beast”, “Red Planet” (uncut edition), “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”…
NB: SF = Speculative Fiction