As I think about it now,
I have to believe that the change in Heinlein from being a man from
I could learn to being a man from whom I couldn't must have happened in
the fall of 1957, just after I'd sent my first letter of appreciation
him, and received his postcard thanking me for it.
As late as August 1957, when he wrote Have Spacesuit--Will Travel, Heinlein had spoken of the potential of mankind to develop rather than taking the nature of Man as fixed and final. In this story, he'd shown Kip Russell and the human race passing their moment of cosmic judgment on grounds that humanity, for all its flaws and its violence, wasn't actively evil, but merely not yet mature.
Also that year, Heinlein prepared the first book publication of his 1941 Future History serial novel, Methuselah's Children.
In the original version of the story, the first humans to travel to the stars discover the existence of radically superior aliens, the Gods of the Jockaira, and are awed by the gap between us and them. As one character declares, " 'Those creatures the Jockaira worshiped -- it does not seem possible that any amount of living could raise us up to that level.' "
That could be a sobering realization -- especially if you thought of the universe as an area of competition and had no interest in anything except First Prize. So how do you get from where we are now to where the Gods of the Jockaira are?
Now, for its book publication by Gnome Press, Heinlein put the story through the typewriter again, expanding it by 7000 words.
In the process, he would drop the entire conversation from which I've just quoted. And, in place of that expression of awe, Lazarus Long, the immensely long-lived character who binds the Future History chart together, makes this resolution at the end of the novel:
" 'Someday, about a thousand years from now, I intend to march straight into the temple of Kreel, look him in the eye, and say, "Howdy, bub -- what do you know that I don't know?" ' "
Now, that would be confrontive: Marching into a temple is confrontive. Sass is confrontive. And eyeball-to-eyeball intellectual muscle-flexing is confrontive.
A possibly more appropriate reaction might be to save a thousand years, enter the temple now rather than later, and say to Kreel, simply but truthfully, "You know more than I do. Would you teach me?"
However, even the determination to come back in a thousand years with something to show Kreel would be a recognition that there are things we have to learn, and that we might be able to learn them if we applied ourselves.
As Lazarus Long declares in the final words of the book: " 'Whatever the answers are, here's one monkey that's going to keep climbing, and looking around him to see what he can see, as long as the tree holds out.' "
But the tree hadn't held out. And in April 1958, Heinlein would write and publish the "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" ad. That wasn't a suggestion that we ought to keep climbing and looking around us. Instead, it was a call to circle the wagons.
What had happened in the meantime?
The obvious answer is the launching of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Outer space had been reached, and it was the Russians who did it first.
They did it again in November. They put a second, much heavier satellite in orbit, this time with a living dog aboard.
In early December, the United States attempted to reply with a satellite of its own. But the Vanguard rocket failed to clear the launch pad, toppled over and went up in flames. Three out of the first four American attempts to put satellites in orbit were failures.
It took until the last day of January, 1958 for the U.S. to launch its own me-too satellite. It weighed 31 pounds compared to the 7000 pounds of Sputnik-II. As Heinlein would admit in one unusually subdued sentence in the "Heirs of Patrick Henry" ad: "They appear to be some years ahead of us in the art of rocketry."
That was a rude shock for most Americans. But it must have been a particularly bitter pill for Robert Heinlein to swallow.
Heinlein had identified with the prospect of space travel ever since he was young. Much of his reputation as "the youthful dean of science fiction" -- as it used to say on the back of his Signet paperbacks -- was based on his place as the premier master of imagined space flight. And in his juvenile novels, he'd charted out a path for space exploration to follow.
Space travel had been Heinlein's special dream -- a specifically American dream. But now, in a moment, that dream had been trashed.
Coming in second meant nothing at all to Heinlein. He wanted to always be number one.
Space travel was never the same for Heinlein after Sputnik. The new had been taken off it, and the dream had lost its savor. Heinlein might still include space travel in some of his stories, but after this it would no longer enjoy the same central place it had held before.
Beyond this loss of something that had been special to Heinlein, there was also the danger that was posed by the Soviet advantage. If they could put 7000 pounds into orbit, then there was no place in the United States that was not under threat of attack.
Heinlein never liked anyone to have him at a disadvantage. But there was absolutely nothing that he could do about this. So he got mad about it and he stayed mad.
From my point of view, that anger (and the fear that underlay it) would be the primary reason that I could no longer learn from Robert Heinlein, and also the ultimate issue in the rift between us.
It was fear and anger that made Heinlein write "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" And it would be the same fear and anger that would cause him to misunderstand my question when I wrote to him in the fall of 1959 to ask about the dangers of nuclear testing.
Heinlein would never get past this stumbling block. In fact, he would remain stuck in exactly this same place for the remainder of his life.
In 1961, as Guest of Honor at the Nineteenth World Science Fiction Convention in Seattle, Heinlein would declare that with a certainty of 90% the future held just three possibilities: Russia would destroy us in a war; we would collapse internally and surrender to the Russians; or we and Russia would destroy each other, and China would be the victor. Whichever was the case, one-third of us would die. Heinlein advised his audience to build fallout shelters, stock unregistered weapons, and die gloriously.
Heinlein himself did build a fallout shelter. Whether he could have found himself in trouble for having an illegal Uzi under his pillow if somebody had dropped a dime on him, I don't know.
Fifteen years later, in 1976, Heinlein would again be the Guest of Honor at a World Science Fiction Convention, this one held in his old home town of Kansas City. (You know the place -- it's where that Russian spy plane was shot down back in '60.) And once more in a Guest of Honor speech, Heinlein warned of fire and brimstone on the way. He said that there would be nuclear war on Earth in his listeners' lifetimes.
This time around, however, his prediction drew audience opposition in the form of boos from some young SF fans in the balcony stoned on Purple Samoan and offended by the gap between Heinlein's worldview and theirs. On the other hand, one Heinlein idolator in the crowd would take this warning so much to heart that he would awaken the next morning at the sound of a thunderstorm overhead to find himself "three feet in the air and covered with sweat."
As late as the '80s, at a symposium on President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, when Arthur C. Clarke cast doubt on the feasibility (not to mention the wisdom) of attempting to put an umbrella of safety against missile attack over the United States, Heinlein would become furious and inform Clarke that since he wasn't a U.S. citizen, he had no business butting into American affairs. That would be the last occasion these one-time friends saw each other.
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Graphics courtesy of Jelane