Classic Robert A. Heinlein Interview

Wednesday, 27 February 2019 11:28 Dave Truesdale

Tangent Online Presents:


An Interview with Robert A. Heinlein

(July 7, 1907 May 8, 1988)

(Robert Heinlein photo by Dave Truesdale, April 17, 1980)


Interview conducted by David A. Truesdale

(During Robert A. Heinlein Day, Butler, MO, April 17, 1980)


First appeared in Science Fiction Review #36, August 1980

New introduction (February 27, 2019)

When the original 1970s version of Tangent folded after the death of its printer, former Amazing Stories editor Raymond A. Palmer in 1977, I turned to the most popular fanzine of the day, and the fanzine that published my first loc (letter of comment) in either 1972 or 1973, Richard E. Geis’ Science Fiction Review (SFR) to publish my book reviews or interviews, thus this Heinlein interview appearing there instead of in Tangent.

Until a week or so ago I had totally forgotten I had given this interview to Dick Geis and SFR. While I of course remember taking the day off from my then day job and driving the 65 miles or so south from Kansas City, MO to Butler, MO to attend Heinlein Day, my primary goal was to talk with Heinlein about the first book after his brain surgery, Number of the Beast. I was fortunate to have accomplished that goal, and eventually wrote up a review of the book and it appeared in the September 8, 1980 edition of The Kansas City Star. It was not a favorable review, and the Star’s book review editor at the time said she had received more mail about that review than any other review she had run, and backed it up by sending me (unopened) a small stack of letters about a week after the review appeared. I was certain these letter writers who had taken the time and effort to actually send a letter to the editor would be disagreeing with my negative review in the most unpleasant terms. To my surprise, every single one of them agreed with my assessment and offered that it was about time someone pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. To say I was relieved would be an understatement. But remember this was in September of 1980. I had worked up and sent my relatively short Heinlein interview to Geis and SFR months earlier and it had just appeared in the magazine a month before my review appeared in the Star. My entire involvement in Heinlein Day in Butler, MO (the place of his birth) was over. The experience itself, the interview, and the book review. All written, all published, end of story. I was 29.

Now, almost 40 years later—and as unbelievable as it seems—I had totally forgotten my Heinlein interview in SFR. Until about 10 days ago, that is, when I learned that a brand new version of Number of the Beast would be published later this year (tentatively November) by Phoenix Pick, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers, also publisher of the Mike Resnick-edited Galaxy’s Edge SF magazine. According to Arc Manor publisher Shahid Mahmud, Phoenix Pick will be reprinting (in conjunction with the Heinlein Prize Trust) both the original Number of the Beast as well as the newly discovered alternate version of that book, tentatively titled Six-Six-Six. To see all of the press releases and to keep up on any new developments concerning this newly unearthed Heinlein novel, please click here.

Aware of this new Heinlein novel I began a cursory internet search to catch up on some of the long-ago reviews of Number of the Beast, and while doing so ran across my RAH interview. It was posted on a bulletin board back in 2008 by none other than Heinlein’s biographer William Patterson (1951-2014), and is where I snagged it, cleaned it up, and have posted it here. I must admit I was flattered by what Patterson had to say about the introduction and interview, and I quote him below as perfect preface to the original introduction. I hope the interview whets your appetite for the new RAH novel later this year, for whether you liked the original or not, this new one is bound to be a major SF publishing event.

William Patterson: This interview was published in the leading fanzine of the day, Richard E. Geis’s Science Fiction Review, amid a flurry of puzzled and disappointed reactions in this and the preceding two issues of SFR to Heinlein’s groundbreaking new novel, The Number of the Beast. Truesdale inserts his own puzzled and disappointed reactions gratuitously into the forematter for the review. Nevertheless, this interview contains the best picture of the goings-on in Butler on Heinlein Day—better, in fact, than the reportage in the mainstream press. And the interview itself provides some very illuminating statements on how very intentional The Number of the Beast was: elements that rigid genre readers object to were there because he thought they belonged there.”

Original Introduction

Robert A. Heinlein’s triumphant return to the town of his birth, Butler, Missouri, was, in his own words, a "day I will never forget." April 17th, 1980 was proclaimed Robert Heinlein Day in the small farm community (pop. 3,984) and the entire town turned out to greet their favorite son, the SF world’s first acknowledged Grand Master of the form.
Even as short a time as one year ago, however, such a festive occasion would have been at best dampened, at worst difficult to bring off at all, for science fiction’s most influential author was in poor health and admittedly senile. As Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention hosted in Kansas City in 1976 he appeared but a walking simulacra of his former self. Difficult, forgetful, rambling, he was even roundly booed while in the midst of his Guest of Honor speech following some reactionary remarks he had made.
Then, last year, thanks to one of the miracles of modern science that in years gone by would have seemed science fictional itself, Heinlein was not only restored to full health and mental alertness but has now produced a new novel, The Number of the Beast, and a retrospective collection of stories forthcoming this summer, Expanded Universe. The latter will probably be the closest thing to an autobiography we will ever see from the 72-year old Heinlein.
As detailed by Heinlein in the March issue of Omni magazine, it was a dangerous and delicate brain operation involving micro-laser surgery to by-pass a blocked artery that saved him.
Having just returned the previous day from his fourth global cruise from which he was in convalescence, the chipper and jovial Heinlein privately began his day by visiting the Bates County Museum, then enjoyed a luncheon with relatives prior to speaking to students at Butler High School. He then sat in review while a brief parade consisting of a marching band, several theme floats and local groups wound its way around Butler Square to pay homage to their hometown hero, who accepted the tribute with smiles and applause, obviously pleased with the whole affair.
Mid-afternoon saw Heinlein presented with several plaques during a reception at City Hall (one from the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, bestowing upon him lifetime membership). He then graciously signed scores of autographs for enthusiastic fans and even granted several interviews with visiting media representatives, a boon that reporters who vainly attempted to interview him several years ago will readily appreciate. Following a semi-private dinner, the rejuvenated Heinlein attended a public meeting at the Butler Public Library, rounding off a thoroughly rewarding day for those lucky enough to have attended.
Having just finished a bound set of uncorrected advance proofs of The Number of the Beast I was most anxious to speak with Mr. Heinlein about the book. To be quite honest, I felt the book to be terribly overlong. There was no plot to speak of, the characters were flat, interchangeable and difficult to relate to on any reasonable level, and what Mr. Heinlein felt to be amusing, through irritating bickerings among the four protagonists as to who would captain the ship (along with the boring and repeated inner-workings as to how the ship, Gay Deceiver, would jump from one universe to the next), I felt were so much wasted space. In short, I found the book to be nothing more than an overlong working exercise, a study in how to become proficient in auctorial over-indulgence. I have rarely read so poor an effort from so good a writer, and am left with the hope that his next novel has to be better.
I spoke with Mr. Heinlein as he was signing autographs for fans in Butler, kneeling beside him with my cassette picking up anything and everything—from crowd noise to his pleasantries with well-wishers and fans, and yes, even my few questions and answers. Despite my adverse feelings toward The Number of the Beast, I was totally taken with Heinlein and was grateful for the rare opportunity to speak with him. Herewith, our brief conversation:

SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW: Why was there detailed, repeated explanations as to the programming of the computer Gay Deceiver each time the ship "jumped" from one alternate universe to another? Were the mechanics for each jump necessary?

ROBERT A. HEINLEIN: I didn’t realize I had explained it too much. I felt it was necessary to show how they swapped around. I thought it was necessary, that’s all.
SFR: There seemed endless bickering among the four protagonists as to who would captain Gay Deceiver. There were at least four changes of command, each time preceded by pages of arguing and decision-making that seemed to slow the development of the book. Any reason for this?
HEINLEIN: The story was intended to be entertaining. I did not set out to teach any lessons. I set out to entertain. If it entertained you, then, it was successful.
SFR: You seemed to have had a lot of fun while writing this book, especially so in the latter chapters when so many SF personalities were name-dropped in. Was it a particularly fun book for you to write?
HEINLEIN: Oh, I had fun in writing that book. Sometimes writing can become a bit tedious, but that was a fun one practically all the way through.
SFR: On one of the worlds Zebediah and the crew briefly visit you once again professed the belief that there is justice in strict punishment for criminals—and even go so far as to have this particular alternate world’s police cripple a hit-and-run convict by breaking his legs with a drawn cart. Hasn’t history shown that "eye-for-an-eye" retribution doesn’t deter crime?
HEINLEIN: I have portrayed all sorts of cultures in the course of my stories. I don’t necessarily favor that particular culture per se. But I do believe in punishment. I do not think that our present method of patting criminals on the head and saying, "Now, dear boy, don’t do it again" works. We have too many people committing murders who’ve already committed murders. Out in California we’ve got ‘em by platoons. And I don’t think that history has shown that retribution doesn’t work. One thing that history does prove is that if you hang a murderer he never commits another murder. History has proved that.
SFR: It seems as if, after briefly introducing the evil aliens, the "Black Hats," that you just dropped them from the book (for all intents and purposes). Aside from sporadic, brief referrals to them during the course of the book, was there a reason you ignored them? Were they really necessary?
HEINLEIN: I thought they were necessary or I wouldn’t have put them in there.
SFR: Now that science fiction has blossomed economically, do you believe, as Fred Pohl does, that Bigness may indeed by Bad for a writer?
HEINLEIN: I don’t see why it should be bad or good. There has always been a market for anybody who really had good stuff to print.
SFR: You don’t think it spoils a writer into writing only what the audience wants, instead of being creative?
HEINLEIN: You have a hidden premise in your question. You assume that writing what the audience wants is not being creative. You have to be extremely creative to write what the audience wants, instead of writing what everybody else is and the audience is tired of.
SFR: Would you say a little about the novel upcoming, after The Number of the Beast?
HEINLEIN: I never have anything to say about a book until after I’ve finished it and it’s ready for publication. I do have a retrospective collection appearing in July, and it’s the closest thing to an autobiography I expect to write. It’s called Expanded Universe.
SFR: How do you feel about critics and reviewers?
HEINLEIN: You’ve read The Number of the Beast. You’ll find the answer in the last chapter.
SFR: You don’t hold many of them in the highest regard then, do you?
HEINLEIN: I have never seen anything that was ever any use to me from a critic; nothing that would enable me to write a better book the next time.
SFR: Several years ago, Phil Klass—
HEINLEIN: The one who’s a college professor? [ed. note: SF author William Tenn]
SFR: Yes. In an argument he had with you many years ago, he expressed the view that the liberated social structure in Stranger in a Strange Land was correct for the short term, but definitely not for the long run. You espouse this same sexually liberated viewpoint in Number. What do you think of his assessment?
HEINLEIN: I say it’s a bunch of twaddle.
SFR: Do you keep up with the science fiction being written today?
HEINLEIN: Oh, yes, I’ve just finished A Heritage of Stars by Clifford Simak. Everything Cliff Simak does is good. The man’s very intelligent, and he always does a good job.
SFR: Could you tell a little about your brain surgery?
HEINLEIN: Get hold of the March issue of Omni. I have an article in there that’s based on the testimony I gave before Congress. It has all the details that a layman would be interested in, plus a reference to the technical description of the operation. They sawed through my skull right here [ed. note: pointing to the left temporal region), went in and rearranged the arteries. I was senile before that. It’s one of those go-for-broke operations. They either fix you up or they kill you; that was the bet. I took the gamble and won.
SFR: Are you a gambler?
HEINLEIN: You have to be a born gambler if you want to be a freelance writer.
SFR: And an optimist?
HEINLEIN: Not necessarily. I tend to be a pessimist rather than an optimist, except for an abiding conviction that the human race is too tough to kill.
SFR: Do you think the human race deserves to spread itself among the stars?
HEINLEIN: There’s no "deserve" about it; it’s whether or not you can do it. Since the human race has remained mean, ornery, stubborn for all these many, many millennia, I assume there must be survival value in it. I do not expect us to become sweetness and light. If we ever become sweetness and light, why, move over dinosaurs, here we come.
SFR: In your GoH speech at MidAmeriCon in 1976 you said you believed this planet was all used up and we should find another place to live. Does what you just expressed go along with this view? Do you still believe it’s time we moved on?
HEINLEIN: I believe very strongly that we’ve got to get viable colonies on other planets for the safety of the race. We know that even if we don’t blow up this planet now, that eventually it’s going to be worn out, that our star is going to be worn out; that if we expect to live for the next thirty billion years we’ve got to have more room and more baskets for our eggs. We can be wiped out on one planet by natural catastrophes as well as man-made catastrophes, so we need to have more places to live.
SFR: Do you stay abreast of all the new developments in the sciences?
HEINLEIN: I work very hard at it. As Alice said in Through the Looking Glass, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place. The art is increasing much faster than I’m able to keep up with it.
SFR: Do you think, as Arthur C. Clarke does, that those alive in the year 2000 will most likely be able to live another 100 or 200 years?
HEINLEIN: It’s possible. I think the time is coming when the question of how long we will live will be a matter of personal choice, but I don’t know when that will be, and I’m not qualified to have an opinion.
SFR: What do you feel about cryogenics?
HEINLEIN: (Chuckling) Pretty chilly. In Time for the Stars I suggested one use for it—not original with me—that cryogenics could be used to put a man on the shelf until science or medicine has solved the problem.
SFR: Have you ever considered being frozen?
HEINLEIN: I hadn’t planned on it. I plan on being cremated.
SFR: One final question, please. Do you have any feelings one way or the other—to change the topic from science fiction for a moment—on the Iranian [hostage] situation? About President Carter’s handling of it?
HEINLEIN: This is not a political interview, and I am hindered by the situation from using scatological language, so let’s leave the matter alone. (A short pause). I’m sore as hell.
SFR: Thank you very much, Mr. Heinlein.

Robert A. Heinlein interview copyright © 1980, 2019 Dave Truesdale & Tangent Online

Robert A. Heinlein photo copyright © 1980, 2019 Dave Truesdale

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