Polyamory, Robert Heinlein, and his definitive new biography
Bear with me, please.
Love it or scorn it, Stranger was one of the books that made the Sixties happen. It thunder-struck countless people — including me — with a Road-to-Damascus revelation about the possibilities of genuine multi-love. This was a couple of decades before the word polyamory came into being. (In fact the word was co-invented by the life partner of one of Stranger's most important early disciples2.) In my case, it wasn't just the book that did it but a nest of real, live waterbrothers who introduced me to the book and then invited me in.
The book's ripples continue to spread. Even today, ask any group of poly activists what originally got them going, and some are sure to mention Stranger and/or other books by Heinlein. Many others in turn discovered poly because of these people's work and influence, two or three or six times removed. If you've been reading this website, you're a couple degrees of separation from Heinlein right here. For an early, important, and very typical story of Stranger-discovery, see footnote 5.
Other poly folks say the book is... pretty lousy.
They kinda have a point. It's dated, sexist, the characters are rather cartoonish — and although it works well as a fast-paced adventure story and brilliantly as a thought-provoking social satire, it's useless as a guide for real life, what with its complete reliance on magic psychic superpowers learned from Martians. Life is too easy when you can make air cars full of raiding policemen vanish into the fourth dimension with a flick of the mind.
Stranger was a surprise break from Heinlein's first 22 years of science fiction. Up to then he had written with a very commercial eye for the pulp and juvenile markets and showed practically no trace of what we would call the counterculture. [But see biographer William H. Patterson's remarks about how Heinlein tried to sneak liberal ideas about sex into his early stories, in the comments below.] Heinlein cultivated his persona as a crusty, gallant military man — he was an Annapolis graduate (1929) who was dumped from the Navy for tuberculosis in 1934 and, it's pretty clear, never got over the loss. By the Fifties, under the influence of his third wife Virginia — who was poles apart politically from his second3 — he had become an outspoken cold warrior, championing military values with a contempt for non-militarists that, to many, amounted to fascism. At a time when the FBI was digging into the lives of almost all science fiction writers for evidence of subversion (FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is reported to have called science fiction the most dangerous literature in America), Heinlein apparently got a free pass from the federal snoops.
If so, the joke was on Hoover. Stranger became the most subversive science fiction book in America. It helped inspire a generation of straight, serious, all-American teenagers, such as me, to become free-love radicals, utopians, and visionaries. It became part of the Sixties' rush to unloose all kinds of revolutionary color onto beige America. Stranger remains the best known, best selling, and most influential of Heinlein's half century of work.
And yet, Heinlein was always reticent about how he came by Stranger's extremely liberal ideas. He refused to expound on the book, other than to say that he wrote it to earn a living and to entertain the paying customers. He certainly didn't "believe in it" the way many of its followers did. In one of his few public remarks about Stranger, he famously wrote to a fan: "I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers.... It is an invitation to think — not to believe."
[UPDATE: The fan in question, Oberon Zell, has saved his correspondence with Heinlein. In the comments below, Zell posts a more extensive letter that he received from Heinlein about writing Stranger.]
At times Heinlein, in his reticence, almost seemed to be embarrassed by the book. Nevertheless, from then on he made capable, dynamic polyamorous families a staple of his far-future tales for the next 36 years. Some of these too had wide poly influence, notably The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, 1966, and Time Enough for Love, 1973.
Heinlein died in 1988. And now we should be getting more of the backstory.
Today is the publication date for the first volume of William H. Patterson Jr.'s massive authorized biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century. Volume One, titled "Learning Curve," covers the years from his birth (1907) to 1948, the year before his third wife Virginia suggested the basic plot idea for Stranger to him.
His private radical ideas on sex and marriage, however, were formed well before then. Some of them appear in a book-length manuscript titled For Us, the Living that he wrote in 1938, the year before he sold his first science fiction story. The protagonist is knocked unconscious and wakes up in 2086, where he proceeds to learn about the better world that people have created in the interim. Later Heinlein — and significantly, Virginia — rounded up what they thought were all copies of For Us, The Living and burned them. They also burned almost all other letters and documentation of his early life and thoughts.
But after his death a surviving copy of the manuscript, annotated in Heinlein's handwriting, was tracked down in a storage carton in a student-of-a-friend's garage. It was published in 2003 as a mass-market paperback. There, plain to see, are poly and anti-jealousy ideals that would later become key to Stranger. Near the end, for instance, is a scene — treated not at all salaciously — of the protagonist waking up comfortably in bed with two brainy, informative women. These themes reflected formative experiences that Heinlein had in the 1930s with the approval of both his first and second wives.
And on that cliffhanger, I'll call a halt. I ordered the new biography today and haven't seen it yet! The above is from earlier sources. I hope I'll have more to tell after I read it.
UPDATE: Okay, I've now finished the book. Short version: it's a massive, masterful piece of scholarship, finally filling in huge amounts of the first half of Heinlein's life and revealing many early influences that would later show up in his books and fictional characters. Highly recommended, and I can't wait for Volume 2. [Update July 2014: Volume 2 has just been published.]
There are no great new revelations regarding the genesis of Stranger, beyond what's already been out there for those who go looking for it. It was, however, news to me that Heinlein happily spent the summer of 1930 in the free-love and genderqueer bohemia of Greenwich Village (an environment he never returned to), or that he and his lifelong Navy friend Cal Laning took women "double dating in bed" in the 1930s. Or that Heinlein met and married Leslyn when Laning, her boyfriend who was thinking of proposing to her, basically herded Heinlein into befriending and bedding her to get his opinion on how she might be as a life mate. Laning seemed more bemused than upset by Heinlein marrying Leslyn out from under him, and they all remained good friends.
It was also news to me that Heinlein, Leslyn, and Virginia not only were friends together for a few years during and after World War II, but apparently lived in a sexual menage a trois in California toward the end, at a time when Leslyn was descending into alcoholism and mental illness.
Meanwhile, to get back to polyamory in the news, here are some reviews of the biography.
By Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing:
Heinlein memoir: Learning Curve — the secret history of science fiction
...It's the first authorized biography of the sf writer who popularized at least three important motifs of the 20st century (polyamory, private space travel, and libertarianism) and redefined the field of science fiction with a series of novels, stories and essays that are usually brilliant but sometimes self-indulgent, sometimes offensive in their treatment of race and gender, and always provocative and generally sneaky....
Read the whole article (Aug 13, 2010).
By Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:
...Patterson even asserts — and will presumably discuss more fully in Vol. 2 — that Heinlein "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."
...Throughout their unconventional life together, the Heinleins [Robert and his second wife Leslyn, to whom he was married from 1932 to 1947] practiced an open marriage, regularly attended nudist colonies and were periodically drawn to suspect schemes for societal improvement, including new theories of taxation (Social Credit) and new ways of interacting with the world (General Semantics)....
...During the war years, the Heinleins both worked at the Aeronautical Materials Lab in Philadelphia, where colleagues included two young sf writers, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp (whose wife, Catherine, was once photographed nude by Heinlein)....
Sometimes fascinating, frequently over-detailed, Patterson's worshipful biography is no match in literary quality for Julie Philips's superb James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006), a superb study of an equally unconventional sf writer. While Patterson admires his hero without serious reservation, some readers may find Heinlein the man just a little creepy at times, not surprising given the controversial militarism he later revealed in Starship Troopers (1959) or the polyamory and sexual obsessions of the sprawling books after The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966)....
Read the whole article (Aug. 12, 2010).
On a site called Necromancy Never Pays:
Reading about Heinlein's high school classmate Sally Rand goes a long way towards explaining the character of Patricia in [Stranger], and finding out that a 1927 book entitled Companionate Marriage [by the progressive Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, who lost his judgeship because of the book's radicalism for the time] might have influenced his liberal views on marriage enlarges my picture of the man and the kinds of marriages he dreamed up in his fiction.
Read the whole article (July 21, 2010). A bit of history here: Judge Ben Lindsey was a nationally famous reformer who created America's juvenile justice system. After he was run out of Colorado for his book advocating legal contraception and trial marriage, he was elected to a judgeship in Los Angeles — around the same time Heinlein was living in Los Angeles and deeply involved in the political campaigns of the progressive Upton Sinclair wing of the Democratic Party. Could Heinlein have been influenced not just by Ben Lindsey's book but later by personal contact?
Here is an unflattering review of the Heinlein biography on the Tor Books site by SF writer Jo Walton.
A couple more notes, while we're at it:
● The only version of Stranger that the world knew for nearly 30 years was the choppy, fast-paced edition that came out in 1961. Heinlein's publisher had insisted that he shorten his original manuscript by 60,000 words, and over the years there were many rumors about what the full version contained. In 1990 Heinlein's widow Virginia brought it out as The Original Uncut Stranger in a Strange Land.
Soon afterward I put the two books side by side on a table and, over the course of a month, made a line-by-line comparison from start to finish. My conclusion: little was lost in the cutting. Want details? See footnote 4.
UPDATE: Oberon Zell writes in with a letter that he has from Heinlein talking about how and why he did the cutting. Heinlein says here that he thinks the cut version is the better one. See the comments below.
● Cherie L. Ve Ard has written an essay titled The Influence of the Science Fiction Writings of Robert A. Heinlein on Polyamory.
● Update December 2017: Yanno, sometimes sexism and misogyny in an old piece of art doesn't mist over with age but just looks uglier and uglier. Following this season of #MeToo, Sophie Kleeman writes in The Outline The misogyny of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ takes on new shame. "A beloved sci-fi vision of the future has no empathy for women," it's subtitled. Kleeman begins by quoting an example from Jill Boardman, Stranger's lead female:
"Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault." That was supposed to be a cute throwaway showing how worldly and and free Jill is about discussing something sexual. "Spoken by a woman, written by a man," notes Kleeman. "Why should it be a surprise that such bumbling misogyny is hidden in plain sight in one of the most popular science fiction books of the 20th century?"
1 Plot summary for the uninitiated (spoiler alert!): The first human expedition to Mars ends in murder and catastrophe, due to the captain's in-flight affair with another man's wife. Born of that affair is the mission's sole survivor and the hero of the novel: a baby who is raised on Mars by unisex Martians. The Martians possess vast but utterly unhuman wisdom and powers. Our hero is brought to Earth in young adulthood (around 2000 or so, when the sky is full of air cars, a world government rules the U.S., and a new pop religion is replacing Christianity). He discovers human male-female love, rejects jealousy and sexual possession, founds a polyamorous society of Martian-speaking initiates to be the next stage of human evolution, and finally goes to a Christ-like martyrdom to spread the group's message of love unbounded.
2 That would be Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, life partner of Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (born Tim Zell) who became one of Stranger's first important apostles in 1962. Zell gathered waterbrothers and founded the Church of All Worlds, which became a crucial part in the formation of the Neo-Pagan religious movement. He and Morning Glory are still alive (he's writing his memoirs), and the Church of All Worlds continues today following several schisms and re-creations. Morning Glory's 1990 essay "A Bouquet of Lovers" first introduced the word polyamorous. Here's more on the word's origin.
3 Writes J. Bradford DeLong:
Heinlein in the 1940s, when he leaves left-wing populist politics and becomes a writer, seems, much more than I had thought, to have launched himself on a trajectory to spend the rest of his life as the center of a group whose raison d'etre was to try to live in the early days of a better future, to look sanely and humanely and in a reality-based way at humanity's lurching progress, and to try to help make us become who our best selves are — to be the heir of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.
But by the early 1960s he has aged mightily in mind: the best days are no longer in our future but instead in the pre-Great Depression midwest, Dwight D. Eisenhower is soft on communism, and his reaction to living in America's Martin Luther King years is to write Farnham's Freehold, of all things.
DeLong then quotes the explanation from Isaac Asimov, Heinlein's friend and fellow science fiction writer, in his memoir I, Asimov:
There had to be a certain circumspection in [my] friendship [with] Heinlein, however. Heinlein was not the easygoing fellow... did not believe in doing his own thing and letting you do your thing. He had a definite feeling that he knew better and to lecture you into agreeing with him.... [While] Campbell always remained serenely indifferent if you ended up disagreeing with him... Heinlein would, under those circumstances, grow hostile.
I do not take well to people who are convinced they know better than I do, and who badger me for that reason, so I began to avoid him.
Furthermore, although a flaming liberal during the war, Heinlein became a rock-ribbed far-right conservative immediately afterward... at just the time he changed wives from a liberal woman, Leslyn, to a rock-ribbed far-right conservative woman, Virginia.
Ronald Reagan did the same when he switched wives from the liberal Jane Wyman to the ultraconservative Nancy, but Ronald Reagan I have always viewed as a brainless fellow.... I can't explain Heinlein in that way at all, for I cannot believe he would follow his wives' opinions blindly. I used to brood about it in puzzlement.... I did come to one conclusion. I would never marry anyone who did not generally agree with my political, social, and philosophical view of life.... I would certainly not change my own views just for the sake of peace in the households, and I would not want a woman so feeble in her opinions that she would do so....
4 Heinlein did the shortening that his publisher demanded mostly by relentlessly condensing nearly every sentence, a word or two at a time. The result was a faster-paced, faster-reading story with no significant scenes or ideas removed. I thought that about 1/4 of the cuts were clear editorial improvements, another 1/2 neither improved nor weakened the story on balance but did speed it up, and about 1/4 of the cuts resulted in genuine loss of depth and nuance. But not by much.
For instance: in the uncut version, Dr. Mahmoud (a minor character) comes across rather more fully as a serious person and a thoughtful Muslim. In the cut version he's rough-sketched and cartoonish.
The famous "too shocking" scene that the publisher is said to have demanded be changed is when Ben finally finds Mike and Jill in the Nest in St. Petersburg, and they sit Ben down with them, hug him, and vanish their clothes. In the uncut version, Mike and Jill are already having sex when Ben walks in. Big whoop. The meaning of the scene is identical each way, and I actually liked the "toned down" version a little better for its touching innocence and what this says about Ben's horrified reaction.
There were some cuts I was genuinely sorry to see, such as the loss of some scene-setting in the section where Mike and Jill have hit the road working for a carnival. This part is sweet, and it gets us inside Jill's head a little more than usual — and without it, the section starts off rather joltingly and confusingly. If Heinlein was going to cut in chunks, I'd have much preferred he removed the embarrassingly homophobic paragraph about "in-betweeners" (which is irrelevant to the story). Yet in his editing he plowed right on through that part, relentlessly removing a few words per sentence like everywhere else.
When my kids were old enough, it was an easy choice to give them the shorter version of Stranger for their birthdays. For most readers, I think it's slightly the better book.
P.S.: Here's a different opinion.
5 Oberon and Morning Glory Zell, legendary advocates for Stranger and founders/leaders of Neo-Paganism, are writing their autobiography, The Witch and the Wizard. [Update April 2014: They finished it, and it was published by Llewellyn in winter 2014.] In the preliminary text below, Oberon and his lifelong friend Lance Christie (1944–2010) tell how they (Oberon and Lance) discovered Stranger in their freshman year of college, setting them on their life path:
OZ: That fall  the October selection of the Science Fiction Book Club was a new book by Robert Heinlein called Stranger in a Strange Land. Lance was a subscriber and he got the book. He took it home and read it over Christmas vacation. When he got back he handed it to me and said, “You have got to read this!” So I did. There was an incredible sense of recognition — here was someone who understood us and was talking to us. And the ideas that he was putting forth were all ones that we resonated with on so many levels.
...Having been an avid reader of Heinlein’s juveniles all through high school, I was really ready for SISL. As the protagonists in his previous works had all been my age progressively, so it was with the newest one: Valentine Michael Smith… with his Martian-trained mental abilities and alien cultural perspective. A perspective uncannily like that of Lance and myself.
...Heinlein’s SISL introduced us to the ideas of immanent divinity (“thou art God”), pantheism “all that groks is god”), sacraments (water sharing), priestesses, social and ritual nakedness, intimate extended families as a basis for community; and, of course, open, loving relationships without jealousy, and joyous expression of sexuality as divine union. By defining love as “that condition wherein another person’s happiness is essential to your own,” SISL changed forever the parameters of our relationships with each other—especially in the sexual arena. And all this in the context of a legal religious organization — a “church” — which could have all the rights and privileges granted to the mighty Church of Rome! This was heady stuff, and we drank it up.
LANCE: We talked a lot about the possibilities that were available to human beings to take a different path, in respect to the way society was put together and the premises on which it was founded. That’s where Stranger had such a powerful affect. Heinlein constellated the idea of trying to work out and install a different set of cultural premises, to develop an alternative human civilization based on more enlightened concepts about human beings, their relationships to each other, their relationships to the natural world, and the purpose and conduct of life, what constitutes right livelihood, what constitutes right action and so on.
We didn’t have those terms at the time. OZ and I were very early in receiving this impulse from the collective unconscious, and we were more cognitively differentiated and sensitive to it than the other people around us at the time. It doesn’t mean that we were superior in some sort of cosmic sense. We were just able to receive the signal at an earlier time than a large number of other people who have since started to receive the signal and recognize it.
OZ: In Stranger, sharing water, and saying “Water shared is life shared,” is the fundamental ritual of the book. So on April 7, 1962, Lance and I sat down in a field, shared water, and dedicated ourselves to creating a life that would be based on the principles that were in this book — and to trying to actualize them and manifest them into reality. We became water brothers. That is essentially the founding date of what eventually became the Church of All Worlds — as well as the Foundation for the Tree of Life.
When our girlfriends (and future wives), Martha and Penny, returned from Spring Break, we turned them onto SISL and shared water with them, too. That was on May 25. And so it began....