By John Clute
28 June 2010
There are times when Cory Doctorow sounds more like Robert A. Heinlein than his dad in heaven (1907—1988) ever managed to, not to say that Cory Doctorow is a clone of the father of modern American SF, not really at all, not really (he's Canadian, which is to say he is not the render of a yank). There are moments, though, when For the Win almost audibly shouts out lessons in its Master's Voice (italics intended); and quieter times too, when this 2010 tale renders its 1947 spiritual provenance (for "render" see below) so seamlessly it was as though the beast of tomorrow didn't have us by the throats. There are times, as well, when the tale does not go down that easy, when Heinlein's silky advocacy of the future he thought he would get (at least in his early days) roughens, in Doctorow's aughts hands, into something thin and gestural: agitprop grinning its boney grin through the smiley face: story being told (note italics) what to mean.
Truism: Heinlein was born and matured in a period when a more natural fit seemed to obtain between advocacy and a body politic that could be shaped, so that his work—certainly in the first decade of his published career—seemed congenial with its task. This assumption that the Father of SF invented tools of the imagination to shape a doable world has of course been extremely useful to readers and critics (I have certainly iterated it faithfully for a lot of decades now, sometimes noisily), and it does very conveniently help to explain some of the seeming certainty of the central line of SF before the scaffolding began to collapse round about 1970, and we began to realize that reality was intractable.
Not necessarily, says Cory Doctorow, again and again. By now we have grown into the habit of watching him catch the boing of tomorrow and boost it, have grown into the habit of expecting him to deliver usable tamable light-engendering future fixes. In the necessary noise and scintillation of all this, though, it is sometimes easy to forget that as far as style and attack (note italics) and provenance go, Doctorow is a deeply conservative writer: a writer who believes that words told in a row can give us the world and what to do with it. So maybe, in view of this saddle of certainty he seems to ride, it might be an idea to go back to the beginning, and see if anything in the life and work of RAH now in heaven might help us understand what Doctorow may think he's doing.
Luck is with us, of course. After long gestation, Robert A. Heinlein: Volume 1: Learning Curve (1907-1948), the first half (it looks like) of William H. Patterson, Jr.'s intensely researched biography of the central shaper of modern American SF, has now appeared; the presumed second volume will carry his life into more expansive but (I suspect) less complicated territory: into a time when Bob/Robert Heinlein, less and less personally involved in the SF subculture, did all the same dominate his chosen world from behind a perfected RAH mask. In person, it is generally understood (in common with many of my contemporaries, I for one never met the man) that the ageing RAH was a touchy, generous, microcontrolling, secretive man who husbanded his domineering talent well into the 1960s; but there is nothing particularly unusual in any of that. Conspicuously successful men (alpha males, Type A personalities) may be loving, ex cathedra, may be polite—"Courtesy is the politic witchery of great personages," Baltazar Gracian (1601-1658), The Art of Worldly Wisdom, a book I've quoted from before—but they don't keep open house.
Which goes for the past as well. Microcontrolling dominant men (and women) tend to hold the cards of the past close to their chest, just as they tend to dictate the future. The only reason Heinlein's life during the formative years covered by this first volume is not a completely closed book is that Heinlein never entirely managed to lock it shut. This failure to present a fully rendered Heinlein was due partly to the frustrating incoherence of the real world in general; but also due to the semi-public nature of his life: as a naval officer, as a California politician, as a remarkably successful writer who transformed the small SF field in little over two years (and then quit), and as a figure in the World War Two research establishment. Not that he didn't try pretty hard to fine down his ultimately uncontrollable back pages: in three conflagrations, paced at even intervals (1947, 1967, and 1987), the Heinleins—Robert and Virginia were not married until 20 October 1948, but had clearly been effective partners for more than a year—destroyed much (most) of his private letters and other papers. Uncharred islands remained, and several of his correspondents kept their own archives (John W. Campbell, Jr. among them), but Patterson, who seems never to have met the man in the flesh, was clearly forced to piece together much of Heinlein's early life from shards and orts, from letters written long after any of the events referred to (in particular, the dramas and traumas of the later years with his tempestuous second wife, Leslyn, can only be glimpsed through the smoke and flames of the successive pyres), and from transcribed interviews with Virginia Heinlein laid down after her husband's death, with sometimes half a century or more intervening between an event and her memories.
It might have been better had Patterson (or some earlier biographer) been able to begin his task a year or so after Heinlein's death; but (see above) it is very unlikely that satisfactory terms would have been negotiable that soon. The decades that have passed may have loosened those terms—Virginia Heinlein only asked asked Patterson to undertake this authorized biography in 2000—but by this point many of Heinlein's contemporaries were dead or in their eighties or nineties; except for Frederik Pohl, who was not close to Heinlein, there seem to be none left alive in 2010. Given the destruction of sources, and the author's necessarily secondhand knowledge of what Heinlein felt like in person, and the authorized nature of the enterprise, and the die-off of remaining friends, it is not at all surprising that Learning Curve is a volume markedly lacking in moments of intimacy or apercu, not that Patterson is the writer to provide them. What he does convey to his readers, in a style not designed to scale heights, is what he has quilted together, with enormous industry, from a very large range of secondary sources; his notes occupy 100 pages of text, and make fascinating reading, in part because he has quoted here, sometimes at length, speculative comments he is unwilling to promote into the more decorous, authorized main text. But beyond this undeniable trove, plus some photographs, each worth several thousand words, there is nothing more: except for what Heinlein actually wrote, which is why we are reading this nearly reverent biography. But Heinlein's work is another story, one Patterson explicitly declines to try to interpret. So the man is one with Ninevah. Time is sand. That said, it can also be said that much remains to be made sense of, and that despite the ruthlessly eviscerated record a decodable pictogram does emerge of a very remarkable man, the geek engineer from the navy who polished himself by early middle age into the author of "Lifeline" in 1939, which is good work, and "Coventry" a year later, which is astonishing.
Robert Heinlein was born in a small town, Butler, Missouri, in 1907, into a modestly dysfunctional though cohesive family, with several siblings to test his fettle and to socialize him; though he referred to himself as needing solitude as a child (he was a constant reader), a need for solitude is radically different from getting it. Unlike the paradigm SF male child, Heinlein needed to be from the get-go as competent with others as he was with his monkey-brain hands. The family soon moved to Kansas City, where the young boy was furiously busy, though he was often sick; and in the midst of it all had more than one mystical experience, access of numinousness, "recognition" of something like a path forward. Very early, the navy loomed as a career choice, and a source of enough money to live, and a focus for his numinous conviction that he must somehow figure in the life of his nation: America, he said later, more than once, was his religion. He was Tom Sawyer with an inner Huck—he virtually memorized The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)—though he had not perhaps memorized quite the same Tom Sawyer Patterson gives us:
Robert could not have been easy to live with. Like Tom Sawyer, he was invested in the romance of the military. The late-nineteenth-century idealization of the medieval in which Twain had so gloried [are we speaking of the author of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) here?] left an indelible mark on Heinlein's personality, and he was to celebrate gallantry for the remainder of his life.
There is in fact more than one problem here. Over and above the surreal vision of Twain himself, Patterson gives us an almost unrecognizeably sanitized Tom Sawyer, fatally unlike the figure so vividly drawn in Huckleberry Finn, the entrepreneurial chancer Huck loves almost despite himself, a trimmer who, if he were to "celebrate gallantry for the remainder of" his imagined life, would do so from a podium. Almost unconsciously (though I think we will never know how early he began to think speaking for America and guiding America was the same job), Heinlein's sense of gallantry was transgressive. It involved telling and arguing what he saw as the truth, almost regardless of consequences; it helps explain his sudden convulsive decisions (his first two marriages were decided upon in seconds); and it was inextricably commingled with an intense patriotism Heinlein himself recognized (see above) as a form of religion: hence (perhaps) his perpetual difficulty with superior officers in the navy, who seem (Patterson is not explicit) to have frustrated his career more than once, and may actually have blackballed him during World War Two, as Tom Sawyer would have. I think (to jump the gun) that Heinlein was a Huck Finn who wanted to be Tom Sawyer, but could not stomach the cost: that the navy, and the citizens who did not vote him into office in California, had detected a ringer: and that his success as a writer came from blind luck and a talent that approached genius, not from sagacity.
In any case, by the age of fifteen, by dint of a ferocious dedication to a long list of odd jobs, he was self-supporting, though he stayed home. He had already read L. Frank Baum and Roy Rockwood; by 1920 he was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rudyard Kipling and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. By his late teens he was attending life-drawing classes, and modeled for pay (a source of income that lasted at least into his early 20s). He had a stammer; he took public-speaking courses in high school. He had a longing for the stage, and acted in several plays (it is not clear if Patterson thinks he was any good). He did stage magic. He sold life insurance door to door. Patterson says he must have been hard to live with, though he does not tell us how noisy the young Heinlein was; one may guess that—like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury after him—he boiled aloud with energy, and always had to be right: because if there was something wrong it was wrong because someone had been incompetent or had not told the truth; because what was wrong with the world could be fixed. One can guess that he was a right pain in the ass.
He lost his virginity young, but never said when. Patterson seems to think his almost total reticence about a very active sex life relates to his sense of gallantry; I do not, really. Certainly it is the case that his interest in sex began early and lasted as long as Learning Curve does. Very foolishly—it disqualified him from a navy-sponsored Rhodes Scholarship he might well have gained—he married his first wife, Elinor Leah Curry, on the spur, in 1929 (they divorced very quickly); he met his second wife, Leslyn MacDonald, in 1932, and they too married very soon. Both marriages were open as a matter of principle (Heinlein always had to believe he was acting according to principle). Patterson suggests, sotto voce, several women Heinlein may have slept with; but the main point is that from an early age Heinlein walked a tightrope between patriotic gallantry and transgression. He was also a nudist with a camera (he developed his films in private); he was a utopian quasi-socialist Social-Credit doorbell-ringer for the Upton Sinclair rump of the Democratic party in California; he spent several months in a Greenwich Village pad; he was in the gear- and protocol-maddened Navy. Having been accepted to Annapolis for officer training in 1925 (via the Kansas City party machine in which his father was a minor cog), he graduated in 1930, after five years of almost constant illness, as a competent aeronautical engineer. By 1934 tuberculosis had forced his retirement from active service.
Heinlein's subsequent life, from the mid 1930s to the end of 1948, remains emotionally tempestuous, afflicted with various illnesses, and increasingly part of the record we know. Through Patterson, we gain a very much clearer sense than before of the turmoil of that life, and of Heinlein's growing competence at handling the slings and arrows (many of them boomerangs) that pockmarked his course forward. The complex relationship with John W. Campbell, Jr. is chastely expanded upon, and it becomes very clear that Campbell did not really know how to handle his prodigy: an older smarter man (Heinlein, who was three years older than Campbell, almost never thought anyone was as smart as him); a man properly socialized (from 1931 he had been active in various SF clubs or kaffeeklatsch arrangements or cabals, either founding them, or becoming dominant within groups of new friends); a man who—as long as he could control the downside of his gallantry, a cavalier tyrannousness which fueled numerous dismissals of old friends for "sins" others might think venial—was a natural monarch among his SF pals; a man who—as long as he could keep himself from winning gallant but pyrrhic victories—was capable of building a bigger career for himself than Campbell could possibly offer; a Better Engineer looking for a toolkit to fix the world with, and who found it in SF.
Patterson puts it succinctly:
The science and technology Heinlein had immersed himself in . . . were parts of the "American mentality" [that Edward Bellamy manifested and John Dewey anatomized], and while the idea that technique could be applied to the engineering of society may have been a Bolshevik discovery, it was Americans who were taking the idea all over the world. The new world was going to be "corporated"—just what H. G. Wells had been saying in his social novels published through the 1920s—and Americans were exploring how to do the new corporatedness.
We can see this programme clearly in Heinlein's first novel, For Us, the Living (written late 1938; published 2004), a narrative utopia too full of longueurs and gallant assertions of the unpalatable for it to reach publication before World War Two, but which contains in germ form what he later disguised in sheep's clothing, through his hugely ingenious narratizing of SF worlds: the Future History that engineers from within much of his early SF. That Future History was not a Campbell-inspired construct, though Campbell did publish the famous graphic model of the shape of things to come as told through Heinlein's stories; one of the revelations (to me) of Patterson's methodical, deeply reseached narrative is the realization that Heinlein's first sketches of his Future History date from his immersion in For Us, the Living. So the Future History, like the purloined letter, is a secret hidden in plain view.
The secret is that the corporated future is a plan. Space travel—which Heinlein advocated with deep passion—must be planned. A plan is what a good engineer creates—out of his case of raw data—before he begins to build. The plan is truth. Truth is consequence. The secret is that Robert A. Heinlein thought that drawing a true plan about the future of America would make America adhere to the truth. The secret of Robert A. Heinlein and Cory Doctorow is that they think SF is true.
One good way to detect the secret handshake hidden in plain view in tales by Heinlein or Doctorow is to follow the italics. Both writers—and I suspect a lot of hard SF writers as well—use italics as a kind of decoder ring, as a mechanism designed to shake the truth of a phrase free of the accidents of language. So if Heinlein says "What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts?" (Time Enough for Love, (1973), we know that he is asking us a question heavy with agenda. What he is asking us to understand, clearly enough, is not only that truth can be comprehended and problems solved through what remains when a sensible disciple of Alfred Korzybski has cleared the semantic air, but that facts are the only truth of the matter: and that once the facts are known a Competent Man can clear the road ahead of kipple. And when Doctorow says "Most times, they were too shocked to do anything"—I select almost at random from hundreds of sentences festooned with decoder ring emphases in For the Win—he too is saying that though the truth is still obscure, it remains obtainable, and the truth will make you free.
On page 84 of my American ARC of For the Win, in a description of a real-world hotel atrium, Doctorow says either something that he did not quite mean to say, or something he did not want us to slow down enough to think about:
The lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel soared to unimaginable heights, giant beams criss-crossing through the cavernous space. Wei-Dong had always liked this place. It always seemed so rendered, like an imaginary place, with the intricate marble inlays on the floor, the ten-foot-high stained-glass panels set into the sliding doors, the embroidered upholstery on the sofas.
The key word here (note italics) is of course rendered, a term which in any of its numerous meanings points to transactions from one state of reality (a music score, say; or a real-world hotel) into another (the performance of the score, the virtual-reality or gameworld analogue of the realworld hotel). But there is no free lunch in rendering, because the outcome of every transaction in the world is a mime of the original, which is to say renders are ontologically belated, smoothies whose yogurt is off. But that which is belated can glow in the mind's eye like the aleph. The transacted entity or movement may be so thoroughly transformed (as in music) that only a special few can read the sound from the score; but in other cases, as with the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game Worlds where much of the action of For the Win takes place, the transforms from realworld analogues are subversively similar to but also cleaner than those analogues: a consequence that explains why engineering works look so good before the world soils them, which is as well a pretty good way of pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of Doctorow's exhilarating, arousing, highly kinetic new novel. It is a tale you want to believe, even though the tale has been rendered from models—I think Heinlein's early young adult novels may well be the underlying yogurt here—laid down before the author was born; and even though you know the world it takes place in is a render.
We are in something like the near future, though no date is given, and at points I wondered if Doctorow was tricking us: publishing, as an SF tale chockful with seemingly SF-enabled devices, a story that could have happened today. I suppose the transformation of the Coca Cola Corporation into a multiple-MMORPG owner/operator is SF: but hardly. I am not going to spend much time on the plot. There are several Young Adult protagonists, all of them involved in MMORPG worlds, each of them blessed with a special skill or wisdom, none of whom know each other at the get-go, all of whom have been brought together (except the dead ones) at the moderately triumphant end. What gathers them in is, ultimately, a campaign to unionize the workers of the world and of gameworlds both. Every once in a while an agitprop infodump about the horrors of Chinese sweatshops reminds us that the workers of the real world are genuinely being oppressed in our genuine unrendered 2010, though Doctorow is normally careful to sparkle his lessons with bits of fun and new stuff what we didn't know before; and he makes it easy to think that in renderworld a decision to recognize the facts of the case and join the WEBBLIES (i.e. Web Wobblies) is the next thing to making the WEBBLIES work: truth is consequence.
There are a lot of MMORPG battles in the first half of the book, and a lot of lessons—much more interesting —about gameworld economies, and gold farming, and derivatives, in the second. The climax of the tale is double: an at times kinetically arousing narrative of the joining of the oppressed of the world and gameworlds in worldwide strike actions; and a neat narrative—infodumps hanging into the page whenever necessary — explaining how the greedy corporations of the world have been lured into a ponzi scheme engineered by members of our extremely clever crew, and how these corporations are forced into a humiliating climb-down at the very end: in the line of SF created by Heinlein, proper mousetraps trap proper mice: period.
Doctorow doesn't write a bad sentence; he doesn't even ever write a sentence you have to read twice. You can feel story pounding through the arteries of For the Win. What you mainly miss is a villain, perhaps because the book is all too polished a render, all too transparently engineered for victory. There can be no genuine villain here (the manga-derived Chinese boss is simply silly, and Doctorow makes it clear we know he knows he's silly), because a genuine villain would track bits of realworld all over the speedlines pointing to victory. An author who has a character realize that "Inheritances were handier than he'd suspected" is one) not Charles Dickens, and two) not about to waste any time moongazing at the haecceity of the whatsit: For the Win is an engine book. It is a Thought Experiment. It did me good to read it. So render me pleased, but do not render me tomorrow.