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Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading List: The Robert Heinlein Interview

Schulman, J. Neil. The Robert Heinlein Interview. Pahrump, NV: Pulpless.Com, [1990, 1996, 1999] 2017. ISBN 978-1-58445-015-3.
Today, J. Neil Schulman is an accomplished novelist, filmmaker, screenwriter, actor, journalist, and publisher: winner of the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction. In the summer of 1973, he was none of those things: just an avid twenty year old science fiction fan who credited the works of Robert A. Heinlein for saving his life—replacing his teenage depression with visions of a future worth living for and characters worthy of emulation who built that world. As Schulman describes it, Heinlein was already in his head, and he wanted nothing more in his ambition to follow in the steps of Heinlein than to get into the head of the master storyteller. He managed to parlay a book review into a commission to interview Heinlein for the New York Sunday News. Heinlein consented to a telephone interview, and on June 30, 1973, Schulman and Heinlein spoke for three and a half hours, pausing only for hourly changes of cassettes.

The agenda for the interview had been laid out in three pages of questions Schulman had mailed Heinlein a few days before, but the letter had only arrived shortly before the call and Heinlein hadn't yet read the questions, so he read them as they spoke. After the interview, Schulman prepared a transcript, which was edited by Robert Heinlein and Virginia, his wife. The interview was published by the newspaper in a much abridged and edited form, and did not see print in its entirety until 1990, two years after Heinlein's death. On the occasion of its publication, Virginia Heinlein said “To my knowledge, this is the longest interview Robert ever gave. Here is a book that should be on the shelves of everyone interested in science fiction. Libertarians will be using it as a source for years to come.”

Here you encounter the authentic Heinlein, consistent with the description from many who knew him over his long career: simultaneously practical, visionary, contrary, ingenious, inner-directed, confident, and able to observe the world and humanity without the filter of preconceived notions. Above all, he was a master storyteller who never ceased to be amazed people would pay him to spin yarns. As Schulman describes it, “Talking with Robert Heinlein is talking with the Platonic archetype of all his best characters.”

If you have any interest in Heinlein or the craft of science fiction, this should be on your reading list. I will simply quote a few morsels chosen from the wealth of insights and wisdom in these pages.

On aliens and first contact:
The universe might turn out to be a hell of a sight nastier and tougher place than we have any reason to guess at this point. That first contact just might wipe out the human race, because we would encounter somebody who was meaner and tougher, and not at all inclined to be bothered by genocide. Be no more bothered by genocide than I am when I put out ant poison in the kitchen when the ants start swarming in.
On the search for deep messages in his work:
[Quoting Schulman's question] “Isn't ‘Coventry’ still an attempt by the state (albeit a relatively benign one) to interfere with the natural market processes and not let the victim have his restitution?” Well, “Coventry” was an attempt on the part of a writer to make a few hundred dollars to pay off a mortgage.
On fans who complain his new work isn't consistent with his earlier writing:
Over the course of some thirty-four years of writing, every now and then I receive things from people condemning me for not having written a story just like my last one. I never pay attention to this, Neil, because it has been my intention—my purpose—to make every story I've written—never to write a story just like my last one…I'm going to write what it suits me to write and if I write another story that's just like any other story I've ever written, I'll be slipping. … I'm trying to write to please not even as few as forty thousand people in the hardcover, but a million and up in the softcover. If an author let these self-appointed mentors decide for him what he's going to write and how he's going to write it, he'd never get anywhere….
On his writing and editing habits:
I've never written more than about three months of the year the whole time I've been writing. Part of that is because I never rewrite. I cut, but I don't rewrite.
On the impact of technologies:
When I see how far machine computation has gone since that time [the 1930s], I find it the most impressive development—more impressive than the atom bomb, more impressive than space travel—in its final consequences.
On retirement:
Well, Tony Boucher pointed that out to me years ago. He said that there are retired everything else—retired schoolteachers, retired firemen, retired bankers—but there are no retired writers. There are simply writers who are no longer selling. [Heinlein's last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, was published in 1987, the year before his death at age 80. —JW]
On the conflict between high technology and personal liberty:
The question of how many mega-men [millions of population] it takes to maintain a high-technology society and how many mega-men it takes to produce oppressions simply through the complexity of the society is a matter I have never satisfactorily solved in my own mind. But I am quite sure that one works against the other, that it takes a large-ish population for a high technology, but if you get large populations human liberties are automatically restricted even if you don't have legislation about it. In fact, the legislation in many cases is intended to—and sometimes does—lubricate the frictions that take place between people simply because they're too close together.
On seeking solutions to problems:
I got over looking for final solutions a good, long time ago because once you get this point shored up, something breaks out somewhere else. The human race gets along by the skin of its teeth, and it's been doing so for some hundreds of thousands or millions of years. … It is the common human condition all through history that every time you solve a problem you discover that you've created a new problem.

I did not cherry pick these: they are but a few of a multitude from the vast cherry tree which is this interview. Enjoy! Also included in the book are other Heinlein-related material by Schulman: book reviews, letters, and speeches.

I must caution prospective readers that the copy-editing of this book is embarrassingly bad. I simply do not understand how a professional author—one who owns his own publishing house—can bring a book to market which clearly nobody has ever read with a critical eye, even at a cursory level. There are dozens of howlers here: not subtle things, but words run together, sentences which don't begin with a capital letter, spaces in the middle of hyphenated words, commas where periods were intended, and apostrophes transformed into back-tick characters surrounded by spaces. And this is not a bargain-bin special—the paperback has a list price of US$19.95 and is listed at this writing at US$18.05 at Amazon. The Heinlein interview was sufficiently enlightening I was willing to put up with the production values, which made something which ought to be a triumph look just shabby and sad, but then I obtained the Kindle edition for free (see below). If I'd paid full freight for the paperback, I'm not sure even my usually mellow disposition would have remained unperturbed by the desecration of the words of an author I cherish and the feeling my pocket had been picked.

The Kindle edition is available for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at July 3, 2017 23:37