BOOK REVIEW: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve, by William H. Patterson, Jr.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The first of two volumes of Robert Heinlein’s life.
PROS: Detailed; exhaustive.
CONS: Volume 2 is still in the works.
BOTTOM LINE: A comprehensive and serious look at an author’s life and legacy.
I received a copy of Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve following its publication in 2010, intending on reading and reviewing it then. After cracking it open and starting it, I… stopped. There’s no good reason for this; it’s detailed, interesting, and does much to shed light on a very notable author in the science fiction community. But, it’s a dense read, and not really something that’s conducive to sitting down and reading cover to cover. I set the book aside at one point, intending to return shortly thereafter, and the break stretched out.
Fast forward to 2013, as I’m working on a SF History column for Kirkus Reviews. I’m at the Golden age of SF now, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m seeing Heinlein show up in the biographies of other characters that I’ve written about: Asimov, Campbell, C.L. Moore, and others. I picked up the biography again, and found that it’s an indispensable resource on the life of its subject, going over his life and works in exhaustive, almost day by day detail. Now in research mode, it’s hard to put this book down. Author William Patterson has done an outstanding job collecting and distilling the first part of Heinlein’s life into this volume, wading through an impressive list of source material to produce what is likely going to be hailed as the definitive biography.
Moreover, this book is far more than a recitation of dates and linear actions that compose a life. Patterson goes into great detail on what motivated Heinlein, from his patriotism and desire to make a living writing. There’s an excellent grasp of just who Heinlein was throughout his time as a short fiction author. As an added bonus, readers are treated to a much broader view: there’s a wide range of authors who are likewise integral to the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. It’s a neat profile of a formative time for the modern genre, and non-Heinlein fans might appreciate this point, even as it’s not the central focus.
Frustratingly, since its initial publication in 2010, a second volume hasn’t yet appeared, although Patterson does seem to be hard at work at getting the book turned in, and the wait, at this point, should be short. Where this first volume really covers much of his short fiction career, the next should cover the next major phase with novels. I’m particularly interested in reading about the story behind Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land.
It’s not a biography for the faint of heart, nor those with a short attention span. Unlike fellow author Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, this isn’t a pithy, self-aggrandizing work, but a serious, detailed approach at understanding an author’s life and legacy. I’d say it succeeds quite well.
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