It's Heinlein's Birthday

by Diane Duane

There it is, the oldest and most beat-up copy I own of the book that got me spanked when I was eight.

Having until then been gorging on a SF/fantasy diet mostly split among Andre Norton, Alan Nourse,  E. Nesbit and the Mushroom Planet books, suddenly I stumbled across this Heinlein person in the local library. And not through the juveniles, either: they came later. (And for me the dream screenwriting job would be adapting Have Spacesuit, Will Travel… especially now that George Lucas has kindly done all the heavy lifting as regards getting audiences used to star-spanning Empires.)

I read Starship Troopers in one crazed Saturday afternoon and came home with my head spinning from deep immersion in futuristic militaria: then unwisely started babbling to my father (whose birthday, interestingly, also was July 7th) that “all wars were caused by population pressure.” Heaven only knows what he made of such a sentiment coming out of my mouth at that point. What probably concerned him more, though, was that when he said “No they aren’t”, I said, “Yes they are, ” several times — because there was something about Heinlein’s discussion of the topic that seemed right to me at the time: right enough to risk contradicting my father.

It was the first argument about anything that I recall ever having had with anyone. Well, I guess the result was predictable: I got spanked for being disrespectful. The joke — or at least the first irony associated with this incident — is that my Dad went to his grave thinking he’d won that argument simply because I thereafter stopped discussing such things with him.  But the circle closed when beyond all possible / reasonable expectation I met Heinlein himself, many years later, and over the course of the numerous conversations that followed I remembered the incident and told him about it. He snorted (don’t know how otherwise to describe the sound. He also did the best imitation of Bill the Cat having a hairball that anyone could imagine), and then burst out laughing. “Kind of a robust critique,” he said.

Dry understatement and humor, coupled with a fondness for amiable teasing and great courtesy of a slightly old-fashioned kind (he was the only human being ever to call me, repeatedly, “honey chile” and get away with it): that was what his conversational style was like whenever we spoke. Some time after The Door into Fire came out and he read it, he wrote me a fan letter (which I take out and look at occasionally when feeling down); and once we’d physically met — courtesy of a truly low-down and evil practical joke on the part of David Gerrold (which I’d frankly brought on myself by a joke I played on him) — Heinlein kindly gave me his home phone number and said to call when I needed writing advice.

This wasn’t a privilege I abused, and usually we wound up talking about anything but writing. This was when the Bill the Cat imitations were likely to occur. Or sometimes advice was needed: I consulted with him, for example, on the exact circumstances in which an officer outside the normal chain of command might be left in command of a Naval vessel, and the results of that discussion were used to stick poor Dr. McCoy into the Enterprise bridge’s center seat in Doctor’s Orders. (“You’ve built this whole damn book around that joke, haven’t you?” he said.  Realizing I had no chance whatever of blathering this man into believing some other force than a play on words had been at work, I admitted that this was true.  Another snort, more laughter. Heinlein respected Star Trek, and when we were discussing what I was working on, I got the sense that to him what we would now describe as a “tie-in” or licensed work was no less worthy than an original, as long as you did the work as well and honestly as you could. More than once over a number of phone calls he came back to that theme, so that it became a kind of mantra: “Joe’s beer money,” your readers’ disposable income that they hand over to you in exchange for entertainment, is sacred: to provide honest entertainment is no cause for shame — let the lit’rature fall where it may. )

I don’t know if anyone else around the Web does anything in particular about Heinlein’s birthday. God knows there are enough people to discuss his fiction, pro and con, sometimes (on either side) violently so. I’m not going anywhere in that direction except to say that all Heinlein’s work, the juvenile SF and adult SF alike, has been and continues to be a profound influence on me: and it was a pleasure to be able to tell him so. Dairine in the Young Wizards books, in particular, owes a lot to Poddy’s bratty little brother Clark in Podkayne of Mars (and Robert knew it, and was pleased: he liked Dairine.  And Ed. “We Navy men don’t like sharks,” he said. “You made me like that shark. That was a dirty trick.” He said it with considerable relish, as if admiring the sleight-of-word that had sneakily corrupted his allegiances. Praise of that kind, from the acknowledged master to the journeyman, is the kind of thing you treasure.)

All a long time ago now, of course. I really miss not being able to call him any more. …But tonight at the local I’ll be raising a glass in his memory. And my Dad’s, of course.  It’s kind of a pity they never met. They would have been very polite to each other… but the fireworks would have been fun to watch.

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