I’m in the process of front loading this blog with posts to give people something to read, so it’s mostly my voice so far. Others of the household should be contributing — but I must make this clear, especially with this post: the thoughts and beliefs presented here are mine and I don’t speak for my housemates. They may have very different, or no, opinions on this.
Scifi author Robert A. Heinlein is a huge deal in the poly community. I first encountered this “marriage” of Heinlein and poly when I first discovered the concept of poly around 1999. I’ve been rolling my eyes ever since….
I started reading Heinlein when I was about 16, around 1987, and I read everything of his I could get my hands on. I considered myself a fan, and I still do, but with severe caveats. His early, “juvenile” fiction is my favorite, the stuff that focused on the scifi and the space and adventure. (While the film “Starship Troopers” is undeniably satirical and tongue in cheek, I still wonder whether the book was meant to be taken seriously or not.) And, especially as a teen, I did like his later more socially challenging works that presented alternative lifestyles, Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough For Love, Friday, etc. And yet, even though my questioning and rebellious teen mind embraced the ideas of alternative lifestyles and ideas of love and relationships Heinlein “bravely” posited, even then I recognized the conflicts and contradictions.
Heinlein is most definitely a product of his times. Sexist, chauvinistic, bigoted. Even in the midst of his liberalism and social challenges. Take for example his coop de grass (teehee), Stranger in a Strange Land, often considered the Bible…well, at least a gospel, for polyamory: (now, it’s been many years since I’ve read it, so forgive me for not remembering character names), but the all-wise father-figure obvious stand-in for Heinlein “Marty Stu” character, is a patriarchal sage who surrounds himself with a blond, a brunette, and a redhead harem who are all brilliant and hypersexual. They are obvious playthings for both the patriarch and Heinlein who represent idealized sex objects.
And in fact, Heinlein traditionally has only three female archetypes in his writing: the sexy and brilliant scientist who is as smart as any man but never so much as to challenge a man’s authority or obvious superiority, the shrewish wife who doesn’t understand and strives to demean and hobble her brilliant and long-suffering husband, and the young and naive girl full of curiosity and love who is the idealized future perfect wife/mate for a brilliant man. (I suppose that’s still better than Asimov who couldn’t write any woman at all.)
As a teen, I’d never have called myself a “feminist” (though I wear that label with pride now), but even then I saw that Heinlein’s representation of women as playthings and potential playthings very troubling. Heinlein’s apparent desired world was a libertarian utopia where women were unchallenging sex toys for quasi-Ayn Randian Masters of the Universe men.
Sure, Heinlein was revolutionary in a time of cartoonish parochialism and patriarchy, repressive sexuality and terrible misogyny, to present women as sexual and relationships other than one-man-one-woman. And I suppose kudos for that, to a degree. But just because he grew up and wrote in a particular time, I don’t feel gives him a pass to be sexist and misogynistic in just a different way. Arthur C. Clarke also wrote of polyamorous and non-traditional, and non-heterosexual pairings, and the like, at the same time while not objectifying women and making them cartoon male wish-fulfillment. I think Clarke would be a far better example of open and ethical and normalized non-heteronormative, non-traditional lifestyles. Unfortunately, his scifi is a bit more “hard” and not as much “fun” to read as Heinlein’s.
Plus, Heinlein’s other apparent sexual wish-fulfillment ideas leave a bad taste in my mouth. Time Enough For Love has some of the “best” examples. Now, sex with one’s clone I’ll admit is very intriguing! But there’s a blatant and disturbing passage, as I recall, in that book of apologetic for pedophilia and un-equal-power incest that turns my stomach. It’s very difficult for me to appreciate the good intention of lauding polyamory from the same man that appears to also be advocating for pedophilia. Very.
One could argue, “Oh, that’s not the author advocating it! It’s one of his fictional character’s failings he’s presenting.” Perhaps. I mean, the author of any work has the right to present any and every aspect of the human condition whether or not they themselves believes in or advocates for it! I’m a writer. I would hate it if I could only create characters that believed only what I did! However, looking at Heinlein’s body of work, and the Lazarus Long character in particular, and one theme that seems to run through his writings very strongly, is wish-fulfillment. He uses his works very blatantly to advocate for his beliefs, and spares no ammo against those things he despises. Take The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. If that’s not a blatant treatise for libertarianism, I don’t know what is.
At least Ursula K. leGuin, an unapologetic socialist, presents all the dirty and embarrassing downsides and problems and contradictions of socialism in her own greatest propagandize for socialism, The Dispossessed. Heinlein can never be blamed for presenting the opposite of his protagonist’s ideals as worthy of consideration, or the protagonist’s ideals as anything but perfect and reasonable truths.
So, I have to buck the polyamory bus (teehee) with my discomfort for Heinlein’s veneration as a hero for polyamory. Even though he’s quoted as saying that love is, “that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own,”and my goodness I feel the same way! Even terrible people say good things now and then.