Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Robert Heinlein - an appreciation

One of the authors whom I admire is Robert Heinlein. He was ahead of his time in most respects, being a firm believer in women's rights and in the ability of women to assume non-traditional roles. In his novels, his female characters were just as capable as the male ones in exploring space, in fighting for survival, in battle and as leaders of fighting men and women. In his epic novel 'Starship Troopers', he described an ideal society where the title of 'citizen' was something that had to be earned and not as something that was granted automatically because of an accident of birth. You earned the title after having dedicated a certain number of years to public service. This could be done by serving in the military or in any number of activities that benefited society.

Even though the novel was criticized as being too pro-military, the emphasis was not on the military aspects of service to country but on the different ways in which one could earn the right to become a citizen. John Kennedy's famous words at his Inaugural Address in 1961 'ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country', give us a good idea of how the idea of service to country can best be put into practice.

Some of his novels that won worldwide acclaim are:

  • Strangers in a Strange Land
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Tomorrow the Stars
  • Red Planet
  • Starman Jones, and many others. 

His popular collections of short stories and commentary are:

  • The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein
  • Expanded Universe
  • Assignment in Eternity 

These contain what is perhaps one of the finest collections of science-fiction stories ever written.

Another highlight of his career was his 1973 James Forrestal Memorial Lecture to the graduating class at the Naval Academy, his alma mater. In his address, he gives a clear idea of the role of the military. In a brilliant analogy, he talks about a herd of baboons in an African forest. He says that if you see an alert baboon high in a tree, you would know that the herd is on the ground feeding.

The young baboon in the tree has been placed there as a lookout by the leader of the pack. His job is to keep watch for the number one predator in the baboon world, the leopard. The young member of the pack will stay at his post, alert and watchful, rain or shine. If he sees a predator he screams a warning, giving the feeding baboons on the ground time to climb to safety. Only when the other baboons have fed enough will the leader of the herd call for him to come down and feed. His place on guard duty in the tree is taken by another young baboon. The duty of the naval officer and other military, Heinlein tells the graduating class, is similar to that of the baboon in the tree. He has to serve and protect the citizens of his country at all times, always alert and on guard. It is an address that should be read by all whose duty is to serve.

A lifelong anti-communist, he died in 1988,  just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that he eagerly awaited but was not fortunate enough to witness.