Robert A. Heinlein: His Style and Technique
By Galen Strickland
Posted July 27, 2000, with later edits
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PLEASE NOTE: This is one of the first articles I wrote, almost twenty years ago. I have broadened my reading horizons quite a bit since then, with newer, and more diverse authors, but I still have a fond regard for Heinlein and other members of the Golden Age, and I think I always will. And I don't care what anyone else has to say about that.
The first reaction to the title of this piece might perhaps be one of consternation for the majority of readers familiar with Heinlein. I can imagine a response such as, "Wait a minute! Granted, RAH created some exciting scenarios and populated them with colorful and identifiable characters, but style? Let's not be ridiculous." Certainly his style is nowhere near that of Gene Wolfe, or Harlan Ellison, or even Ray Bradbury for that matter. Then again, those three writers' styles are as different from each other as they are from RAH. What distinguishes Heinlein's style from any other SF writer is its sheer simplicity, so much so that one might even say his style is "invisible."
RAH was more than just a competent SF author. First and foremost he was a great story-teller who refused to allow a futuristic or alien setting to interfere with the primary objective of moving the plot along with ease and polish. He never wasted the reader's time explaining details of a technological device or an unfamiliar cultural trend. All of that was handled through dialogue and snippets of exposition that enabled him to build up a coherent vision of his world in the reader's mind with a minimum of effort. I would liken his technique to that of a celebrated author of another genre, Dashiell Hammett; straight, to-the-point, with no excess verbiage to clutter the way to the climax.
There is an example of this frequently cited from an early - and in my opinion sadly neglected - novel, Beyond This Horizon, originally serialized in 1942, expanded and published in book form in 1948. It is on the very first page of the novel, third paragraph.
He punched the door with a code combination, and awaited face check. It came promptly; the door dilated and a voice inside said, "Come in, Felix."
Any other SF writer of the era would have spent at least a paragraph, if not more, describing the mechanical workings of that door, along with flowery, descriptive phrases for each character, as well as a long exposition of the society they inhabit. In a Heinlein story the mechanics of doors is the least important aspect of the situation so he didn't waste time on it, and if he did his job right (and he always did) the shape of that society would be clearly apparent in short order. A similar example can be found in the much later novel I Will Fear No Evil:
"A Simplex footman rolled in, hung the vacated chairs on its rack, rolled out."
The use of the impersonal pronoun at once tells us a Simplex footman is a mechanical device, not a person. In one swift stroke RAH gives us a glimpse of a world just a few years into our future wherein robotic devices are commonplace, albeit in the home of a very rich individual. I am not going to waste any more of my time or yours with further examples, but rather move on to an area in which RAH has received frequent criticism, namely that he does not plot his stories very well. I am also going to cop-out and quote another SF writer, Spider Robinson, from his excellent essay entitled "Rah, Rah, R.A.H.!", which was reprinted in Requiem: and Tributes to the Grand Master
"All written criticism I have seen of Heinlein's plotting comes down to this same outraged plaint: that if you sit down and make an outline of the sequence of events in a Heinlein story, it will most likely not come out symmetrical and balanced. Right you are: it won't. It will just seem to sort of ramble along, just like life does, and at the end, when you have reached the place where the author wanted you to go, you will look back at your tracks and fail to discern in them any mathematical pattern or regular geometric shape. If you keep looking, though, you'll notice that they got you there in the shortest possible distance, as straightforwardly as the terrain allowed. And that you hurried. That they cannot be described by any simple equation is a sign of Heinlein's excellence, not his weakness."
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RAH is arguably the best creator of characters in the SF genre. Even though I have not met anyone quite as intelligent and resourceful as those who populate his stories, I have never had difficulty identifying with them and there are many who I feel I know personally. Even his minor characters - such as the Chinese restaurant owner in Between Planets - can leave a lasting impression on the reader. Many critics have accused his characters of using too much slang, but in actuality the proper term for their speech patterns would be colloquialisms. RAH - speaking in authorial third person - never uses slang. It is true that toward the end of his career many of his characters seemed to be interchangeable, all supposedly speaking with the authorial voice of RAH himself. Unlike many of RAH's critics, I do not think this is that harmful to the stories themselves, but I will agree that many of his earlier characters were more distinctive.
At many times during his career RAH tried to deny the fact he was doing anything more than writing "just stories, meant to amuse and written to buy groceries." The more he protested that he was not writing "literature," and certainly not philosophy, the less I believed him. Never before or since has SF had a more intelligent and profound spokesman, who presented his ideas in a style once described in the New York Times as "at once literate, informed, and exciting." Anyone interested in writing SF could not find a better writer to emulate; anyone merely interested in reading SF cannot afford to ignore the "Dean of Space Age Fiction."
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