Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Agreeing with Heinlein

I was born too late to appreciate Robert A. Heinlein's work. I get too fussy about things like characterisation and plot.

Coming into Science Fiction when it has matured makes it harder to appreciate the masters who helped make it what it is.

Heinlein illustrates, for me, the contrast between idea driven science fiction on the one hand and character or plot driven fiction on the other. (although a good story does it all together) I find his manipulation of plot and assertions of 'the way it is' somewhere between flippant and arrogant.

Perhaps one could define a master as someone who breaks all the rules of writing (show don't tell etc etc etc) and gets away with it.

I also disagree quite strongly with Heinlein's conclusions about the way the world is. The meaning of life, the universe and everything, if you like.

So it was quite a shock to see within a couple of chapters some arguments and ideas that I particularly agree with. To whit:

In the mouth of Lazarus Long, who at this point in the novel is being portrayed as a sage,

"Never mind computers. Ira, the most sophisticated machine the human mind can build has in it the limitations of the human mind. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics." Time Enough For Love p29 1982 reprint.

This relates to one of the philosophical problems that people who are strict evolutionists have. How do you inject meaning and purpose, any sense of value into a world defined (by the evolutionary assumptions to have none) The common answer is that we create value, but Heinlein's argument applies equally to this question. It is impossible for the product to be greater than the system that created it. If human life is the result of meaningless happenstance, it can have no meaning.


"To figure out the basic questions about this world it would be necessary to stand outside and look at it. Not inside. no not in two thousand years, not in twenty thousand." Time Enough For Love p39 1982 reprint.

This statement seems almost anti-enlightenment in its assertion of the limit to human understanding. While Heinlein was probably not thinking along these lines (and would perhaps be horrified by my use of his words) this statement agrees with my understanding of the inability of the fallen human creature to fully understand himself without input from the creator. This idea stands in stark contrast to the enlightenment and modern ideas of the progress of human knowledge (and in particular scientific inquiry). It is also quite different to the postmodern rejection of authority and meta narrative which actually makes an absolute authority out of personal subjective understanding.

I read Heinlein because I like Science Fiction, because I respect his lofty position amidst the great authors, and because I like to understand the ideas that I disagree with.

So it's felicitous to find something in his work that I can actually agree with, even if I would come to a different conclusion at the end.