With apologies to members of the female gender1 out there, I’m going to include Heinlein among the “landmark science fiction authors”. His female characters aren’t enlightened by most external standards. I think they’re at least an improvement on their predecessors, and indeed on many female characters created by Heinlein’s contemporaries for the simple fact that Heinlein’s characters2 are, in the main, capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation3.
Like Clarke, Heinlein’s best known work isn’t the one I like best. I’m going to guess that his book Stranger in a Strange Land is the one most recognizable of his works, if only for the introduction of the word “grok”4. I’d have liked the book much better if he’d stopped halfway through, or at least shortened the second half drastically–as with Nights at the Circus, Stranger in a Strange Land always struck me as two discrete books visibly sewn together. It may have been seminal5 when it was first written; fifty years later, it just strikes me as painfully dated, not to mention being an excruciating example of everything I dislike about Heinlein’s attitude in his writing towards women.
I much prefer Glory Road to Stranger in a Strange Land. Glory Road has all the flaws in Heinlein’s other works (and all the strengths!) but it’s half the length of Stranger in a Strange Land, if that, and it’s not nearly as Serious a Work. As the book begins, the American hero (literally in this case) has finished a tour of duty in a “police action” in an unnamed country in Southeast Asia and returns home via L’Isle de Levant, where he meets The Most Beautiful Woman Evar….who turns out to be in search of a hero to go on a Hopeless Quest for the most precious thing in her universe. It’s a rollicking fairy tale, which just happens to keep going after the conclusion to the quest, where most fantasies conclude simply with “and they lived happily ever after.”
His earlier books, such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, are a bit more bearable for those of us who’ve read more than one Heinlein book; they’re written before his political agenda and misogynistic take on women had become repetitive, even to those of us who are inclined to like his writing. That said, if I had to suggest one book to someone who’s never read anything by Heinlein, I’d suggest Friday, if only as a reminder of his take on prejudice and societal definition of inferiority based on superficial qualities. The eponymous protagonist of the book is an “Artificial Person”–not an android, but a biologically engineered human, created in a laboratory to be faster, stronger and smarter than your average normal human being, and has been trained to be a courier capable of delivering whatever she is asked to wherever it’s needed. She’s employed by someone she knows only as ‘Boss’; the first part of the plot revolves around the assignments she does for him, while the second, her attempts to strike out on her own after his death and the resulting disbanding of his business. Even here, her previous employer’s influence can be seen: she ends up being contacted by the people he’d suggested she contact, with one last mission which leads her to her ultimate home. Overall, I’d call this about half thriller, half science fiction–imagine a female James Bond type, independent courier rather than government agent, who unlike all Heinlein’s later heroines, decides that ONE baby is enough for her.
Mind, I’m not saying you have to like him, or his politics, or even his books. You just have to know who he is, and be familiar with his books–I haven’t read any of the Great Landmark Russian authors, but I should know the difference between War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
1or feminist, if you will. Also, the homosexuals.
2they’re not even all buxom and randy. Just most of them, most of the time
3looks hard at Piers Anthony and Jack Chalker
4a word the overuse of which annoys me no end
5forgive the pun! (runs and hides)