I don't believe the trip-7 birth date played any part in the great successes and frequent bits of luck Heinlein enjoyed throughout his life, but I don't deny how lucky -- as well as skilled, and prepared to take advantage of luck when it raised its head -- a man Heinlein was. That luck now includes, quarter century after Heinlein's death, his biographer,
Patterson died on April 22, barely six weeks before the publication of the concluding volume of his authorized biography of Heinlein. The irony that this honorable, earnest man who devoted decades (literally) of his life to documenting Heinlein's, didn't live to see his work appear in print is beyond bitter.
Patterson's two-volume (two long volumes) biography is undoubtedly the most exhaustive examination of a science fiction writer's life we are likely to see. (At that, it's still shorter -- far! -- than Isaac Asimov's autobiographies, but those are a different matter). It's hard to think of another SF writer whose influence on both the SF field and the larger culture -- including political culture -- would justify an undertaking of this sort. Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke -- who along with Heinlein made up the "Big Three" of science fiction for most of the second half of the Twentieth Century, and who each exerted large and influential effects on the culture, didn't have the effect on science fiction that Heinlein had, nor did their millions of readers become followers in the way that so many of Heinlein's did. Patterson's thousand pages is likely to hold the heavyweight crown for SF writer biographies for a good while, if not forever.
This isn't an uncommon response from Heinlein fans. Heinlein's great gifts as a writer included an ability to craft (sic) an authoritative narrative voice that said this is the way the world works, and here are the ways in which you can work with it, through it, or around it, all while telling compellingly, even compulsively, readable stories. For many readers Heinlein became teacher, mentor, prophet, guru -- roles which Heinlein himself disliked and made no claim to, but which to which Patterson seems to subscribe.
While the effect of Patterson's condescension -- and in some places bitch-in-the-manger snarling -- toward legitimate critics and criticisms of his subject is unfortunate throughout the biography, and becomes a major flaw in the chapters covering the final decades -- and period of greatest cultural influence -- of Heinlein's life. Those decades -- 1958 to 1988 -- saw the publication of Heinlein's great trilogy (in a loose sense) of ideas: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, as well as some of his weakest and most controversial books, including Farnham's Freehold, I Will Fear No Evil, The Number of the Beast, and his final novel, to Sail Beyond the Sunset. Each novel from Mistress on displayed a gathering (sic) diminution of powers and narrative control, which Patterson cites as artistic ambition misunderstood by the critics (and some fans).
Certainly Heinlein was a far more conscious and experimental artist than his aw-shucks corn pone public posture of "I'm just a paid clown" would imply. Patterson is good on Heinlein's commitment to extending his art and craft, but typically goes too far in places. Comparing Heinlein's concerns in the deeply flawed I Will Fear No Evil to Nabokov's in the masterful (and contemporaneous) Ada strikes me as justification/apology raised to about as absurd a level as possible.
Setting such flaws aside, Patterson's ability -- and willingness -- to track down facts, anecdotes, observations (many of them from Heinlein's voluminous correspondence, but many not) is nothing less than astonishing, and the result is a storehouse of chronology and incident and documentation that will serve both future scholars and Heinlein fans well for, well, ever. Like Carlos Baker's biography of Ernest Hemingway, Patterson's book is strongest in its cataloging and organization of the facts of Heinlein's life and career. The footnotes, which occupy more than 100 pages at the close of the first volume, more than 150 at the back end of the second, make fascinating and illuminating reading.There is much to be learned from these books about Heinlein's career and accomplishments; less to be learned about the fully-rounded man. The biography of that man is the biography I would most love to read.
But the biography I would most love to read is not the biography William H. Patterson set out to write. And the biography he wrote is, approached as chronology and catalog, not interpretation or analysis, is an impressive achievement. Patterson is to be commended (if not in a literary sense) for his devotion to detail and scrupulousness of fact-gathering. Tor is to be commended for publishing the books so handsomely (although Patterson's biographical squib in the Kindle edition shows him as living; surely this could easily be corrected.) Reading between the lines of Patterson's blogs and forum comments, editor David Hartwell is to be commended for handling an evidently very prickly biographer with grace and firmness, and helping Patterson find and carve out the two massive volumes that we have.
Robert Heinlein was, and remains, a significant American writer, vital and central to science fiction, and whose influence and reach extended far beyond the boundaries of the field. He was an artist of no little ability, although less than Patterson thinks, and remained to the end of his life passionately interested in the world's cultures and their evolution/devolution.
Heinlein is still read today -- including by me; I have admired his work and enjoyed his books (including some of the awful ones) since I was a child, and have no doubt that I will continue to reread his work -- and learn from it -- for the rest of my life. His accomplishments are vast and important. His late literary failures remain readable and, indeed, introduced his work -- and by extension science fiction -- to audiences far larger than the field's core fans.
Is it a life worthy of a two-volume biography? Hard to say, at least for me. I find Heinlein fascinating, and say the same about this biography. There's too much of it, of course, and at that, the biography was substantially cut, according to comments Patterson made in his blog. At one point, there was some discussion between David G. Hartwell, the biography's editor, and Patterson about splitting the second volume and making it a three-volume biography.
I think the right decision was made.
I would say the same, caveats noted, about the choice, made by Heinlein's widow, of Heinlein's first biographer.
William H. Patterson -- rest in the peace. The job you chose to do is a job well done.