What Made Robert Heinlein A Fantastic Writer?

On my recently trip to Chicago, I took along Robert Heinlein’s fiction book Revolt in 2100.

In between actually working, it’s nice to take a break and read some good writing not related to work.

Anyway, the book contained this little gem in the introduction by Henry Kuttner.

Robert A. Heinlein is probably the best story-teller in the science fiction field today. If I were backed into a corner and forced to tell why in one sentence, I’d say “Heinlein’s got a sense of proportion.” Well, how does one get a sense of proportion? By experience, I think. And there is only one kind of experience that counts as necessary to a competent writer: experience of mankind.

Literary and scientific techniques are very useful to a writer, but I don’t think the study of them is necessary. They are intellectual concepts. Man is also an emotional animal, and a good story must be about man –not man after a lobotomy, but about the irrational part of him as well as the rational. Sentimentality is no substitute; it degrades man instead of treating him with the respect that, God knows, he deserves. Unfortunately, too many science fiction writers might have been written by robots or spirits.

Now Heinlein does something that is vitally necessary to good writing: he perceives people. He knows how they feel. He has felt that way himself. He has even bridged the difficult gap of realizing that people feel much the same way everywhere, allowing for constitutional differences.

He has accepted membership in the human race.

I don’t think you can be a good writer unless you do that. I’m biased, I know; I like good writing, and I have a great deal of respect for it. Good writing is well proportioned. Basically, it treats of man in his environment, and both of these elements must have verisimilitude. That’s where Heinlein’s sense of proportion comes in. He’s eclectic. He follows the principles but not the rules. His stories have verisimilitude because they are about people, and he uses other materials only insofar as they affect those people. And here is the precise point where his sense of proportion appears. The story-elements he uses, technological, sociological, psychological, are chosen according to their natural relation to the center of interest: man. These elements are symbolic of man’s values. But it is man, realistically handled, who is the nucleus of each Heinlein story.

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