Jul 7, 2007

Sailing Beyond The Sunset

It's the 100th birthday of one of the writers who helped invent modern science fiction: Robert Heinlein (books by this author), born in Butler, Missouri (1907). He wrote more than 50 novels and collections of short stories over a span of four decades.

He said of his childhood, "Once I found out about reading I was all in favor of it." He especially loved dime novels and the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne. But he didn't plan to become a writer. What he wanted was to be an officer in the Navy. But after serving for five years, he got discharged because he'd caught tuberculosis. The disease left him weak enough that he had a hard time working a job.

He wasn't sure what to do to make ends meet, and then he saw an ad in a pulp fiction magazine offering $50 for the best story by an unpublished author. So he sat down and in four days he had written a story called "Life-Line," about a machine that can predict a person's death. He decided it was too good for an amateur contest, so he sent it to Astounding Science Fiction magazine, and they accepted it. It came out in 1939, and Heinlein would publish 28 more stories in then next three years.

At the time, most science fiction stories were full of gimmicks and imaginary machines that had no relationship to actual science. Heinlein was one of the first science fiction authors to look at the world the way it was and try to imagine how it might actually look in the future. And he tried to make sure that all the imaginary technology in his stories could really work. He wrote about things like atomic bombs, cloning, and gay marriage years before they became realities. And he was one of the first writers to imagine how space travel could actually be accomplished.

He's best known for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), about a boy who is born during the first manned mission to Mars, who is raised by Martians, and who then returns to Earth to become a preacher. Stranger in a Strange Land was also the first book to describe a waterbed.

~ joyfully stolen complete from Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac emails.

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