Fooled by Heinlein for 40 Years

This is a reprint of an article of mine from 2003. I bring it to the attention of my current readers. My opinions on this point have not changed:

Here is my Heinlein tale, which I pass along only to show that one’s most cherished beliefs can sometimes be revised by experience:

There is a scene in Robert Heinlein’s GLORY ROAD, where the hero, Oscar Gordon, is traveling among barbarians from some outer dimension. Their custom is to share their daughters’ love (or wives’) with traveling heroes for a night or two, in hopes of fathering good stock. Oscar the hero unwittingly offends the custom by refusing the copulate with the daughter of the local lord, his host. For this he is tongue-lashed by the heroine for being provincial, backward, rude and stupid; at some personal risk to himself, he returns to the mansion of the barbarian lord, apologizes manfully, commits orgy, fornicates with gusto, and goes on his way with the heroine on his arm, her eyes shining with admiration. This heroine is named Star; the names of the nice young ladies with whom he ruts are nowhere mentioned.

Even as a youth, I prided myself (and my pride was immoderate when I was young, I am afraid, and may not be moderate now) on being a careful and skeptical thinker. But it was not until I was 41, some three decades after first reading that scene, that I thought, for the first time, there was something wrong with the picture Mr. Heinlein paints.


What if Oscar the hero had fathered a child during his one-night stand? Does a father have no moral obligations running to a child, to love, to cherish, to protect, to see to its upbringing? The mother of Moses sent her babe off in a basket down the river because the soldiers of Pharaoh were coming to kill it; but Oscar here apparently is sending his child down the river because he wishes to enjoy a momentary sexual pleasure with an unnamed woman, and because he does not wish to offend ugly customs of outlandish people.

I look at the perfect face of my own cherubic child, and I wonder, what kind of man would let his child be raised as a bastard by strangers? If the child is a daughter, will she be sent to whore around with other wondering heroes?

If the customs of the land had demanded our hero sacrifice a captive to Tezcatlipoca, would his bitchy girlfriend have brow-beaten him into doing that, too?

The bitchy girlfriend turns out to be an Empress, and she marries the hero. I must laugh. What kind of girl would marry a man (or even give him the time of day) after he has sported with harlots? How did Clytemnestra react when her husband lord Agamemnon come back from the wars, having slept with many a golden slave-girl from Illium? She killed him with an axe in the bath. Compare Heinlein with Aeschylus. Who do you think knows more about how women really act?

For that matter, compare Heinlein with Robert E. Howard. Solomon Kane, puritan adventurer from New England, travels the world slaying troglodytes, vampires and witch-queens descended from the survivors of devil-worshipping Atlantians. He would not take off his hat for a king of Europe or Asia, or bow to an alien idol, even if he might die for his unbending defiance. Who is more the hero?

In a word, I was snookered. Skeptic that I thought I was, it did not occur to me to question the amoral, epicurean and hedonistic philosophy put across by Mr. Heinlein in his books. It seemed so much common sense. I had never stopped to wonder: would Socrates, or Cato of Utica (or Sir Galahad or Kimball Kinnison of the Galactic Patrol, or Frodo Baggins of Bag End) have done what Oscar Gordon did?

I was too young to know, and too arrogant to believe, that hedonism leads to nihilism. It is a dead-end philosophy: a hedonist has no reason to praise temperance; an epicurean has no reason to praise courage; the live-for-today libertine has no use for prudence; man who, like Oscar Gordon, says that all customs are merely arbitrary cultural constructions, and refuses to see the difference between cruelty and civilization, such a man has no sense of justice.

I assure you I was as settled in my beliefs as man can be: I had studied the premises and principles with great skepticism, and subjected the whole structure of philosophy to pitiless logic, and tested and retested every link in my chain of reasoning. But I was inexperienced. Non-Euclidean geometry is also perfectly logical, but only experience can tell you whether or not Euclid’s fifth postulate describes the world we see, or not.




  1. Comment by Booch Paradise:

    Morality aside, the idea of this culture existing doesn’t seem so outlandish. They seem to be a near cut and paste in sexual practice from some of the cultures described by Marco Polo. I don’t recall if it was the same places, but there was one area where it was standard hospitality to offer ones wife to anyone who shared your roof (which Kublai Khan tried unsuccessfully to outlaw, and gave up saying that if they wanted to shame themselves, so be it), and another area where it was the practice of unwed girls to sleep with as many men as possible to gain experience.

    Not sure if you criticizing just the morality or the world building as well. But there does seem to be some historical president for the world building.

    • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

      “Not sure if you [are] criticizing just the morality or the world building… But there does seem to be some historical [precedent]”

      Mr. Wright is criticizing the morality as a philosopher, that is, he examines if the worldview is based or not on right reason. Historical precedent is irrelevant to this point, except to give examples. In fact, you just informed us Kublai Khan was morally correct when he called the sharing of wives a shame.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Indeed, you adroitly and nimbly missed the point. What would Solomon Kane do among the Mongols? Or Frodo Baggins? Or Bruce Wayne? Would any of them have shagged the native talent on the grounds that one must never, ever offend native customs?

      And I ask again. What if you are staying the night in a hotel in Carthage or Tenochtitlan? Do you willingly and enthusiastically sacrifice your child to Moloch or Tezcatlipoca, if you happen to be visiting during the high and solemn festival of Thirsty Black Idol?

      So, no, obviously I was not talking about the culture, but about the character development. I was talking about the author portraying All-American sexual satyriasis as if it were justified by respect for some foreign and exotic and nonexistant culture, as make-believe as traveler’s tall tales.

      Why would the Empress of the Twenty Galaxies be personally peeved at her alleged true love for this failure to participate in this barbaric system?

      Why would he, born and raised in America, not see the drawback of engaging in the sexual reproductive act without taking prudent precaution for rearing the young which might arise from the sexually reproductive act?

      But no, the philosophy of hedonism, of which Mr Heinlein was a foremost and utterly partisan advocate, requires that the consequences of any act of pleasure be summarily disregarded in the moral calculus of whether to pursue it.

      Instead the moral principle of hospitality, that is, of not offending the barbaric customs of barbarians among whom one travels, is not offered as a prudent way to avoid conflict, but as a moral principle for which it is worthy and honorable to sacrifice one’s life. In the scene, Star and Oscar return to the barbarians, facing certain death if no diplomatic solution can be found.

      I was also peeved about being lied to by Mr. Heinlein. What kind of man lies to a child?

      • Comment by Booch Paradise:

        Fair enough, I had mistakenly thought that you may have meant from some of your lines that the jealously of women would not allow for such a culture as that to exist, and were for that reason criticizing the world building.

        I certainly wouldn’t try and argue against the notion that morality is in anyway subject to culture, rather than the other way around.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          No, there have always been cultures where women were treated like slaves and animals. The unrealistic nature of Heinlein’s proposal was that Star, the Empress, would be angry that her beau was FAILING to cheat on her. The jealousy of women, or their rational nature, makes that hard to believe. A clever writer could find some way to make the absurd believable of course: for example, by establishing that Star, being the administrator of a multicultural and multilingual multidimensional empire cannot afford to have even a rumor of favoritism mar her pristine reputation, and so much adhere to barbaric customs for diplomatic reasons, and was angry at the backward Earthman for endangering her political position. That I would buy.

          The Heinlein-sockpuppet argument that one should obey the local customs whenever they allow for fornication, and otherwise avoid local customs like the plague, is not a believable bit of clever verisimilitude. I bought it was I was young and stupid, but now than I am old and bitter like Bruce Wayne in BATMAN BEYOND, no, I ain’t buying it. And git off my lawn.

  2. Comment by AstroSorcorer:

    While I must grant the points you have made (on hedonism as a singular philosophy), I still have a fondness for “Glory Road” and Heinlein. The man got most of America interested in Science Fiction, and held an optimism for the future that is very rare to see in many of today’s authors.
    “Hero Wanted” indeed.

  3. Comment by Noah D:

    All the more reinforcement of my determination to read (and let my sons read) only Heinlein’s juveniles – which were, in a somewhat melancholy irony, more mature than his ‘adult’ works.

    (That may be more evidence of a fundamental dishonesty. Was Podkayne expected to become Friday when she grew up? Was Lt. Rico visiting whores while on leave?)

    • Comment by Sean Michael:

      I too prefer the pre STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND books of Robert Heinlein. Beginning with STRANGER, he became an increasingly perverse bore about sex and incest. His obsessions about sex ruined, alas, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL. Of Heinlein’s later works I would recommend only THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS (with some reservations, he sometimes relapses into his sex mania in this book). It ended with me refusing to buy and read his later novels.

      Sean M. Brooks

  4. Comment by Mike H:

    Off topic: but John, is there anyway to send you an e-mail without logging in to comment? I have a website that I would like to send that answers from another post.

  5. Comment by Stephen J.:

    “What if Oscar the hero had fathered a child during his one-night stand? Does a father have no moral obligations running to a child, to love, to cherish, to protect, to see to its upbringing?”

    As I understand it, wasn’t that exactly what the locals were hoping for as the entire point of the custom? And thus couldn’t Oscar have taken for granted that said child would in fact be loved, cherished, protected and brought up well?

    The Worldly Practical Man, like Heinlein, might well argue that a moral obligation to ensure a child is well-raised need not entail the practical obligation to do that raising personally, if you can be reassured to your satisfaction that the obligation will be discharged by someone else to whom you entrust it. Indeed, the practice of giving up a child for adoption is driven in large part by this precise goal: to see that parental obligations to your child are fulfilled when you yourself cannot personally physically fulfill them.

    Of course, that argument critically assumes that due honesty and due diligence are also being exercised, which quite frankly I doubt could be defended for Oscar Gordon. Were I in his shoes, however much I could count on them “valuing” — by their lights — any child I fathered, if I knew that any daughter I fathered would be obliged to do with a passing stranger what her mother had been obliged to do with me, I would consider it the height of irresponsibility to entrust my possible child to these people, even if one stipulated that entrusting a child to somebody else in itself might not be. And I don’t recall Oscar even thinking to ask the question, myself; if I ever had to give up a kid for adoption I’d make darn sure I could trust the agency and vet the would-be adopters, myself.

    (The basic problem, of course, is that our brains are all so distorted by concupiscence — and even more so during adolescence and the 20s when we’re most likely to read something like Glory Road — that it takes a great deal of dispassionate analysis to realize why getting to sleep with, indeed being expected to sleep with, a nubile young local without obligation or concern is in fact “ugly”.)

  6. Comment by Stephen J.:

    Off topic: I suddenly note that the ability to edit comments or request their deletion seems to have vanished again.

  7. Comment by Zaklog the Great:

    I remember browsing an old post which compared the pagan hero Odysseus and the Christian hero Frodo Baggins, asking what Frodo would do on Circe’s isle. Now that the subject has resurfaced, I feel compelled to make a point. If (fictional) history is any guide, Frodo would refuse Circe’s advances for months on end, growing daily more and more wearied by his time on the island and his separation from home. Finally, though, he would give in, assent and go to bed with her. (At which point Gollum would leap in in his place . . . ? Hmmm, need to ponder this some more.)

  8. Comment by Bob Wallace:

    Even at 12, when I read “Farnham’s Freehold,” I thought he was nuts. I knew something was wrong with “Stranger in a Strange Land,” but couldn’t quite figure it out. Apparently he went downhill after “Waldo,” which I thoroughly enjoyed without reservations.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I respectfully but sharply disagree with your date. ‘Waldo’ was written in 1942, when Heinlein was in the height of his powers.

      All his juveniles are either entertaining or very entertaining. Of his adult novels, I recommend THE PUPPET MASTERS, DOUBLE STAR, THE DOOR INTO SUMMER, STARSHIP TROOPERS. GLORY ROAD and MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS are also good reads, but the creeping sexual neuroses are clearly present there.

      Everything after 1970, after I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE or NUMBER OF THE BEAST, are books best called his ‘seniles’ and dismissed unread.

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