Astral Weeks: A sci-fi master's beginnings
"I am submitting the enclosed short story 'LIFE-LINE' for either 'Astounding' or 'Unknown,'" Robert A. Heinlein wrote to editor John Campbell in 1939, "because I am not sure which policy it fits the better."

The former magazine published science fiction, the latter fantasy. Heinlein's short story — the first he had attempted professionally, at age 31 — concerns a machine that can predict when a person will die. That he sold this neophyte production, on first submission, to a top pulp editor (kicking off an intense friendship and correspondence) is exciting in and of itself. Heinlein's uncertainty about to which slice of genre this story belonged is an ironic and humanizing detail, given what a titan Heinlein would become as the author of everything from juvenile SF in character-building Horatio Alger mode to the counterculture touchstone "Stranger in a Strange Land" (1961).

Reading about "Life-Line" (and the unpublished novel, "For Us, the Living," begun the previous year) marks the point at which William H. Patterson Jr.'s "Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century" (Tor: 622 pp., $29.99) becomes an engrossing rather than a dutiful biography.

Saved by writing

This volume, the first of two, bears the workmanlike title "Learning Curve: 1907–1948," and at times the slope is hard to discern. Perhaps because this is an authorized biography (commissioned by Heinlein's late widow, Virginia, in 2000), an impressive amount of material remains lightly processed, establishing chronology but often overpowering the thematic richness of the material. Knowing that he contracted TB in 1933 is important; seeing the hourly breakdown of his treatment regimen ("1:30–1:45 Air Bath") adds granular data but is a drag on momentum.

There's a plodding quality in Heinlein himself during the years that "Learning Curve" covers. (By contrast, the cameos in these pages of his charismatic friends Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard — in pre-Scientology mode — can make you want to leave Heinlein and follow them into their respective life stories.) This quality is the grit that makes the pearl; the trick for the biographer is how to dramatize it. Heinlein saw himself through childhood poverty, various professional failures, poor health and a complicated marriage, equipped with his intelligence, moral compass and patriotism. In retrospect, his path looks inevitable. But he could not have predicted, even two years before that first sale, that he would find salvation and fame with his pen.

Patterson notes that "Life-Line" refers to "a crease in the palm that fortune-tellers use to tell the length of a person's life. It is also what sailors call the rope they throw to a man overboard, to save his life." The implication might be brought out more forcefully: Science fiction saved his life.

Political pursuits

The early portions of this volume evoke Heinlein's hardscrabble upbringing in Kansas City, Mo. He was one of seven children, far from the favorite, and more or less left to fend for himself. (For three years, he slept "on a pallet on the floor of the living room, bedding put away in a closet during the day.") His way out is the United States Naval Academy, which he enters after byzantine political maneuvering. Though Patterson's description of the culture at Annapolis is immersive, he doesn't quite harness the minutiae into a compelling narrative. Heinlein's post-graduate adventures aboard the Lexington, under the command of Capt. Ernest J. King, are a high point in his naval career, which founders all too soon, mostly due to his ill health.

At some point Heinlein turns decidedly iconoclastic, which comes as something of a surprise, despite some mild mystical leanings at the academy. In 1932 he stole and married his friend's girlfriend, the bright and "intense" Leslyn MacDonald, who held a master's degree in philosophy, worked in the music department at Columbia Pictures and who would later serve as his talented in-house "story doctor." She also practiced "white witchcraft," had a Theosophist mother and shared Heinlein's interest in nudism. Such traits should be far from dull, but somehow in this biography her anarchic energies feel tamped down, at least until her alcoholism contributes to the unraveling of their marriage.

At the start, though, the couple bonds while getting deeply involved in politics. In 1934, shortly after settling in Los Angeles, Heinlein became an organizer for Upton Sinclair's gubernatorial campaign; the author of "The Jungle" (and former Socialist Party candidate) ran and lost on the Democratic ticket, promoting the EPIC (End Poverty in California) program. Four years later, Heinlein himself ran as a progressive Democrat for a state assembly seat — and lost.

All this should move more briskly than it does. We're meant to detect the seeds of Heinlein's subsequent wide-ranging output — and readers of the second volume (of which I hope to be one) will surely be treated to these connections. But Patterson has both given us too much (in line with the overarching subtitle, "In Dialogue With His Century") and too little: How close were Heinlein and Sinclair? The book lacks a single scene of the two actually interacting — the sort of fly-on-the-wall episode that lets a reader view literary history in a new and vivid way. ("Sinclair must have taken a liking to this obviously bright and obviously dedicated young couple," Patterson writes fuzzily.)

'Look out!'

Washed out of politics but still intent on reform, and inspired (he later said) by an ad for a writing contest in Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine, Heinlein began "For Us, The Living" in 1938. The title is from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and declares Heinlein's speechifying objective. He wanted to write a "dramatized Social Credit tract. He would have an educated man from the bad old days (1930s) transported into the bright future, when the struggle to implement Social Credit was long over and done with." (According to Patterson, the Canadian Douglas Plan, which introduced the concept of Social Credit, "took a very fresh and provocative look at the whole problem of money.")

But something happens right from the start of the novel. The first words are "Look out!" For all its transparent soapbox mounting, the story has undeniable momentum, an effortless and entertaining engagement between writer and reader. Spider Robinson, in his introduction to the posthumous publication of the novel (1993), sees all of Heinlein's future output here in embryonic form. More important, Heinlein realized — in his fledgling effort — that "the most enjoyable, almost effortless part of the entire experience had not been the world-saving he'd set out to accomplish, not the logical theories, mathematical proofs, or clever arguments, of which he was so proud … but the storytelling part, that he had intended only as a come-on for the crowd."

Campbell began publishing Heinlein regularly, and his stories appeared, sometimes pseudonymously, in other pulps. After World War II (which he spent at the Aeronautical Materials Lab in Philadelphia), space and the bomb were on everyone's minds, and Heinlein's military background and storytelling chops helped position him at the top of the science fiction field. He caught fire with publication of "The Green Hills of Earth" and other stories in the slick Saturday Evening Post. Fritz Lang wanted to collaborate on a film.

Desperation

The past haunted Heinlein, though, and despite his successes, sadness overtakes the book's last several chapters. Heinlein was constantly on the move, trying to find the time and mindset to write amid domestic turmoil and not enough money. "The presence of poverty and the fear of poverty goes way back to my childhood," he writes in a 1948 letter.

There was a period in L.A. in which he flitted from hotel to hotel, due to Kafkaesque (or just murkily described) "postwar ordinances." There was also a stint in Ojai, where he lived in hiding, in a cramped trailer with his future wife, Ginny, while his divorce from his second wife, Leslyn, was pending.

Though Volume 1 of Patterson's biography ends with the bright note of his third and final walk down the aisle, it's the almost desperate nomadic quality that resonates. (Heinlein's father, Rex, had been diagnosed with "involutional melancholy," a "psychotic depression" of "late middle age.") Any reader who has come this far will be eager to see how the rest of Heinlein's long life will play out. There are 40 more years to go.

Park is the author of the novel "Personal Days." Astral Weeks appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.