A (Partial) Robert A. Heinlein Reading Primer

” Robert Heinlein ” Oil on Panel © 2009 Donato Giancola

Recently I put together a reading list of Robert Heinlein’s books for one of the other contributors to SFSN. He didn’t realize that many were thematically related, and that there was a “best” order in which to read them, which I pointed out. He suggested that might be a helpful topic for new readers of Heinlein, and he was so convincing that here I am. I point out two of Heinlein’s major multi-book themes, briefly describe how they evolve in his books, and provide a recommended reading order.

Heinlein was a prolific writer of both novels and short stories (a full list can be found here),  and not all were related.  Some of his better known works (I Will Fear No Evil, Friday, Double Star, and a host of others) were stand-alones, and Dome reviewed one of these earlier ( RAH – I Will Fear No Evil). Those stories can be read in any order without losing their energy and power to captivate. However, Heinlein also created two multi-book story lines, that of the Howard Families and of the World as Myth, that require reading these books in a specific order to grasp their full richness.

The first of these story lines, that of the Howard Families, focuses on a group of humans who have extraordinary lifespans by virtue of, in essence, selective breeding. Initially introduced in the aptly named Methuselah’s Children, this group of “oldsters” is chased off Earth by those who think they are hiding some secret technique of age prevention, their escape made possible by Lazarus Long, “The Elder”, who figures prominently throughout the rest of this story line. Time Enough for Love covers the memoirs of Long, giving background and depth to the lives and adventures of the Howard Families through nearly two millennia. The Number of the Beast continues Long’s (and his closer “family’s”) escapades and ties them into the World as Myth story line. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls has Lazarus and other key Howard Family members as important supporting characters in another combined tale that explores what might happen if people understood the World as Myth–and had the means to effect change. To Sail Beyond the Sunset is the last of the Howard Family books (and the last novel published before Heinlein’s death) and recounts the memoirs of Maureen Johnson Smith Long, mother and wife of Lazarus Long (the Heinlein universes are interesting ones!), ultimately wrapping up the Howard Family saga.

Heinlein used The World as Myth both as a useful new story telling framework and as a means to tie some of his earlier works together. Without giving away any significant plot details, the World as Myth postulates a a plethora of parallel universes (or a multiverse, in the words of some Heinlein reviewers) where what is fiction in one is the actual basis for another. Revolt in 2100, The Man Who Sold the Moon, Stranger in a Strange Land (whence came the word “grok”), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (also reviewed by Dome: RAH – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) are stand-alone stories in that they don’t use the World as Myth framework. However, Heinlein incorporates their principal elements into this formalized framework starting with The Number of the Beast, so reading those books beforehand will make the references to them understandable. From the World as Myth perspective The Number of the Beast also introduces the essential element for exploring and interacting with the various parallel worlds, the continua craft. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls draws heavily from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress story line and examines the apparent contradictions and possible issues with using the continua craft, especially when trying to change a time line. Finally, in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, the continua craft is key to rescuing Maureen Johnson Smith Long and otherwise setting all things right for the Howard Families.

Based on this very superficial coverage of these interrelated stories, my recommended reading order is:

    1. Methuselah’s Children
    2. Revolt in 2100*
    3. The Man Who Sold the Moon*
    4. Stranger in a Strange Land*
    5. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress*
    6. Time Enough for Love
    7. The Number of the Beast
    8. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls
    9. To Sail Beyond the Sunset

Books with asterisks (entries 2-5) are simply listed in their order of publication, and can be read in any order between second and fifth without loss of continuity. Using the remainder of the order will ensure that the reader will follow the evolution of the two themes, which will make reading these particular Heinlein stories more enjoyable!

9 Responses to “A (Partial) Robert A. Heinlein Reading Primer”

  1. Well played. In leaving out a myriad of books, you invite the readers to explore…DO IT! Explore the Multiverse of RAH. RDaneelOlivaw, you wear your namesake well.

    • RDaneelOlivaw

      Thanks Dome. RAH, like Asimov and some of the other Masters, really need to be enjoyed in person, at least in my opinion. I tried to say just enough to whet interest…and provide a guide to improve reading enjoyment. I wish I’d been able to read them in order the first time!

  2. SamanthaB

    I gotta say, he was tempting me into reading some! Great article as always!

  3. I am beginning to read his last published novel, For Us, The Living. It was edited by Spider Robinson after the death of RAH and his wife Ginny. It is simply amazing, made even more so by the forward by the incredible Mr. Robinson and his insights.

    • RDaneelOlivaw

      Is that the one that was actually his first written novel, but didn’t get published because it was too “racy” for it’s day? One of the few Heinlein pieces I’ve not read yet; sounds like it’s more than worth picking up then.

  4. It is a case of his first novel being his last published, yes. It has been a more than entertaining read so far.

  5. Nipar

    I just finished “The Door Into Summer” and am much the happier for it. I have been working through a list of sci-fi books listed as the 100 greatest for the past 10 years from a book from 1984 and some I agree with and others I wonder about the Author’s choices but when it comes to Heinlein’s entries I must say I agree emphatically. I have yet to be disappointed by anything the man wrote. And as for the TDIS, it has become one of my favorite time traveling stories that I have read in along time.

    • RDaneelOlivaw

      I’ve also read “The Door Into Summer”, as well as many other of Heinlein’s books I didn’t touch on in my article. His stories all have depth to them–but what I enjoy most is that they’re simply fun to read! Sometimes the criteria for “the greatest 100” lists are murky, and you wonder (as you have with the list you’re working from) what they based their selections on. For me, I subscribe to the idea that if you can take one outlandish or out of the box idea, surround it with a plausible framework and support, and make it fun to read–you have a successful sci-fi book. If you decide to read more of Heinlein’s works I hope the list I’ve provided does prove useful. Thanks for your comment!

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