These days, Robert Heinlein is probably best known as the author of Starship Troopers. It’s a science fiction novel that spawned a tremendously popular—and tremendously stupid movie—and an even stupider (though thankfully not as popular) sequel.
Those who know science fiction a little bit know him as a somewhat controversial figure—rather right-wing, possibly libertarian, with some funky ideas about citizenship and revolution.
Of course, that’s assuming that you can always equate a writer with his writing: I doubt that Ray Bradbury actually advocates setting fire to books, for example.
Those who have read his stuff know that Heinlein won four Hugo Awards (the science fiction equivalent of the Oscar); was arguably the first to create a Future History of humanity; invented the waterbed and the cell phone; and incidentally wrote some of the best science fiction (for both adults and kids) of the 20th century.
Okay, I’m a Heinlein fan. (Also, he looked surprisingly like my late uncle Herbert..)
I certainly don’t need to laud Mr. Heinlein’s accomplishments. I would like to point out that, in passing, he provided one of the single most important pieces of advice ever offered to a professional writer. When writing for pay, he has a character state, always leave a mistake for the editor to fix—if an editor doesn’t find something to change, he gets frustrated, the character says. “Besides, once he pees on it, he likes the flavor better, and he buys it.”
I wanted to bring up something ELSE he did in his writing, which has some little bearing on The Awkward Silence. In the course of his science fiction writing, Robert Heinlein took up the topic of: What is Funny? Not once, but a couple of times.
In his award winning novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein posits a highly sophisticated computer that, In his words, “wakes up” and becomes self aware.
The computer, nicknamed “Mike”, also begins to develop a sense of humor….printing out a check for several million billion dollars—to be drawn on the local government—to watch the results. The computer also analyzes the several hundred thousand riddles in its memory bank and creates his own:
Q: Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?
A: Because neither one can whistle.
Which, as Mike’s human friend Mannie admits, is no worse than your average riddle. Mike and Mannie decide to investigate the nature of humor—first establishing that there are several categories of jokes: those that aren’t funny at all; those that are funny once (generally involving a surprise of some sort); and those that are funny always.
Our humor researchers are unable to find a definition for “What is Funny?” that suits them, so they decide to research by example: Mannie will listen to jokes from Mike, and tell him what category HE thinks the joke belongs in. (The do draft a woman into the conversation to gain a second perspective.)
Their research doesn’t get very far, however, because Heinlein is actually telling a different story entirely: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is actually a rousing (and surprisingly accurate) retelling of the American Revolution in a science fiction setting.
Anyway, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is definitely worth a read (or a reread) just for Heinlein’s thoughts on the nature of humor. It’s a topic he turned to again in Stranger In a Strange Land, about which more another time.
In the meantime, remember: In space, no one can hear the Awkward Silence.