Robert A. Heinlein by David Dyer-Bennet

Robert A. Heinlein

Then there was the affair of Robert Heinlein, Algis Budrys and Stranger in a Strange Land.

I was editor of Galaxy at the time. I had hired AJ as our official book reviewer, a job which he took seriously and performed well, and when Heinlein published a major new novel called Stranger in a Strange Land, AJ went all out in a detailed and penetrating criticism — which, when he delivered it and I began to read, filled me with horror.

If there was one thing I knew about Heinlein it was that he was almost pathologically protective of his privacy — had threatened to sue people who invaded it — and, I was pretty sure, would take a dim view of some of AJ’s quite perceptive remarks. So there was a dilemma. I didn’t want to deprive AJ of an audience for a piece of good, hard work. I also didn’t want to get Robert mad at me. I stewed over the problem for a while, finally decided to leave the decision up to Robert himself and shipped off a copy of the review to him, pleased with myself for having solved the problem.

Then, a week or two later, the mailman handed me a large and heavy manila envelope with Heinlein’s return address on it and, “My God,” I said out loud, “Bob has written me a novelette!”

Algis Budrys

    Algis Budrys

I was wrong about that, though. The twenty or thirty closely typed pages in the envelope weren’t fiction, they were an impassioned denunciation of the review, of invasive reviews in general and of the person who had written it — who, Robert conjectured, was some effete New York bookworm who had never traveled more than a few dozen miles from his home and had no knowledge of what the real world was like.

This was a factual error on Robert’s part, because AJ was actually born in Lithuania, the son of a high-ranking diplomat who was assigned first to Nazi Germany and then, while AJ was still a young boy, the United States. (English was actually AJ’s third language, after Lithuanian and German.) However, I could recognize a cry of pain when I heard it, so I ash-canned the review and told both Robert and AJ that it wouldn’t be published.

I am still not sure that I made the morally correct decision, but anyway it had a happy ending. At the Seattle Worldcon a little later I had the pleasure of introducing AJ to Robert. They hit it off and became friends.

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  1. David Ratnasabapathy says:

    Er, d’you still have that review :-)

  2. sm says:

    Whatever happened to that review?

  3. Mike Stojsavljevic says:

    Heinlein continues to be one of my favorite writers. He and Mr. Pohl are one of the few who I can say I have read everything they ever wrote. Thank you for this great story.

  4. Dennis Lynch says:

    Is it just me, or does Locke (on TV’s LOST) look more like Heinlein all the time?

  5. John H says:

    Poor Bob — so misunderstood…

  6. Theophylact says:

    Now that both Heinlein and Budrys are gone from the scene, would it be possible to retrieve the review for posthumous publication, or is it truly ashcanned?

  7. Stefan Jones says:

    I don’t suppose that review (and Heinlein’s letter) are still around?

    They’d be the kind of thing scholars would love. Maybe too soon to release them, but eventually . . .

  8. TJIC says:

    Does the review still exist? I’d love to read it.

  9. Brian says:

    Wow. What had Budrys written? What was his criticism and why did Heinlein consider it so invasive? What were your own thoughts re: the review? Not in terms of how you knew Heinlein would receive it, but just in terms of its validity as a review of Stranger In A Strange Land?

  10. Michael A. Burstein says:

    I know it’s probably hopeless to ask, but do you still have that review anywhere? I think a lot of us would love to read it and see what AJ said.

  11. Earl Wells says:

    Algis Budrys talked about this in an interview with Mark Berry that was published in Richard E. Geis’ Science Fiction Review in 1984. The part of the interview dealing with the Stranger review was reprinted in 2007 in Earl Kemp’s eFanzine:

  12. tad says:

    Wow. I have a copy of Budrys’ BENCHMARKS: GALAXY BOOKSHELF, which as you know collected his review columns for GALAXY, & there’s some great stuff in there, including a very insightful review of Heinlein’s marvelous THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS … but I’d never heard THIS story before. AJ’s book reviews were one of the main reasons I read GALAXY, & later F&SF. Thanks for sharing! — TAD.

  13. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    Heinlein’s letter still exists, in his file of correspondence with Galaxy from 1961 to 1977, according to this description:

    You can buy a copy from the Heinlein Archives for two bucks. I haven’t read it myself.

  14. Ross Presser says:

    I’ve now bought a copy and read the letter. Heinlein’s first beef with Budrys seems to have been that Budrys’s review described reincarnation as a major theme of the book — which Heinlein says absolutely was not intended; nobody is reincarnated in the book, and it’s never even talked about — and ignored what Heinlein actually meant as the major themes.

    I don’t feel good about having read the letter, by the way. Gentlemen and other people’s mail and all that.

  15. JJ Brannon says:

    Heinlein was being technically precise, IIRC, if evasive, with that response to Budrys regarding reincarnation.

    It’s not a major theme; no one **within** the storyline is reincarnated; nor do any characters discuss reincarnation at any length as the main topic of conversation.

    However, RAH dodges the validity of the Budrys’ criticism in his letter because characters are alluded to being reincarnated **outside** the storyline: Don Juan, for one, and much more crucially Alice/Agnes Douglas, the asexual, long-suffering wife of the Honorable Joe Douglas. The allusions are in passing by the angels who have other pots to stir.

    I come to think in recent years of Alice Douglas as Heinlein’s lampoon of Alice Dagliesh.


  16. Ross Presser says:

    The letter raises Mrs. Douglas specifically:
    “STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND makes no use of the idea of reincarnation and does make use of the idea of angelic intervention — three of the characters are specifically stated to be angels (Mike, Digby, and Foster); in three others the implication is so strong that the reader is thereby invited to accept them as angels if he wishes (Pat, George, and Mrs. Douglas) although apparently of lower rank than archangel in the fictional hierarchy.”

    The letter doesn’t mention Don Juan. In the book, I found only one passage about Don Juan, and yes, I guess that could be read as reincarnating him.

    Alice Douglas, in the book, is referred to (when Foster the angel is thinking to himself) as “an utterly reliable field operative”. It’s certainly consistent that operatives would be a different population than humans, and hence angels.

    But I can see where one could argue this is Heinlein retconning himself.