Heinlein’s Juveniles I Read in the 1960s vs. Philip K. Dick’s 1960s Novels I’m Reading in My 70s – Classics of Science Fiction

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I’ve been gorging on Philip K. Dick books this month. It occurred to me, that I’m consuming vast quantities of PKD in my old age like I did Heinlein books in my youth. Why was Heinlein my #1 science fiction writer in the 1960s when I was a teen? Is it for the same reasons that Philip K. Dick is my #1 sci-fi writer in my seventies in the 2020s?

The short answer is Heinlein’s juveniles were great reads and perfect escapism for a young person growing up in a problem family hoping to find a bright future. While PKD’s books are great escapes for an old guy living through troubled times when the future looks quite bleak. Both offer escapism from troubled times, but their imagined futures were distinctly different. Heinlein’s was best for the young, while Dick might be better for old age.

For some reason I resonate with Heinlein and PKD. I’ve written about that before, read “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” There are certain writers I can’t stop reading their books, and biographies about them. I’m now curious why Philip K. Dick appeals so much to me late in life.

I discovered Heinlein in the Fall of 1964, just months before the first manned Project Gemini missions in March 1965. This was after Project Mercury was over. I had followed every manned space mission in the 1960s starting with Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in May of 1961. I grew up as a final frontier true believer, and Heinlein’s twelve juvenile novels shaped my hopes for the future. This was before the psychedelic 1960s hit.

I don’t remember when I changed, but like many teenagers growing up in the 1960s, I radicalized. I tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. I was still living at home, and I was still going to high school, but I wasn’t in either place.

I can’t say I contracted the weirdness of Philip K. Dick back then, but science fiction was getting weird. My favorite writers shifted from Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov to Samuel R. Delany, Jack Kerouac, and Mark Twain as the 1960s ended. My ideas about the final frontier and the future were changing, especially after reading Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner in 1969.

I didn’t discover Philip K. Dick until 1968 when I checked out Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from the 7-day bookshelf at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami. What a strange ride that was. Before the decade was over, I also read The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and a couple of others, but I can only dredge up specific memories of those two titles right now. I didn’t seriously get into PKD until after the Paul Williams article ran about Dick in The Rolling Stone magazine in November of 1975, then I started reading PKD for real. Back in the 1980s I told my friend Mike about Philip K. Dick, and we started collecting his books and both of us became big fans. We’ve been discussing PKD ever since. In 1991 I even went to Ft. Morgan to visit Dick’s grave.

This past month, I’ve been binge reading PKD again. I do that from time to time. And something struck me. I discovered Heinlein when I was twelve, just before I turned thirteen at the end of 1964. I read nearly all of Heinlein’s back catalog in the following two years, ending my Heinlein binge by reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967 as they came out.

But it was the twelve Heinlein juveniles published from 1947-1958 that made me a science fiction fan. At the end of 1967, with my first paycheck from working at the Kwik Check in Coconut Grove, I ordered all twelve of those books in hardback from Scribners because I loved them so much. I still have them. Those books define my love of science fiction. So, it’s weird that I’m ending up in PKD’s landscape. Heinlein and Dick saw the future vastly different. But then, the future I envisioned for myself in the 1960s is nothing like the future I’m living in the 2020s.

What’s interesting, that I realized this week, is Philip K. Dick’s 1960s science fiction are shaping how I think about science fiction in my old age. And there’s quite a contrast between how Heinlein and Dick wrote science fiction. I just finished five books Dick hammered out in 1963:

Heinlein’s fiction from the 1950s had a consistency to them, with each juvenile novel going step-by-step further from Earth. Heinlein was always adamant that his philosophy was represented in the three novels Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). But those books represent his third philosophical stage. Heinlein’s first stage was his Future History stories of the 1940s, but what I cared about most was his Space Exploration stage of the 1950s. Both Heinlein and Dick wrote many books that shared a common vision of the future. Heinlein’s vision of tomorrow in his 1950s books are quite consistent. But then, so is Dick’s science fiction from the 1960s.

I’m sensing that Philip K. Dick went through different philosophical stages too. In the 1950s he was cranking out science fiction to make a living, but Dick really wanted to become a respected mainstream writer. Then from The Man in the High Castle (1961) through Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1969) he wrote twenty-one very strange science fiction novels that all have consistent themes and elements. In the 1970s, he shifted to more serious writing, some of which was based on firsthand experiences.

Many readers accused Dick of being a 1960s sci-fi writer on drugs, suffering from mental illness, and producing psychedelic science fiction. I don’t think that’s accurate. I think his 1959 novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist (published 1975) is a key to PKD’s 1960s fiction. Dick learned a lot about writing from producing all those unsold mainstream novels in the 1950s. Yes, he grew up reading science fiction and falling in love with the genre, but he was well acquainted with the real world and real literature. He had to accept that he could only make money selling science fiction, but he compromised by putting reasonable realistic characters into bizarre science fictional fantasies.

When I was growing up and embracing the Heinlein juveniles, I didn’t understand how unrealistic they were. I wanted space travel as Heinlein described it to be possible, but it would be decades before I realized how unrealistic those expectations were. Philip K. Dick was 23 years older than I was, and he obviously knew how crazy science fiction was back in the 1950s. I imagine he told himself, if science fiction sells, I’ll write science fiction but with the weirdness knob turned to eleven.

Dick’s science fiction in the 1960s got very psychedelic before the 1960s got psychedelic. He lived in California, and that helped put him at the forefront of the counterculture. As I grew up with the counterculture, but slightly delayed in Miami, I was still rereading the Heinlein juveniles. They were fantasies that kept me sane, but they were delusional. It’s a shame I didn’t discover PKD sooner, or even first. Dick knew science fiction was delusional. At least, I think he did. I believe with his VALIS experience, he started wondering if the universe wasn’t far stranger than what even science fiction writers imagined. I want to believe that Dick knew he was a crap artist for most of his career before he started believing in the crap. Evidently, you can’t toy with crap ideas all your life and not get infected.

What’s weird on another level was Heinlein turned strange in the 1960s too. It’s my theory that he too realized that 1950s science fiction wasn’t going anywhere, and thus he needed to go in another direction to stay at the top. My guess is he read Atlas Shrugged and decided he wanted to be a writer like Ayn Rand. One whose political ideas were taken seriously. In some ways, Stranger in a Strange Land is just as weird as PKD’s work in the 1960s.

Heinlein’s lost his mojo in the 1970s, and I quit reading him. Over the years, I’ve become disenchanted with Heinlein’s work after 1960 too. Philip K. Dick took a new direction in the 1970s and found a higher calling. Science fiction, as a genre, also cchanged in many ways in the 1970s. Since then, science fiction books have gotten better written, and more creative, but have mostly retreated into itself, into fantastic feats of world building. I still love 1950s science fiction. I think that’s when the genre peaked in terms of exploring science fictional ideas. Movies and novels are better constructed now, but most of the ideas are retreads.

I guess I haven’t progressed much in life. I started in the 1960s with 1950s science fiction, and now in the 2020s I’m focused on 1960s science fiction. Maybe before I die, I’ll get around to digesting 1970s science fiction. But before I do that, I need to use up PKD’s books from the 1960s. I need to figure them out.

I only reread Heinlein juveniles now for nostalgic reasons. I think I’m reading Dick’s 1960s novels for a reason, but I’m not sure what it is. PKD seemed to be writing about something, and I’m trying to figure out what that was. But I could be wrong. He could have just been cranking out a bunch of crazy sci-fi books to pay the bills. However, I’m not the only one trying to figure out PKD. Lots of people are writing monographs and dissertations on him.

In the 1950s and 1960s Heinlein was king of the genre hill. At the time, I thought he would be seen by people in the 21st century as the Charles Dickens of science fiction. That hasn’t happened. Philip K. Dick is the top dog when remembering 20th century science fiction. I would not have predicted that back in the 1960s. Nor would I have imagined that as an old man I would be so hung up on Philip K. Dick.

James Wallace Harris, 1/21/23

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