Back from the Heinlein Centennial.
It was a lot of fun. I’m glad I went. I wish I had been able to stay for the full event.
Deciding which panel to go to at any given time, when there were four or five equally interesting panels going on simultaneously, was painful. I wound up deciding to stick to the very Heinlein-centric panels. Which meant that I didn’t get to any of the aerospace-related panels. Which kind of sucks, since some of the most important people in modern spaceflight were there.
The Centennial was held in the Westin and Hyatt hotels in downtown Kansas City, two enormous hotels connected by a glass-enclosed raised walkway. I got a lot of exercise trotting back and forth through that walkway trying to make it to the next panel or event.
The hotels were, as I said, huge. And opulent. The Westin, the one I stayed in, had a multi-story tropical waterfall in it’s atrium. I’ll post photos later. The Centennial Took up most of both hotels’ conference rooms.
I got there about halfway through a panel on the cultural influence of Stranger in a Strange Land. They were talking about the philosophy of the book when I arrived.
The panel on “Heinlein and Families” was… odd. There was a contingent of Church of all Worlders at the convention (at a Heinlein convention… go figure). They were aggressively flyering people as they emerged from other panels. As it turned out a few of the scheduled panels which were effectively “theirs”. The “Families” panel was one of these – it was composed exclusively of people who were either in, or had been in, group or line marriages inspired by Heinlein’s books. So what was billed as a discussion of the role of families in Heinlein’s writings really turned out to be a discussion of modern alternative marriage practices.
Which was fine, and I had half suspected it would be; and it was certainly topical at a Heinlein convention. But I noticed a steady audience attrition during the panel, which had started out almost packed.
There were a couple of interesting statements made. I was surprised that despite the Church of all Worlds afiliation of some of the panelists, and the heavy use of the term “Water Brother”, when they went around the room asking people to name the book that most influenced them, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was the clear winner. These people were more influenced by Mistress‘ line marriages than by Stranger‘s more open polyamory. One couple were in a line marriage that currently numbers five members and has lasted twenty years.
Another comment that stood out was when an audience member stated that gay activists had been far more hostile to him and his group marriage family than any conservative monogamists he’d met. This didn’t come as a complete surprise to me; I know there has been longstanding tension between polyamorists and the gay community. The reason he gave was that where the gay activists want to see laws enacted specifically recognizing their right to marry as same-sex couples, the poly community (or at least his portion of it) prefers to use traditional contract law to make any form of social arrangement legal.
I went to a “Remembering Heinlein” panel which was a little disappointing, because most of the panelists hadn’t actually been close to Heinlein while he was alive. But they called up Robert’s sister-in-law from the audience, who had some interesting reminiscences.
On the other hand, “Heinlein’s Mysticism” was absolutely fascinating. It included two Heinlein scholars, who had obviously done their homework (one of them, Bill Patterson, is the author of an upcoming two-volume biography). I learned that Leslyn, Heinlein’s second wife (until recently believed to be his first), was a practicing witch whose mother was a theosophist. Probably of an early Gardnerian variety. This was back in the 30s and early 40s, when neopaganism as we know it now was unknown in the US. He also palled around with Jack Parsons, rocket scientist, co-founder of JPL, student of Aleister Crowley, and practicing magician. Heinlein did extensive research for stories like The Strange Profession of Jonathan Hoag, Waldo, and Magic, Inc..
In the case of Hoag, the panelists pointed out that the notion of a layered universe, like a canvas that has been painted in multiple coats, can be traced to Hermeticism. Which influenced Crowley and his O.T.O., and thus Jack Parsons. Incidentally, L. Ron Hubbard lived with Parsons for awhile, before (allegedly) making off with both his money and the occult secrets of the O.T.O., which he then used as a basis for Scientology.
I went to a panel about the “Stinkeroos”, three stories that Heinlein infamously deemed unfit for printing. Not a lot learned at that one, but it was a lot of fun listening to Frederick Pohl telling anecdotes about the man.
The Atlanta Radio Theater Company did a live dramatic production of All You Zombies–, complete with on-stage foley artists. It was nicely executed, and I look forward to listening to more of their work.
I managed to catch John Scalzi while he was socializing in the lobby. I thanked him for his books and his wonderful weblog, and he was kind enough to sign my copy of The Android’s Dream. Which is a great book, by the way. He was super nice and actually chatted with me for a couple of minutes. He even remembered my name from occasional comments I’ve made on his blog. After that I wandered around with a silly grin on my face for awhile.
In the evening was the gala. There were a lot of great moments. Spider Robinson is a great speaker, very funny, and looks much more like a college professor than I expected.
He and his wife Jeane played a nice rendition of “The Green Hills of Earth“, with the audience chiming in for the chorus. Sir Arthur C. Clarke is too old and frail to even do live satellite addresses from his Sri Lanka home anymore, but he contributed a recorded video tribute to Heinlein. Pete Diamandis, the man who established the X-prize, gave a very powerful speech. This is a man who passionately believes in Heinlein’s dream of humanity’s future in space, but unlike so many others, is actually part of making that dream a reality. He said that Heinlein had laid out a business plan for space travel, and he is just trying to realize that plan. He spoke of his goal of being on the first private manned mission to the moon, and being there to welcome NASA when they finally return a few years later. I think everyone in the room felt a little more optimistic about manned space travel after he was finished. He garnered a very enthusiastic standing ovation from the crowd.
Conspicuously absent from the gala program was anyone from NASA, even though I’m pretty sure a couple of NASA people were originally scheduled to be part of it, including Micheal Griffin, the chief administrator. Perhaps they were afraid of being seen in the company of those scruffy commercial spaceflight people who are currently kicking their asses in the manned spaceflight business. I don’t know what the story is there, but it seems like a pretty low-class move to pull out from an event honoring someone who inspired countless astronauts, engineers, scientists, and pilots to become who they are now; and who was posthumously awarded NASA’s highest honor.
Speaking of which, when Virginia accepted the award in Robert’s place she chose to read his “This I Believe” speech, originally broadcast on Edward R. Murrow’s radio program. They played a video clip of her reading the speech, with Heinlein’s original broadcast recording overlayed, so that it was as if they were reading it together. The room got a little blurry at that point.
I’ll end this with a selection from that speech:
“And finally, I believe in my whole race. Yellow, white, black, red, brown. In the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability, and goodness of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth. That we always make it just by the skin of our teeth, but that we will always make it. Survive. Endure. I believe that this hairless embryo with the aching, oversize brain case and the opposable thumb, this animal barely up from the apes will endure. Will endure longer than his home planet — will spread out to the stars and beyond, carrying with him his honesty and his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage and his noble essential decency.
“This I believe with all my heart.”
UPDATE: Scalzi has posted his experiences here.