In the early days of science fiction the genre was almost entirely the domain of male heroes. While female characters existed in science fiction they were generally the love interest of the hero, his mother, or a convenient damsel in distress. There are a few notable exceptions. Wilma Deering in Philip Francis Nowlan‘s 1929 novel Armageddon 2419 A.D is a capable and commanding female character. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Dale Arden in Alex Raymond‘s Flash Gordon. These women were momentary aberrations in science fiction and even they were soon to be relegated to the damsel in distress and love interest roles in later publications. A handful of other female characters exist that would challenge the traditional roles, but no science fiction author wrote consistently strong females into his work until Robert Heinlein. This is especially true of the juvenile market. One would be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel marketed for teens produced before the middle 1960s with a strong female character…..except for those of Heinlein.
Heinlein began writing his juvenile novels in 1947 for Scribner. In all he wrote twelve of these novels most all of them centering on a precocious young boy at odds with an often violent but fascinating universe. In that time Heinlein changed the juvenile adventure novel forever and in many ways he changed the face of science fiction as well.
Heinlein added a new dimension to science fiction stories. Before him the female character had a very specific and submissive role. That would not be the case with Heinlein. Heinlein’s female characters were equal to any male character. In a scene from the Heinlein juvenile novel Tunnel in the Sky, Rod Walker a young boy about to embark on his adventure is given advice from his older sister. The advice is about survival on an alien planet and she gifts him her favorite knife “Lady Macbeth” and tells him not to be overconfident or it could get him killed. Not only is her advice sound, it comes from authority. She is a soldier and the equal of any man who may be giving this type of advice. Further into the book we find Rod teaming up with girls from his survival class. Not only do they not need saving, they are more prepared than Rod or any of the boys who have been sent to survival training. This is a revolution in story telling for young boys. Here is a novel aimed at the tween/teen demographic that not only shows that some girls are better and smarter than boys it also includes veiled sexual situations with powerful females that are more than the traditional platonic friendships. This book was published in 1955 in the same year Tom Swift had still never held hands with his love interest, the Hardy boys barely spoke more than a sentence in each novel to theirs, and Biggles the main British juvenile hero was left wondering if he even liked girls. Love interest or not Heinlein had grabbed the juvenile market and injected females and feminism into the mix.
Heinlein not only introduces us to interesting and engaging female characters he goes deep into sociological explorations of female centric cultures. These are not the sex crazed Martian women of so many 1950’s science fiction movies but examination of living cultures. According to C.W. Sullivan in his article Heinlein’s Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Years he states, “Space Cadet is important because it contains the first of Heinlein’s interesting aliens, the Venerian natives. All of the Venerians with whom Matt and his friends come in contact are females. The group is headed by a female, the “mother,” and the others are her “daughters.” Matt finds himself being referred to as a “daughter” and his superior, Lt. Thurlow, referred to as his “mother.” (Sullivan 65) here Heinlein is at his best as the anthropological storyteller leading his youthful charges in a National Geographic tour of the solar system. Introducing young boys to concepts that they would have never experienced until they were in college in 1950’s America. Heinlein had leaped light years ahead of the other children’s literature that was being published at the time. According to Marrietta Frank, “Although the females portrayed in Heinlein’s juveniles break the stereotypical roles most females were assigned in science fiction stories, especially stories of the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Heinlein is all but ignored by feminist science fiction critics.” (Frank 119)
There was one thing Heinlein had yet to do and it was not until 1963 that he published what would be one of the most important pieces of science fiction in feminism. With the publication of Podkayne of Mars Heinlein accomplished something that no one had done before, he gave juvenile science fiction it’s first girl centered adventure novel. Podkayne is written in the boy adventure novel vein but instead of the typical teen boy here we have a typical teen girl as hero. This should be a landmark in feminism and in children’s literature. Frank suggests that feminists dismiss Podkayne and all Heinlein’s juvenile work because in the novels some of the female characters disregard feminism and seek very traditional gender roles. Podkayne for instance has trouble deciding whether to be a space pilot or a mother. “In Heinlein’s juveniles, readers will find examples of female characters in traditional females roles. Heinlein also peoples his juveniles with strong female characters, often in untraditional female roles. Because Heinlein chose to show females in both types of roles, Heinlein’s juveniles reflect today’s society, even though he began writing them more than fifty years ago” (Frank 130). Regardless of the dismissal by feminists themselves, Heinlein’s work is the culmination of feminism in juvenile fiction.
You would be hard pressed today to find a juvenile adventure novel without a strong female character. You may be hard pressed to find a boy adventure novel marketed solely to the male audience. The genre has begun to fade as juvenile fiction begins to blend male and female characters together. This is legacy of Heinlein. His novels began the integration of the strong male and female protagonists and led to the combination of male and female gender roles in boy and girl adventure fiction. Would a Hermione Granger exist without the influence of the genius girl child Podkayne? Would Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials have as it’s protagonist the plucky little girl that went up against the religious establishment of her entire world without the confident and intelligent female colonists in Tunnel in the Sky? It is hard to say, but the Heinlein juveniles did change how people looked at females in male dominated adventure literature. Children who grew up reading those books did take away something from them. That something has helped create our current literary world. From the sailing ships of the Victorian period and the boys who jumped a ship, were shanghaied, and were washed onto deserted islands to massive starships of the future cruising through the solar system the male/female dynamic continues to be illustrated through the literature of our youth. Over the past hundred years in boy adventure fiction women have slowly climbed out of their traditional roles from mother and love interest all the way to equal partners. Sometimes they are even more than equal in the adventures that boys read and take to heart. While the prejudices of the past are never gone completely the time of the women who knows “her place” is over… Long live the strong, intelligent, adventurer.
Heinlein wrote something in his novel Tunnel in the Sky that sums up his belief in the power of the feminine…
“I’ve said this nineteen dozen times but you still don’t believe it. Man is the one animal that can’t be tamed. He goes along for years, peaceful as a cow, when it suits him. Then when it suits him not to be, he makes a leopard look like a tabby cat. Which goes double for the female of the species.”(Heinlein 6)
C. W. Sullivan III, Heinlein’s Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Year.
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly – Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 1985, pp. 64-66 Web 25 Nov. 2011
Frank, Marietta, Women in Heinlein’s Juveniles. Young Adult Science Fiction. Ed. C. W. Sullivan, III. Greenwood Press, 1999. p119-130. Web 28 Nov. 2011
Heinlein Robert A., Tunnel in the Sky. NewYork: Simon and Schuster, 2005 Print.