Tor.com is having a closer look back at the life, times and literature of Robert A. Heinlein this month, spurred by the publication of the just-released biography (book 1) of the Grandmaster of Science Fiction. It's worth checking out the site, just to see the various angles writers are taking on William Patterson's book and on the great man himself.
As always, the cream of Tor's criticism is written by Jo Walton. And this entry really hit home for me.
When I think about stories that made an impact on me when I was a kid, I can finger three Heinlein stores that stuck in my mind for years after. I read them out of publication order, as Walton points out, but The Man Who Sold The Moon and Requiem I can still visualize all these decades later. In fact, the end of D.D. Harriman and the ending of the movie Space Cowboys, both bring tears to my eyes. Not that the movie ending was a rip-off of the Heinlein novel at all. It's just that the characters end up in the same place, with the same longing for the Moon many dreamers have.
Of course, the other Heinlein novel that hit me hard in the memory banks was The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It gave new meaning to eating dirt if survival depends on it. It exposed me to politics in a way I hadn't thought of, to that point in my life. Like the Harriman book and concluding short story, I read it every decade or so. It still holds up all these years later.
Now, having said which three of Heinlein's works are my favourites, I can tell you I enjoyed much, much more of his work. I have an extensive collection, of course. And it includes the three 'classics' John Scalzi notes as his best. Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, as well as the aforementioned The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. I'm a bit blase about Starship Troopers, but I have to confess to not having liked Stranger in a Strange Land at all. It was considered au courant reading when I was in high school, even though that was a dozen years or so after its publication in 1961.
It and Starship Troopers (1959) were really the end of Heinlein's 'juveniles' time period. I liked those juveniles because they weren't all that juvenile. Double Star and The Door Into Summer crystallized themes I remained interested in all my life (Assuming identities and time travel). Others, all famous, were justifiably famous for being well-written, forward-thinking and just plain fun.
When Heinlein turned to more serious, and longer-form, novels, his politics also changed. And it became more prevalent in his books. Like I said, 1966's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress made an impact on me. And I loved that there were bridge players in Farnham's Freehold (1964). But generally speaking, it became work to get through a lot of Heinlein's stuff in the latter half of his career. I can actually remember trying to read Job during a North American Bridge Championships in Portland, Oregon. I was on page 75 by the time I got back home two weeks later.
Every kid with an imagination should be handled a bundle of Heinlein 'juveniles' and told to go forth and enjoy. Like Sunday School, it should be left up to a responsible adult to determine if they read any further.