Retro Review: Sixth Column

20 Mar

Heinlein’s Old Shame isn’t as shameful as it could have been.

It is a curious fact that, when the groundless charge that ‘Robert A. Heinlein was a racist’ is brought up, Sixth Column is barely mentioned, even though it is – on the surface – far more incriminating than the later Farnham’s Freehold. It certainly appears to provide more evidence for the charge. And yet, it is hard to be sure how much of the core idea behind the book is Heinlein’s. He wrote from an outline sketched out by John Campbell – who apparently was a racist, or at the very least a believer that white civilisation was the best in the world – and it isn’t clear how much of the plot belongs to Heinlein himself. Indeed, in his later years, Heinlein himself apparently regarded the book as an old shame – and it is far less well known than Farnham’s Freehold.

Sixth Column, in many ways, fits into two literary traditions. One, which was on the decline in the 1930s, was the ‘invasion literature’ genre. These stories tended to show a country being invaded by its foes and crushed underfoot – The Battle of Dorking is a good and short example – and often served as a clarion call for bigger and better military expenditure. And the other, which Campbell himself practically founded, was the development of super-technology and the boundless promise of science. Sixth Column was not the first to match the two together – Danger provides an example of a book speculating on how advanced technology would change the face of war; The Unparalleled Invasion touches on biological warfare – but it is certainly, at least in my experience, the most imaginative of them.

The plot starts immediately after Washington is nuked (or at least destroyed) and the United States is invaded and occupied by the Pan-Asians. However, all is not lost. A tiny team of scientists and military men have survived, hidden away in an underground research lab. And they have just stumbled upon a technology that might just allow the United States to regain its freedom, if they can survive long enough to develop and deploy it. It can do everything from influence and kill people based on their racial heritage to transmute dross into gold or turn a wall to dust. Naturally, the leader of the band decides to remain underground until they can take back their country.

But they cannot remain completely isolated, because there’s only six of them. They need to establish bases across the occupied country and that isn’t easy, because the occupiers are cracking down on everything … apart from religion. The Sixth Column – the term is a reference to the largely non-existent Fifth Column of the Spanish Civil War – therefore develops a fake religion, backed by their superior technology, and uses its temples as recruiting grounds for the insurgency. And, when the time comes, they rise up against the occupiers and take back their country. It is a testament to Heinlein’s skill, even as a relatively young writer, that he manages to keep the tension rising even after the new technology is finally deployed.

Heinlein was not, when he wrote Sixth Column, the writer he would one day become. It has many of the flaws displayed by a new writer, one who has managed to break into the publishing world but has not yet managed to smooth out his work. And yet, it also shows very clear signs of the greatness Heinlein would achieve. The premise may be ludicrous and the technology so fantastical that it might as well be magic, but Sixth Column works better than it should. Heinlein makes it work, at least in part, by never taking his eyes off the people in the story. He does not rely on super-technology to carry the tale.

Indeed, he was very aware of its limits. The proposals for an immediate offensive, once the first generation of projectors have been developed, get shot down for very sound reasons. A mere superiority in weapons, as a number of colonial armies discovered over the years, is no guarantee of victory. The Pan-Asians could easily afford to trade millions of men for each of the Sixth Columnists and call it a bargain. No, the technology has to be carefully developed, then exploited.

He also gives a nod to the sort of tensions that can develop in such a confined space, with a looming threat constantly hanging over their shoulders. The leader worries about his ability to do the job, while his men want to take the offensive or flee … and a scientist has delusions of grandeur combined with hints of madness that eventually crack his mind. He also worries about introducing women to the hidden research lab, concerned about what impact it might have on the men. (It may sound sexist, but it is a reasonable concern; Heinlein was anticipating the issues caused by the presence of women on naval ships in the modern day.)

Outside the lab, Heinlein paints a grim picture of a population under enemy occupation. I don’t know how much Heinlein knew about the Nazi occupation of Europe – Sixth Column was written in 1940, although it includes references to the Holocaust – but the occupied country feels very much like Nazi Europe, with a side order of the Japanese occupation of China. American culture is steadily being destroyed; everyone is registered, written English is banned, schools are closed, men who can’t find employment in an approved occupation are shunted off to work camps, saying the wrong thing to an occupier can get you killed … it isn’t a pretty sight. Heinlein doesn’t mention rape outright, but it clear that it happens too; Imperial Japan’s soldiers were notorious for raping Chinese women. And yet – oddly – the atrocities committed by the Pan-Asians are not as bad as the ones Imperial Japan would commit in the Second World War. Heinlein underestimated just how far Imperial Japan was prepared to go as the noose steadily tightened around its neck.

Indeed, for all the talk of Pan-Asians, it’s fairly obvious that the invaders are pretty much Japanese. Heinlein would have been aware of Japanese atrocities in China and transferring them to America wouldn’t have been a stretch. The Pan-Asians are a curious mix of accurate observations on Japan’s (at the time) highly-militaristic and honourable (by their lights) culture and stereotypes. The urge to save face at all costs, for example, is mingled with an observation – by one of the good guys – that beardless Japanese find bearded men a little overwhelming. I’m fairly sure that isn’t actually true. Heinlein seems to have been aware that many of the invaders were human too, but also products of a very different society and therefore could not be expected to think like Americans. But then, as he also notes, humans the world over are unnerved by the unknown.

What saves the book from a cluster of tissue-thin racial stereotypes is the presence of an Asian-American as a hero, one whose entire family has been wiped out for daring to leave Japan. I don’t know how the Imperial Japanese responded to Japanese who fled Japan and immigrated to America, but they might well have considered them traitors. Heinlein makes it clear, in many ways, that this American is a hero, an attitude that not many Americans of that time would have liked.

The book is also quite quiet on other races, although it is possible to construct a case proving that both Jeff Thomas and Sergeant Scheer are black, or at least ambiguously brown. But this may make a great deal of sense. A man as observant as Heinlein would have known that the black population of 1940s America wouldn’t feel free, whatever their legal status. As Tom Kratman points out, in the afterword to the Baen edition, the black population might side with the invaders. And why not? The chance to get a little of one’s own back is one that has seduced many people in far better circumstances. This would probably not have worked out very well for them, no matter who won, but it wouldn’t be the first time that someone let the urge for revenge overpower reason. Hell, it might even be the rational choice.

Heinlein also touches on an issue that would have been politically important in 1940, the need to keep in touch with the world. Historically, both China and Japan sought to shut the door to the outside world, burning their ships and killing foreigners who landed on their shores. It brought them nothing, but disaster: internally, they stagnated; externally, more powerful nations eventually came to their lands and crushed them with vastly superior military power. America also tried to stay away from the outside world, after 1918, and paid a steep price for it. In the book, the isolation was far stronger and the sudden outbreak of war – with a vastly superior enemy – proved disastrous.

In the end, Sixth Column is a very mixed bag. It has its moments of greatness – and its defence of non-white Americans who happen to be American – but it also has problems left behind – or inserted – by Campbell. It draws a veil over some aspects of the occupation – it is not as mindlessly awful as some of the more recent books, when the rules about what you can and can’t put into a story were relaxed – and makes other aspects all too clear. One can see the great writer Heinlein would become shining through its pages, but one can also see the limitations that held him back for much of his professional career. It also doesn’t have the sense of scale, of events taking place on a vast field, that might be more than justified by the plot.

And yet, for all it can be used as evidence against him, much of Sixth Column is based on reality. Imperial Japan did indeed commit vast atrocities against conquered populations, while treating their own population as little more than insects. Indeed, the Pan-Asians who commit suicide for their failures in Sixth Column have their genesis in the Japanese civil servants who had to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide – after failing to keep Commodore Perry from landing in Japan. And the imperial governments of both Japan and China did everything in their power to save face, right up to and including lying to their superiors in a manner that would not be bettered until Saddam’s Iraq. If one goes by the number of American carriers the Japanese reported sunk, even as the USAF began pounding Japan from the air, the entire USN would have been wiped out several times over. Perhaps one of the reasons this book is not dragged up and used to smear Heinlein’s name is that anyone who did so would have to deny or minimise real-life atrocities.

At base, Sixth Column is an interesting read, but – compared to Heinlein’s later works – very limited, even unsatisfying. And yet, as I have said, in it you can see the man Heinlein would become.

13 Responses to “Retro Review: Sixth Column”

  1. Beevus March 20, 2018 at 10:05 pm #

    If you really want to see retro-racism in sci-fi, the original Buck Rogers (no, not the 1980s Glenn Larson TV series) takes that prize. So does the nocek When Worlds Collide and its sequel.

    • George Phillies March 20, 2018 at 10:32 pm #

      In teh real world the Imperial Japanese Navy neglected to tell the Imperial Japanese Army, until 1944, that they lost the battle of midway. And for all they were imperial, they were a parliamentary state, so that in 1944 after the fall iirc Guam Tojo lost a parliamentary vote of confidence and had to resign. Indeed, unlike Germany, there is a continuous line of Japanese prime ministers from the late 1800s up to the present.

      • The Other Sean March 22, 2018 at 2:23 am #

        The degree of legitimate (non-coup) military involvement in decision-making, and frequency for objections to policy to be lodged via assassination, did result in it being a bit different than any current parliamentary state I can think of.

  2. Ihas March 21, 2018 at 3:28 am #

    I recall reading a bit of Heinlein years ago. About the only thing I remember, the one idea that really grabbed me at the time and has stuck with me, is the concept of the trained fair witness. I went into law later, so I guess that makes sense, but I don’t recall the work that introduced the concept.

    I was at 1988 Dragoncon when one of the staff told me she was assigned to Heinlein at a previous con and he absolutely hated his fans and had nothing at all good to say about them when they weren’t around. I guess that influenced me to basically ignore Heinlein ever since.

    So, long story short, I have no idea what you are talking about.

    • utabintarbo March 21, 2018 at 12:20 pm #

      The “Fair Witness” was first introduced in Stranger in a Strange Land, IIRC.

  3. Anarchymedes March 21, 2018 at 10:29 am #

    I haven’t read the book in question, nor have I ever been a great fan of Heinlein’s, but.
    Chris, your review is all about the political, historical, and ideological merits of the book. The only mentioning of its more human traits comes when you talk about ‘the sort of tensions that can develop in such a confined space’. Once again, I haven’t read it, so I can’t say what it was, but I believe I know what it wasn’t: a series of sermons on the problems of the contemporary society. Anymore than Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was about racial history or evolution, or Matrix was about computers. This is what comes out strongly in your own Ark Royal, BTW — and why I stopped reading it after The Savage War of Peace.

    • chrishanger March 30, 2018 at 11:54 am #

      The book isn’t that character-based, so there are fewer interpersonal points.

      Chris

  4. Matthew Stienberg March 21, 2018 at 3:12 pm #

    I have not read the book in question, but I am looking forward to any review you do of “Starship Troopers” since that one manages to remain so controversial to this day.

  5. Charles Harris March 21, 2018 at 10:02 pm #

    I remember the book as a good read, nor did I find it offensively racist. As you say, it wasn’t *that* far off the mark of actual behavior at the time. I also tend the prefer the early Heinlein over the later, going up through the late 50’s. The really early stuff is a window into a lost world and a time when America was far more isolated. If This Goes On and many of the other early stories share the same oddity: that one wonders what happened to the rest of the world.

    What I do find racist is recent work where the authors practically go down a checklist when introducing a character: racial characteristics (check), gender (check), sexual preference (check). It would also be nice if the women weren’t the fabled men with tits. A deft hand with plotting can overcome those defects, but they are like a mosquito buzzing around the bed at night.

    Just to validate my curmudgeon card, I also prefer early Beethoven 🙂

  6. Christian March 23, 2018 at 4:47 pm #

    As a boy, the Heinlein “juveniles” were some of my favorites to re and re-read.

    6th Column (I think my original paperback was titled “The Day After Tomorrow”?) was an extremely exciting read when I was 13!

    While it may not possess the qualities contained in his best later works it was certainly worth a read – thanks for reminding me of it! (Think I’ll go see if I can find an old copy somewhere)

  7. sam57l0 March 23, 2018 at 11:24 pm #

    I remember reading it, though not exactly when, likely between 14 and 18, and remember very little of it. The American Japanese character I remember, but primarily only his existence. I have the book in storage, and won’t get it out likely for another 6 months. (Also have boxes of ANALOGs and ASTOUNDINGs and GALAXYs.)

  8. Daniel March 25, 2018 at 2:15 am #

    2 of Heinlein’s works are/were/havebeen very important to me in my life (starship troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) and as a result I have read almost everything he wrote. (Would love to own the Virginia Collection leatherbounds eventually). I picked up sixth column some years ago at a boarders and read it in one sitting. Enjoyable but needed to be placed in its time.
    That all said I’m curious what your review of the notebook of Lazarus Long is gonna be like

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