Retro Review: Revolt in 2100

24 Mar

Imagine a United States dominated by a theocratic fundamentalist Christian dictatorship, where men are brainwashed and women are sold as slaves, where the poor are ground under while the rich clergy live in luxury, where freedom is a dream and free expression almost impossible …

The Handmaid’s Tale? Who said anything about The Handmaid’s Tale? I’m talking about Robert A. Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, which predates The Handmaid’s Tale by thirty-two years. (The three short stories that make up the book were actually written before and then edited and expanded for the novel.) I have no way to know for sure, but – given the similarities – it’s quite possible that Revolt in 2100 inspired The Handmaid’s Tale, although it should be noted that the former is far less harrowing than the latter.

Revolt in 2100 is, as noted above, three stories. The first – ‘If This Goes On’ covers the revolution against the theocratic regime; the second – ‘Coventry’ – features a man who feels he doesn’t fit in to the post-theocratic state; the third – ‘Misfit’ – features a genius and one of the first asteroid settlement stories in SF history. (Oddly, Misfit is very definitely the misfit of the book.) Revolt in 2100 is tied into Heinlein’s future history, which is why it is sometimes paired with Methuselah’s Children. The latter takes place in the same universe, a few decades down the line.

The hero of If This Goes On is John Lyle – a young and strikingly naive junior officer in the army of the Prophet. Originally devout, Lyle rapidly starts to question his faith in his superiors – if not in the faith – when he falls in love with Sister Judith, one of the Prophet’s Virgins. Lyle rapidly discovers, as does Judith herself, that she is expected to sexually service the man … and, when she refuses to do it the first time, she is confined to quarters for a brainwashing session intended to make her see the light. (Judith herself was apparently not told what was expected of her earlier.) Lyle finds himself drifting into the resistance against the Prophet and, eventually, playing a crucial role in the eventual overthrow of the government. The book wryly notes that the Prophet is killed by his ‘virgins’ when they finally realise that help is on the way.

It’s a curious story, both helped and hindered by its first-person format. The viewpoint remains firmly with Lyle at all times, which allows Heinlein to speed matters along (and puts him in the cockpit of revolution) but also leaves us with an impression of our hero as very naive. (This wasn’t helped by the limitations of the censors, at the time; Atwood had far more freedom to be explicit.) His companions, Zeb Jones and Sister Magdalene, are far more understanding of their situation than the hero. At the same time, one may appreciate Lyle’s slow shift from brainwashed officer to independent-minded man; he may have realised that the Prophet is a fake, but it takes him longer to shrug off all his conditioning. This is actually quite realistic and forms a major theme of the book. There are moments of sly humour – the rebels write propaganda that, on the face of it, favours the regime, but its readers will not see it that way – and moments of ‘culture shock’ when Lyle discovers just what freedom means.

The romances in the story are somewhat less believable, unsurprising given – again – the limitations imposed on Heinlein. Judith herself is very much a cipher, a girl whose role in the plot is mainly to kick it off and, after her escape from the country, is written out of the story completely. (She finds another lover and sends Lyle an apologetic letter saying so.) It’s hard to see the Lyle-Judith pairing as anything more than a combination of hormones and desperation; Heinlein was right, I think, to portray it as doomed to fail. The later match between Zeb and Magdalene (Maggie) is doomed too, at least in part because – as Maggie says – they are both dominant partners. Quite what this says about the Lyle-Maggie relationship (they are married late in the story) is open to interpretation.

Heinlein does use the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope to kick off the story, and Judith is hardly a developed character (although she does show considerable bravery when she refuses to service the Prophet), but Maggie is far more capable. If This Goes On will never win any prizes for female empowerment – although one of the reasons Maggie joined the rebellion is because of the treatment of women – but it is better than most books of its time. It also showcased a surprising number of diverse groups cooperating to bring down the regime, ranging from Catholics and Mormons to freemasons and free-thinkers. None of these groups are portrayed as evil.

The book also showcases the effects of living in a de facto police state. Spies are everywhere, so you don’t know who to trust – and, of course, some men make a living by spying on their enemies. No one has any chance to vent, which means that the behaviour of some of the rebels – freed of social constraints – is a little bit weird. Lyle is, in some ways, the mildest case; Maggie is quite augmentative, perhaps in response to being trapped in the harem (look what happened to Judith), while Zeb is both a freethinker and quite dominating in his own way, at one point threatening to warm Maggie’s pants if she doesn’t behave herself. A person may be removed from a bad environment, but they run the risk of bringing that bad environment with them.

And it also dwells on a problem that bedevilled the US in Iraq, 2004. An entire population has been subjected to decades of propaganda. If you give them the franchise … what next? Will they vote the former oppressors back into power? Or will they vote for someone worse? The book offers no good answers: one rebel psychologist proposes a program of counter-brainwashing, much to the horror of some of the older men. The proposal is rejected, probably for the best, but it is a question Heinlein skirted. How do you keep people from mindlessly returning to the old regime? Or something worse?

Coventry, set roughly fifty years after the first story, offers an answer. The New United States is bound together by the Convent, a set of agreements on how society is to function; those who refuse to live under the agreements are offered a flat choice between mental conditioning and being sent to live outside the NUS. The ‘hero’ of the story, a man called David MacKinnon who is on trial for assault, chooses to leave rather than have his mind forcibly changed. Expecting a freethinker’s paradise, MacKinnon discovers – to his horror – that the world outside the barrier is a nightmare. Stumbling across a plot by the outsiders to break into the NUS – and with a new appreciation of his former society – MacKinnon risks his life to save it.

In some ways, Coventry speaks to me in a manner the previous story does not. A person simply does not appreciate his homeland until he spends some time outside it (I lived for two years in Malaysia) and comes to see how the things he takes for granted aren’t universal. The hero was shaped and moulded by his society, his mind driven by a set of unfounded assumptions about how the world worked … it was a shock, to him, to discover that certain rights are not universal. Those who choose to shun the rule of law cannot call on its protection – or expect to be tolerated by everyone else. There are some lessons that modern-day politicians should learn here. It also makes it clear just how dangerous the lack of a social safety valve can be. People need to be allowed to vent.

One may argue that the story is a little cheapened by the discovery, at the end, that the plot against the NUS is well known to its intelligence service, who chose to allow some aspects of it to go ahead. (Shades of the later Culture novels, perhaps.) But that isn’t the point of the story. Coventry is the story of a man who didn’t understand what he had, who learned better … and was lucky enough to survive his mistake.

There is less to say about Misfit, really; it is nothing more than a tale of a super-genius finding a niche. I liked it, but it doesn’t speak to me. But Heinlein’s afterword is well worth reading, both for its insights into the nature of religious dictatorships (and his reluctance to write a story that would have detailed the First Prophet’s rise to power) and an accidental prophecy for how Donald Trump would win the White House in 2016. It’s worth repeating one quote:

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or HolyRollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.”

These words are as true now as they were in 1953. Faiths – and I don’t just include religions in this set – will try to seize control of the levers of power, then turn them against their opponents. Socialists, Communists and Social Justice Warriors are as dangerous, in this regard, as radical Christians and Muslims. Even if they are not so, they need to be aware of the prospect of someone else doing it instead. This leads to a number of regrettable, but subjectively necessary situations. The Israelis will not take the boot off the Palestinian neck any time soon because they believe that the alternative is being crushed themselves – and the hell of it is that human history tells us they are right (current events in South Africa are a salient lesson in the dangers of giving up one’s liberties – and defences – in the hope of peace and security). If one must choose between being the bully or the bullied, it is safer to be the bully. This is heartless, but true.

Heinlein does offer a solution. We need a set of universal standards, of rules and laws that apply to everyone – and are enforced, without fear or favour. We need – pardon the expression – a common code of conduct. This is a thorny subject these days, as many people will be quick to demand exceptions and present excuses for bad behaviour (a point Atwood made in The Handmaid’s Tale), but it is a nettle that must be grasped. Multiculturalism is not the way forward, but a demonstration of political cowardice, a refusal to stand up to bullies of all stripes. Those who refuse to live by society’s rules have no right to live in a just society.

Revolt in 2100 is not the most polished of Heinlein’s novels. The three stories have their limits – the first-person format of the first makes it harder to grasp the sheer horror of the theocratic state, while the narration of the second is very dialectic – yet they have important lessons for modern-day readers. They lack the harrowing nature of The Handmaid’s Tale – and even some of the Culture novels – but this makes their morals easier to grasp and, I think, for people to share. The world of The Handmaid’s Tale is so alien to most people that it might as well be fantasy; the world of If This Goes On is a recognisable, but warped version of America. One might well use Revolt in 2100 as the masculine counterpoint to The Handmaid’s Tale. It makes similar points, while men will find it easier to share Lyle’s point of view.

Once again, Heinlein laid the groundwork for others to follow. And, as such, the three stories that make up Revolt in 2100 are well worth a read.

19 Responses to “Retro Review: Revolt in 2100”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 24, 2018 at 5:44 pm #

    Sadly, I can’t read Revolt because I completely dislike Heinlein’s Nehemiah Scudder and believe that it was impossible in Heinlein’s time for a Nehemiah Scudder to completely take over the US.

    Elected, I could believe but there is no way that Scudder could have completely taken over the US military (in four years which is how long Heinlein has Scudder doing it).

    The very diversity of American Christians even in Heinlein’s time would have prevented Scudder from doing so.

    For all the whines from the Left about the “Religious Right”, it would not be possible today. Anybody who talks about the “Religious Right wanting a Theocracy” either doesn’t really know who the Religious Right actually are or has a completely stupid idea of what a theocracy is or both.

    I see more danger to Freedom in the US from the Left especially those who scream about “How Evil Religion Is”.

    Hey, Where Did This Soapbox Come From? 😉

    • Ihas March 25, 2018 at 1:39 pm #

      I think a lot of the perception about the religious right wanting a theocracy has to do with all of the religious rhetoric around pro life efforts and the push for prayer in schools, plus the recent battle over gay marriage. Many or even most of the pro life voters may not want to outlaw other religions or force Christian prayer in schools, but with leaders like Pence allegedly saying that Jesus literally talks to him and tells him what to legislate, and with voters elevating him to office for it, I don’t think it’s that hard to understand where the perception comes from.

      But you can’t prohibit laws that accord with religious tenets per se. For example, one of the Ten Commandments prohibits murder. Does separation of church and state in the USA require that no law can prohibit murder? Of course not. That would clearly be unreasonable.

      The courts have decided that a law that accords with religious belief is permitted so long as there is a conceivable secular purpose. For example, blue laws that prohibit sale of alcohol on Sunday might be passed just to promote worker attendance and competence on Monday mornings, so those are permitted. By the same token, abortion might be prohibited just to make sure more cannon fodder is cranked out for future wars. But, in the USA at least, the Supreme Court decided to legislate from the bench years ago to create a right to access to abortion services. From there, it’s a short step to a right to health care, yet the precedent is old enough to be overturned because stare decisis effect only lasts about 20 years. The looming fight should be interesting to watch.

      Concerns about the left may be valid if you are afraid of universal health care and free college for those who can get in. These social services have swept through Europe and I think it is probably inevitable that the USA will eventually follow. I do not think much of the left wants full on socialism. And I have no fear of anything like that happening in the USA this century, at least.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 25, 2018 at 1:56 pm #

        Every time I hear of Liberals talking about banning “Hate Speech”, I wonder if they would want their speech labeled as “Hate Speech” and banned.

        As for VP Pence, I see too much garbage in the Media that paints him as a Religious Fanatic.

        I will point out that there is a theme in Christianity for “listening to what G*d has to say to you”.

        Assuming that the News Media reported correctly on what Pence said about “Jesus talking to him”, I don’t see the problem unless he’s “hearing that Jesus want him to be the First Prophet”.

        Oh, I had to laugh out loud when the News Media started screaming about Pence not wanting to eat out with a woman without his wife there.

        That same News Media would be claiming that he was “unfaithful to his wife” if he did eat out with another woman without his wife being there.

        For that matter, with all the accusations of “sexual harassment” going on a smart man would not want to be alone with any woman especially if she had something to gain from making a false accusation.

      • Bewildered March 26, 2018 at 5:56 am #

        Except universal health care and free college aren’t really the battlegrounds, and besides, those things existed or used to exist in countries outside America. Australia and New Zealand for instance both used to offer these, but are slowly moving towards user pays for health, and tertiary education is now user pays, though citizens get a discount. The real battle is for the soul of society – homosexual marriage, right-to-life, free speech, freedom of religion etc, rather than economic considerations. Worse, the Left is quite clear that while they preach tolerance and equality, those they deem enemies are excluded from any consideration and deserve to be crushed. It’s reasonable for people to be concerned about a possible future theocratic fundamentalist dictatorship, but anyone suggesting it could be Christian is clearly ignorant of both Christianity and the current structure of society. It is not Christians who form the privileged elite, who control the media, who regulate social media, who dictate what the next generation are required to regurgitate, or influencing the shape of laws to come. Nor is it Christians calling for their enemies to be killed, jailed, silenced, or in some way shape or form disenfranchised or excommunicated from the society in which they live.

      • Sprout March 26, 2018 at 4:53 pm #

        I think that this is an important moment to note that there can and should be nuance in how labels are applied here. The right, left and christian are not monolithic entities and as labels are so inexact as to be counterproductive.

        As someone who holds leftist beliefs I don’t particularly want to be crushing anybody and only wish for open and reasoned debate (in short supply nowadays) not to mention anything of killing or jailing people.

        Not to dismiss your grievances, because there are certainly people doing sh*t like this. But I think it would help *any* discussion immensely if people avoided confusing people who do this with those who only go about their everyday business.

        It’s a small courtesy has the small benefit of not alienating your opposition. I know there’s karma here with all the painting people racist, etc, but this is a universal human pitfall imo and all would benefit if we we’re a little more aware of the fact.

        If that makes any sense.

  2. William Ameling March 24, 2018 at 10:12 pm #

    Misfit also fits into Heinlein future history series. The young genius in in that story, is the same one (I think he might have been named Andy) who invented the drive that they used in Methusehel’s Children to get a kick from the sun up to near light speed so the Howard Families could escape from Earth. I remember Lazarous Long (aka Woodrow Wilson Smith) talking to him about it (the events of Misfit). Andy later was with a ship with Lazarous Long on a ship and died in an accident, was left frozen in space, and was later rescued and revived (using the time traveling car in another Heinlein story) in a new/reparired body as a woman (apparently he was a XXY who could be either male or female, so he started off as male but was switched to female when he/she was revived).

  3. Daniel March 25, 2018 at 2:01 am #

    “It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or HolyRollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.”
    Robert A Heinlein Revolt in 2100

    This needs to be said more now then ever

  4. William Ameling March 25, 2018 at 2:43 am #

    If you have any doubts you either can lie to yourself and suppress them or you keep looking for some thing else to believe in that you do not doubt. This is the problem with people who can not live with uncertainty in the lives, which is a lot of people. This is why so many people have so much trouble with science, where asking good questions is how it discovers new things. Most of the the great scientists have had many bad or wrong ideas, but they kept looking for answers and were willing to admit to themselves that they were following a bad line of reasoning. Sometimes their great mistakes still lead to advances, or turn out to be not as wrong as they thought, decades later (Einstein and the Cosmological Constant, for instance). It is difficult to learn to live peacefully with people whose ideas are different than your own.

    In a different way of looking at it, people with no doubts drive out people with doubts in groups and tend to rise to the leadership positions in those groups. Who is going to follow somehow who says he has doubts about the group’s ideals? So in order to succeed you can not admit to doubts. The problem is that it is easier to detect a liar than someone who thinks he is telling the truth. So people learn how to lie to themselves, and push their doubts so far beneath the surface of their minds, that they forget that they have any.

  5. William Ameling March 25, 2018 at 5:31 am #

    The problem with liberal multiculturalism is that it assumes and preaches that all cultures are equally valid and good. They also attack Capitalistic economies and societies as being evil and anyone who is against them has to be better. This is not true. Just look at what so many of these other cultures and societies have done in the last century or two when they got a chance at power and controlling a country/society. The record for genocides, ethnic cleansings, religious wars, re education camps, concentration camps, exterminating the doctors and other educated members of a country, etc. is horrifying, and the worst and most of the them were not committed by the Capitalistic economies and societies that they hate. Capitalism and democratic societies do have their problems but their alternatives are a lot worse. In a lot of the world bribery and corruption are so common, that they are just considered the way things get done, and approximately equal justice and political rights are jokes. And yet we are supposed to think those cultures are equally good.

    • William Ameling March 25, 2018 at 2:58 pm #

      What multiculturalism SHOULD be teaching us is that that other cultures are not AUTOMATICALLY bad or wrong. We should offer respect and try to get along with members of other cultures normally, but if after interacting with them we find things that are better in their culture than in our culture we should try to copy them, AND vice versa, they should be willing to adopt elements of our culture that work better than theirs. That is how we improve things, adopt new ways that work better than old ways, even if someone else invented them (the old NOT INVENTED HERE problem comes into play all too often, even within a society or culture).

    • sam57l0 March 30, 2018 at 2:05 am #

      Wellll, except for our culture, who do not accept the liberal culture’s postulates. Ours is bad and invalid.

  6. Michael Whitfield March 25, 2018 at 3:52 pm #

    Well said, Mr. Ameling. Mr. Nuttal, please look up the definition of “augmentative”; I suspect that spellcheck was not your friend here. As far as your review, I found “Revolt in 2100” to be as unreadable as “Atlas shrugged” (or for that matter, “The Handmaiden’s Tale”). Mo debinitely not one of Heinlein’s better efforts.

  7. Mike Whitfield March 27, 2018 at 1:04 am #

    @Bewildered I don’t think that’s quite fair. As a conservative libertarian I certainly have my problems with the American left and its progressive deviation from classical liberalism, but lots of people on the right are just as bad on freedoms. We can’t “battle for society’s soul” by restricting homosexuals’ right to marriage without directly and intentionally denying them equal rights, for no better reason than “eeew”, and we can’t protect the unborn without seizing control of a woman’s body. There aren’t easy or clean answers to most societal issues. Everybody wants to rule the world, as the song goes; none of us have all the answers or all the moral high ground, and neither side is free from our flaws and hypocrisies because that’s the human condition.

    • Bewildered March 29, 2018 at 5:29 am #

      Yet you’re arguing that homosexuals have a right to something called marriage, but that it must be defined on their terms. What of all other groups who would like to see marriage redefined? What of those for instance whose sexual orientation or culture is towards children (or child brides)? What right do we have to deny paedophiles equal rights? Or is it that paedophiles and homosexuals are simply afflicted with an unhealthy unnatural sexual orientation and so while they may marry, it must only be if they feel they can adhere to a natural healthy form of it? Such a view doesn’t deprive anyone of freedom, quite the reverse it secures freedom in the face of anarchy or worse. I agree there are no easy or clean answers to some societal issues, but others are quite simply black and white. Marriage is one of those black and white issues – it can only occur between a man and a woman, whilst abortion is almost as black and white – there are very few situations that justify murder. A murkier question is when can an employee, or a business owner, refuse service and to what kinds of people? It’s generally accepted that drunks shouldn’t get served alcohol, but what of other groups, services, and products? Rulings to date are conflicted and suggest a hierarchy.

  8. sam57l0 March 30, 2018 at 2:08 am #

    It’s been too long since I last read the novel/stories, and they’re packed away somewhere in storage.

  9. William Ameling March 30, 2018 at 11:48 am #

    Part of the problem with the Far Left is that they think their ideas about culture and politics are the best possible and once they are achieved no more change and questions will be needed (or allowed). After all once you achieve Utopia (or Heaven) what is there left to change? In their own way, they are just as anti science and anti evolution as the far right because change and questions to their body of ideas is violates them, since they are already perfect. They forget that perfect stasis is the same as Death, or equivalent to being turned into a motionless, frozen statue.

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