Retro Review: Methuselah’s Children

31 Mar

The evil days come for the Howard Families. Luckily, Lazarus Long is on the case.

It is roughly a century after the events depicted in Revolt in 2100. The world is ruled by the Federation, under the Convent (basically, a version of the US Constitution). However, all is not well. The Howard Families, a group of humans who have been literally bred for long life (the oldest in the group is over two hundred years old), made the mistake of revealing their existence to the rest of the human race. Convinced, incorrectly, that the Howards have a secret to long life – a secret that they are apparently unwilling to share – greedy and desperate men whip up a storm of public feeling against the immortals. Their complete destruction is apparently at hand.

Lazarus Long, the oldest Howard, finds himself in an uneasy alliance with Slayton Ford, the planetary administer. Ford, once convinced that there is no secret, covertly assists the Howards to steal a starship and flee across the interstellar void; the Howards leave, reluctantly, because the only alternative is being ripped apart for a secret that simply doesn’t exist.

This might be enough adventure for one book – Heinlein does a good job of showing how Ford is forced into a position where he must commit a horrific crime or stand aside and watch someone else do it – but the story doesn’t end there. Travelling across the stars, accompanied by Ford (who deserted his post when it became clear that he was on the verge of being deposed), the Howards stumble across two very different alien civilisations. The first, a seemingly-harmless planet of religious aliens, is dominated by very real (and unseen) gods; the second, a planet of advanced telepaths, is ruled by a race that improved itself beyond belief … and, quite kindly, offers to do the same for the human settlers. Horrified, perhaps convinced that home is best, the settlers fly back to Earth …

… And discover that a frantic research project has discovered the secret of eternal life after all! (The government dared not admit that there was no secret, after it had drummed up support for a campaign against the Howards.) Amused, the Howards trade the secret of FTL to Earth and are reintegrated into society. Lazarus, suspecting that Earth has no place for him, promptly starts making plans to go out again.

I’ve often figured that one of the reasons Heinlein remains popular is that his characters are recognisably human, even when his technology is a mixture of strikingly advanced and surprisingly primitive. This is true of both the personal – Lazarus is not that alien for a man in his third century – and the social. Heinlein shows us just how easy it is to whip up support against a despised and envied minority, from politicians who seek to gain advantage to men who simply don’t want to die early. (This was the original motive behind the Howard Foundation.) The desperate desire not to die drives people to do horrific acts in the hope it will save themselves.

This creates a trap, as Heinlein shows, for politicians who might otherwise be quite reasonable. Ford knows that trying to drag the secret out of the Howards is pointless, but if he tries to tell his people that he’ll be lynched. He finds himself torn between exterminating the Howards, and copping the blame for destroying the ‘secret,’ or letting someone else do it; he even talks himself into believing that a quick extermination will be the kindest solution, as it will save the Howards from being tortured to death. And the hell of it is that he might be right. Some problems simply don’t have solutions; Ford’s administration runs aground on simple bad luck, rather than incompetence.

The Howards themselves, for all of their great age, are also recognisably human. When faced with a sudden and seemingly all-encompassing threat, they respond in a number of different ways; some try to argue for their rights, some try to stick their heads in the sand, some even propose a racial war between long-lives and short-lives. However, it is clear that they lack the mentality to fight; they scrabble over trivial points until it is far too late, debating the value of spilled milk when there is no way they can put the genie back in the bottle. They also react with a certain amount of fear towards Lazarus Long, regarding him as a sheep might regard a sheepdog protecting him from the wolves. The problem, of course, is that – to the sheep – a sheepdog looks very much like the wolf. I don’t fully hold with the sheep/sheepdog/wolf hierarchy, but there is a lot of truth in it.

They are also afraid of death, something which is true of just about everyone in the novel (with the possible exception of Lazarus Long.) Ford even admits that, if there was a secret, he would have torn the Howards apart to get it. What humans will do to avoid death is, in some ways, the driving question of the novel; the early Howards are bred for long life, the government throws everything it can into a research program to prolong lives, Mary decides to give up her individuality and join an alien hive-mind rather than die as a human. And yet, it is clear that long-life isn’t an unmixed blessing. Lazarus himself admits that his mind is slowly starting to crack under the strain of living for so long.

Heinlein shows us many things that would be recognisable today, for better or worse. His outline of the events that led to the First Prophet and the establishment of the Theocracy bears a disturbing amount of resemblance to events on college and university campuses today. (This was something he would address in more detail in To Sail Beyond The Sunset.) The dangers of mob rule and media manipulation are made clear, long before Obama and Trump used social media to speak to the masses. It is quite possible to think that the First Prophet got a boost from the chaos of excessive liberalism – just as Pompey eventually became de facto dictator of Rome – and, unlike Pompey, he didn’t stop cracking down when the immediate problem was removed.

On a smaller level, the characters themselves read a little oddly. In Lazarus Long’s case, it is somewhat justified; he’s over two centuries old and reads like a man who stepped out of the past and into the future. There is a considerable amount of values dissonance; on one hand, he has no compunctions about stealing what he needs, but on the other he has a number of recognisably sexist attitudes. (He gets better in later books.) Ford is very much a ruthless and practical man, caught up in a crisis that is not of his making and defies conventional solutions. Mary, honestly, is very much a foolish woman without a gram of sense … and while this might be understandable in a teenage girl, she is supposed to be old enough to know better.

Surprisingly, for a book written in serial form in 1941 – and later turned into a novel in 1958 – it also manages to include an observation on race that, once again, proves that Heinlein was no racist:

The Negro hated and envied the white man as long as the white man enjoyed privileges forbidden the Negro by reason of colour. This was a sane, normal reaction. When discrimination was removed, the problem solved itself and cultural assimilation took place.”

The idea that African-Americans might resent WASPs – let alone that they might have a good reason to feel resentment – would have been revolutionary in its day. Heinlein was looking forward to the day when colour barriers were nothing more than a distant memory, a day that has yet to materialise (in some ways, because people on both sides don’t want them to materialise, something that clicks with the book). However, this is not a solution to the crisis:

There is a similar tendency on the part of the short-lived to envy the long-lived. We assumed that this expected reaction would be of no social importance in most people once it was made clear that we owe our peculiarity to our genes – no fault nor virtue of our own, just good luck in our ancestry. This was mere wishful thinking [SNIP] what actually happened was this: we showed our short-lived cousins the greatest boon it is possible for a man to imagine … then we told them it could never be theirs.

This faced them with an unsolvable dilemma. They have rejected the unbearable facts, they refuse to believe us. Their envy now turns to hate, with an emotional conviction that we are depriving them of their rights … deliberately, maliciously. That rising hate has now swelled into a flood which threatens the welfare and even the lives of all our revealed brethren … and which is potentially as dangerous to the rest of us. The danger is very great and very pressing.”

What does one do when faced with an insolvable problem? Ford – and Heinlein – point out that there are simply no halfway solutions that might be accepted. The idea of Howards donating sperm to short-lives might work, in theory, but it would simply spark off another crisis. Not everyone wants to be faced with a choice between raising children who aren’t theirs and condemning their biological children to short lives. People with an inferiority complex, people who feel they have been treated unfairly, can do dangerous things. If Harry Potter’s Wizarding World was to be declared real tomorrow, how many of us would wind up like Petunia Dursley?

A decent writer might get a single story out of this crisis. Heinlein told us several, combining pulp fiction with genuine literature … and tossed out a number of interesting ideas along the way. His technological predictions range from excellent to poor – he describes a device that functions a little like a TIVO, with a commercial-skip function – but his socio-political predictions ring uncomfortably true today. Let us hope that the rest of his story does not come to pass.

Overall, Methuselah’s Children reads a little clunky these days – because of the blending of pulp and literature, combined with poor technological predictions, but it remains a decent read and a cautionary tale against mob rule and those who would exploit it.


Coming Up …

30 Mar

Hi, everyone

The good news is that I finished the first draft of The Princess in the Tower yesterday. There are the first, second and third sets of edits to go (horror of horrors) but I have every confidence that it will be out within a couple of months. The planned title of Book 16 is The Broken Throne, which I don’t thing will change before I start writing.

I’m currently planning to write The Family Shame next, so the schedule looks like:

April – The Family Shame (Zero 4)

May – The Embers of War (Kat Falcone 6)

June – The Long-Range War (A Learning Experience 5)

July – The Broken Throne (SIM 16)

Aug – Para Bellum (Invincible 2)

I’m not sure how well things will shake out. I have to write The Ancient Lie (Unwritten Words 2) sometime before the end of the year. I also want to write Gennady’s Story and maybe another short work set in the SIM universe. But we will see <grin>


The Government-Designed Mouse

29 Mar

One of the other important things to realize is many students want their privacy. There are many, for example, females in our school that when they go through their menstrual cycle, they don’t want people to see their tampons and stuff. It’s unnecessary, it’s embarrassing for a lot of the students and it makes them feel isolated and separated from the rest of American school culture where they’re having essentially their First Amendment rights infringed upon because they can’t freely wear whatever backpack they want regardless of what it is.

-David Hogg

Q – What is an elephant?

A – A mouse built to government standards.

There has been a great deal of sniggering, in certain parts of the internet, over David Hogg’s reaction to the new rule requiring students at his school to wear transparent backpacks and carry ID cards. Wags have been gleefully pointing out that a person who is prepared to strip a sizable percentage of people of their (Second Amendment) rights is in no position to complain about someone else being willing to strip him of his (First Amendment) rights. I have no idea if David Hogg appreciates the irony or not – punishing vast numbers of people for the crimes of a few is hardly fair, after all – but it is a worthwhile demonstration of the folly of expecting government to do anything sensible about anything.


(A funny meme)

Governments, like all big organisations, are driven by four interconnecting rules:

First, a government simply cannot see the little details. It will try to apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach because it is rarely capable of seeing subtle differences. We all look alike to governments.

Second, a government (and/or the people running the bureaucracy) do not want to give up a single scrap of power. Heaven forbid! The public might discover they don’t need the government after all.

Third, to a very large extent, a government will either search for easy solutions that make it look as though they’re doing something, (regardless of whether or not the solutions will actually solve anything), or do nothing rather than let someone else (i.e. someone outside government) get the credit.

Fourth, a government (and a government department) will do everything it can to expand its power as much as possible. The idea of cutting back, even when budgets are low, is anthemia to the bureaucrats. Thus we see government responsibilities mushrooming even as the government’s ability to actually meet its responsibilities – both the original and new responsibilities – shrinks.

The simple fact regarding the Parkland Shooting is that there were plenty of warnings about the shooter, all of which were ignored through a mixture of dunderheaded attempts to reduce arrest and conviction rates and simple incompetence. The NRA is not to blame, any more than the AA is responsible for drunk-driving. The true enemy is a mixture of government incompetence and a system that literally can neither be gotten to work nor internally reformed.

This is a common problem. The US Federal Government has tried to mandate standards for education right across the United States, ranging from Common Core to endless tests upon tests and race-based discipline. These ‘solutions’ tend to cause more problems than they solve, because the natural response for teachers (or anyone, really) is to look for ways to improve their standing and grades rather than actually do something useful. The system is broken because the people at the top are fundamentally disconnected from the people at the bottom.

‘Ban the Box’ is another American example, an idea that only a terminally-disconnected person could love. In theory, low African-American employment in America is explained by African-Americans having criminal records, therefore the solution is to ban potential employers from asking about criminal histories. Logical, right? What actually happened was that African-American employment fell … because employers, unable to separate candidates with criminal records from those who didn’t have criminal records, made the logical choice not to hire any African-Americans.

On the other side of the Atlantic stands a tottering institution, the European Union. The basic idea behind the EU was sound enough. However, it rapidly began growing towards a transnational institution that was largely unaccountable to the people it claimed to represent and, in doing so, expanded its powers into all manner of areas. It isn’t an exaggeration to claim that a whole series of woes afflicting Europe, from financial disasters to the migration crisis, might have been averted if the EU had bothered to actually think about what it was doing instead of mindlessly grabbing for more power and influence. Nor did it consider that its actions, however logical they might have seemed in Brussels, scanned very differently at a local level.

What made this worse was a flat refusal to grant concessions that might – might – have averted a number of major problems. The EU did not offer David Cameron anything substantial he could use to claim a victory, which might have averted the BREXIT referendum or allowed Remain to win. Instead, it was coldly dismissive of the people on the ground who, logically, voted against what they saw as an alien power that was actively harmful.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again. The more you ask your government to do for you, the less it can do for you.

John Ross, of Unintended Consequences, had an argument that ran something like this:

Suppose you want to ban abortion. Suppose you succeed … abortion is now a federal crime. Mothers who abort their children go to jail for five years, doctors who perform abortions go to jail for ten. Sounds great, right? Life wins?

There’s a drug that causes abortions and it works, put simply, by inducing a miscarriage. Think about it for a moment. How long do you think it will be until you see federal agents harassing women who had natural miscarriages, citing probable cause? And they will be right – there will be probable cause. Those federal agents will want to improve their statistics in a manner that won’t put them in any danger … of course they’ll go after (formerly) expecting mothers. And those mothers will not be able to prove that they didn’t have an abortion.

The risk of giving the government – or any large institution – power is that they will use it in a manner you will not like. And by then it is difficult to stop them.

The government may not be evil, in the classic sense, but it is bloated and stupid and, to a very large extent, driven by forces most people cannot match. A large percentage of school shooters were on prescription drugs of one kind or another, but this is barely challenged because the drug industries have enormous clout. The teachers on the spot are often at the mercy of rules handed down by Washington or London, but they don’t have the ability to say no. Declaring schools gun-free zones seems logical, but it rests on an assumption that criminals follow the law … which is utter nonsense. Most school shootings in America seem to take place in gun-free zones …


(Another one)

So, as David Hogg says, we now have students exposed to (yet another) humiliating practice that will do absolutely nothing to prevent violence. Say what you like about Hogg, he’s right on this point. And, perhaps, it will teach students something about the blindness of the people right at the top.

The solution to this problem – and many others – is simple. Decentralise. Give the school administers, the ones parents and students actually see, actual authority to do something about potential problems. Come down like the wrath of god on bullies, no matter who they are; make it clear the rules apply to everyone. Suspend and expel problem students; head teachers to have the power to suspend or fire problematic teachers (and have clear guidelines to identify troublemakers). Resort classes to put people with the same basic level together. Concentrate on reading, writing and maths rather than social justice and the soft sciences; stop talking about what divides us and focus on what unites us. Decent school meals, no more tests than strictly necessary and teachers who actually know what they’re talking about …

I submit to you that these changes would radically improve British and American schools. But don’t look to the government to give them to you. Bureaucrats are very good at coming up with reasons why they shouldn’t let people have more control over their lives. And David Hogg and his friends, as well-meaning as they might be, are only making it worse.

The Zero Equation–In Paperback!

28 Mar

Zero Equation cover FOR WEB

Sorry about the delay on this, but you can purchase from Amazon Now!

Retro Review: Starman Jones

27 Mar

It is, of course, impossible to be sure, but I do wonder if Starman Jones influenced Star Wars.

Not the plot, of course, but the relationship between the three leads. Luke, Han and Leia have a great deal in common with Max Jones, Sam Anderson and Eldreth ‘Ellie’ Coburn; the naive farmboy, the lovable rogue and the somewhat spoilt princess. It’s easy to look at Starman Jones and see traits that would eventually flourish in Star Wars, although – as I will discuss later – most characters in the book are recognisable and familiar stereotypes. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Heinlein’s Starman Jones inspired a number of later SF books, including The Seafort Saga (young officer finds himself in command of a starship) and The War Against the Chtorr (humans wage war against an alien ecology). As always, SF owes a huge debt to Heinlein.

The basic plot is quite simple. Teenage Max Jones, a farmer living with his mother, is aghast to discover that he has a new stepfather who plans to sell the farm and keep the money. After a brief confrontation, Max runs away – taking his uncle’s old collection of spacer books with him. His uncle promised to nominate him for the guild of navigators – the only way to join is to be nominated by a family member – and going to space seems the best way to escape both his uncle and an increasingly crowded and stratified Earth. His escape takes on more urgency when he meets Sam Anderson, who tells him that there’s a good chance the farm can’t be sold without Max’s agreement. His stepfather will be looking for him the moment the penny drops. Sam is nice, it seems, but he robs Max of his books while Max sleeps.

Reaching the guildhall, Max is horrified to discover that his uncle forgot to nominate him after all and, without connections, he will never be a spacer. Outside, he runs into Sam again, who has a suggestion. They buy forged papers and board a starship as ordinary crewmen, with the ultimate aim of jumping ship on a distant colony. Max, reluctantly, agrees … and, through a series of misadventures (and some behind-the-scenes manipulations from Ellie), finds himself rising in the ranks until, after the senior officers are killed, finds himself taking command of the ship while she is lost in space and bringing her safely home. Upon return, the guild tacitly forgives him (and Sam, who died on the voyage) and Max ends the book resolving to fix the problem that puts birth and family connections ahead of merit.

Starman Jones is not an adventure story in the classic sense, although there is a great deal of adventure. It is the story of a naive young man being tossed into an unfamiliar situation and being forced to master it. Max’s growth as a character comes from his slow rise in the ranks, each one allowing him to learn new skills before moving to the next. Max sees himself as unchanging, but we see him changing. Starman Jones is about maturity, about accepting responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. The book remains popular because, at base, human nature doesn’t change.

Max is contrasted to Sam, who is very much a slippery rogue with a multiple-choice past (it’s revealed at the end that he served in the Imperial Marines, only to accidentally desert midway through his career). Sam’s first approach to any situation is to figure out how to exploit it for his own benefit, although – unlike some people I’ve met – Sam has an understanding of just how far he can go without crossing the line. (He takes control of the ship’s still, for example, but is careful not to let semi-unauthorised drinking get out of hand.) Sam’s good nature softens the character a little, although Heinlein doesn’t let us forget that Sam is a rogue even though he isn’t a bad guy. Max prospers, perhaps, because he is honest enough to confess to the impersonation when he’s caught out, something Sam is reluctant to do. The cynic in me wonders if this really would work out so well in the real world.

Max is also tempted by Ellie, a beautiful girl from a social class so far above him that she might as well be in orbit. Ellie is so ridiculously privileged that she literally has no conception of how lucky she is, or just how much harm her ‘helpful’ interventions could do Max in the long run. She doesn’t appear to have any malice in her, but … she can do a great deal of harm without it. I’m not one for listening when someone tells me to ‘check my privilege,’ but Ellie really does need to check hers.

And yet, Ellie is a more complex character than she seems. She even admits as much to Max, when they are both trapped and facing imminent death; she’s smarter than she lets on, because it’s safer for a girl not to appear too smart. (Given that she’s a heiress whose most likely fate is being married off to someone her father chooses, this may actually be true.) Her existence has been used as an excuse to attack the book, which is a classic case of ‘interrogating the text from the wrong perspective.’ Heinlein, writing for teenage boys, wanted them to know that teenage girls weren’t airheads, that someone who acted dumb might have good reason to pretend to be dumb. And that, to some extent, they were victims of their environment. Ellie would be a very different character these days, but I doubt she would be quite as likable.

The secondary characters are fleshed out just enough to make them familiar. The Captain is a classic kindly old man, losing his facilities without being willing to admit it; Simes, the resentful astrogator, is not up to the job, knows he’s not up to the job and hates Max for threatening his position. We’ve all met someone like Simes, someone who owes his position to connections rather than dumb luck, someone who is more interested in covering his ass than doing his job, someone who tries to push us down because he fears what we might do if given a chance. Simes is, in his own way, as universal as Harry Potter’s Umbridge. And we all hate him.

It’s interesting to note that most of the characters get what they deserve, although Heinlein doesn’t make it too specific. Max gets to be a spacer, with the prospect of a more formal command in his future; Sam gets a hero’s death, with the slate wiped clean; Ellie gets to marry the man she wants, rather than someone her father picks. The Captain, on the other hand, chooses suicide rather than live with his failure; Simes is killed during a desperate bid to cover up his role in the disaster. And Max’s mother and stepfather, we are told, vanished after taking their share of the money, with Max wryly reflecting that his mother will probably put her shiftless husband to work. (Although a man willing to threaten a teenage boy he barely knows with a belting probably won’t have any qualms about beating his wife either.) Heinlein tries to show us, I think, that virtue is rewarded. The cynic in me disagrees.

Heinlein’s vision of the future, as always, is a mixed bag. Socially, Earth is now a very rigid structure (although it still has room for some family farms) and moving up the ladder is very difficult. (Probably one of the reasons Ellie is so unaware of the realities of life.) Technically, it reads oddly: the starship is both ultra-advanced and very primitive, the guild using logbooks and chart tables rather than computers to navigate (although I suppose one could argue that the guild has a vested interest in preventing the development of anything that might threaten its power.) They have monorails and mag-trains, yet also horse-powered ploughs. And yet, there is enough familiar in the world for us to understand it. Technology does not seem to have changed the world.

On a wider scale, Heinlein is quick to force us to challenge our assumptions. It would not be easy to play Robinson Crusoe and set up a colony in uncharted space, something he would later touch upon in his deconstruction of survivalist fantasies in Farnham’s Freehold. The world they land on might not be quite as unpleasant as some of the worlds Heinlein would show us in Methuselah’s Children, but it is still unrelentingly hostile to human life. They rapidly discover that trying to get back home is safer than staying on a world that wants to kill them.

The concept of a guild being a good thing is also deconstructed, brutally, in a manner that could easily be related to everything from unions to HR diversity quotas. Unions and suchlike are good ideas, as long as they don’t get out of control; they often turn sour when forced to cope with new technology or an influx of talented newcomers, losing sight of what is important as long-established members fight for their positions. The starship is stuck with Simes because Simes is a member of the guild, while the far more talented Max is locked out through not being a member of the guild.

This is a valid point that has even greater relevance in our day. Fundamentally, it does not matter if the person holding a job is white or black, male or female, straight or gay or anything else that can be used to draw a line between two different people. The only thing that matters is can they do the job? Losing sight of that leads, eventually, to absurdity and complete loss of respect. Most people regard Human Resources as the enemy now, with good reason. Heinlein was making the same point that Nick Cole would make later, in Safe Space Suit, without the personal jabs that spoil the story’s point.

Indeed, it also raises another question. It’s easy to condemn Max for making bad judgements, at least at the start, and committing criminal acts … but what choice does he have? The world is stacked against him, unfairly; he is sentenced to remain where he is, forever, simply for not having the right connections. Why should he feel any respect for a fundamentally unfair society? And why should he honour its laws when it is self-evidently true that they do not work? This society fails on a personal level, because it punishes Max for an accident of birth, but it also fails on a more general level when it allows incompetents into high places … also because of an accident of birth. But then, this is true of our society too; promotion on the grounds of anything but merit is fundamentally wrong and, frankly, dangerous.

Overall, Starman Jones remains one of the most significant of Heinlein’s works; a loveable and relatable protagonist, a supporting cast that feels real even though a number are little more than stereotypes, a clean read (there is no sex in the book) and a realistic – and small – victory, with the promise of more to come. It was, and remains, highly recommended.

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.

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.