July 2, 2007

Robert Heinlein week

The science fiction master was born July 7, 1907. I read all his books up through 1966's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (his most literary novel) as a kid, then reread them when I was on chemotherapy in 1997, then reread them again early in this decade.

- Sure, the future isn't what it used to be because transportation didn't keep getting faster and cheaper like it had since the invention of the steamship (although Heinlein's 1940 prediction that the 1960s-70s would be known to history as The Crazy Years was on the money.) But Heinlein's books really aren't about the future, they're about mid-20th century America, and that's a country I like a lot. In Heinlein's novels it's always late May 1942 as the shot-up Yorktown limps into the Pearl Harbor drydock while the Japanese fleet heads for Midway.

- There will be a lot of arguments this week over what Heinlein's ideology was. The simple answer is that he was a creative writer, and you shouldn't look for a consistent ideology in his fiction.

- Heinlein had had a lot of unsuccessful careers before he began writing at 32 in 1939, and he loved to explain how things work. He's comparable to James Michener, but with more interesting stories and snappier dialogue. (Heinlein's dialogue style was borrowed from the screwball comedies and film noirs of his time

- Between 1959 and 1966 Heinlein published three books that remain cult novels today. Remarkably, they are worshipped by three almost mutually exclusive audiences: Starship Troopers (military men), Stranger in a Strange Land (hippies and New Agers), and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (libertarians).

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Of these three cult books, "Moon" is the best plotted and best written (including Heinlein's most ambitious attempt at a new prose style, which was presumably influenced by the Russian slang in Anthony Burgess' 1962 "Clockwork Orange"). While, for some mysterious (probably hormonal) reason, I love "Starship Troopers" more, this book certainly is the ideal introduction to Heinlein's novels for adults. It's literary merits are all the more surprising considering both it's abundant slam-bang action and it's status as a treatise on libertarianism. Moreover, for a work of ideological propaganda, it is clear-eyed about what you'd have to put up with to live in a libertarian society. Without the government to look after you, Heinlein points out that you'd have to make sure you are on very friendly terms with all your neighbors. Extreme neighborliness is a requirement for a libertarian society (Charles Murray reiterated this point in his "What It Means to Be a Libertarian"). Personally, as a surly introvert, the lack of privacy and the social conformity required to function in a stateless society would get on my nerves so bad, that I'd probably make myself a nuisance to all my neighbors, and no doubt they'd be justified in eventually tossing me out an airlock. So, maybe I don't really want to live in a truly libertarian society. But, it's well worth visiting one in the company of a fascinating mind like Heinlein's.

- It's fun to see recent literary novels like Clockwork Orange show up in Heinlein's books. For instance, 1955's Tunnel in the Sky about how a class of high school students that's marooned on an uninhabited planet get themselves organized so they can survive in a civilized manner appears to be Heinlein's optimistic rejoinder to William Golding's 1954 Lord of the Flies. And the satirical description of the American high school curriculum in 1959's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel is prefigured closely in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which was first published in the U.S. in 1958.

- Heinlein's 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land evolved much like Nabokov's Lolita. Both writers began working on their respective scandalous magnum opuses about 1949, figuring that while they weren't publishable at present, American norms were changing fast enough that they would be publishable eventually. Both ended up long and self-indulgent.

- After a fast-paced opening, Stranger in a Strange Land bogs down badly. It reads like a few cokeheads lecturing some credulous potheads on everything under the sun. Still, what a great title it has, maybe the best by any novel ever. The Prophet Abraham's description of himself is borrowed to describe a new prophet, a human raised by Martians, who comes to a satirical America. And one plot detail -- how the First Lady's astrologer was influencing the President -- turned out to exactly foreshadow the situation under Ron and Nancy Reagan!

- Of the wonderful juveniles (books for teenage boys) Heinlein wrote between Rocketship Galileo in 1947 and Podkayne of Mars in 1963, perhaps the most underrated is "Spaceman Jones." Heinlein's spaceship adventures are basically sea stories in disguise (he was a Naval Academy grad and officer until he came down with tuberculosis after seven years), and this is the most explicitly devoted to explaining how life onboard is organized. After a long, fascinating expository main section, it builds to a great action climax. It also features the best of Heinlein's Han Solo characters. (George Lucas borrowed Heinlein's useful structure of having an innocent Luke Skywalker hero for the audience to identify with, a cynical Han Solo to explain how things work, and a wise Obi Wan-Kenobi to explain why they are as they are; but Heinlein didn't follow this scheme rigidly. There's no Obi Wan-Kenobi in "Starman Jones," for instance.)

- Heinlein worshipped H.G. Wells, who was an ardent eugenicist, and Heinlein's 1942 novel Beyond this Horizon is set in a future society organized around genetic engineering. Heinlein eventually stopped making eugenics explicit in his plots, but it's reasonable to read most of the rest of his novels as assuming genetic enhancement as one of the operative technologies of the era: almost all of his books have one or more characters with math skills that are off the charts by present human standards.

- Beyond This Horizon ignores the convention that humans will evolve into hyper-intelligent, 97 pound weaklings, androgynous pencil-necked geeks barely able to hold up their basketball-sized brains, a highly evolved species of altruistic pacifists. But which parents would choose these traits for their children? How could such kids compete for mates? In Beyond, the world is populated by highly intelligent but extremely sexy people straight out of a Hollywood casting call. The men are manly and the ladies lovely. The men are so macho in fact, that no gentleman would be seen without his gun, and duels are fought daily. This book is the source of Heinlein's saying, "An armed society is a polite society."

- The most brilliant, perhaps the most prophetic sci-fi story ever, was "Solution Unsatisfactory," which he wrote in 1940, well before the secret Manhattan Project had begun. In it, Heinlein predicted the U.S. would end the second world war in 1945 by dropping atomic weapons on an Axis city. He went on to predict that the Russians would quickly acquire their own weapons, then use a foolish American disarmament attempt to launch a sneak attack. The U.S. would win the short but apocalyptic war with the Soviets. To prevent anyone from ever again building their own atomic weapons, the U.S. would then set up a global strategic air command, with bombers circling over all the nations of the world, ready to annihilate them if they tried to threaten the monopoly. The man in charge found himself, against his will, to be the effective Dictator of the World. Hence the title, "Solution Unsatisfactory." The sneak attacks the following year on Russia and Pearl Harbor only reinforced Heinlein's views. As it turned out, deterrence worked better than Heinlein expected. But those who think deterrence is now kaput, and that America must take on the role of Dictator of the World, should definitely check out Heinlein's stories from the 1940s.



My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

18 comments:

Ian Lewis said...

Wow.

I couldn't care less about Robert Heinlein, but that was great.

Anonymous said...

In re the question of the Yorktown limping home to Pearl Harbor - this is the point that I try to make to people when talking about Verhoeven's masterpiece.

True, Verhoeven doesn't waste much time on all the political blather that dominated much of the novel, but in his portrayal of the Invasion of Klendathu and its aftermath, Verhoeven does as good a job of any filmmaker I've ever seen [certainly in my lifetime] in conveying the sense of doom and dread which forces a people to consider the possibility that: "Uh-oh, we might actually lose this war!"

[Oddly, I got a little sense of that dread in reading some of the Jewish bloggers last year, when Olmert made his ill-fated, half-hearted, girly-man feint into Lebanon, and the Iranian operatives hit them with all that Chinese tech which the Israelis weren't expecting.]

Plus Verhoeven gives us copius, gratuitous shots of perky, young mammaries, and let's be honest with ourselves here, folks: SciFi just ain't SciFi without copius servings of perky young mammaries [a sentiment, I'm quite confident, which Heinlein would approve of himself].

Kurt9 said...

I like the "Lazarus Long" stories. I would say that the Lazarous quotes most closely matches my personal world view. I would consider the Lazarus Long world-view to be a sensible, down to Earth kind of libertarianism.

Mark Seecof said...

I agree that The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is a very fine book. In fact, I blame my failure to win a National Merit Scholarship on my having chosen to write my NMS literary essay about it! The reader's comments dripped with contempt--for the book, I think, more than my writing. If only I had chosen Rabbit Gets The Runs or some other short-shelf-life book favored by the NMS reader's woman(ish) college profs. Oh, well.

Along with its other virtues, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress showed a remarkably good grasp of computer and communications technology for the time (leaving aside the necessary vagueness about Mike's intelligence). I say that as a reader who grew up to be a computer geek. And ya gotta love Heinlein's rethink of how to organize a revolutionary conspiracy!

Heinlein described the cell phone (the effect, not the means) in another book, Between Planets.

I'm glad you lauded Starman Jones. I sure wish I could visit Heinlein's 1940's with spaceships. You don't think some of Dr. Hendrix showed up in Obi-Wan? Remember, Max feels the presence of, then "sounds remarkably like" the departed Dr. Hendrix when he's computing right before transition (a literary scene as tense as Luke's attack on the Death Star, though it wouldn't play on film). (The computer technology in Jones is silly, though.)

That book also contains Heinlein's most direct discussion (through Dr. Hendrix) of when it's proper to break a law which is on the books at least partly for good reasons. Hendrix asks and tries to answer the question: if lawbreaking is the only way to get ahead in an unjust world, does that make it okay?

I don't know if you ever looked at the "uncut" version of Stranger, which Virginia Heinlein published after Robert A.'s death pulled the copyright back to his estate. The original publisher had forced Heinlein to trim his manuscript by about 25%. I think the slimmer version is much better--but the long version shows how much Heinlein loved that story.

Anonymous said...

Jules Verne made a lot of predictions, many of them fairly stupid (i.e. steam powered mechanical Elephants, "The Demon of Cawnpore") but did get the submarine right (which had been around in various forms since the American revolution, indeed being used by the Colonists). And he got the the resentment of colonization and imperialism by the natives right.

But he failed to capture the post-Colonial era of failed nationalism. He could see that far but no further.

Heinlein could take things he could already see: dangerous nation states, undeterred by democracies, various "Year Zero" social re-inventions (drawing on the Shakers no doubt or Mormons as much as the intelligentsia).

But could Heinlein see the world of today? Where distributed, decentralized, organized on their own Muslims absolutely reject the modern world and seek to destroy it for 7th Century absolutism? The use of Western decentralized communications networks for these people to self-organize?

Or the coming together of self-organized networks intent on destroying the West (much stronger than the Anarchists of the early 1900s) with do-it-yourself WMDs? Aum Shin Rykio was able to make Sarin on their own.

What is the implications of that? Purple fingered Iraqis or Fortress America?

Probably neither, rather a brutal war of the peoples under tribal leaders.

Wretchard in Belmont Club has a report on Britain's "Ring of Steel" their CCTV cameras. Which can help catch bombers after the act (i.e. it's fairly useless). New castles/walled towns?

While it may always be 1942 in Heinlein's novels, with the Yorktown limping into Pearl Harbor, the reality of the Muslim vs. West fight for who runs the West is more likely to be a block-by-block street fight akin to Berlin, 1930. A depressing future and no doubt anathema to all liberals. Which is why likely it's not a feature of sci-fi. Who could imagine the past is not really the past?

Anonymous said...

Verhoeven's Starship Troopers was brilliant in that it worked both as a a traditional war movie and as a satire of one at the same time. As for boobs though, why couldn't he get Denise Richards to go topless? Did she think she was too classy back then?

Mr. Spog said...

SS--As you describe it, "Moon" ("...stateless society...") sounds like a depiction of an anarchical society, not a libertarian, i.e. minimal-government, one.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I'd love to see a Sailer sci-fi reading list.

c23

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: But could Heinlein see the world of today?

Apparently Heinlein was instrumental in nudging the Gipper towards what would eventually come to be known as the SDI.

Which we are finally - FINALLY! - refining to the point that it can reliably shoot down incoming hostiles.

[Slick Willy's best efforts to mothball the research notwithstanding.]

M said...

then reread them when I was on chemotherapy in 1997, then reread them again early in this decade.

Try rereading them in chronological order. It's very interesting watching certain ideas recur in multiple books and then get dropped. For example, consider the idea that Brazil would become a superpower.

the future isn't what it used to be because transportation didn't keep getting faster and cheaper like it had since the invention of the steamship

That has less to do with technology and more to do with self-inflicted stagnation.

After a fast-paced opening, Stranger in a Strange Land bogs down badly.

Yep. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls has the same problem. I think he just tried too hard with Stanger.

George Lucas borrowed Heinlein's useful structure of having an innocent Luke Skywalker hero for the audience to identify with

But that structure was present in Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress as well. Star Trek, OTOH, picked right up where RAH left off.

Heinlein's 1942 novel Beyond this Horizon

The novel version was from 1948. The short form version was '42.

Heinlein predicted the U.S. would end the second world war in 1945 by dropping atomic weapons on an Axis city

'44 (4 years after 1940). Radioactive dust. In fact, that was one of the key ideas underpining most of his stroies from the 40's: the notion that scientists would develop 'tailored radioactives' and an entire series of radioactive elements three times as large as the then current (and the one we have now) periodic table. Unfortunately, it turns out to be very difficult or impossible to make those things. 'Radioactive dust' in particular is very hard to create ... except with an atomic bomb. If the Soviet Union HAD been able to reverse engineer something like the dust process in just a few weeks and it had been cheap and easy to manufacture, deterrence probably would have failed as he described.

Unfortunately, many people haven't gotten the message and expect dirty bombs to work; they expect terrorist can easily acquire extremely devestating 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' and that just isn't true. It's extremely easy to make 'Weapons of Minor Destruction'. People are terrified of an illusion that Al Queda have substantially more powerful weapons than the Anarchists of a century ago and they just don't.

Back to Heinlein: personally, I think the run of novels from the late 50's was his high-water mark in terms of quality. Those turn out not to be the cult novels, however.

m, i expect Orwell suffers from the same problem

Mark Seecof said...

We shouldn't forget that in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress Heinlein showed that while a libertarian society might have some virtues, an ability to maintain itself might not be among them.

When the book opens the lunar colonists live in a species of libertopia only because a relatively disinterested foreign power (the Lunar Authority) forcibly prevents them from adopting any local government, while disdaining to impose one itself.

Then a serious but hard to comprehend threat of impending physical extinction motivates a small group of colonists to disturb the libertopian status-quo. Those leaders resort to propaganda tricks to energize the rest of the colonists.

The colonists must perforce adopt a government to organize their revolt against Earth. Heinlein quite baldly shows the amount of chicanery his heroes engage in to gain their ends by creating and manipulating that government. (Heinlein even explored the "electronic voting" problem--you can't trust or verify computers set up by other people, so you can't trust the returns from computerized elections.)

At the end, the heroes and the rest of the colonists pay a stiff price for organizing to assure their survival: their new government begins to act just like all other governments. It adopts regulations to favor rent-seekers, taxes to pay for boondoggles, the whole complex of bad government behaviour. The protagonist speculates that humans can never escape this fate.

The happiest notion a libertarian can take away from the book is that (groups of) humans will cycle through phases of more or less government, making progress during the liberated phases, and somehow surviving the oppressive ones.

The second happiest thought might be that libertopia would be possible if you could just arrange for a benign but jealous foreign overlord to keep local government small. Heinlein alludes to this possibility: the most successful portion of his lunar colonists live in "Hong Kong Luna."

The real Hong Kong was a near-libertopia for decades under the laissez-faire suzerainity of the British. Serious libertopians could try to create similar conditions elsewhere.

Heinlein also warns would-be founders of new governments: if you wish to remain in control you must set up a tyranny. If you found a relatively- free state (such as the USA once was) it will pass into the hands of less liberty-minded folk sooner or later. That is the libertarian curse--he who will not chivvy others shall himself be chivvied.

Anonymous said...

As for boobs though, why couldn't he get Denise Richards to go topless? Did she think she was too classy back then?

Or maybe she didn't want people to know that they were fake?

Speaking of 100% pure, natural, perky young mammaries, indeed the perky young mammaries to end all discussion of perky young mammaries, it's a little-known fact that after Denise Richards's character moves up to captain, to replace Captain Deladier [Brenda Strong], the new graduate who replaces her at the helm, in the very final scene of the movie, is played by none other than Amy Smart.

And if anyone can tell me why Amy Smart never became a super-duper mega-starlet in Hollywood, then I'd love to know.

Maybe because instead of being [or resembling] a heroin-chic, culture-of-death, post-modern, women's studies major leftist witch, she actually looks [and acts] like the girl-next-door Republican surfer chick of your wildest fantasies?

Anonymous said...

Sorry to deflate anonymous 5:25's humid fantasies, but Amy Smart is a hippie girl from Topanga Canyon (as well as a truly sweet and kind human being.)

That said, this is a great article from Steve and one of the reasons this left-winger finds himself reading Sailer every day-- good prose style outweighs dubious politics.

Anonymous said...

By the way, it was Moses, not Abraham, who said, "I have been a stranger in a strange land."

Anonymous said...

Sorry to deflate anonymous 5:25's humid fantasies, but Amy Smart is a hippie girl from Topanga Canyon (as well as a truly sweet and kind human being.)

Who says that hippy chicks, who are truly sweet and kind human beings, can't be Republicans?

But back to my point - if anyone can explain to me why witches, like Jennifer Aniston, or Cameron Diaz, are mega-starlets, with net worths measured in the tens [or even hundreds] of bazillions of dollars, but an Amy Smart is struggling to get any roles at all [last I saw her, she was in a series on CBS, with Ray Liotta & Virginia Madsen, which got cancelled after about two episodes] - if anyone can explain that to me, then I'm all ears.

Anonymous said...

You might enjoy this post from the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog:

"Robert Heinlein Centenary"

Tom Panelas

Gibson Block said...

You were right about Stranger. Great title from the bible but I remember it being as boring as hell even though everyone was always enthusing about it.

Good article. Thanks

Tenessee Tupelo said...

Ayn Rand made me into a libertarian. Robert Heinlein cured me of it.