Science Fiction Studies


# 18 = Volume 6, Part 2 = July 1979

R.D. Mullen

No Time for Evolution

Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. Robert A. Heinlein. Writers of the 21st Century Series. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co.,1978. 278p. $10.95 hardback, $5.95 paperback.

As a survey of Heinlein's SF, David Samuelson's "The Frontier Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein" (in Voices for the Future, ed. Thomas D. Clareson, Bowling Green OH, 1976) is more satisfactory than Alexei Panshin's Heinlein in Dimension (Chicago, 1968) in that his frontier worlds metaphor provides an organizing and explanatory device of a kind absent from Panshin's book. It is also more satisfactory than George Edgar Slusser's monographs, Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in His Own Land and The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein (San Bernardino, 1976 [rev. 1977] and 1977) or than Alexei and Cory Panshin's "Reading Heinlein Subjectively" (in their SF in Dimension, Chicago, 1976) in that the explanatory device is more generally applicable and more effective than either Slusser's concept of election or the Panshins' psychologizing.

As a collection of studies in Heinlein, the book under review here would be more valuable if it had reprinted Samuelson's essay complete rather than with the deletion of its introductory paragraphs and discussion of Heinlein's juveniles. Even so, it must be granted that Jack Williamson's "Youth Against Space: Heinlein's Juveniles Revisited" is an excellent treatment of its subject, and substantially in agreement with Samuelson on the nature and value of the juveniles, so that the two essays as printed here provide an excellent overview of Heinlein's SF and thus an adequate foundation for the more specialized essays that make up the remainder of the book.

The best of the remaining essays is Robert Plank's "Omnipotent Cannibals in Stranger in a Strange Land," which has been expanded and greatly strengthened since its original appearance in Riverside Quarterly. This essay is important not only for its demolition of Stranger but also for its setting forth principles useful in the evaluation of similar books.

In his 1968 book Alexei Panshin presented a brief but adequate discussion of Heinlein's treatment of sexuality (pp. 145-53), except in that he attributed to Heinlein certain attitudes that might have been better attributed to the medium in which he worked (the pulps, slicks, and juvenile novels of the 30s, 40s, and 50s). Now comes Ronald Sarti to proclaim, in "Variations on a Theme: Human Sexuality in the Work of Robert A. Heinlein," that in the earlier stories as well as those since 1960, "Heinlein demonstrated a sexual objectivity and vision almost unseen in science fiction, and rarely matched in contemporary American literature" (p. 107). While this essay may have some value for younger readers (even younger scholars) in demonstrating that the earlier Heinlein was neither a complete prude nor a complete male chauvinist, those old enough to remember as far back as the 30's will be simply amused to find Heinlein's conventional liberalism set forth as daringly original.

Alice Carol Gaar, in "The Human as Machine Analog: The Big Daddy of Interchangeable Parts in the Fiction of Robert A. Heinlein," evidently takes as her point of departure Panshin's depiction of Heinlein as being interested primarily in "process." For her the concept of "process" involves a second Copernican revolution, for "it is not simply that the human being has lost his central place in the universe" but also that "he is transformed into a link in a pattern, a point on a grid, a flow of energy through the system" (p. 65). There are a number of statements in this essay with which I agree, and it may be that there is great wisdom in the essay as a whole, but I am quite unable to grasp its metaphysics, or to accept what seems to be its moral, that good fiction cannot emerge from atheism.

In 1959 Heinlein published an essay, "Science Fiction, Its Nature, Faults, and Virtues" (Basil Davenport, et al., The Science Fiction Novel, Chicago 1959; 2nd edn. rev., 1964), which, if mentioned at all in this collection (it is not listed in the index), is never examined in any detail. Here Heinlein attacks contemporary mainstream fiction berating "the ash-can school of realism, as exemplified by Henry Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre, James Joyce, Françoise Sagan and Alberto Moravia," declaring that "a very large portion of what is now being offered to the public as serious contemporary-science fiction is stuff that should not be printed, but told only privately--on a psychiatrist's couch," and announcing that "I, for one, am heartily sick of stories about frustrates, jerks, homosexuals and commuters who are unhappy with their wives--for goodness sake! Let them find other wives, other jobs--and shut up!" (p. 56). Given the sneer at jerks and homosexuals, one might indeed be surprised to find the heroes of Heinlein's later novels blithely indulging themselves in auto- and homoeroticism, and so imagine that his attitude toward sex underwent a great change in the 60's. But although Heinlein in 1959 was capable of making polemic use of conventional prejudice, it does not follow that in his personal attitudes he was not fully tolerant of all forms of sexual behavior. The hatred and disgust on this page would then be for "weaklings" of any kind: let them not only find other wives and other jobs, let them also accept their sexual natures and joyfully satisfy all their desires.

It is of course generally true that popular fiction and mainstream fiction differ from each other in that the one is primarily concerned with outer conflict and the other with the inner life. Heinlein's attack in this essay on the fiction of the inner life is so strident, so nearly hysterical, that one might well assume that he was arguing primarily with himself in a vain effort to retain a faith in which he no longer really believed. At any rate, it is certainly true that beginning with Stranger his books are much less concerned with the inner life than before, and also true that except for Farnham's Freehold (his only real attempt at the novel of psychological realism), they become less and less concerned with inner conflict, so that in his latest novels inner conflict is almost completely abandoned. For Heinlein, as for most writers and readers of popular fiction, any prolonged inner conflict, any that is not quickly resolved, is a sign of weakness of character or of a sickness requiring psychiatric help. One result of this is that interpersonal conflicts are reduced almost completely to those between good guys and bad guys. In his 1968 book Panshin pointed out that "Heinlein ignores completely the pain, jealousy, and uncertainty that are the ordinary stuff of human experience" (p. 151), and while we might balk at the "completely," we can say that in I Will Fear no Evil and Time Enough for Love almost all the characters are wonderful, wonderful people who love each other fully, and that the few bad guys are weaklings easily disposed of.

That self-indulgent fantasies masquerading as novels, or, to say it a different way, that novels providing guided fantasies in which one is always faster on the draw than the bad guys and in which all the good guys of both sexes are always eager to satisfy one's every desire -- that such novels are attractive to scholars as well as to the ordinary reader may be seen in the last two essays in this collection, in both of which Time Enough for Love is treated as Heinlein's greatest work and a true SF masterpiece. Russell Letson's "The Returns of Lazarus Long" is an exercise in supererogation, being devoted to explicating the all too obvious structure of the novel. Ivor A. Rogers, in "Robert Heinlein: Folklorist of Outer Space," begins by explaining the familiar (Heinlein's fiction) by the unfamiliar (medieval romance) and concludes with some easy psychologizing. For any sophisticated reader the significant thing in Lazarus Long's return to the Kansas City of 1917 is surely not that Oedipus finds Jocasta but that Laius turns out to be a complaisant cuckold.

Heinlein's heroes and villains often express approval or disapproval of this or that social concept. In "Major Political and Social Concepts in Heinlein's Fiction" Frank H. Tucker lists a number of such statements under the headings "General Political Concepts," "Functions of Government and Warrants for Revolution," "Rights and Responsibilities of the Citizenry," "Economics and Business" (in which not one word is said on social-credit theory), and "International Politics." In his summation Professor Tucker makes no attempt to resolve the "contradiction and dilemmas implicit in the content of the Heinlein stories" (p. 192) and so in effect concludes that Heinlein has no political philosophy but only a number of opinions frequently inconsistent with each other. I think we can do better than this, for the earlier Heinlein at least, if we focus on the worlds depicted rather than on statements by hero or villain. All the earlier stories, from "Lifeline" in 1939 through the 1958 version of Methusalah's Children, are consistent with a New Dealish progressivism. This is especially apparent in "Misfit," with its cosmic version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and "Let There Be Light," with its echoes of the great struggle of the New Deal with the power companies. The governments portrayed with approval are all democracies of the parliamentary or presidential-congressional type, and are all presumably based on universal suffrage (for if there were gross restrictions on suffrage we would surely be told). The economic system is one of free enterprise with a certain degree of governmental regulation and control. The economic theories of C.H. Douglas's Social Credit (which might be called free enterprise without capitalism) provide the foundation for the utopia of Beyond This Horizon, in which anyone who doesn't like to work (a category in which Heinlein seems to include himself) can live quite comfortably on the "citizen's allowance." In the two steps forward, one step back progression of the Future History series, the Crazy Years end and a period of stability begins with the adoption of "the Voorhis financial proposals" (see the Future History chart; Voorhis was a California congressman with social-credit theories similar to those of Major Douglas). The "return to the nineteenth-century economy" that follows "the opening of new frontiers" (FH chart) brings about the distinctly dystopian world of "Logic of Empire," for "in any expanding free enterprise economy which does not have a money system designed to fit its requirements the use of mother-country capital to develop the colony inevitably results in subsistence-level wages at home and slave labor in the colonies" (italics added; Professor Tucker omits the italicized clause when quoting this passage [p. 178]). The "religious dictatorship in U.S." (FH chart) that emerges from the collapse of the l9th-century system is in its turn overthrown by a revolution that first reestablishes the US Constitution ("If This Goes On--") and then moves forward to the Covenant. In the world of the Covenant. everything has been "planned . . . so carefully" that "nobody is ever hungry, nobody ever gets hurt" ("Coventry"). Although the social cohesion of the Covenant is not strong enough to prevent the persecution of the Howard Families, Methusalah's Children still ends with utopia restored, so that the extension of longevity to the entire populace can bring "the end of human adolescence, and beginning of first mature culture" (FH chart). In sum, the earlier Heinlein was an old-fashioned American progressive of the kind that found its enemies in the public utilities and the banking system, and its political heroes in men like Woodrow Wilson (Lazarus's right name, we remember, is Woodrow Wilson Smith), the two Roosevelts, Senator Norris, and Congressman Voorhis (whose defeat by the young Richard Nixon might well be said to symbolize the beginning of our present woes).

If Heinlein has a bible it surely consists of the books of Charles Darwin, and if he has a religion, if he worships something greater than ourselves that makes for righteousness, that something is surely the supposed biological process that ensures the advancement of mankind through natural selection and the consequent survival of the fittest and elimination of the unfit. In "The Evolution of Politics and the Politics of Evolution: Social Darwinism in Heinlein's Fiction," Philip E. Smith II sets out to refute James Gunn's statement that Heinlein in his earlier fiction "had no apparent philosophy to promote" with a demonstration that "since the beginning of his career as a writer, Heinlein has based his most important fictions on a very apparent philosophy: social Darwinism" (p. 137). Professor Smith builds an effective case -- but it is a prosecutor's case rather than that of an impartial examiner.

If Social Darwinism is a political philosophy providing a basis for action, then it must advocate ways of facilitating the survival of the fit and elimination of the unfit. Professor Smith remarks in passing that communism is "a left-wing form of social Darwinism" (p. 149). This is of course true in the sense that Marx and some of his followers attempted to build a body of doctrine that would subsume Darwinism, but it would be better to call communism "social Lamarckism," since it seeks only to eliminate unfitness through education. Professor Smith has a good deal to say about Social Darwinism leading to fascism, which was of course eager to eliminate the unfit through mass slaughter, but nothing at all about the only kind of Social Darwinism that could possibly be attributed to Heinlein: laissez-faire or Spencerian, which finds the unfit in the unemployable or simply unemployed poor, who should be allowed to starve when they have no money for food, or to succumb to illness when unable to pay the physician or apothecary.

As an attorney for the defense I must point out that in the utopia of Beyond This Horizon and the near-utopia of "Coventry," "Misfit," and Methusalah's Children, it is poverty that has been eliminated rather than the poor. Although Heinlein does not address the matter directly anywhere that I remember, I believe that he would agree with the argument that man is too much a social animal for any society ever to abandon its poor to disease or starvation, a belief which is strengthened by a passage in Time Enough for Love. While practicing medicine on Ormuzd, Lazarus earned the name of "Dr. Genocide" and had his license revoked when "in a period of temporary mental aberrance" he "tried to persuade his colleagues to refuse therapy to hereditary defectives unless they were sterile or sterilized or willing to accept being sterilized," with those who "had never managed to be self-supporting" counted among the defectives ("Variations Vl"). Professor Smith states that this matter is recalled by Lazarus "with affection" and goes on to say that "the 'idealist' and elitist Dr. Genocide is another identity of the individualistic, comfortable curmudgeon, Lazarus Long" (pp. 168-69), but I would say that the recollection is rueful and embarrassed, that the older Lazarus is ashamed that he once allowed himself to become so emotionally involved with "poor unfortunates" that should never have been born that he offered a "political solution" to a problem that could only be solved by "that grim old Mother Nature" who "invariably punished damfools who tried to ignore Her or to repeal her ordinances" (loc. cit.). In sum, if Heinlein regards political solutions as ineffective for the elimination of the unfit, and if the laissez-faire politics of his later fiction are not so stern as to require the abandonment of the poor to hunger and disease, then he cannot be said to be politically a Social Darwinist.

As an attorney for the defense I must also object to Professor Smith's repeated abuse of the word "elite," which reaches a climax in the statement that "some of Heinlein's fiction, like 'Gulf,' which envision rule by an elite, come dangerously close to fascism" (p. 148). For Heinlein emphatically rejects rule by any social, military, technocratic, intellectual, or scientific elite, and never favorably envisions government by such an elite in any story, not even "Gulf." Professor Smith is wrong to treat the New Men of "Gulf" as merely human and thus describably as an elite (pp. 148-50), and Professor Samuelson is wrong to say that the supermanness "seems reachable through education" (p. 47), for it is only the New Men that can profit from the kind of education involved. The New Men are actual (not merely soi-disant) supermen; the "gulf" between them and Homo sapiens is "narrow" in that it obtains only in intelligence and thus does not preclude fellow feeling, but it is also so very "deep" that it cannot be closed. The supermen have come together to form, not a government, but only a conspiracy to manipulate human affairs in such ways as to keep humanity from destroying itself. Surely there is a fundamental difference between the sympathetic depiction of a situation of this kind and the approval of government by any self-chosen group of mere humans however intelligent or elite.

The men and women who gather around Heinlein's various heroes come from all sorts of background, usually middle class or lower-middle class, so that the groups they form are never identifiable as elites by any criteria of social class, intelligence, or special training. To be sure, Professor Smith derives his meaning of the word "elite" from its use in the passage from "If This Goes On--" quoted on page 143: "Zeb and Maggie and General Huxley were of the elite minority of naturally free souls," but this fact does not prevent the word from injecting its ordinary social meaning (the only meaning in which it is relevant to fascism) into the many sentences in which it appears in the essay. Besides, there is only one fiction in which Heinlein envisions rule by an elite of even this kind, Starship Troopers, in which the old utopian idea of getting the garbage collected and the other hard or dirty work done by requiring all young people to undergo a year or two of public service is combined with the Wellsian idea of rule by a voluntary nobility (i.e., one composed of those who volunteer to lead a life noble in his difficulties, dangers, privations, sacrifices), so that the "federal service" of Heinlein's novel is voluntary, military for some but nonmilitary for most, open to all with absolutely no exceptions, and rewarded on its completion with the exclusive privilege of participating in politics, for only the "veterans" of this service have "demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service" that they "place the welfare of the group above personal advantage" (ch. 12).

From Stranger on, none of Heinlein's stories advocates any specific form of government. What we get instead, mostly in world-weary voices like that of Professor de la Paz, is a series of statements and situations to the effect that all forms of government are subject to corruption and rapid deterioration, so that Lazarus Long, after two thousand years of a history alternate to that of the Future History chart (for the "first mature culture" never came into being), is embarrassed that he had once been so "young . . . and hopeful" as to think it possible "to keep politicking in the private sphere, keep it out of government," for "Man is a political animal" and "You can no more keep him from politicking than you can keep him from copulating - and probably shouldn't try ("Variations III"). I can imagine the older Heinlein looking ruefully back at the younger and more hopeful man who in Starship Troopers had in "a period of temporary mental aberrance" offered a "political solution" to the political problem.

In the current issue of The Progressive (April 1979) there is a review of a new biography of George W. Norris, the progressive-Republican foe of Harding-Coolidge-Hoover who achieved his greatest legislative successes (the TVA, the prohibition of the strike-breaking use of injunctions, etc., etc.) under the New Deal of the Democrats. Senator Norris died in 1942 and so did not live to see that the absorption of progressivism into New Deal liberalism meant the gradual abandonment of the struggle of farmers, workers, and shopkeepers against monopoly capitalism, so that the TVA would mark not the beginning but the end of the war against the Power Trust, and so that the sight last winter of farmers driving their tractors around the White House would evoke only ridicule from the public and only irritation in a Department of Agriculture dedicated to the complete takeover of the family farm by agribusiness. In the words of the reviewer, Otis L. Graham Jr.: "Norris was a progressive who evolved into a liberal, while other progressives turned hesitant or sour, and if the moods of the 1970's tell us that this was a sad mistake rather than a triumph, then Norris still can stand with the best on the virtues of honesty, disdain for material wealth, refusal to use or be moved by flattery, tenacity in all worthy struggles, an attractive humility, and an addiction to duty. He was one of our genuine heroes, back when we had them." Although the impression given by Heinlein's later fiction is that he has turned sour if not hesitant, and although he can hardly be said to have displayed either a disdain for material wealth or an attractive humility, I think he can be said to have displayed the other Norrisian virtues in his verbal war since 1959 on the unexamined liberalism now pervasive in both the American public and the American academy.

But it is human evolution to which we must return and with which we must end. In Starship Troopers the planet Sanctuary is ideal for human habitation except only in that "its evolutionary progress [is] held down almost to zero by lack of radiation and a consequent most unhealthily low mutations rate." Having discussed this matter with an older friend, our young hero still imagines that he might settle down on Sanctuary when his enlistment is up, for "after all, I didn't really care whether my descendants (if any) twenty-five thousand years hence had long green tendrils like everybody else, or just the equipment I had been forced to get along with" (ch. 11). And that is precisely it. The biological process is much too slow and therefore much too remote to be satisfactory as an object of worship. When we look back over Heinlein's forty years of writing SF, we find that aside from the supermen of "Gulf," the genetic engineering of Beyond This Horizon, and the selective breeding of Methuselah's Children, evolution, despite all the talk about it in his stories, plays no significant part in his plots and has no significant influence on the people or worlds he depicts. The trouble with Social Darwinism, the trouble with looking forward to the Advent of Superman, is that there is not time enough for evolution.

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