Heinlein and the Problem of the Present

September 12, 2010 | By | Reply More

Having read the new biography of Robert A. Heinlein, I indulged myself in dipping back into some of the novels.  Heinlein worked out a Future History in which he set many of his stories.  Obviously, any writer who attempts predictions is usually in for a bit of embarrassment—it’s difficult at best to know what might happen next week let alone next century.

But Heinlein had more than the usual “horse sense” when it came to sociology and the way in which history unfolds and he often nailed the essence of a coming period if not the specifics.  (He tagged the Sixties the Crazy Years all the way back in the Forties.)

One of his chillier stories is a short novel called  If This Goes On— in which he depicts the Second American Revolution.  This time it occurs in response to a homegrown despotism—a theocracy, established by the First Prophet, a combination of Huey Long and Billy Sunday named Nehemiah Scudder.  (You can find it published with two other stories in the book Revolt In 2100.)  I reads this in seventh grade, while attending a Lutheran school, and it had a lasting impact on me.

In the early Fifties certain publishers started packaging the better SF novels in hard cover for the first time and this was one of Heinlein’s.  He wrote an afterword to it and I just reread that.  In view of our current social circumstances and in light of so much that gets discussed here at Dangerous Intersection I would like to quote two paragraphs in particular.  Mind you, Heinlein wrote this in 1952.

Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country—Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva’s Zion, Smith’s Nauvoo, a few others.  The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition against each other.

Could it be otherwise?  Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country?  Perhaps not—but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck.  Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening—particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.

I was very much struck by that.  Looking around, it made me even sadder, since obviously there have always been people with foresight enough to see what might happen and how and yet they are often ignored.  In Heinlein’s case, because he was just one of those “Buck Rogers guys” with all the cookie ideas about space and aliens and such like.

But obviously even then the shortcomings of our “voting system” raised a possible red flag for some.

Anyway, I thought I’d share that little near-forgotten gem.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, Current Events, History, Politics, Religion, Writing

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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