I'd like to draw a distinction I think is useful between
terms are used more or less as equivalents and to a certain extent they
necessarily overlap. I think they can be used, however, to distinguish
between two different things that go on in science fiction. One is
the closely reasoned inferential process. This is extrapolation,
an account of the operation of known processes. The other is the
less confined concern with how and of what the world is made. This
is speculation, an account of the essential nature of things.
the very beginning
of his writing career, liberty has been a favorite Heinlein subject.
"If This Goes On--,"
his first novel, is about a revolution fought against
an authoritarian government. His second novel,
is about a revolution against an authoritarian invader. Heinlein has
written at least five other novels about colonies winning their freedom
and about wars fought to defend freedom against implacable invaders.
The theme is a constant one.
"It's neither your business, nor the business of this damn paternalistic government, to tell a man not to risk his life doing what he really wants to do." ("Requiem.")
"The price of freedom is the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, any time and with utter recklessness. (The Puppet Masters.)Most Heinlein stories yield similar statements -- in his early stories in the statements of his characters, in his recent fiction in blunt, like-it-or-lump-it editorial opinion, as well. As can be seen from the quotations given above, Heinlein's idea of liberty is wolfish and thoroughgoing. To a certain extent Heinlein has always been at war with himself as to which aspect of his libertarianism would predominate. Liberty for the sharp-toothed or liberty for all? One example, particularly interesting for the manner in which Heinlein has reversed himself, can be found in "If This Goes On--."
In the original version of the story, the narrator writes:
If we could capture New Jerusalem, there would then be time and opportunity to change the psychological conditioning of the people and make them aware that they really had been saved from a tyranny which had ruled by keeping them in ignorance, their minds chained.Here, of course, the wolfishness predominates -- like Deacon Mushrat of Pogo, who means to have peace even if he has to ram it down people's bloodthirsty throats, Heinlein's people are going to dispense liberty even if they have to brainwash people into accepting it.
In the revised and expanded version of the story, however, Heinlein brings all his heavy guns to bear on his former position and destroys it completely. The movie is still present in the story in an even more convincing and overwhelming form, but this time around Novak and Zeb Jones, both sympathetic characters, are not responsible for it.
In this version, it was put together by an unsympathetic, eager-beaver underling against Novak's recommendation. Heinlein intensifies the original situation by having the eager-beaver say happily:
". . . this film, used with the preparatory technique and possibly in some cases with a light dose of one of the hypnotic drugs, can be depended on to produce an optimum political temperament in 83% of the populace."But Heinlein then destroys the position. An elderly man whom the narrator likens in appearance to Mark Twain stands up and begins to speak:
"I have a brother, as good a man as I am, but we haven't spoken in many years -- because he is honestly devout in the established faith and he suspects me of heresy. Now this cub, with his bulging forehead and his whirling lights, would 'condition' my brother to make him 'politically reliable.' " . . .And then to add punctuation, Heinlein has this old man drop dead just before the vote is taken on whether or not to use the film. The vote, of course, is not to use it.
Heinlein not only has a taste for free men, but for free societies as well. In Beyond This Horizon and in "Coventry" he presents two specifically libertarian societies, the sort of contexts in which every man can operate as freely as one can imagine under any government. Neither is perfect, or even perfectly imagined -- not surprising when you consider the complexity and internal contradictions present in modern society -- but both are very interesting.
There is a strong element of wolfishness present again in Beyond This Horizon. The social insurance of mutual respect of rights is the necessity to defend one's conduct with a gun. Theoretically, this means that the ordinary person will be polite and mind his own business lest he be challenged for his behavior. The flaw, of course, is that the man with a fast finger on the trigger would be forgiven conduct that another man would be held to account for. On the other hand, I'm not completely sure that Heinlein would regard this as a flaw.
In the world of "Coventry," social insurance is the Covenant. The judge who sentences the protagonist to Coventry gives a full account of what the Covenant is:
"The Covenant is not a superstition, but a simple temporal contract entered into by those same revolutionists for pragmatic reasons. They wished to insure the maximum possible liberty for every person.Granted that we have a very exact idea of what constitutes damaging another person -- and the ultimate definition might include simple breathing -- this seems at least a fair statement of the aims of a libertarian society.
It seems to me that there are three ways in which
a character with freedom of action can operate. He can operate within
the framework of society, whether or not he is in full accord with it.
He can reject society and strike out on his own. Or he can arbitrarily
run society to suit himself. Heinlein has written of characters who
do each of these things.
The steel tortoise gave MacKinnon a feeling of Crusoe-like independence. It did not occur to him his chattel was the end product of the cumulative effort and intelligent co-operation of hundreds of thousands of men, living and dead.And Heinlein spends more than a page elaborating this moral.
Perhaps one measure of the change in Heinlein in recent years is that Farnham's Freehold seriously sets forth the point of view that "Waldo" and "Coventry" reject. Hugh Farnham, as far as we can see, does not and will not function within modem society; the reaction of this competent man is to dig a competent hole in the ground to hide in. And then just as Waldo had his "Freehold," Farnham has his, kept independent of the rest of the world by mines, wire, and rifle bullets. It is an odd sort of freedom.
The third category is illustrated by two stories, "Lost Legacy" and "Gulf," in which Heinlein's characters make decisions for society by themselves and then enforce their decisions. In "Lost Legacy," the "enemy" are:
. . . the antagonists of human liberty, of human dignity -- the racketeers, the crooked political figures, the shysters, the dealers in phony religions, the sweat-shoppers, the petty authoritarians, all of the key figures among the traffickers in human misery and human oppression, themselves somewhat adept in the arts of the mind, and acutely aware of the danger of free knowledge -- all of this unholy breed.The good guys save society by deciding who the bad guys are and disposing of them.
In "Gulf," the sides are just as clearly drawn.
"Some one must be on guard if the race is to live; there is no one but us. To guard effectively we New Men must be organized, must never fumble any crisis like this -- and must increase our numbers. We are few now, Joe; as the crises increase, we must increase to meet them. Eventually -- and it's a dead race with time -- we must take over and make certain that baby never plays with matches. . . .The answer is clear as to what course the "New Men" must take:
"Joe, didn't you ever feel a yen to wipe out some evil, obscene, rotten jerk who infected everything he touched, yet was immune to legal action? We treat them as cancers; we excise them from the body social. We keep a 'Better Dead' list; when a man is clearly morally bankrupt we close his account at the first opportunity."This again is a wolfish sort of freedom.
It is passages such as these from "Lost Legacy" and
"Gulf" that caused me to think for a time that Heinlein was an authoritarian,
but he is not. His characters ask no one to follow and obey them
except from choice. Even the subordinates in Heinlein's military
stories are always volunteers.
". . . but your psychometrical tests show that you believe yourself capable of judging morally your fellow citizens and feel justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses. . . . From a social standpoint, your delusion makes you mad as the March Hare."If you allow the possibility of doubt as to their inborn rightness, the characters of "Gulf" and "Lost Legacy" are not sane. But they are not authoritarians.
Heinlein's characters are not democrats, either, as witness the quotation above from "Gulf," or the following passage from Glory Road:
"Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is -- so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group."Since Heinlein writes about the wisest and most competent men that he can imagine, he doesn't even expect them to be democrats and I can't think of any who are. Double Star, for instance, the most democratic of Heinlein's stories, ends on a paternalistic, God-bless-the-little-people note:
But there is solemn satisfaction in doing the best you can for eight billion people. Perhaps their lives have no cosmic significance, but they have feelings. They can hurt.What Heinlein is, of course, is an elitist. Not only are his central characters Heinlein Individuals, and hence special, but Heinlein most often assigns his lead characters uncommon talents that set them even further apart. The hero of The Puppet Masters has a camera eye; the hero of Citizen of the Galaxy has an eidetic memory; the hero of Glory Road can unfailingly orient himself; the heroes of "Misfit" and Starman Jones are lightning calculators; the hero of Time for the Stars is a telepath; the hero of Stranger in a Strange Land can do almost anything with mind alone. Heinlein's elite is one of competence rather than of money or blood, and these special talents, by increasing competence, are added reason for the existence of the elite. In "Lost Legacy," these super powers are the single characteristic of the elite.
And of course, when the case for the right of the elite to rule is made, it is generally, as in "Gulf," made on the basis of competence. Competence proves itself.
Heinlein carries his elitism beyond individual characters to Man as an animal. He has a set piece -- Man is "the most ravenous, intolerant, deadly, and successful of the animals in the explored universe" -- that he has presented as a given at least five times: in The Puppet Masters, Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, Starship Troopers, and in his prophecy article in the April 1956 Amazing where it is stated as an idea that will eventually be generally accepted.
In Starship Troopers the notion is editorially presented as a problem in morality. Does Man have the right to breed his way across the universe, filling it to the brim? The answer is that we will find out. If we get slapped down, then we didn't have the right. In other words, what can be gotten away with is "right." Following the same thought, the female lead in Glory Road is head of the Twenty Universes just as long as her competence keeps her alive; until then her decisions are right. They are automatically carried out because she is acknowledged to be more competent than everybody else. Someday she will be assassinated and then, because she is dead, she will be wrong, just as Man will be wrong if some other race knocks him off. This elitism, then, is the source of Heinlein's wolfishness. The fast-gun morality of Beyond This Horizon is acceptable -- no, desirable -- because it allows competence the chance to demonstrate itself.
Being four-square for liberty is a very easy and comfortable thing in the abstract. But in practice, there arise two other questions: "Liberty for whom?" and "Liberty to do what?" Heinlein's stories are varied enough so that neither question can be given a final answer that does not allow an exception to be produced. However, it is my feeling that the importance of liberty to Heinlein comes in relation to his competent men; they require freedom to become fully themselves. Freedom for the man who cannot stay awake over a page of nuclear physics is less important than for the man with the quick mind and the quick gun simply because the first man is less capable of doing anything with freedom were he to have it. In other words, freedom is the Heinlein Individual's right to do as he pleases, to make of himself what he can.
Border courtesy of The Humble Bee