In a Strange Land

by John J. Miller on July 27, 2009 · 2 comments

in Culture

  • SumoMe

July 9, 2007



When Robert A. Heinlein opened his Colorado Springs newspaper on April 5, 1958, he read a full-page ad demanding that the Eisenhower administration stop testing nuclear weapons. The science-fiction author was flabbergasted. He called for the formation of the Patrick Henry League and spent the next several weeks writing and publishing his own polemic that lambasted “Communist-line goals concealed in idealistic-sounding nonsense” and urged Americans not to become “soft-headed.”

Then Heinlein made an important professional decision. He quit writing the manuscript he had been working on — eventually it would become one of his best-known books, Stranger in a Strange Land — and started work on a new novel. Starship Troopers was published the next year, and it quickly became perhaps the most controversial sci-fi tale of all time. Critics labeled Heinlein everything from a Nazi to a racist. “The ‘Patrick Henry’ ad shocked ’em,” he wrote many years later. “Starship Troopers outraged ’em.”

Almost half a century later, the book continues to outrage, shock — and awe. It still has critics, but also armies of admirers. As a coming-of-age story about duty, citizenship, and the role of the military in a free society, Starship Troopers certainly speaks to modern concerns. The U.S. armed services frequently put it on recommended-reading lists. (“For today’s Sailor, this novel is extremely worthwhile,” says a Navy website.) Director Paul Verhoeven turned it into an unfaithful movie in 1997, and a new edition, released last year, features a sand-and-choppers cover that looks curiously like a scene from Iraq. There’s even a grassroots campaign to have a next-generation, Zumwalt-class destroyer named the USS Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein’s influence reaches far beyond a single book, of course. He was the first sci-fi author to make the bestseller lists, the winner of multiple awards, and the inspiration for a legion of protégés and imitators whose own volumes now weigh down bookstore shelves. He was not the most accomplished literary stylist in his genre, but he spun a good yarn, grappled with big ideas, and left an enduring imprint on a popular field. He was arguably the preeminent sci-fi author of the 20th century. One of the key differences between him and the two men who might also compete for this title — Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke — is that whereas they were political liberals, Heinlein was a man of the Right.

Robert Anson Heinlein was born in Butler, Mo., on July 7, 1907. (His centenary is now upon us.) Growing up, he became an avid reader of everything from Mark Twain to Jack London. As biographer Bill Patterson has pointed out, sci-fi pioneer H. G. Wells made a big impression — and not just because he wrote about Martian tripods in The War of the Worlds. Young Heinlein picked up Wells’s twin devotion to science and socialism.

The boy followed his brother to the Naval Academy and graduated high in his class in 1929. Seasickness and other health problems plagued him, however, and five years later he left the Navy with a medical disability. He settled in Los Angeles and threw himself into left-wing politics, joining the campaign to elect the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair to California’s governorship in 1934. This effort failed, but Heinlein remained a leader among local Democrats. He ran for the state assembly from Hollywood in 1938 and lost the primary.

There is some mystery in Heinlein’s early biography, partly because Heinlein liked it that way. Virtually nothing is known about a short first marriage, and fairly little is known about a second one that lasted from 1932 to 1947. Only in recent years have researchers come to appreciate the full extent of his radical activism. What’s clear is that shortly after his 1938 political defeat, he tried his hand at professional writing. A first novel, For Us, the Living, was not published until a posthumous edition came out in 2003, but he kept at it. Following World War II, his career blasted off.

For a while, Heinlein concentrated on short stories for the pulps and short novels for teenage boys. As with all great science fiction, his constantly speculated about technology, social progress, good government, and so on. By the early 1950s, married for a third and final time, he was drifting away from his left-wing past and adopting a new brand of politics. In The Puppet Masters, a 1951 novel meant for an adult audience, slug-like alien parasites land in Iowa and take over the minds of Americans. It falls upon a secret agency within the U.S. government to fight back, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The Puppet Masters may be read as a classic invasion-of-the-body-snatchers story — and also as an anti-Communist metaphor during the era of Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and Joe McCarthy.

The 1950s were probably Heinlein’s most prolific period, and the decade culminated with the publication of Starship Troopers. The story focuses on Juan Rico as he graduates from high school, joins the space marines, and wages interplanetary war on a belligerent race of “bugs” whose ant-like collectivism makes them natural-born Communists. Most of the story focuses on Rico’s boot camp — Starship Troopers is dedicated “to all sargeants [sic] anywhere who have labored to make men out of boys.” The basic training is both physical and intellectual, with readers treated to a colorful denunciation of “the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital, turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx.”

One of the main non-ideological complaints about Starship Troopers involves the plotting — too much talk and not enough shoot-’em-up scenes against those extraterrestrial creepy-crawlies. Yet the richness of the novel lies in these more thought-provoking sections, where Heinlein inserts miniature monologues that sound like outtakes from Zell Miller’s GOP convention address. “My mother says that violence never settles anything,” comments one character. A teacher who doubles as Heinlein’s mouthpiece then pounces: “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”

For those with delicate sensibilities — the type of people who would pay for newspaper ads that demand nuclear-test bans — this is sheer bombast. But Heinlein doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe a society in which citizens gain the right to vote through military service. His conjectures about “the decadence and collapse” of 20th-century democracies are also designed to raise liberal hackles: “Those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted . . . and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.” The notion that you can’t get something for nothing would become a major theme for Heinlein.

Detractors called Heinlein a fascist and a militarist — a strange charge, given that he was also an outspoken critic of conscription. “If a country can’t save itself through the volunteer service of its own free people, then I say: Let the damned thing go down the drain,” he once said. As for labels, around the time Starship Troopers came out, he called himself “a pragmatic libertarian.”

Heinlein certainly wasn’t a conservative traditionalist. His most popular book, in terms of copies sold, was Stranger in a Strange Land — a paean to sexual liberation and an attack on organized religion. Published in 1961, it resonated with hippies and gave Heinlein a mass following. Yet the author, despite a lifelong interest in unusual family arrangements, remained aloof from the counterculture: In 1964, he and his wife Virginia were enthusiastically for Barry Goldwater. A few years later, according to Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion, he signed a magazine ad that supported U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

In his recent book Radicals for Capitalism, Brian Doherty observes that “a youthful love for Heinlein’s tales of rugged individualists often lies in the past of dedicated libertarian activists” — a statement that’s possible in large measure because of the 1966 novel that many regard as Heinlein’s greatest: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The story takes place mostly within a lunar colony, where the residents grow restless under a command-and-control economy imposed by the Lunar Authority, a government that operates for the benefit of earthlings. “Here in Luna we’re rich. Three million hardworking, smart, skilled people, enough water, plenty of everything, endless power, endless cubic,” says one of the moon-dwelling Loonies. “What we don’t have is a free market. We must get rid of the Authority!” A few pages later: “It strikes me as the most basic human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace.”

The Loonies rebel in ways that echo the American Revolution, such as declaring independence on July 4, 2076. There are battles, diplomatic missions, debates on hydroponic-food exports — plus lots of discussion about how societies ought to organize themselves. Heinlein makes his distaste for taxes abundantly clear. There’s even some chatter about immigration policy: “Luna has room . . . the mind cannot imagine the day when Luna would refuse another shipload of weary homeless.” For a catchy slogan, the Loonies use “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Frequently expressed as the acronym “TANSTAAFL,” the Milton Friedmanesque phrase is probably the most famous line in Heinlein’s large oeuvre.

Although idealistic, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress steers clear of libertarian fantasyland. Heinlein is well aware that revolutions don’t lead to utopia, and the successful lunar revolt is no different. By the novel’s end, the moon’s new government has rejected the innovations that Heinlein apparently believes it should have embraced: “Seems to be a deep instinct in human beings for making everything compulsory that isn’t forbidden,” complains the narrator, who considers lighting out for the asteroids. There’s certainly no point in fighting human nature: “I long ago quit being disappointed in men for what they are not and never can be,” says another character, expressing a sentiment that is nothing if not conservative.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was Heinlein’s last great work. He continued to write until his death in 1988, overcoming health problems to do it and engaging in politics when it seemed appropriate. Heinlein was an early backer of the Strategic Defense Initiative and, according to his friend and fellow sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, he helped develop some of the language President Reagan used in his speech introducing the concept.

At the time, Reagan’s domestic foes derided SDI as pure science fiction. To drive home the point, they even dubbed it “Star Wars.” If Heinlein had lived to his 100th birthday — and witnessed recent advances in missile-defense technology — he might have smiled at their fulminations, and maybe even written a book about the subject.

* * *

Robert A. Heinlein wasn’t the only author to write sci-fi novels that resonate with conservatives — the genre is full of books that lean rightward. Here’s a list of recommended titles, drawn from my own experience as well as suggestions from readers of National Review Online.

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin: Soviet censors banned this landmark novel shortly after it was written in 1921 because they correctly interpreted its portrayal of the “One State” as a hammering critique of their own emerging totalitarianism. Two better-known dystopian successors — Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 — stand upon its broad shoulders.

Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, by C. S. Lewis: Before he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis wrote this space trilogy, which blends interplanetary adventure with subtle theology. The books were started partly in response to Lewis’s concern that (in his words) “a ‘scientific’ hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity.”

The Weapon Shops of Isher, by A. E. van Vogt: In this 1951 novel by a sci-fi pioneer, the only check on imperial power is a network of weapon shops whose motto is “the right to buy weapons is the right to be free.” But beware of invisibility shields!

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury: Often hailed as a simple cautionary tale about book-burning censorship, this perennial favorite of librarians is really about much more, from the perils of a dumbed-down culture to the importance of preserving traditions. Russell Kirk called it “a passionate and tender and terrifying description of a democratic despotism.” Aficionados of the book will appreciate Match to Flame, a brand-new volume edited by Donn Albright that collects precursors to Bradbury’s 1953 masterpiece.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.: Just as Irish monks are said to have “saved Western civilization,” the Catholic Church keeps tradition alive in the barbaric years following a nuclear apocalypse. The final section of this three-part novel, written in the 1950s, makes a powerful moral argument against euthanasia. Ironically, the author committed suicide in 1996.

“Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: Although Vonnegut was a man of the Left, this tale is so conservative that NR reprinted it in 1965. The opener: “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal . . . due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.” Coming in at just a little more than 2,000 words, this is a short-short story. “Harrison Bergeron” may be found in Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of Vonnegut’s work.

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke: A classic work of hard sci-fi — a subgenre that emphasizes technical accuracy and detail — this 1972 story focuses on the discovery of a derelict alien spacecraft. It turns out that modern science can’t solve every enigma. Fans of tidy and conclusive endings will come away disappointed, others with much to ponder.

The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: It’s hard to go wrong with Niven and Pournelle, whether they’re writing separately or as a team. This 1974 novel of first contact carries lessons for conservative hawks and liberal doves. Heinlein called it “possibly the best science-fiction novel I have ever read.” Other Niven-Pournelle collaborations worth checking out include Oath of Fealty, about urban conflict in the future, and Fallen Angels (with a third co-author, Michael Flynn), which is a forerunner to Michael Crichton’s anti-global-warming thriller State of Fear.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry: This powerful and disturbing book won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 1994. Just beneath the surface of a seemingly utopian society lurks a menacing culture of death, built upon a foundation of euphemisms and lies.


  • Robert A Leeper

    How would you evaluate Philip K. Dick ideologically?

    I am a great fan of Heinlein, and an anarcho-capitalist, but also a great fan of PKD.

  • D Armstrong

    “Director Paul Verhoeven turned it into an unfaithful movie in 1997”
    Don’t agree; I thought that it got the feel and attitudes right. Definitely not a satire, as the left like to pretend it is. The only thing that wasn’t true was the mobile armour itself, I wondered how they were going to do it, Verhoeven just ignored it.

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