Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Sixth Column by Robert Heinlein

It would be easiest to review this like I have the stories I've been reading on Project Gutenberg - with a hefty dose of irreverence, and covering the sometimes astounding racism and sexism with as much humour as headshaking. But this is Heinlein, and it's not as easy to dismiss. With Heinlein, you have to tackle head-on the issues with many of his books, and, if you're me, admit that you still really like reading them anyway.

I have no problem with doing that, most of the time. But wow, is this book racist. In its defense, it's not as racist as it would have been if the famed SF editor Campbell had written it himself, which he initially did, before turning the concept over to Heinlein. That's really damning with faint praise, to say that the book could have been more racist. Nor do I buy the apologia at the end, where someone  not-Heinlein is trying to prove that a main character might have been black, even though someone refers to him as a white man explicitly. But he was mistaken in the firelight at a hobo camp as Asian, so You're reaching, dude. Severely reaching. Reaching almost beyond the measure of it.

America has been invaded! By "PanAsian" forces, communist (sort of?) Pan Asian forces. The government is destroyed, the military wiped out, civil authority in shambles. The invading armies are ruling with an iron thumb, resorting frequently to massacres and death camps. (It makes me long for Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, which deals much more interestingly with a successful Japanese invasion of the U.S.) A handful of scientists working on a death ray, and the one military guy who comes to then in the last days of the war are all that stand against the invading armies.

And yet, it's just slightly  more complex than I'm making it sound in terms of race issues. That doesn't make it better, but let's give the man his due. It doesn't make Heinlein in 1949 a bastion of tolerance to have one Asian-American who is on the side of the flag and apple pie, but still, Frank Mitsui is a likeable and tragic character. There is a hint of it being a problem of culture and expectation rather than race, but only the merest hint. The rest is pretty inexcusable. (And yes, in 1949, Heinlein cannot have known that there wouldn't be proven that there was an "Asian gene" that would allow a death/stun/dread ray to target races specifically, while leaving white folks untouched. But I do hold him responsible for not really thinking through the implications of such a death ray, particularly only four years after the end of the Second World War and the concentration camps becoming public. Well, for all I know, he may have thought them through, but it doesn't make its way to the page.)

And it's frustrating, because, racism aside, this is a damned interesting book. Heinlein is virtually incapable of writing a boring story. As a look at how populations respond to military control, I'd like to send those bits to certain planners of certain military missions. As a weird precursor to Stranger in a Strange Land in terms of starting a new religion (although for utterly different reasons), it's fascinating. But you can't really put the race issues aside, nor should you try. And so, I remain conflicted. This is probably my least favourite Heinlein, and I'm very glad the stuff that comes up in this book is not a consistent theme in his later, and much superior, works.

But if you look at my Gutenberg themes, as to wit: where people thought the world was going, this is also a fascinating little study of fears about a post-World War II world, wrapped up in tons of contemporary concerns.

Goddammit, Heinlein! You're always difficult, and yet rewarding. At least in this case, you gave me thoughts. Not complimentary ones, but thoughts all the same.


  1. Well put Megan. I think you nailed the issues with this book. Heinlein is a great writer but he is a product of his time. Science fiction can do that.

  2. Thanks, Dave! And yes, I think it's important to neither ignore the prejudices of the past, nor to expect authors to have somehow transcended their time period entirely.