Have you read Robert Heinlein’s Coventry?

Are you old enough to know the English phrase “sent to Coventry”? According to Merriam-Webster, if you were “sent to Coventry,” you have been ostracized.

Although the cover story of the July 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction featured a Norman L. Knight story, as you can see in the image, the story that lasted is Robert A. Heinlein’s novella, Coventry. As you may or may not know, Heinlein was one of the most popular science fiction writers of the 20th Century, best known (IMHO) as the author of Stranger in a Strange LandSome readers consider him the #1 SF writer of the century; many more consider him one of a triumvirate of “best” SF writers, the other two being usually Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Note that all three of these were professional scientists/engineers, thus unsurprisingly exemplifying more science than fiction—in contrast, say, to Ray Bradbury and other practitioners of “soft” SF. Of course many readers have their own lists of top three; I could name 25 other candidates off the top of my head and would have a hard time justifying the inclusion of Heinlein or Clarke rather than others. (Asimov, however, is a gimme.)

Anyhow, politics will inevitably creep in here. Many people know Heinlein as an outspoken conservative/libertarian, which was true for most of his life—but not at first. Born in 1907, he was a liberal activist in the ’30s and was a Democrat through the early ’50s, when he became a libertarian-influenced Republican. This political change deeply influenced much of his fiction. But note the timing here: Coventry was published in 1940, long before Heinlein’s transformation, so you might expect his treatment of the very political theme of the novella to reflect, at the very least, skepticism of libertarianism. And that’s what you get. You can actually see the germs of Heinlein’s later views here, but the overall view is not what you would get from his work 25 years later.

So what does the title refer to? Here’s the background explanation in the story:

The Covenant was the first scientific social document ever drawn up by man, and due credit must be given to its principal author, Dr Micah Novak, the same Novak who served as staff psychologist in the revolution. The revolutionists wished to establish maximum personal liberty. How could they accomplish that to a degree of high mathematical probability? First they junked the concept of “justice.” Examined semantically “justice” has no referent—there is no observable phenomenon in the space-time-matter continuum to which one can point, and say, “This is justice.” Science can deal only with that which can be observed and measured. Justice is not such a matter; therefore it can never have the same meaning to one as to another; any “noises” said about it will only add to confusion. But damage, physical or economic, can be pointed to and measured. Citizens were forbidden by the Covenant to damage another. Any act not leading to damage, physical or economic, to some particular person, they declared to be lawful.

So this is some time in the near future, after a libertarian revolution. The “beautiful” result is that citizens who cause “physical or economic” harm to another is neither imprisoned nor fined but are given a choice of coercive psychotherapy or exile to “Coventry,” a walled-off region of the U.S. where they cannot interact with American citizens. The protagonist picks Coventry, assuming incorrectly that he will be in a libertarian utopia where he can live his life free of government interference. Think of it as northern Idaho, though the exact location is unspecified. Of course it turns out to be a dystopia, not a utopia, but I’ll skip the specifics in order to avoid spoilers. It’s a good story, and quite a contrast to Heinlein’s later work. Do read it.

Categories: Books