Back when Heinlein was antifa (really!)

When I was growing up and reading a lot of science fiction, the Holy Trinity of sf writers consisted of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. Often they were called “The Big Three.”

They had a number of other features in common, aside from being (in some readers’ eyes) the best sf writers of the day. For one, Asimov was a PhD biochemist, Clarke a physicist, and Heinlein an aeronautical engineer, so I had implicit trust in the scientific accuracy of their fiction. For another, none of three wrote about aliens (except very rarely), and none could write convincingly about human beings (except very rarely). They were all writers of ideas, of scientific concepts, of technology—not the standard topics of literary fiction.

I’ve written about Asimov several times before in this blog, and now it’s Heinlein’s turn. For some reason I had never read Assignment in Eternity when it was published, which was 1953. OK, I was too young to read it at that time, so why didn’t I read it six years later, when I was 12 years old and the perfect age for it? Anyhow, even the 1953 date is highly misleading—in a minute you’ll see why I make a point of this—since the book is a collection of two novellas and two “novelettes,” i.e. long short stories. Note the years when the four components were published:

  • Gulf (1949)
  • Elsewhen (1941)
  • Lost Legacy (1941)
  • Jerry was a Man (1947)

A striking sociological observation about all four works is that everyone smokes cigarettes in them! That, more than anything else, makes them feel dated. But so does their political viewpoint. Collectively they paint a very different picture of Robert Heinlein than what we are used to from Stranger in a Strange Land and similar books. We think of Heinlein as writing with an interesting combination of libertarianism, sexism, and militarism—and that’s true for his later works. We think of him as a strong Republican, as a vocal and prominent supporter of Barry Goldwater in 1964. But when we go back to the ’40s we see someone very different: the germ of libertarianism is still there, but he was definitely a liberal, a Democrat, an anti-fascist. To quote Mark Koerner:

A leftist close enough to the mainstream to remain a Democrat in the 1930’s, Heinlein continued to hold an anti-big-business, pro-government world view well into Truman administration; this philosophy is on exhibit in the juvenile Red Planet (1947), the story of a revolution against “the Company” that has set up Mars as a giant company town.

With the rise of McCarthyism, Heinlein became less concerned about New Deal-type issues, and focused on civil liberties instead; he wrote Between Planets (1951) during this phase, in which the bad guys are thinly disguised FBI agents. Nevertheless, he was still worried enough about the Communists Among Us to execute a classic McCarthyite parable, The Puppet Masters (1951).

I hadn’t known all this when I decided to check Assignment in Eternity out of the library. All four stories in it are worth reading, even though they’re rather simplistic and more like what we would consider YA fiction today. I do want to quote a short passage from Lost Legacy:

“I’ve got to have a wave of religious hysteria that will wash out the Bill of Rights—before the Shasta camp breaks up for the summer. We will have to act fast before that time and we can’t be hampered by a lot of legalisms.”

“It can’t be done.”

“Shut up. It can be done. Your temple will receive endowments this week which you will use for countrywide television hookups. At the proper time you will discover a new messiah.”


“Brother Artemis.”

That cornbelt pipsqueak? Where do I come in on this?”

“You’ll get yours. But you can’t head this movement; the country won’t take a woman in the top spot. The two of you will lead a march on Washington and take over. The Sons of ’76 will fill out your ranks and do the street fighting.”

This was 1941!

Categories: Books, Linguistics