That’s because the novella “ ‘If This Goes On…,’ ” which opens the book, centers on the efforts to overthrow a theocratic, totalitarian United States of America, governed by a Prophet Incarnate.
I thought at first that maybe Heinlein was thinking about the potential of a faith-centered nation, like Israel, evolving into something repressively rigid. But then I realized that Israel was nothing more than a gleam in Zionist eyes in 1939 and 1940 when the novella and the other stories first saw the light of day.
So I was left thinking that, for Heinlein, maybe the Prophet Incarnate was a stand-in for the Japanese emperor and the quasi-religious governmental structure that supported him.
Or, more likely, for Adolf Hitler, with the religious element of the Prophet’s regime serving as a parallel to Nazism. In this case, the scapegoats of the Prophet’s regime, called pariahs, would be parallels for the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other “non-peoples” identified and targeted by Hitler in the Holocaust.
Of course, it really makes no difference what, if any, specific nation sparked Heinlein’s imagination to create “ ‘If This Goes On…’ ” And that wasn’t really what I was concerned with.
As if he were writing today
What struck me most was how very 21st century the novella is.
In writing about the oppressive use of religious faith as a weapon of politics and control, Heinlein could have been writing today, using the Taliban in Afghanistan is a model. Or the religion-infused rhetoric of such terrorists as Osama bin Laden. Or, in the United States, the employment of religious disputes as wedge issues by pols to gain and hold power.
The U.S. is built on the separation of church and state, yet a theocracy could happen here. Just consider what it means when a mayor or a governor or a Congressman asserts that this is a Christian country.
In “ ‘If This Goes On…,’ ” a succession of Prophets Incarnate have held power for something like a century, and, as the novella opens, John Lyle, a West Point-trained member of the elite Angels of the Lord, is on guard outside the Prophet’s quarters in the fortress-palace.
Lyle is more than a bit of a prig, and it’s only over the course of 140 pages in which he joins the anti-Prophet underground and gets schooled in various aspects of freedom that he loosens up, somewhat.
Various aspects of freedom
Because this is Heinlein, the aspects of freedom that Lyle discovers among his comrades isn’t limited to the liberty to vote and express an opinion in public and hold whatever beliefs one might want.
It also involves free love, casual nudity and atheism (or agnosticism). In other words, the freedom to be a rugged individual without a lot of bluenoses butting in.
Interestingly, Heinlein draws a limit to how much freedom a rugged individual can have in the second piece in the collection, “Coventry.” The title refers to a reservation beyond the borders of the USA set up at some point after the overthrow of the Prophet.
By this time, the nation has developed what it would seem Heinlein considers an ideal form of democracy which takes care of everyone’s physical and emotional needs and eliminates competition.
In this context, anyone who does anything to “damage” another person is given the choice: to go through psychological treatment which, without question, will smooth out those rough psychic edges with drugs and hypnosis or to accept exile to Coventry (euphemistically referred to as the withdrawal of society from the individual).
In Coventry, David MacKinnon finds a place where the anarchists or anti-socials who can’t abide the reconstituted USA still find it necessary to develop governments. These, however, are much more oppressive than the complacent, comfortable US. Think Europe in the Middle Ages.
MacKinnon must decide in the course of the story if he is as much of an individualist as he thinks he is.
The final story, very short, is “Misfit” in which another group of people who don’t fit into US society — think the unemployed in the Depression — are given jobs in the Cosmic Construction Corps to do public service work developing other worlds for human habitation. In this case, one of the misfits is found to actually fit in because he’s got a special skill.
The point, I guess, is that, with the right systems, leaders will be able to spot and nurture individual talents. I suspect that, in this case, as well as in the near-perfect world of the USA in the “Coventry” story, Heinlein is being Pollyannaish.
By contrast, he seems to be on more solid ground in the novella “ ‘If This Goes On…’ ” when he posits an underground built by organizations, such as the Masons and the Mormons and the Catholic Church, which have exhibited strong identities throughout their histories in the face of mainstream distrust or opposition.
I could see that happening.
It’s fun to realize the many ways in which Heinlein guesses right about the future, such as government-used security camera systems and the wide development and employment of computers.
Even so, he had a great blind spot. For all his ideas about freedom, he was unable to imagine women in leadership roles or in any real balance of equality.
They might be free to have sex with whomever they want. But they’re not free enough to hold a job in which they’ll give a man an order he has to follow.
Some things, given his background, were just too far out to imagine.
Patrick T. Reardon