Paperback Politics

Robert Heinlein’s politics


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If the zeitgeist has a face, it supposedly belongs to Ayn Rand and her capitalist philosophy of Objectivism. Talk radio hosts adore the author’s demands for limited government; Congressman Paul Ryan insists that his staffers read her overstuffed opus Atlas Shrugged; picket signs at Tea Party rallies suggest that we all “READ AYN RAND.” And yet, some pieces are missing. Ayn Rand was anti-war, but spending for hundreds of military bases and two-and-a-half wars remains sacrosanct even as Congress made the debt ceiling a major issue. She found homosexuality “immoral” and “disgusting,” and yet gay marriage has regained the initiative in the public square. And Randian heroes are explicitly — nay, objectively — elitist. They are genius millionaire square-jawed heroes who walked right off the screen at the movie matinee. The average Tea Party rallier, not so much.


There is another writer whose political and philosophical influence is finally being felt in the public sphere. You may have read one of his books as a child. His name is Robert A. Heinlein, and he wrote science fiction. He was a libertarian enamored of military might, a conservative who championed free love. His heroes are certainly competent. They’re also folks who hack the systems in which they live, not elitists who abandon a corrupt world full of moochers and looters to worship the dollar as an end unto itself.  And unlike Rand, most of Heinlein’s work is actually readable.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress features “Loonies” —Earthlings from the political and financial fringes of society. Exiled to the moon, they rally behind the philosophy of “Rational Anarchism” and stage a revolution to win their independence from Earth. The book is full of fun stuff: a self-aware computer, catapults that shoot rocks at the Earth, political shenanigans, and even revolutionary tweens who form “corridor gangs” to help the cause. Heinlein also has a knack for the pithy. He popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” — itself a clever summary of what makes economics the dismal science.  Forget Rand’s groaning endless speeches about capitalism, or gnomic questions such as, “Who is John Galt?” (Who cares!), here’s Heinlein’s Professor De La Paz on living under the rule of law: “I will accept the rules that you feel necessary to your freedom. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them.” Now that’s an ethos both the conservative who doesn’t want to wear a seatbelt and the hippie who demands service even though he’s shirtless and shoeless can get behind.

Heinlein’s own politics were as fungible. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he became a leftist in the 1930s and worked in the EPIC main office during Upton Sinclair’s run for the California gubernatorial seat. Heinlein himself ran for State Assembly as a Democrat in 1938, but lost.  His second marriage, to Virginia Gerstenfeld, and the Cold War sent him far to the right. Heinlein was a hawk who agitated for U.S. nuclear testing, worked on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign, and also penned the counterculture bible Stranger in a Strange Land.

Stranger has all the ingredients of a cult classic: an alienated hero in the Mars-raised human Valentine Michael Smith, groovy neologisms such as “grok” (def., to really understand something), and, as Heinlein stand-in Jubal Harshaw summarizes the world Smith makes: “Bacchanalia, unashamed swapping, communal living and anarchistic code, everything.” And it’s “all moral,” Harshaw declares. The book’s sex is heterosexual, and one character — the foolish Jill who is constantly being corrected by Harshaw — is likely a homophobe, but even she ends up kissing one of her female “water brothers” after adopting Martian social mores. Stranger in a Strange Land was a phenomenon: Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand was a fan, and David Crosby  referenced it in a number of songs. The practice of polyamory, popularized by the book, survived the AIDS era. Science-fiction conventions today often feature panel discussions on navigating the jealousies and time commitments of having multiple lovers. And people think nerds never have sex.

For a long time, Stranger remained just a countercultural touchstone, with few inroads into the mainstream. Megan Daum, writing for a decade ago on the Heinlein-influenced Church of All Worlds and its polyamorous practices, concluded, “[t]his story is about what happens when you give something a name and, in so doing, deny yourself the unexpected elation that comes from falling in love with someone whose bookshelves hold none of the same books as your own.” For Daum, the real problem with polyamory was that there was too much science fiction involved. For those not steeped in Heinlein, the axioms of the lifestyle, its politics, and even the very definition of freedom made little sense. But lots of people are steeped in Heinlein; Stranger is the type of novel one is handed by an enthusiastic friend who says, “You’ve gotta read this!” That’s how it spreads.

The third big gotta book in Heinlein’s oeuvre is his 1959 Starship Troopers. There’s no room for hippies here. In Troopers, the only way to gain citizenship is to work for the Federal Service. For many, that means the military or other hazardous duty. Heinlein fans cling to the equality of opportunity embedded in this disclaimer from a minor character: “if you came in here in a wheelchair and blind in both eyes and were silly enough to insist on enrolling, they would find you something silly to match. Counting the fuzz on a caterpillar by touch, maybe.” But when the titular troopers, in awesome battle armor, face off against the enemy Arachnids, there’s very little fuzz-counting going on.

Starship Troopers also includes a jeremiad against child psychologists, who are blamed for encouraging parents to abandon corporal punishment in an our era, thus contributing to utter social collapse. Even “liberty,” we’re told “is never unalienable, it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes.” Non-citizen “civilians” actually look down on the suckers who fight for the rare privilege of voting, but otherwise live perfectly comfortable lives. Rand would have rendered them as chinless criminals and whiners doomed to starve in the ruins. But there’s nothing to whine about in Starship Troopers — after all, thanks to the Federal Service (and spankings), crime is a rarity, taxes are low, and everything’s great until those awful aliens show up to spill the blood of patriots.

Much of Heinlein’s other work is less propagandistic, and the best of it is rollicking, compulsively readable, and quotable. Even his books for juveniles feature teeny rebel yells, such as this one from protagonist Kip in Have Space Suit—Will Travel: “The less respect an older person deserves the more certain he is to demand it from anyone younger.” Heinlein’s essential theme is compelling. The individual is the measure of all things. From this premise all else follows — the suspicion toward conventional morality, the primacy of the free market, the valorizing of science over received wisdom, and antipathy toward the state. To keep the world from collapsing into first an orgy, and then the horrifying day-after poverty and chaos one would expect in a Stranger-type setting, Heinlein’s work often prescribes the military virtues of honor, duty, and loyalty.

It’s a convincing mix, especially when the deck is stacked. There’s little military corruption in Heinlein’s work, even if one counts the Space Patrol in Space Cadet aiming nukes at the Earth in order to keep the world government together. A militaristic ethos is often conflated with the scientific method in the mouths of Heinlein’s characters. There’s no room for disagreement with science for Heinlein, and he slips the military in like a palmed card. The idea of a minimal force suitable only for defense — the classic libertarian preference — isn’t even debated. Of course the military must be huge, as our patriots are surrounded by insectoid Communists. Today, misguided fear of supposedly rapidly expanding Islamicism offers an equivalent excuse for a minimal state ringed by an enormous, aggressive military.

Libertarianism has always been a minority current in American politics. There’s the occasional “cool” Republican who smokes weed, the agitated regular at city council meetings who complained endlessly about the municipalization of garbage collection, SDS members who threw rocks though the windows of government buildings but never wrecked private property.  Heinlein was an ideological father of the nascent movement. Libertarian Party founder David Nolan cut his teeth on Heinlein before attending MIT and organizing Young Americans for Freedom and then MIT Students for Goldwater. Libertarian intellectual Robert Poole, wrote in Reason — the most reasonable of the libertarian journals — that he and Nolan “came to libertarianism by similar paths, growing up reading Robert Heinlein’s individualist-oriented science fiction” and only later did the pair discover “Ayn Rand’s writings.” The influence of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress on anarcho-capitalist economist and long-time sci-fi fan David Friedman (son of Nobel Prize-winner Milton and economist Rose) is obvious in his seminal The Machinery of Freedom. But until recently, libertarianism was a fringe ideology. Heinlein himself didn’t age well; his later books are didactic, rambling self-parodies. Many fans literally blame a stroke for a decline in quality. The author died in 1988. And the Internet happened.

Technology workers, do-it-yourself hackers, and college kids — Heinlein’s audience — were here first. The early Internet felt like a functioning anarchy, never mind that the Department of Defense funded its backbone. Heinlein readers took to the ‘net and soon dominated many discursive spaces. In 1996, just as the web was bringing the Internet to the masses, Paulina Borsook sputtered that Silicon Valley types were “cyberselfish” and fumed that they were “violently lacking in compassion, ravingly anti-government, and tremendously opposed to regulation.” But nothing is less effective than simply casting libertarians as selfish. As Heinlein would say, “What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts?”  Neither liberals nor conservatives are any good at arguing all the way back to their premises anymore. Heinlein’s heroes, and by extension his readers, get that training early on. Or think they do.

As the division between life online and off life has blurred — we all live online now, through our phones and Facebook and Google News homepage — the libertarianism seeded online has fully bloomed in the middle of the public square. The new libertarian vision is not Rand’s, which always had more to do with jousting with Kant than it had with the construction of a future. Rand’s Objectivism was also never sufficiently “American.” The dystopian United States of Atlas Shrugged is too obviously the Stalinist USSR from whence Rand emigrated. And Rand’s heroes don’t make good; they simply are good.  They’re fully formed as perfect beings who were born right, who were always successful. She engaged in the pathetic fallacy of the physiognomy; the best and brightest were also the hottest.  Such an idea wouldn’t play to the funny-looking misfits of science-fiction fandom. Heinlein, on the other hand, had his Competent Men work at it. Virtually any bright and curious kid who could take apart a radio could pilot a spaceship or wage a war or even save the world if he (nearly always he) embraced the scientific method and worked hard. Heinlein’s heroes are generally self-made men. They’re small-town boys who win a contest and make good, or who join the military and learn to be a man, or who grow old and have happy sex with lots of gorgeous redheads. (One exception is Friday Baldwin, as she is both a woman and a genetically superior “artificial person” hated for her non-human status.)

Supposedly anyone can be a Heinlein hero if he learns his history and mathematics. Gun-rights activist Gary Marbut, from his kit-built solar-powered geodesic dome in Montana, conceived of and helped pass the Firearms Freedom Act in eight states. The law undermines federal regulation of firearms made and retained in a single state on Tenth Amendment grounds. Marbut isn’t a lawyer, and doesn’t need to be one. Nor is he a Tea Party member, but he’s sympathetic to the movement. In explaining his successes to the Wall Street Journal, he quoted Heinlein: “When it’s time to railroad, people start railroading.”

Then there’s Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel. He’s a Heinlein fan, openly gay, and a philanthropist. The endeavors he helps fund include the Singularity Institute, an organization dedicated to making sure that artificial intelligences are friendly toward humans; his own Thiel Fellowships, to encourage college students to drop out and become entrepreneurs; the Methuselah Mouse Prize foundation, which is looking to extend human life; and the Seasteading Institute, which seeks to found libertarian cities on the open ocean. In a 2009 essay championing seasteading, Thiel complained that “the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of’ capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron,” a sentiment similar to that found in Heinlein’s Glory Road: “Democracy can’t work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that’s all there is — so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work.” This is no coincidence; in the same essay, Thiel lamented that the ” libertarian future of classic science fiction, à la Heinlein, will not happen before the second half of the 21st century.” If Thiel has his way, life will be a series of Heinlein novels.

Most Tea Partiers and their sympathizers are traditionalists: They identify as conservative Christians, are opposed to gay marriage, and would run screaming if they knew that Ron Paul recommends legalizing heroin. But the cultural reactionary planks of the Tea Party platform aren’t the ones winning in the public square. Heinlein’s planks are; the fans have decided it’s time to get railroading. Minimal government, a giant military, high technology, and plenty of free lovin’ — I’ve seen the future already, and it’s copied from some science-fiction paperbacks. • 5 August 2011


Nick Mamatas is the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild-nominated author of three and a half novels, including Sensation (PM Press 2011), and 60 short stories that have appeared on, Lovecraft Unbound, Weird Tales, and many other magazines and anthologies. His fiction collection You Might Sleep... was published by Prime Books. As editor of Clarkesworld, the online magazine of the fantastic, Nick was nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards, and with Ellen Datlow he co-edited the anthology of regional ghost stories Haunted Legends (Tor, 2010).