Thursday, July 05, 2007

Saturday Marks the 100th Birthday of Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein is one of the central figures of the "Golden Age of Science Fiction." Some writers are fond of saying, "the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12," but given that I didn't start reading SF until my late teens (I was, and still am more of a Fantasy fan) I have never much agreed with that statement. I also think it disparages the genre by infantilizing it, and Science Fiction is a fiction of ideas. We'll leave the infantilizing to what others call skiffy (for SciFi). Whether one agrees with the ideas of a particular author or not doesn't matter, only that one understands that Science Fiction (at least when well done) is a fiction which usually contains some philosophic position as to the "best society."

Heinlein was no exception in this regard; he had strong opinions about what constituted a just and noble society and that is one of the reasons why he is such a controversial figure.

When one looks to the writings of an SF writer like H.G. Wells to see concepts of what constitutes the best society, one reads polemics against authoritarianism and stories championing the working class. One also reads narratives critical of bourgeois morality and against democracy as we understand it. His non-fiction book, a presentation actually, After Democracy being a prime example of this part of his thought. Wells was a complex thinker, of the Left to be sure, who wrote insightful critiques of the future.

When one looks to Heinlein however, it is almost a mirror reflection of Wells. Almost. We still find polemics against authoritarianism, the Bugs in Starship Troopers comes directly to mind, but you also often find examples praising of other authoritative regimes, the Earth of Starship Troopers comes to mind. There are other examples, and to be fair the Earth society in Starship Troopers can be interpreted as a democratic society of a kind, but since Starship Troopers is one of Heinlein's most controversial stories it bears mentioning. One also, like in Wells, finds a certain libertine criticism of bourgeois morality. Heinlein's stories are filled with sexual liberation and attacks on religion. One also finds, and here is the real mirror effect, an underlying faith in Capitalist systems, a kind of libertarian faith in capital economics (one will see a slightly different use of the word libertarian in the Moorcock piece below, but I think Moorcock's use is limited as he only believes in non-economic personal freedom).

Wells was a "man of the Left," but was Heinlein a "man of the Right?"

Michael Moorcock argues not only that Heinlein was a man of the Right, but that he was proto-fascist as well, in his polemic essay "Starship Stormtroopers" John J. Miller, a writer at the conservative "National Review," agrees that Heinlein was a man of the Right, but (being a man of the Right himself) doesn't equate being on the Right automatically with Fascism.He was a prolific writer who holds a significant place in the history of Science Fiction writing. Brian Doherty makes a case for Heinlein the libertarian in the most recent issue of "Reason," Doherty discusses Heinlein's relationship to Southern California at Reason Online.

For those who are fans of Heinlein, and who hadn't thought abut the philosophic implications of his fiction, the Moorcock article might be particularly striking. Moorcock equates everything from Heinlein to Star Wars with authoritarian sentiments. For those who balk at the "Star Wars as authoritarian fairy tale" reference screaming at the page, "but the Rebels are fighting against an authoritarian regime," I would ask you to pause for a moment. Pause and ask yourself what kind of regime is being offered as a substitute. Defeating an Emperor while allied and rewarded by a "Princess" isn't exactly democratic and pro-liberty.
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