Friday, July 10, 2020

Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein

The woke but godless, the arrogant but ignorant, the violent but physically unimpressive, the degreed but poorly educated, the broke but acquisitive, the ambitious but stalled--these are history's ingredients of riot and revolution.
--from "The Fragility of the Woke" by Victor Davis Hanson, July 9, 2020

Last night I finished reading Robert A. Heinlein's novel Beyond This Horizon (1942). By chance, it touches on some of the things I have written about lately. What I mean when I say "by chance" is that I didn't know what the book is about before I read it, and I don't have a program of reading in search of Cozy Dystopia. I just found this book at the secondhand store and read it at my first opportunity.

I wouldn't call Beyond This Horizon a cozy dystopia or really a dystopia of any kind. Although it seems to have been written as a kind of positive fantasy on the part of its author, I don't think Heinlein's book is really utopian, either. It simply describes a future society that's different from our own, one that maybe Heinlein would have enjoyed but no one else. (There's a lot of gun-slinging in it.)

Beyond This Horizon is not the most compelling of Heinlein's novels. It takes awhile to take off and you start to think that it's trying to be too many things at once and not any one thing all together. It's a kind of journey through an alternative society, and in that ways it has similarities to a utopian story. The society it describes, however, is not perfect and is not meant to sound like it's perfect. (At least I don't think it is.) The society in Beyond This Horizon actually sounds kind of disorderly--despite the emphasis on codes of honor and etiquette--and unpleasant--despite the comforts it offers its citizens. In other words, the society described in Beyond This Horizon is kind of like every other society throughout history.

There are innovations, or at least semi-innovations, in Beyond This Horizon. These include waterbeds, sperm banks, voice ringtones, telephonic fax machines, a programmable autopilot, escalators, and welfare payments made directly to citizens by their government. I call them semi-innovations because, although they may have been invented or conceived before Heinlein wrote, they seem to have made pretty early appearances in his novel. In fact, some could have appeared at that time only in a science fiction story.

A long time ago, before it was called science fiction, or scientifiction, or even scientific romance, our favorite genre was sometimes called pseudo-scientific adventure, or fiction, or, if the reviewer was feeling appreciative, literature. The term came along about when you imagine it would have, that is, in the nineteenth century, after there was such a thing as science, and because of that development, various pseudosciences. The earliest use I have found of the term pseudo-science in reference to what we call science fiction is from 1885 in--of all unlikely places--the Vicksburg, Mississippi Evening Post ("Vital Statistics," Sept. 7, 1885, p. 2). The Post's use of the term makes it clear that readers would already have had an inkling of what pseudo-scientific adventure is all about. I suspect the term had been in use for some time, possibly in reference to the works of Jules Verne. In any case, the terms pseudo-science and pseudo-scientific in reference to science fiction were used more often as the turn of the century approached. Curiously, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction treats just one definition of the term pseudo-science, and it's the one we think of now when we see the word. You know, all of that crackpot stuff about eugenics, mental telepathy, space aliens, and reincarnation.

One of the problems with Beyond This Horizon is that there's a lot of that crackpot stuff about eugenics, mental telepathy, space aliens, and reincarnation. In fact, these things form the basic theme of the book, once it gets around to its basic theme. (And thank God it finally makes its point in its final three pages. That's how close Heinlein came to writing a pretty pointless novel. But then maybe he knew what he was doing all along.)

Beyond This Horizon takes place in the far future, maybe somewhere around the twenty-fourth-and-a-half century. (As in Buck Rogers, a man who went to sleep in the 1920s is awakened into this new world.) And although many of the names and much of the culture of past centuries has been lost (this is a post-apocalyptic world), some also remains, including knowledge of Arrhenius and his panspermic hypothesis (perhaps only a semi-pseudoscientific idea in our day) (p. 125), and Flammarion's (pseudoscientific) research into reincarnation (p. 143). (Flammarion also wrote science fiction by the way.) There's another idea from the past--a really hateful idea, in fact--that has survived in Heinlein's future society. More on that at the end.

Although he touched on other pseudoscientific and semi-pseudoscientific ideas, the heart of Heinlein's story concerns eugenics, and from eugenics it goes into mental telepathy and (spoiler alert) reincarnation, all of which are treated as scientific subjects. Eugenics, that dream program of early twentieth-century Progressivism, has thankfully been discredited since Heinlein wrote. (1) But in 1942, when Beyond This Horizon was first published, there were still those in the West who held to it, despite its growing association with the monstrous and often pseudoscientific ideas of Nazi Germany. Again, in the society described in Beyond This Horizon, eugenics is central: the whole point is to breed the superior man. And the whole point of breeding the superior man turns into the goal of developing telepathic abilities in that man, which are used in turn to confirm (in those last three pages) that the soul survives the death of the body and that therefore life has meaning.

I would call that a strange and ambitious subject for a science fiction novel.

As I read Beyond This Horizon, it occurred to me that the eugenics/superior man/mental telepathy program outlined therein seems also to have been the program of the whole of Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. Heinlein's novel, serialized in the April and May 1942 issues of the magazine, had been preceded by A.E. van Vogt's Slan (Sept.-Dec. 1940), which treated similar ideas. By 1940 or '42, Campbell had already become interested in psychic phenomena. But who in this world can exercise his psychic abilities? Perhaps only the mutated man, the advanced man, the superior man. So that's the man about whom Campbell's writers wrote. He is in Slan and in Beyond This Horizon. He is also the end goal of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, which first saw the light of day in the May 1950 issue of Astounding, evolving soon after into Scientology.

Say what you will about him, but at least Robert Heinlein was smart enough to see through Hubbard and his crackpot schemes. But Campbell and van Vogt? Not so much. Nonetheless, Heinlein seems to have had a favorable view of eugenics and its program of generating the superior man. I have a feeling that he thought of himself as one of them, already on Earth in the here and now. He seems also to have given some credence to mental telepathy as a scientifically explainable phenomenon. Time to move on.
* * *

One of the side plots of Beyond This Horizon is an attempted coup against the government. The government is already pretty lousy. Like human reproduction, the economy is planned and the people have become more or less serfs. (2) But the plotters against the government are worse still. We recognize them today, for they are still with us. Their ideas are the same, though older, more tired, and more worn out than they were in 1942, if that's even possible. They are the ideas of the Progressive, the Socialist (species national or international, it doesn't matter), the Collectivist ("The Whole is greater than the parts!" is their slogan in Heinlein's book), the Leftist of whatever stripe: Society must be destroyed and then rebuilt upon a foundation of Science and Reason.

I started this ever-expanding essay with an illustrative quote. Here are some others, from Beyond This Horizon (Signet, n.d.):
Had he [Monroe-Alpha, one of the plotters] been as skilled in psychologics as he was in mathematics he might possibly have recognized his own pattern for what it was--religious enthusiasm, the desire to be part of a greater whole and to surrender one's own little worries to the keeping of an over-being. He had been told, no doubt, in his early instruction, that revolutionary political movements and crusading religions were the same type-form process, differing only in verbal tags and creeds, but he had never experienced either one before. In consequence, he failed to recognize what had happened to him. Religious frenzy? What nonsense--he believed himself to be an extremely hard-headed agnostic. (Emphasis in the original.) (p. 92)
* * * 
Mordan [one of the government's men, who speaks after the coup has been put down] considered how to reply [. . .]. "Perhaps," he said, "it would be simplest to state that they [the plotters] never did have what it takes. The leaders were, in most cases, genetically poor types, (3) with conceit far exceeding their abilities. I doubt if any one of them had sufficient imagination to conceive logically the complexities of running a society, even the cut-to-measure society they dreamed of. [. . .] What it boils down to is lack of imagination and overwhelming conceit." (Emphasis added.) (p. 104)
* * * 
"I venture to predict [Mordan continues] that, when we get around to reviewing their records, we will find that the rebels were almost all--all, perhaps--men who had never been outstandingly successful at anything. Their only prominence was among themselves."
     Hamilton thought this over to himself. He had noticed something of the sort. They had seemed like thwarted men. [. . .] they were swollen with self-importance, planning this, deciding that, talking about what they would do when they "took over." Pipsqueaks, the lot of 'em. (Emphasis added again.) (p. 104)

Here is where I'll send you back to the quote from Victor Davis Hanson and where I'll just restate that we have seen the likes of these people before, the people about whom Dr. Hanson writes today and about whom Heinlein wrote before him. Heinlein described them as having "conceit far exceeding their abilities"; Dr. Hanson calls them "the arrogant but ignorant." "Pipsqueaks," Heinlein wrote; Dr. Hanson calls them "physically unimpressive." Heinlein understood that plotters are "thwarted men [. . .] swollen with self-importance"; Dr. Hanson calls them "ambitious but stalled." I'll refer you to Eric Hoffer, too. He understood, as Heinlein did, that the radical political impulse is religious in its aims and intensity. Instead of "thwarted," Hoffer referred to these men as having "spoiled lives," "spoiled" not as in materially comfortable, but degraded or ruined. They are bored and unhappy, self-loathing and alienated. They seek happiness, excitement, fulfillment, and a chance to lose themselves in mass movements of visionary and religious intensity ("wild, uncontrolled daydreams," Heinlein calls them). They are the same people today who are destroying and burning, tearing down and looting, beating and killing. They have never created anything, never accomplished anything; they are small, weak, and ignorant, and so they seek, out of infantile fury and rabid envy, to destroy the things that others have created, to bring down their accomplishments and scatter them in the mud and rubble of the hated, ruined, and soon-to-be-overthrown past. Children. Infants. "Pipsqueaks, the lot of 'em."

* * *

I have just two more things. There are anachronisms in Beyond This Horizon. That's for sure. Part of it is in the way people talk, a 1940s kind of snappy banter. That's common in Heinlein's writing. When it's good, it peps up a story. When it's not good, well . . . . Another is that some of the characters have old-fashioned names: Felix, Martha, Phyllis. The effect is to make Beyond This Horizon pretty badly dated. (Sorry to all people named Felix, Martha, and Phyllis.) As a cartoonist, I noticed another: the protagonist Felix is referred to once as a "Cheerful Cherub," which was the name of a newspaper comic panel from the 1920s by Rebecca McCann and which could hardly have survived into the far future (p. 149).

There's still one more that is far more troubling.

The man from 1926 comes out of his slumber-stasis and interacts with the superman Felix a couple of times. (This is another of the tangents in Heinlein's novel.) There is a misunderstanding. The man from the past is challenged to a duel. Felix advises him to apologize to the offended party so as to avoid being killed. The man's pride is hurt. And then he uses the n-word (p. 145).

And Felix, who knows only a little of the distant past, its customs, and its lingo, replies, "I don't understand what you mean. What has your color to do with it?" (p. 145).

So we are expected to believe that not only the word--that shocking and disgusting word--is still in use in the far future and that a man of that future knows what it means, but also that the perception and status of the people to whom it is applied have remained unchanged despite the passage of centuries. That is inconceivable to me, and it shows--despite everything else there is in this book--a terrible and inexcusable failure of the author's imagination. I'm not the first to make note of this. Thankfully others have noticed and objected before me. But in 2018, the World Science Fiction Convention awarded Beyond This Horizon a Retro-Hugo Award for best novel. I find Heinlein's use of the word a terrible flaw in an already flawed book. Was there any consideration of this flaw on the part of WorldCon? Couldn't it have found something else out of the year 1942 upon which to bestow its award? (4) And could such a thing happen now, just two years later? Not likely. Not in this climate. I'm not one for cancellation, bowdlerization, or censorship, but Robert Heinlein should have known better. It was 1942 for God's sake. He should have known better. Why should we award his ignorance and failed imagination now?

* * *

I'll close with another quote, this one from a commenter called WP on the website of the National Review. After someone else referred to our times as "stupid," WP wrote:

"Calling our current times 'stupid' is an insult to the dignity and majesty of stupid."

Give that guy (or woman) an award.

(1) Kind of. Founded by Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood is still in the business of correcting what she called "the most urgent problem today [which] is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective." See her original article "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda," from October 1921.
(2) Did Heinlein really look with favor upon a planned economy? Maybe so. A lot of people did in those days. The man from the twentieth century who emerges into Heinlein's present studied another one of Progressivism's isms, Taylorism, also called scientific management. Taylorism is often a feature of planned and controlled economies. After hating it, V.I. Lenin came to like it and adopted it in his new slave state of the Soviet Republic.
(3) Keep in mind that genetic superiority and inferiority is the unit of measure in Heinlein's imagined society. Feel free to insert your own unit of measure: it all comes out the same in the end. Put another way, there are just two types among the haters and destroyers: the evil and exceptional (like Lenin) and the stupid and thoroughly unexceptional (everybody who follows the evil and exceptional). The second type is waaay more common. This is the type that is currently running through our streets.
(4) How about Rocket to the Morgue by Anthony Boucher? It's not science fiction exactly, but it's about science fiction. Call it honorary science fiction and give Boucher the award.

Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein was first published as a serial in the April and May 1942 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. Astounding used Heinlein's pseudonym Anson MacDonald as its byline. The MacDonald part was no doubt for Heinlein's wife at the time, Leslyn MacDonald (1904-1981), who was also a teller of weird tales.

The cover illustration by Hubert Rogers depicts one of the most interesting and well-written sequences in Heinlein's novel. That sequence takes place in redwood country in California during the attempted coup.

A. E. van Vogt's story "Asylum" appeared in the following month's issue, displacing Heinlein's on the cover. Rogers was again the cover artist. His green-glowing, fusiform craft is practically the same as the month before. Like Heinlein, van Vogt was a believer, I think, in the superior man. Unlike Heinlein, he went down the rabbit hole of L. Ron Hubbard's scam/belief system.

Revised slightly on July 11, 2020.
Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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