15 December 2023

Robert Heinlein and the idea of the superman

A common theme in much of Heinlein’s fiction is the idea of, if not a super-hero, at least someone with extraordinary skills. Sometimes there is not one person but an elite, closed group. Common to both however is the idea that these people believe and act on the premise that they know what is best for humanity and are in some way the last hope. While this is closely related to another common Heinlein theme of individual choice as the source of moral action, it is slightly contradictory, since by their actions these closed groups are often making irreversible decisions affecting humanity at large and so denying those others the opportunity to exercise the same moral choice.

Often the closed group manifests itself as such because of superior knowledge that is kept secret. In a minor way, the guilds in “Starman Jones” are such a group, although in this case not presented positively – at least until Jones manages to gain membership. Similarly, in The Roads must Roll the engineers running the rolling roads see themselves as an elite body, with a semi-sacred duty to keep the Roads moving.

More typically, in “Lost Legacy” we have a group with apparently supernatural powers who use those powers to destroy those they believe to be evil. There is never any doubt in the minds of the protagonists that their actions are the right one. The reader is thus never given the opportunity to consider the moral tension inherent in the story line. In addition, the opposition group is a caricature, and their defeat never really in doubt, again removing any tension to the story. The ending of Lost Legacy, sees evil defeated, whereupon humanity moves on to a ‘higher plane’ leaving the great apes behind to follow in their footsteps. In practice, this story seems to have much in common with another proponent of the superhero, A E Van Vogt.

In “Gulf” this idea is carried even further, with a new race, homo novis, being created from the mass of humanity, by a group of self-declared ‘New Humans’. These New Humans again take to themselves the right to kill or destroy others they believe to be acting against the interests of homo novis.

The most significant example of a new race emerging from the body of humanity is probably the Howard Families, who make their first appearance in “Methuselah’s Children” but reappear in most of his last books. In the case of the Howards, there is no superior knowledge that can be withheld, since their sole source of superiority is their longevity. By the time we get to the final novels, where the Howards reappear, it is suggested that the longevity of the Howard families is in fact all down to Lazarus Long and his freak genes. This is something of a cop out and doesn’t explain how his mother and all those of her generation lived not just for a long time, but also maintained their youthful appearance to the extent that they had to periodically relocate under new identities.

In “The Day after Tomorrow”, originally called “Sixth Column”, the idea of a closed group is carried to the extreme, with only six people (Americans of course) possessing the knowledge to defeat and destroy the ‘Pan-Asian’ invaders of the USA – who are probably a metaphor for Communism. In practice, the story is a parable of how rugged American values will defeat the collectivism of Communism. I don’t think it works as a parable, however, because the so-called ‘sixth column’ is actually put into place through a fake religion so outrageous that it is impossible to believe those same rugged individualists would ever swallow it to the extent depicted in the story – even to get the food that is distributed by the new ‘temples’

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “If this goes on” (also called “Revolt in 2100”) also employ the idea of the closed group, albeit in different ways. In “Moon”, the group is a typical revolutionary cabal, although equipped with special knowledge in the form of an intelligent and self-aware computer working with them. “Revolt” is actually about a counter-revolution, the first having put in place a theocracy. The revolution in this case is guided by what may be the Freemasons, in an ironic twist on the idea of Masonry as a secret society.

What is common to all of these stories is the Randian concept that an individual or group in possession of knowledge or power should not view itself as morally inhibited from using that power to secure their own ends. This is by no means a clear-cut position, however. In “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls”, Maureen Johnson (Lazarus Long’s mother) comes up against the “Committee for Aesthetic Deletions”, a group of terminally ill people who have taken it on themselves to ‘delete’ people they judge to be deserving – or rather undeserving. Matched against them are the ‘Circle of Ouroborous’ and the ‘Time Patrol’, which includes Lazarus Long and various characters from other Heinlein novels.

Also making an appearance are two other groups involved in ambushing Maureen and her party on a trip across the surface of the moon, each with their own agenda. This idea of competing time-changing groups is similar to that in Fritz Lieber’s “Changewar” stories published between 1958 and 1965, although once the possibility of changing the past is admitted, conflict over such changes is probably inevitable, as for example in the Time Patrol series by Poul Anderson.

For Heinlein, this idea is more than just the revisiting of a theme. He uses the idea of an independent elite acting outside of society so often that it is clearly something important to him. I think in practice, however, it is the individualism that appeals. In so many of his novels, the hero or heroine is placed in situations where they only have their personal resources available. From Space Family Stone to Number of the Beast he doesn’t write novels about government or any form of political unit, but about individuals or family units. Even Starship Troopers, often attacked for the neo-fascism implicit in its militaristic society, is actually about individuals. The military units are based not on loyalty to the ‘Federation’, but to the unit commander. The individual trooper has firepower – lovingly described in the opening chapter – that could take out a whole army of the 20th century.

This obsession with individual choice as the source of moral action takes Heinlein to some unpleasant places. I don’t know if this ever gave him pause for thought. He never seems to reflect on his conclusions or consider if his original premises were in fact correct.

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