As the bizarre, toxic yet darkly fascinating year 2016 has faded completely into an unknown 2017, a question or two occurs with relevance to the next few years. Did legendary science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein predict much of what has just happened in a series of stories he worked out before the United States entered World War II?
In his 'Future History' series, Heinlein did point to a presidential election which occurs right about, well, now as the moment in which the United States falls into "a dictatorship of superstition." The cause? The election, during the nation's most tempestuous and combustible of campaigns, of an anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-foreigner populist appealing to racists and fundamentalist Christians and uber-rich reactionaries who wins a narrow victory. In the last presidential election for 75 years.
Who was it who said it can't happen here?
And, oh yes, did legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov give rise to a fateful fascination with the deeply flawed notion of predictive statistical modeling of complex historical events like, say, presidential elections with his fictional but highly influential faux science of "psychohistory?"
It was the summer of 2015 when I realized I had somehow awakened in a universe that felt much like a cheesy SyFy Channel movie. A real estate hustler/reality TV star notorious for slapping his name on everything making a very serious stab at the White House ... Man, that made Marvel movies seem like Shakespeare! But if it's a science fictional world, why not the best? Besides, there was something oddly familiar about it. I never saw the movie (which has not yet been made), but I may have read the book.
Leonard Nimoy reads part I of Robert A. Heinlein's 'Future History' story about Rhysling, the blind bard of the spaceways, 'The Green Hills of Earth.' Think of a cross between Rudyard Kipling and Bob Dylan.
Seventy-five years ago, way back in late but still pre-Pearl Harbor 1941, two young science fiction writers on opposite coasts -- beached former naval officer Heinlein and bookish Columbia PhD-to-be Asimov, worked out what would become famous fictional formulations of humanity's future on this planet and beyond. After the fashion of H.G. Wells, the two engaged in what Heinlein was to dub "speculative fiction," laying out potential futures with at least some realistic foundation.
Both young authors who, with Arthur C. Clarke of '2001: A Space Odyssey' fame would form the so-called "Big Three" grand masters of the Golden Age of science fiction, wrote in those early days for a New York-based magazine called Astounding Science Fiction.
Heinlein was an Annapolis honors grad and fencing star whose promising career as a U.S. naval officer was cut short by grave ill health. Invalided out of the Navy, the beached former lieutenant landed in the land of a great many beaches, Southern California. There he studied physics for a little while at UCLA grad school before becoming a leading light in Upton Sinclair's unsuccessful End Poverty In California (EPIC) campaign for governor at the height of the Great Depression. After losing to a conservative Republican in a race for the California legislature, and trying his hand at silver mining, Heinlein, tired of living on his service pension and even more tired of politics, gave short story writing a whirl. He became an almost instant success as a science fiction writer, quickly becoming a star with seminal editor John W. Campbell's Astounding.
Isaac Asimov, 13 years younger, was in a different place. Like Heinlein, he'd begun writing science fiction in the late 1930s. Unlike Heinlein, who hailed from heartland Kansas City and had seen and acted in the world and around it as a naval officer and political operative, Asimov was a Russian Jewish immigrant at age 3, all of whose experience was as a student. Seventy-five years ago, Asimov had just finished a Columbia master's degree in biochemistry and was casting about for a killer story idea for his imposing editor Campbell, whom he took regular subway rides to visit.
Noting that Campbell liked the idea of a "history of the future" -- the editor had finally gotten Heinlein to agree to publication in the magazine of the "Future History" timeline which guided his writing out in California -- Asimov came up with the idea for a short story on the fall of a galactic empire. After finishing up his concept on yet another New York subway ride to the Astounding offices, Asimov found that Campbell loved it. But the editor, also known for writing a little tale called 'The Thing,' told Asimov that the story had to be much longer than a short story. In late 1941, Asimov had the concept worked out, with the first installment ready to go. That and a few other "novelettes," which would in the early 1950s become the full-length novel 'Foundation,' were to be finished up and appear in 1942 after Asimov was at his wartime job with Heinlein and others at the Navy's aeronautical lab in Philadelphia.
The rest of the war would interrupt what would become Asimov's famed 'Foundation Trilogy,' with most the stories running in magazine serialization in the '40s and then appearing as three novels in the early '50s. But the conception and early execution was already in place. In 'Foundation,' 'Foundation and Empire,' and 'Second Foundation," Asimov was to deliver on the concept he worked out with Campbell. A smug, hidebound, very wealthy galactic empire of the far future was, like the Rome described in the Gibbons history Asimov so loved, on an inevitable downward spiral. Only the efforts of a relatively small group of committed intellectuals led by a genius, utilizing the new predictive science of "psychohistory" -- a sort of massively souped-up mathematical sociology -- could save humanity. Not from a thousand years of decline, turbulence, chaos, and ultimate hope, but from 30,000 years of barbarism.
It was an especially thrilling notion for a certain type of intellectual, so much so that quite a number of today's players -- from Newt Gingrich on the right to Paul Krugman on the left -- have cited the 'Foundation' saga as their inspiration to do what they do. The notion of visionary Professor Hari Seldon and, especially, his psychohistory, was that compelling for them.
Out west, Robert Heinlein had put the finishing touches on his first pass through the 'Future History' series that inspired Campbell to push Asimov into his own series. From his base in LA's Laurel Canyon -- just a few blocks from the future home of legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell (where Crosby, Stills & Nash came together as a group), less than a mile from Jerry Brown's house during Governorship 1.0 -- Heinlein had developed something much more grounded in the present as extrapolated into the future.
Rather than essay a far-flung galactic empire of a future so distant that the location of Earth has become a mystery, Heinlein instead extrapolated a future taking America and her successor federations from the Great Depression to the stars. No wonder Campbell was so excited about it as the real America struggled to emerge from depression and isolationism.
As it happened, Heinlein wrote his 'Future History' stories out of sequence. They were stories from a shared fictional universe, sold and published as stories, not as full-fledged novels. That's how pulp publishing worked in the "Golden Age." Today Heinlein might have spent his entire career on fleshing out the ideas he had in the first couple years of his writing.
Conceptually, it was all a work in progress from 1939 to late 1941, when he published in the pages of Astounding, the novella 'Methuselah's Children,' the tale of a group of Americans persecuted for the supposed technological secret of their bred-for long lives even in the post-dictatorship social utopia that, in full-fledged novel mode in the late '50s, was to prove the rather premature series capper. They steal a generational starship and, with a few technological breakthroughs, make the first successful, though not at all satisfying, voyages to other star systems.
In it, Heinlein introduced his counterpart to Asimov's Hari Seldon, a character that would prove to be the most enduring -- if very much overused in late stage Heinlein -- Woodrow Wilson Smith, aka Lazarus Long.
Unlike Hari Seldon, Lazarus Long is not the genius inventor of a practically omniscient new super-science using statistics to somehow forecast complex historical dynamics into the far future -- attention, 2016 presidential polling model fans, heh -- he is more a very capable if hardly infallible or invincible survivor/adventurer. A sometime difference maker, he's certainly not above determining that discretion is the better part of valor.
For example, he sees the advent of America's "dictatorship of superstition" as his cue not to lead the resistance but to go off-world. He is, in other words, something of a Humphrey Bogart character, presaging 'Casablanca's' Rick Blaine.
Not that Heinlein did not provide a thrilling and rather ingeniously worked out tale of the Second American Revolution. Published a few months before he attended the 1940 Democratic national convention in Chicago to support Franklin D. Roosevelt's re-nomination for his historic third term as president, 'If This Goes On --,' like almost all of Heinlein's 'Future History' stories, features a different point of view character. In this case, the future Hugo Award-winning tale features recent West Point grad John Lyle, a rather obtuse young Army lieutenant proudly serving in the elite New Jerusalem palace guard of a successor to the phony televangelist who won election as the last President of the United States. Through a quirk of fate, he comes to question his faith, discovering he has been spoon fed a diet of fake news and false history from supposedly divinely inspired "psychometricians" skilled in the decidedly unholy arts of staged events, manipulative advertising, and overall conditioning of a mass audience.
Leonard Nimoy reads part II of 'The Green Hills of Earth.'
The result is a thrilling entertainment, not to mention a pretty convincing yarn about how a theocratic-oriented dictatorship might be overthrown. Not as easily as one might think, since generations of conditioning have brainwashed more than a quarter of the populace. Added to the roughly 40 percent of the already devout, most of which was naturally attuned to authoritarian politics -- and doesn't that sound familiar? -- some tricky moves I won't spoil prove to be necessary to pull off an armed liberation movement.
Between 1939 and 1941, Heinlein wrote more than a dozen tales of his 'Future History,' from short stories to short novels, taking humanity from the Depression to the stars, with mass psychosis and dictatorship providing a fateful interregnum in between the two. He left gaps in the story, of course, which he intended to fill in during the early and mid-'40s. A world war intervened. But the shape of his futurism was clear.
First, a pair of scientists invent and then give away a technology to break the power company monopoly over the energy base of the economy with cheap, ubiquitous solar power.
Then our present gridlocked and polluting mode of transport is largely averted by high-speed mass transit.
And then humanity gets to the Moon, a little later than in real life, but in more sustained fashion since this is accomplished not by the government but by a visionary entrepreneur finding a new outlet for his enterprise with the absence of the power monopoly.
Hmm, these issues sound familiar ...
Since space travel has to be made to pay off as more than a PR extravaganza in the Cold War, there is no choice but to push on outward bound. As a result, the exploration of the Moon is not a culmination, as it was for the unimaginative Richard Nixon, but only the beginning of a push throughout the solar system, with off-world colonies and all their attendant issues. No wonder Elon Musk, widely cited as a model for Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man, is a Heinlein fan. Or, perhaps put another way, no wonder he became Elon Musk after reading Heinlein.
After World War II, Heinlein did fill in most of the gaps left in his 1939 to 1941 first pass through the 'Future History.'
Heinlein, who was to be the first science fiction writer to take the genre onto the mainstream best-seller lists -- he's the author of such controversial classics as 'Stranger In A Strange Land,' 'Starship Troopers,' and 'The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress' -- before all that took scifi into the Saturday Evening Post and other big general interest magazines after the war, focusing on the fictional heyday of solar system exploration. He had a particular knack for making space travel seem normal, placing recognizable people in extraordinary situations.
In 1950, he and Asimov both moved to transform their schemas into book form. Asimov converted his stories into a trilogy of novels, the aforementioned 'Foundation Trilogy.'
Heinlein had a more sprawling five-volume collection of stories and novels in mind.
It began very well with the fully fleshed out tale of the new technological base for the economy and the great leap into space. 'The Man Who Sold the Moon' was both Volume One of the 'Future History' stories and a Hugo Award-winning short novel by the same name about visionary entrepreneur D.D. Harriman.
But the publisher proved to be problematic, so in the end only three volumes were produced, with the final fleshing out of late 1941's novella, 'Methuselah's Children', by the late '50s a full-length novel, proving a de facto Volume 4.
Given what turned out to be a poor deal with a malfuntioning publisher, it simply made more financial sense for Heinlein to launch a new series with a big New York publisher for the so-called "Heinlein juveniles." These novels, written for precocious younger readers, but which satisfy grown-ups today, also takes in a rather realistic view of space exploration and humanity's expansion across the solar system and beyond.
Although the 'Future History's' Volume One, 'The Man Who Sold the Moon,' was quickly joined in the early '50s by 'The Green Hills of Earth' (Volume Two) dealing with the heyday of solar system exploration and colonization, and 'Revolt In 2100,' a Volume Three dealing with the revolution against the American dictatorship and the more rational and just society which succeeds it, substantial elements were unfortunately lost in the shuffle.
Another planned volume, 'The Sound of His Wings' was to have been three novellas -- the eponymous title along with 'Eclipse' and 'The Stone Pillow' -- about the ascendance of an American dictatorship, America's turn sharply inwards, and the profound effect this has on the rest of human society on Earth and elsewhere.
And largely lost, too, was the full Volume 5 expansion of 'Methuselah's Children' and beyond, 'The Endless Frontier' about the rise of interstellar exploration and civilization with a final return to the cradle of humanity and what it all has meant, a concluding novella fittingly titled 'Da Capo.'
But what's left is more than enough.
In 1966, Asimov's more complete, if less compelling 'Foundation Trilogy' edged out Heinlein's 'Future History' and a few other such works, including one called 'The Lord of the Rings,' to win the Hugo Award as best science fiction/fantasy series of all time. If such an award were contested again, Frank Herbert's 'Dune' saga -- which was just underway at the time -- would undoubtedly also be in the running.
Much as I like Asimov and appreciate his work, in the 'Foundation Trilogy' -- which was further extended decades later with prequels and sequels not nearly as compelling -- he doesn't so much tell stories as have his characters talk about what just happened. Or in the case of Hari Seldon's posthumous holographic appearances at predicted nexus points in history, discuss in rather delphic terms what is about to happen.
Heinlein, in contrast, is a storyteller.
Though much of his later work, once he became really famous, is wildly discursive if not bloviating, the 'Future History' stories are models of speed and concision. The longest novel is just over 200 pages in length.
His late stage loquaciousness, which becomes a real problem in 1970, was usually expressed by a frequently tiresome all-knowing point of view character. Heinlein, who was also plagued by health issues, increasingly got out of control on that score after the runaway success of 'Stranger In A Strange Land,' with its still tolerable know-it-all Jubal Harshaw, who in any event gets routinely tossed in his own swimming pool when he becomes too much for his irked secretaries. Late stage Heinlein is also knocked by many for his libertarian-inflected, frequently sex-drenched conservatism.
Heinlein's all too dutiful authorized biographer, the late William Patterson, was too quick to accept Heinlein's assertion that his politics never changed. He ignores the obvious. Heinlein's third and final wife, Virginia Gerstenfeld Heinlein, was a staunch right-winger. And his second wife, Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein, to whom he was married during his EPIC days and the beginning of his science fiction career on into the aftermath of World War II, was a staunch left-winger. When he married his third wife, Heinlein left Los Angeles for Colorado Springs. He returned to California, this time to Santa Cruz in the north, nearly two decades later, just before finishing his last great book, 'The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.'
Heinlein's third wife's conservative enthusiasm extended to the John Birch Society, fortunately a bridge too far for Heinlein himself, who had their names removed from an endorsement of paranoid Bircher founder Robert Welch. Yet she was quite influential, so much so that when the 'Future History' series was re-released in one large volume by a big New York publisher as 'The Past Through Tomorrow' in 1967, she succeeded in having the decidedly leftish first story in the sequence, '"Let There Be Light,"' removed from the collection. Even though the story, named after the motto of the University of California which Heinlein attended as a graduate student, not to mention a key phrase from the Bible, depicting the solar energy breakthrough that breaks the back of the power monopoly and re-powers the entire future society is critical for the underpinning of the scenario.
Like most of Heinlein, the 'Future History' generally features highly competent, can-do oriented yet fallible, non-superheroic protagonists. (There are even, especially for those decidedly sexist days, some interesting and impactful female characters, including the co-inventor of the liberating solar power tech.)
But where the protagonists become arguably conservative later on, here and in most of his '50s work they are mostly liberals, albeit more than a little skeptical and with a streak of the libertarian. They are capable and highly intelligent, if a bit sardonic, people of the 1940s, from a variety of backgrounds, acting in futuristic settings.
Asimov's characters in the 'Foundation' stories, in contrast, tend to be liberal intellectual types and commercial burgers, reflecting his New York City background, as well as aristocrats and generals drawn from history. And many of them, charmingly enough, seem to be carrying personal atomic-powered devices.
To be sure, Donald Trump is not Heinlein's Nehemiah Scudder. He's not a televangelist from the sticks, excuse me, the heartland of America. But as described in other stories and in an essay by Heinlein published with Volume Three of the series, 'Revolt In 2100,' in which he says he would probably not write any more about Scudder because he dislikes him so (leaving out the financial problems with the publisher), it is clear there are major similarities.
Dude, where's my flying car? Here Howard Stark, in 'Captain America: The First Avenger,' previews his version of the classic exemplar of '40s futurism. Heinlein missed the personal computer, but did get the mobile phone and other elements of our own science fictional present. Not to mention our presidential election.
Here's Heinlein, in his essay on the rise of his know-nothing American dictator, written long before I was born.
"Promise a material heaven here on Earth, add a dash of anti-semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-"furriners" in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening -- particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington."
Striking, isn't it? Make a few slight adjustments to the ethnic boogie men and you have the election we just held.
How did Heinlein think it would turn out? Not well. At least, not for a long time, as he notes in the essay, which accompanies the 'Future History's' Volume Three, 'Revolt In 2100.'
"The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed."
In the downbeat novella which closes the mostly very upbeat Volume Two, "Logic of Empire,' a friend at tale's end counsels the protagonist who has discovered what amounts to thinly veiled slavery on colonized Venus. (Remember that these stories were written when people imagined that the cloud cover of Venus might conceal a jungle world, rather than an incredibly hot atmosphere full of noxious gases.)
"Sweet reasonableness won't get you anywhere in this racket. To make yourself heard you have to be a demagogue, or a rabble-rousing political preacher like this fellow Nehemiah Scudder. We're going merrily to hell and it won't stop until it winds up in a crash."
"But -- Oh the devil! What can we do about it?"
"Nothing. Things are bound to get a whole lot worse before they can get any better. Let's have a drink."
This certainly is an era of demagoguery and dumbed down debate. Trump is as much a hyper-opportunistic product of the culture as its leader.
But with regard to Trump, I'm not nearly as downbeat as Heinlein was in his scenario. He even had his ultimate favorite character of all time, Lazarus Long, go off-planet for the duration of the American dictatorship, some 75 years.
Not that heading off-world is an option, of course. Whereas "Let's have a drink," the close of Heinlein's Volume Two, is.
It's just not a very socially useful one.
Perhaps my longstanding worries about Trump's decided tendencies toward know-nothingism an neo-fascism will come to nothing.
After all, it may be that Trump, who not long ago was a Democrat, and once backed my presidential candidate, Gary Hart (a Heinlein fan growing up, incidentally), is just faking it as part of his drive for power.
The problem is that one tends to become what one pretends to be. And Trump's appointments are, if anything, mostly more extreme than is the norm even for a very conservative Republican Party.
In fact, much like Heinlein's Nehemiah Scudder, a Trump who barely won -- he lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes and barely won the electoral college with very narrow wins in a few states that another Democrat would probably have defended -- is now pretending that he really does have a mandate for sweeping actions which most oppose.
What seems most likely is not that Trump is a true ideologue but that he is the erratic personality and consummate opportunist that his Twitter history and far too frequent dysfunctional campaigning -- constantly distracting himself with rants against and fights with pointless opponents -- strongly suggest that he is. And that he is driven by deep-seated psychological needs. In which case it is very important to consistently call out his extremism. Trump wants respect and wants to be seen as a worthy person rather than an alarmingly destructive, anti-American figure.
Here of course we are into psychology rather than "psychohistory." Like Asimov's fake predictive science, the statistical modeling approach to politics that lifelong 'Foundation' fans like Paul Krugman, and our devolutionary media, so fatefully relied on in the election just past to such spectacularly bad results simply does not stand up in a very complex world in which both random chance and common sense very much apply.
Will the Donald Trump administration turn out better than Nehemiah Scudder's?
Well, it would almost have to, wouldn't it? Almost.
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