~LM Ruhland, 2008 MCPP intern
Today (July 7) marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of author Robert A. Heinlein. Considered the “Grand Master of Science Fiction,” Heinlein was credited with taking the genre out of the juvenile pulp magazines and into mainstream publications like Readers’ Digest. His prolific career resulted in five Hugo Awards for Best Novel, including one awarded after his death.
The foreignness inherent to SF allowed authors to explore particularly radical ideas without the constraints present in more realistic literature. Heinlein took full advantage of this, provoking debate with critics of all political stripes. The anti-war Left disapproved of the militaristic society portrayed in his 1959 novel Starship Troopers, while conservatives were uncomfortable with the free-loving Martian prophet who returns to Earth 1961’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Throughout his writing career, however, he complemented his ardent patriotism with skepticism about centralized power and championed the ideas of individual liberty, private enterprise and voluntary service. In honor of RAH’s birthday, here are recommendations for five Heinlein works that promote the ideals of liberty:
5. Tunnel in the Sky (1955): Intended for juvenile readers, Tunnel tells the story of a group of young teenage classmates forced to create their own society on a strange planet when a technological glitch prevents them from returning home. When they realize dividing into warring factions (Lord of the Flies-style) is a bad idea, the group begins to develop a tolerant society and market economy. Though the students are later given the opportunity to return home, many are disillusioned with the stifling bureaucracy of their parent culture.
4. “Lifeline” (1939): Notable as Heinlein’s first published short story. When a groundbreaking new technology gives people the opportunity to know their exact life expectancy, the insurance and actuarial industries send their lawyers and lobbyists to shut down its inventor, Professor Pinero. After Pinero wins in court, the disapproving public takes matters into their own hands.
3. Red Planet (1949): Another juvenile novel; this one features the adventures of two young friends on Mars. In the lead-up to an annual migration between the poles, the central planetary government begins disarming citizens and keeping the colony’s children in compulsory, state-run boarding schools. When the young protagonists realize that the colonial governor is planning to cancel the necessary migration, leaving their families at the mercy of the harsh Martian winter, they race to warn them.
2. Methuselah’s Children (serialized 1941, published as a novel in 1958): A century of a private incentive program designed to encourage marriages between exceptionally long-lived men and women shows outstanding success in increasing the human lifespan, but members of the Howard Families are regarded with suspicion by society at large. When the government begins rounding up Howards in concentration camps, the Families’ leader realizes the only way ensure his people’s safety involves stealing the biggest ship ever built. The Howards’ adventures in space provide insight into mankind’s individualistic nature, but the one of the most compelling parts is the story of Administrator Slayton Ford, the country’s chief civil servant and a non-Howard, who rejects the will of the people and sacrifices his political career in order to preserve the lives and liberty of thousands of his fellow men.
1. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966): This is probably my favorite 20th century novel, and I’m still grateful I picked it up off the library shelf during my freshman year of high school. In the latter part of the 21st century, Luna is an established penal colony home to transported convicts and several generations of their free descendents. In this book, apolitical government contractor Mannie Davis ends up orchestrating a coup d’etat with the help of a pretty female political organizer, an aging Latin American revolutionary (more Bolivar than Che), and a sentient computer with a sense of humor. Once the old Lunar Authority is overthrown, though, the protagonists find that establishing a government and securing their new-found freedoms will be even more difficult.