If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, particularly those who’ve never read him, is that Heinlein was an optimist. The cup was damnright brimming full. We’d go to the stars and stay there. Humans would survive everything, even puppet masters. We’re rough, we’re tough, and by G-d we can make it.
It’s only when you read him and pay attention, particularly now, thirty years (has it really been that long?) after his death that you realize what a dark canvas he painted his individual streaks of light and individualism on.
The world is overpopulated. There is some kind of planetary authority (often specifically designated as belonging to or being an outgrowth of the United nations) and the US has lost all sovereignty (even if Jubal Harshaw thinks it’s indecent. It would be.) The universal government — so to put it — as depicted in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is exactly what you’d expect from an outgrowth of the UN. It’s clear there’s a redistribution of food around the world and most of it is — natch — snatched up by kleptocrats. Etc etc etc. In some worlds there’s references to students striking (?) for higher pay (???) I Will Fear No Evil, which might not be the same world at all is even darker. Your elementary school teachers decide what you get to do and even if you get to learn to read. People live in compounds to protect themselves and outside them it’s like the worst parts of Chicago. Cars are armored. The normal people are either on welfare or criminals or both.
This is not a pie in the sky world. It’s the world that you’d expect as a logical outgrowth of the world in the first half (and for IWFNE the second half of the twentieth century.) And if you look at it, behind the giant shadow cast by Heinlein’s competent and self-sufficient characters, you find worlds that put 1984 and Brave New World to shame. (Neither of those setups would resist a Heinlein character for more than 2 days.)
And yet Heinlein was an optimist. He really was. Recently, during a brief illness, I had the opportunity to re-read most of Clifford Simak. What I’m going to say is not a disparagement of Simak. As most of you know, I love his work and it is what pulled me into science fiction.
Simak was a realist. For the mid-century, the time his books were written, he wasn’t even a depressive. I spent a lot of time reading depressives, most of them on the left (possibly in the conviction they’d be eaten last.) The USSR has won, the world is a grey grayness and no one can escape, and everything ends badly. About as bad as what’s acclaimed now, but without as much preaching. (Or different preaching. I remember one going on and on about how the US had fallen through being as decadent as Rome. That might have been an early example of left-puritanism. Or maybe the author was a real communist. They’re all suspicious of sex, because is competes with the rewards the government can give. Never mind. I don’t remember the title or the author’s name, which is merciful, I’m sure.)
Simak was a realist. He was also a journalist. He knew what crossed his desk every day. He did a realistic extrapolation of the future. And in most of his books, beyond the characters and their interests and love affairs there is a clear certainty that humanity is doomed. Oh, his books aren’t downers. They usually end well, but we’re saved by time travelers, or aliens, or we escape to the past, or… The cold war and the bomb loom big in his backgrounds.
I used to like Simak better than Heinlein until I was about 17. Reading them in the seventies, Simak was more grounded in reality. Yes, reality was depressing as hell. And it tells you something that I didn’t notice until re-reading him years later how dark his assumptions were, and how it would take a miracle to save Earth and humanity.
So, Heinlein was an optimist. His assumptions for the world building were the best of all possible worlds, given what was going on at the time. Individual liberties? Who was going to claw that back from the increasingly communitarian and international world of the 40s 50s 60s 70s?
Me, I’m not an optimist in my world building (yeah, my background is also quite dark) but Heinlein was an optimist.
Sure, all of us wish that he’d been right in his optimism about space science and how far we’d be by now. It’s my belief that was deliberately killed. You want to see a lefty froth at the mouth, talk about space colonies. They don’t WANT us to escape. They’re tormented every minute of their lives with the idea that a human being, somewhere, could be thinking, doing, or living in a way they disapprove. Space would just magnify their worries. It’s also my belief the lack of massive overpopulation — that he anticipated — made the urgency of taking all our eggs out of the Earth basket less urgent.
But even with space colonies, would you trade our world for his? Would you really want a famished world, administered by kakistocracies through the UN for their purpose? A world in which the only individualists were in space, and only till it became properly “civilized” (Did you catch what happened on the moon not long after TMIAHM?)
Heinlein was an optimist. What he envisioned from the mid twentieth was the best world possible. Simak was the more likely and all of civilization consumed in a nuclear fire.
Do we have space colonies? No. But we will. We’re just a little behind schedule. The rest? For the rest we and the Earth are immensely, incomparably, amazingly better off than he could have envisioned. If he’d written us, no editor wold have bought it. No editor would have believed it.
Sure we have setbacks and problems. Did you think that the other side didn’t get a say? Sometimes they’ll win a battle or fifty. This is a very long war. Some would say it’s endless. But we can at least hope that generations yet unborn will be free.
We’re building a future beyond even the dreams of the optimist. Don’t waver now. Steady as she goes.
The future is already better than Heinlein could imagine. And it much better than anyone else could.
The future’s so bright I got to wear shades. Go and build.