Controlled Information

When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything — you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him. —Robert A. Heinlein, “If This Goes On”

To further this notion, check out this commentary on the difference between 1984 and Brave New World.

Annotation: For Us, The Living

I started reading Robert Heinlein when I was in seventh grade. Ever since then, I’ve been a big fan of his work, largely due to his ability to weave social, politic, and scientific commentary into an engaging story, replete with well written dialogue and good pacing. These comments directly influenced my own opinions on many topics, in a positive way. When it was announced that the Heinlein estate was publishing his first novel, I was intruiged, though wary (while most of his work was stellar, there were a few duds, such as I Will Fear No Evil). There were probably good reasons why that novel was not published previously. My suspicions proved to be true, though not in an unpleasant way. This “novel” is not truly a novel. It is a series of expositional essays on the topics of politics, economics, religion, morals, and society, all wrapped very loosely in a skeletal story.

I say skeletal because the story can largely be ignored. It is used entirely as a tool to segue into the next expositional lump. The premise is this: a man named Perry Nelson, Naval Officer and engineer (as was Heinlein), gets in a car accident in 1939 and is somehow whisked forward nearly 150 years to the year 2086. There he is discovered by a young dancer named Diana, who proceeds to help him become acquainted with the structure of society in 2086. That’s the story. The extent of twists and turns the story takes is when he gets jealous of Diana’s dance partner and hits him, and ends up in therapy.

You would think that this undeveloped story would hinder my enjoyment of the book, but I generally didn’t mind. Instead, I kept on noticing where he had salvaged bits and pieces of the novel and placed them in other stories. This was the prototype for all future Heinlein work, the principles discussed in it making appearances in every other story he wrote. Additionally, rather than blending his opinions into the background of a story, they are direct and at the forefront in giant expositional lumps.

Expressing opinions, even for one as opinionated as Heinlein, would not account for the length of expositional lumps he created. What makes these opinions (and thus, the book) worthwhile is that each is meticulously detailed, defined, and rationalized. He doesn’t simply say that “this way is better”, he explains why it is better. And by and large, I agreed with him. As an example, his take on the role of government is simultaneously a combination of socialism and ultra-libertarian ideas. National health care and national banking, but strict privacy protection for all citizens and constitutionally banning “victimless crime” laws. The entire country’s population receives a “social credit” check from the government each month that covers basic living expenses, so no one HAS to work (though most people choose to). And it all makes sense, scarily. The mathematics and logic behind his arguments is sound.

As in other books, Heinlein had no real use for religion. He found most organized religions to be corrupt and interested in controlling the masses rather than helping them, and had a very low opinion of the church. An idea reused directly in other books, Heinlein had his society get tired of the corruption, and allow the religious zealots to secede from the country, creating a place called Coventry out of the region of Southern Ohio, Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Religion was still allowed, but was not allowed the degree of influence they previously had on our governing laws. Personally, I absolutely agree with him on that. I find it upsetting that the “Religious Right” has such a stranglehold on our government, pushing through laws that legislate “morality”. Morality is not something you should be able to legislate. If it isn’t harming another person, whose right is it to dictate what is right or wrong for anyone but themselves? Barring a very small minority who deliberately choose to “do wrong”, everyone feels they are in the right, so who is to say that one is “more right” than another?

Something that I found somewhat unnerving was the accuracy of his predictions of future events. He anticipated the formation and powers of the European Union, though he did err in thinking it would be run under a monarchy, and had it collapse after that monarch’s death, sparking a 40 year long civil war that reduced the continent’s population to a fraction of what it was and reduced their technological level to something resembling the start of the industrial area. The current developments with our own political system (decreasing liberties, higher religious influence, personal wars) were also called with startling accuracy, though again he took it a few steps further, with the President declaring a state of emergency and performing a military coup. (Though I suppose we’ll see what happens over the next few years.)

His opinions on military policy were also ones I really liked. The emphasis was shifted to defense, and the constitution was amended such that in order to send our troops overseas in battle (ie, go to war in another country, rather than defending our own shores), a national referendum was required. Those voting in the referendum would be limited to those who would be sent to war. If you were too old or too young or otherwise invalid as a soldier, you weren’t allowed to vote on the matter. Furthermore, if the referendum’s results indicated going to war, those who voted yes were to report for duty the following day. Those who abstained were the “second line” (should they become necessary), and those who voted against were the “third line” (again, should they become necessary). I think this is a brilliant way to handle war. I think it is absolutely absurd that in a supposedly “democratic” nation, people at no risk to themselves dictate whether the nation goes to war.

By and large, I really enjoyed For Us, The Living, though I wouldn’t say the story itself was overly well written. The lack of good story was more than made up for (in my opinion) by the well written, cogent ideas discussed, as well as the chance to peer inside the brain of one of my favorite authors. I would recommend it, though more to an individual studying sociology than someone studying fiction.

Heinlein, Robert A. For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs. New York: Pocket Books, 2004.

Annotation: Friday

Robert A. Heinlein has been considered one of the (if not THE) most influential science fiction authors of the modern era. He wrote fiction for over fifty years, primarily in the field of science fiction, and became the first recipient of the Grand Master Nebula award, an award given for exemplary writing and contribution to the field over a lifetime of writing. There is a very good reason for him receiving this award: his ideas and writing style are both superb in both concept and implementation. He has been accused of being bigoted and sexist, and given some underlying themes within his writing, it is most likely true. This does not change the fact that the stories themselves are masterfully done, and well worth reading.

Friday was released roughly six years before Robert’s death, making it one of his last written works (The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset are two later books that come to mind), and his last work not involved in his massive Future History collection of stories. The book is written in the style of a memoir, following the life of Friday Jones, an Artificial Person (AP) who works as an extremely talented courier for a para-military organization (the name of the organization is never given). She is sent all over the world as well as off-planet, delivering and retrieving information for her employer, “Boss”. At the outset of the book, she is just completing a mission and is returning home. After completing her mission, she goes on vacation. While on vacation, a series of sabotages and assassinations occur, stranding her away from her organization. The story then follows her adventures getting through closed borders and trying to report in. Once she has finally reported in, things settle down until her Boss passes away. Her life is turned upside down, and she ends up taking a job as a courier heading off-planet. The job goes awry, however, when she discovers that she will likely be killed after making her delivery, so she ends up jumping ship during a planetary stop. The book ends with her happy on this colony planet.

That, of course, is very much a synopsis, and doesn’t really deal with any of the details that are discussed in the rest of the book. What really makes the book excellent is the combination of attention to detail and narrative voice. The universe of the book has a rich and robust history and society, and he really works it in beautifully to depict it (which, I will admit, was aided by Friday’s profession taking her globally, giving a perfect excuse to SHOW, rather than TELL). The world is believable, in a scary sort of way, taking place once we are in a space-faring era, with colonies on other worlds (including the moon and stations in space). In this world, we have the environment largely under control, it is well within reason to live in New Zealand and commute to Winnipeg for work, and nations as we know them have fragmented and/or congealed into new structures (ironically, I’ve seen the breakdown Heinlein uses before, with only slight variation, in a book called The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau). For instance, the nation that Friday normally lives in is the Chicago Imperium, which essentially governs the current U.S. “heartland”. Other countries include Alaska Free State, Quebec, California Confederacy, and others. There is a nominal world government, but it is largely ignored by the author, possibly intentionally. Considering the amount of autonomy there is between countries, this actually sort of makes sense — why mention something that has no impact on your life (or the story at hand)?

From a sociological aspect, there is a dichotomy between “tradition” and technology. The advent of new, safe, clean energy (Shipstones) does away with the need for power plants and wires strewn across the landscape, and most old cities have been completely wiped away. There is a strange combination of “proper behavior for a lady” and sexual freedom and autonomy that suggests (to me) that in the intervening years between “now” and then (200+ years in the future) there have been several more radical swings between liberal and ultra-conservative views in society. If I had been asked whether this seemed realistic, as late as the 1990s, I probably would have said no. However, given the current swing back towards conservatism and “propriety”, I’m inclined to say that Heinlein once again called it spot on. (He may have been trained as an engineer, but in my opinion his strength lay in social and technological observation/speculation.)

What really makes this a fantastic book for me, however, is the role of Artificial People and Living Artifacts in the story, including the primary character and narrator. The difference between an Artificial Person (AP) and a Living Artifact (LA) is their form. APs are Living Artifacts that have the additional caveat of looking human. They may be smarter, stronger, faster. They might have better memories, or innate spatial awareness, or any of the above… but they look human in every discernible way. Living Artifacts do not have this restriction, and can take the form of near-mythical creatures like Kobolds, or mermen, or even just talking dogs. Here, function takes precedence over form: kobolds were designed for mining for instance.

While the technology of this is interesting, that’s not the part that grabs me. The involving aspect this has is the psychological effect of being treated like a third-class citizen (read: slave) by the rest of the world — APs do not have rights, and despite the fact that due to her work she’s had all records of her being designed destroyed, SHE knows it, and lets it affect her behavior. The inherent loneliness of this situation is remarkably well done in the course of the story, and often manifests it in Friday’s desire to belong, whether it is with work, in a family, or with friends. I think this really strikes a chord in me, on a lot of levels, or with anyone who has wanted to be accepted.

I really enjoyed Friday, and would definitely recommend it to others. I think it is an excellent example of Heinlein’s writing, and an amusing, intelligent story in its own right. I also think this book, combined with others such as the movie Gattaca, could be used quite effectively in an academic setting to juxtapose possible scenarios created through genetic manipulation (Gattaca relegating “normal” people to second class citizens, Friday turning the genetically modified into slaves).

Heinlein, Robert A. Friday. New York: Del Ray, 1982.