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Books–Sixth Column, by Robert H. Heinlein January 21, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, China, Constructivism, Japan, libertarians, Other, Science Fiction.
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I had been reading Hyperpat’s reaction to a recent article that mentioned Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers in an unflattering and baseless screedlet (Um, not Hyperpat, he was right about Heinlein’s book.  The New York Times, not so much), and corresponding with Hyperpat about said screedling.  And while I was doing that I realized that I might never have read Heinlein’s Sixth Column, or at least I couldn’t recall much of it.  This was a little important to me because although this is an embarassing thing to admit (Heinlein’s treatment of sexual relationships has been a repeated embarassment to me over the years) I have read pretty much everything Heinlein ever published, which is a considerable amount, and had even visited the Heinlein archives at UCSC to peruse what few scraps the Trustees of the Heinlein Estate would allow.  I considered myself an expert of sorts but could not have outlined the plot of this thing to save my life. 

So I got a copy through paperbackswap.com and tackled it last weekend.  And I was pretty surprised.  I knew that Heinlein didn’t care for this book, because he had noted his opinion publicly several times.  But I seem to recall that his objection to it was founded on the fact that the outline of the plot and main speculative elements (the idea that the other forces, the weak nuclear force, gravity, the strong nuclear force, could be harnessed and projected in various ways) were given to him by John Campbell, and that he had no real interest, just did it for the money, etc. 

But boy oh boy there are so many reasons to hate this book.  Perhaps the most offensive aspect to the book, aside from the lackadaisical, disinterested writing, is racial, I’m afraid.  The forces I mentioned above are used by the protagonists to drive the Asiatics (conquering hoards of those with “yellow” skin whose culture originated in Japan, um, apparently during the Tokugawa Era, if I had to guess) and spread as they conquered first Mainland China, then the Soviets, then, finally, in the opening page of the book, the US.  The attacks came as a complete surprise to the US, of course, (this post has nothing to do with the space weapons tested yesterday by China, by the way).  But new technologies allow the scientists to focus these different forces to distinguish people by race, so that they can aim their weapons at a mixed crowd and kill only the Asiatics, sometimes explosively disrupting the cells of their bodies, turning them into a big, messy cloud, sometimes just making them dead.  But the protagonists, hopelessly outgunned and disorganized, since they have become the slaves of the Asiatics, turn the tables by using the power of the new technology, under the cover of a new religion, to demoralize the Asiatics, forcing critical military commanders to commit honorable seppuku, ritual hara kiri.  Oi!

Yeah, so it’s pretty icky, and obviously conflicts with current understanding of race (postulating very solid and discrete biological differences), which seems to be that it is mostly socially constructed, of course. 

I don’t think of Heinlein as a racist.  He was probably as unracist as possible for a white libertarian guy born in Missouri near the turn of the century to be.  No wonder he hated this book.  It was written in the late 1940s and copyrighted in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, if I’m not mistaken, but still. . . .

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Comments»

1. raincoaster - January 21, 2007

1) The Size of Thoughts is an awesome book, although it’s not as funny as The Mezzanine.
2) You’ve been tagged.

2. caveblogem - January 24, 2007

Hmmm, Bookmooch doesn’t have The Mezzanine, nor does paperbackswap.com. I will have to get it some other way. For now, beware, people, I intend to read everything Nicholson Baker has ever written.

3. hyperpat - January 24, 2007

Heinlein, I think, was pretty well aware of not just the scientific flaws of this book but also its social ones. It was written very early in his career (originally published in Jan-Mar 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald), and therefore written somewhere around mid 1940), true, but still it was a radical departure from just about everything else he ever wrote. A racist is something he definitely was not; I’m currently re-reading Friday, and that comes through loud and clear (if it wasn’t already clear from Farnham’s Freehold and MIAHM). Even in this book he manages to describe one Pan-Asian character sympathetically. Campbell was a gifted editor, but in this case I think he fed Heinlein a bum steer, and Heinlein was too unsure of himself at that time to just say no.


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