Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 6: Robert Heinlein): tame and timid treatment of controversial SF writer

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 6: Robert Heinlein)” (2011)

After a few episodes of worthy yet not very controversial science fiction writers, this series now switches to a writer who espoused a range of seemingly contradictory as well extreme opinions about humans’ relationship to their society and people’s obligations to maintaining social order versus their responsibility as free and independent individuals to resist conformity and defend liberty. Robert Heinlein was a prolific writer of sci-fi short stories and novels throughout his long career that spanned nearly fifty years; his most famous works include “Stranger in a Strange Land”, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Starship Troopers”. Born and raised in Missouri in the early 20th century, Heinlein absorbed the values and attitudes of a politically and socially conservative mid-western American culture; he joined the Navy as a young 20-something but had to leave in the mid-1930s and thereafter held down a series of jobs including campaigning for US writer Upton Sinclair’s socialist End Poverty in California movement and himself campaigning for a seat in California State Assembly. When he failed to get a seat, Heinlein turned to science fiction writing and struck gold; he began writing SF fiction for a magazine and in 1950 contributed to a space exploration movie “Destination Moon” which won an Academy Award.

Through the usual mix of interviews (most of which are with the same people who’ve featured on other episodes of “Prophets …”), animation, archived film, historical drama re-enactments, excerpts from Hollywood movies based on Heinlein’s work and voice-over narration, the film conveys some major themes of Heinlein’s work: his firm and unwavering belief in self-reliance, self-determination and personal liberty, his patriotism and belief in a strong US military and defence against America’s enemies both political and ideological, and his faith in US scientific and technological progress. Several technologies and modern concepts such as the use of exoskeletons, travel to the moon and lunar exploration, the Internet with its decentralised networks and transcranial magnetic stimulation – the use of electromagnetic induction to produce weak electrical fields with a rapidly changing magnetic field to stimulate or influence activity in the brain or parts thereof – are shown to have been predicted in one way or another by Heinlein in several of his novels and short stories.

Interestingly, the film veers away from examining Heinlein’s attitudes on race, sexual liberation as a necessary adjunct to personal liberation, incest and child sexuality, unorthodox family structures and his interest in the work of philosopher / scientist Alfred Korzybski (whose theory of general semantics states that the structure of human nervous systems and of languages limit and even distort human knowledge and acquisition of knowledge) and in cultural relativism; and makes of Heinlein a less complex and more conservative figure than he might have been. All of these interests Heinlein had surely stem from his belief that humans are capable of determining their own values and ways of thinking, behaving and living, and that humans should not conform for the sake of conformity; at the same time, he was a fervid believer in upholding the US military and US military capabilities against Communism and in space and cyber-space. The novel “Starship Troopers” holds that citizenship is to be earned and people should respect the military and soldiers; the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who is interviewed in the documentary, turned the novel into a satire on US politics and culture.

The documentary ends up treating Heinlein very gently and seems rather at a loss in explaining his seemingly contradictory positions on many issues. It notes several times that “Stranger in a Strange Land” attracted the attention of the US counter-culture, as if the film-makers can hardly believe that fact themselves. Yet Heinlein’s beliefs on sexuality and free love are of a piece with his libertarian outlook.

At this point, it might be fun to consider what Heinlein would make of contemporary US society were he still alive: doubtless he’d be glad to see a black man as President but he’d also be horrified at the killing machine the US military has become  across the world (Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan among others), at how US military values have been warped and US soldiers forced to fight and die in foreign lands to serve the interests of a small elite that controls politics, the economy, the media and religion in his beloved America. He would be incredulous at the extent to which the Internet and Internet-based social networks and search engines are increasingly used by governments and private interests to spy on people and track their movements through cyberspace for profit or as a way of controlling and managing dissent. He might realise that current Western capitalism itself can embody values and ideologies that are just as destructive of self-determination and individualism as belief systems that favour the group above the individual – because ideologies based on a negative definition of liberty and which don’t include a positive definition not only verge on psychopathy but are ultimately self-defeating. “Freedom” is not really freedom if it chains you to a worse master than externally imposed political / social / economic tyrannies: your inner desires and appetites.

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