Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger

Friday, February 26th, 2021

Ernest Shackleton famously ran this ad in the newspaper to recruit men for his Endurance expedition:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

Only no one has ever found a copy of Shackleton’s ad, which was “reprinted” in The 100 Greatest Advertisements: 1852-1958 in 1949.

That apocryphal ad might have inspired Robert Heinlein to include this ad in Glory Road:

ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person, 17, rue Dante, Nice, 2me étage, appt. D.

That’s a real address, by the way:

Instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is

Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road is chock-full of Heinlein-isms— plus dueling scars and methane-burning dragons — but one passage stands out for stating his theme outright:

I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword. I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist and feed that lousy claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get up feeling brisk and go out and break some lances, then pick a likely wench for my droit du seigneur — I wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow tilting of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last thousand miles.

I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.

I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be—instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.

The Roc is the giant bird from Arabian Nights. Odalisque is a word I don’t see often; it means concubine. The only reference to a Nancy Lee that I could find was to a comic song, The Wreck of the Nancy Lee:

I’ll tell you the tale of the Nancy Lee,
The ship that got shipwrecked at sea
The bravest man was Captain Brown,
‘Cause he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

Chorus:
All the crew was in despair,
Some rushed here and some rushed there,
But the Captain sat in the Captain’s chair,
And he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

The Captain said to Seaman Jones:
“You’d best put on your working clothes
While you stand and spray your hose
I can play me ukulele as the ship goes down.”

The owners signalled to the crew, saying:
“Do the best that you can do.
We’re only insured for half-a-crown,
We’ll be out of pocket if the ship goes down.”

The Captain’s wife was on board ship,
And he was very glad of it
But she could swim and she might not drown
So we tied her to the anchor as the ship went down.

The crow’s nest fell and killed the crow,
The starboard watch was two hours slow
But the Captain sang fal-oh-de-oh-doh
And he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

Barsoom is, of course, the fanciful Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories. Poictesme and its capital Storisende serve as the setting for James Branch Cabell‘s Biography of the Life of Manuel.

The Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin come from Huck Finn.

Prester John is the legendary Nestorian patriarch and king who was said to rule over a Christian nation lost amid the pagans and Muslims in the Orient.

Ulysses needs no introduction, but Tros of Samothrace was new to me:

The novel concerns the courageous adventures of the title character (a Greek from Samothrace) as he helps pre-Roman Britons fight the invading forces of Julius Caesar. Over the course of the novel, Tros travels from Britain to Spain, and finally the city of Rome itself.

The author, Talbot Mundy, dedicated Tros of Samothrace to his friend Rose Wilder Lane, who had funded its book publication, and Fritz Leiber was a fan.

Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

When I read a friend’s copy of Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road back in high school, only a couple things stuck with me: (1) dueling scars, and (2) methane-burning dragons. When I recently re-read it, it was chock-full of Heinlein-isms. Here’s what jumped out at me in the first few dozen pages:

It was an election year with the customary theme of anything you can do I can do better, to a background of beeping sputniks. I was twenty-one but couldn’t figure out which party to vote against.

I object to conscription the way a lobster objects to boiling water: it may be his finest hour but it’s not his choice.

Nevertheless I love my country. Yes, I do, despite propaganda all through school about how patriotism is obsolete. One of my great-grandfathers died at Gettysburg and my father made that long walk back from Inchon Reservoir, so I didn’t buy this new idea. I argued against it in class—until it got me a “D” in Social Studies, then I shut up and passed the course.

After you’ve spent years and years trying to knock the patriotism out of a boy, don’t expect him to cheer when he gets a notice reading: Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States—

Sure, they had Hitler and the Depression ahead of them. But they didn’t know that. We had Khrushchev and the H-bomb and we certainly did know. But we were not a “Lost Generation.” We were worse; we were the “Safe Generation.”

Oh, we talked beatnik jive and dug cool sounds in stereo and disagreed with Playboy’s poll of jazz musicians just as earnestly as if it mattered. We read Salinger and Kerouac and used language that shocked our parents and dressed (sometimes) in beatnik fashion. But we didn’t think that bongo drums and a beard compared with money in the bank. We weren’t rebels. We were as conformist as army worms. “Security” was our unspoken watchword.

Short of a pregnant wife with well-to-do parents the greatest security lay in being 4-F. Punctured eardrums were good but an allergy was best. One of my neighbors had a terrible asthma that lasted till his twenty-sixth birthday. No fake—he was allergic to draft boards.

More than half of my generation were “unfit for military service.”

I was no better off financially as my uncle-in-law was supporting a first wife—under California law much like being an Alabama field hand before the Civil War.

Ever been in Southeast Asia? It makes Florida look like a desert. Wherever you step it squishes. Instead of tractors they use water buffaloes. The bushes are filled with insects and natives who shoot at you. It wasn’t a war—not even a “Police Action.” We were “Military Advisers.” But a Military Adviser who has been dead four days in that heat smells the same way a corpse does in a real war.

I was promoted to corporal. I was promoted seven times. To corporal.

Military policy is like cancer: Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored.

In Asia every cab driver speaks enough English to take you to the Red Light district and to shops where you buy “bargains.” But he is never able to find your dock or boat landing.

Do you know how much tax a bachelor pays on $140,000 in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Fee? $103,000, that’s what he pays.

I wouldn’t be “cheating” Uncle Sugar; the USA had no more moral claim on that money (if I won) than I had on the Holy Roman Empire. What had Uncle Sugar done for me? He had clobbered my father’s life with two wars, one of which we weren’t allowed to win—and thereby made it tough for me to get through college quite aside from what a father may be worth in spiritual intangibles to his son (I didn’t know, I never would know!)—then he had grabbed me out of college and had sent me to fight another unWar and damned near killed me and lost me my sweet girlish laughter.

About then I made a horrible discovery. I didn’t want to go back to school, win, lose, or draw. I no longer gave a damn about three-car garages and swimming pools, nor any other status symbol or “security.” There was no security in this world and only damn fools and mice thought there could be.

Somewhere back in the jungle I had shucked off all ambition of that sort. I had been shot at too many times and had lost interest in supermarkets and exurban subdivisions and tonight is the PTA supper don’t forget dear you promised.

The head is mostly teeth

Saturday, February 20th, 2021

I recently mentioned that Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road introduced me to Germany’s tradition of fencing in order to earn a dueling scar. The other tidbit that stuck with me from this book was his science-fiction version of that fantasy staple, the dragon:

Of course these aren’t dragons. No, they are uglier. They are saurians, more like Tyrannosaurus rex than anything else — big hindquarters and heavy hind legs, heavy tail, and smaller front legs that they use either in walking or to grasp their prey. The head is mostly teeth. They are omnivores whereas I understand that T. rex ate only meat. This is no help; the dragons eat meat when they can get it, they prefer it. Furthermore, these not-so-fake dragons have evolved that charming trick of burning their own sewer gas. But no evolutionary quirk can be considered odd if you use the way octopi make love as a comparison.

[...]

“They don’t exactly breathe fire. That would kill them. They hold their breaths while flaming. It’s swamp gas — methane — from the digestive tract. It’s a controlled belch, with a hypergolic effect from an enzyme secreted between the first and second rows of teeth. The gas bursts into flame on the way out.”

[...]

There are only four places to put an arrow into a Nevian dragon; the rest is armored like a rhino only heavier. Those four are his mouth (when open), his eyes (a difficult shot; they are little and piggish), and that spot right under his tail where almost any animal is vulnerable.

[...]

The dragon was weaving its head back and forth and I was trying to weave the other way, so as not to be lined up if it turned on the flame — when suddenly I got my first blast of methane, whiffing it before it lighted, and retreated so fast that I backed into that baby I had stepped on before, went clear over it, landed on my shoulders and rolled, and that saved me.

I doubt I caught this the first time I read the book, but this time I immediately noted that methane is a colorless, odorless gas:

The familiar smell of natural gas as used in homes is achieved by the addition of an odorant, usually blends containing tert-butylthiol, as a safety measure.

I suspect someone caught this detail in one of his early drafts, because Heinlein addresses it:

The reason that I backed away in time was halitosis. It says here that “pure methane is a colorless, odorless gas.” This G.I.-tract methane wasn’t pure; it was so loaded with homemade ketones and aldehydes that it made an unlimed outhouse smell like Shalimar.

[...]

A proper dragon, with castles and captive princesses, has as much fire as it needs, like six-shooters in TV oaters. But these creatures fermented their own methane and couldn’t have too big a reserve tank nor under too high pressure — I hoped. If we could nag one into using all its ammo fast, there was bound to be a lag before it recharged.

I had heard the western genre referred to as horse opera before, but oater was new to me.

A toy, suited only to make pretty scars for girls to admire

Saturday, February 6th, 2021

Our Slovenian guest recently suggested that I take a look at the traditional German sword-fighting art called Mensur, which reminded me that I’ve discussed Germany’s odd fencing fraternities before, but I didn’t mention where I’d first heard of their unusual style of fencing, in Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road, his not-quite-fantasy novel, where the protagonist, fresh from fighting in Southeast Asia, comes home with a scar across his nose — “little brown brother hadn’t sterilized his bolo” — and the surgeon says, “You’re going to get well, son. But you’ll be scarred like a Heidelberg student.” Our hero decides to try going to Heidelberg:

Hell, I would fight a couple of student duels and add real Heidelberg scars to back up the dandy I had. Fencing was a sport I really enjoyed (though the one that counted least toward “sweeping the gym”). Some people cannot stand knives, swords, bayonets, anything sharp; psychiatrists have a word for it: aichmophobia. Idiots who drive cars a hundred miles an hour on fifty-mile-an-hour roads will nevertheless panic at the sight of a bare blade.

[...]

I rather looked forward to trying a Heidelberg duel. They pad your body and arm and neck and put a steel guard on your eyes and nose and across your ears — this is not like encountering a pragmatic Marxist in the jungle. I once handled one of those swords they use in Heidelberg; it was a light, straight saber, sharp on the edge, sharp a few inches on the back — but a blunt point! A toy, suited only to make pretty scars for girls to admire.

That verbal description doesn’t quite paint the picture:

German Academic Fencer

The whole thing seems a bit contrived, but it has a certain logic to it:

A form of noble duel — mensur fencing — was widespread in Germany during the 16th century among young people, particularly in the student community. (The word originated from German Mensurfechten — fencing in confined space). Duelists wore protective eyepieces with metallic netting. The chest and neck were protected by a leather chest guard and a thick scarf. They wielded prototypes of the saber — “schlagers” with sharply pointed ends. Opponents faced each other and took turns at hits, aiming for the only unprotected body part — the opponent’s face. When fatigue set in or one of the opponents let down his guard, his opponent broke through his parries, leaving a cut on his face, which eventually scarred over. As we know, scars are said to give a man’s face character. As a result, both duelists left satisfied: the winner with a sense of triumph, and the loser with a sign of courage on his face.

[...]

During the first half of the 19th century and some of the 18th century, students believed the character of a person could easily be judged by watching him fight with sharp blades under strict regulations. Academic fencing was more and more seen as a kind of personality training by showing countenance and fairness even in dangerous situations. Student corporations demanded their members fight at least one duel with sharp blades during their university time. The problem was that some peaceful students had nobody to offend them. The solution was a kind of formal insult that did not actually infringe honour, but was just seen as a challenge for fencing. The standard wording wasdummer Junge (German for “young fool.”)

The Nazis suppressed the fencing clubs, which is mildly ironic, since dueling scars now evoke the image of an SS officer, like Otto Skorzeny:

Otto Skorzeny

Ambiguous, longed for and desolate

Friday, June 14th, 2019

Science fiction illuminates the dreams of the new moon-rushers:

Take the origins of Pence’s reference to the “lunar strategic high ground”. In one of the first moon novels written after the second world war, Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), an atomic scientist and his teenage crew discover, on what they believe to be the first mission to the moon, a base from which the Third Reich’s rump intends to rain nuclear vengeance on to Earth. Heinlein, an aeronautical engineer who was one of the first American science fiction writers to gain a mainstream audience, had seen the V-2 and the Manhattan Project make real the rocket ships and superweaponry that had been his prewar stock in trade. Such authors were highly exercised by the strategic implications. In the same month that Heinlein’s book was published, John W Campbell, the preeminent American science fiction editor of the age, published an essay by his and Heinlein’s friend L Ron Hubbard on the strategic necessity of America being the first nation to build such a moonbase for its missiles. A year later Colliers, a mass market magazine, was warning of a “Rocket Blitz from the Moon”.

The idea rode high for a decade. “He who controls the moon, controls the Earth,” General Homer A Boushey told the American press in 1958. The US air force investigated the possibility of demonstrating that control, and adding to the moon’s craters, by conducting a nuclear test on its surface, one that would be ominously and spectacularly visible to most of the world below (Carl Sagan, later to be prominent in the fight for nuclear disarmament, was one of those who worked on the project).

It did not happen. Though the Apollo programme was a crucial piece of cold war strategy, its goal was not to occupy the moon or use it as a missile base. Rather, it was to show the world the remarkable resources the US was willing to invest in advancing its technological power; the means, not the end, were the message. But Hubbard’s megalomaniacal dreams of an Earth controlled from the moon still lurks in that idea of the “strategic high ground”.

Rocket Ship Galileo used the moon not only as a way of thinking about the prospect of nuclear war, it also made it a way of understanding the aftermath. (“The moon people … ruined themselves. They had one atomic war too many.”)

These visions of existential dread led Arthur C Clarke to argue in Prelude to Space (1947), a novel about the preparations for a moon mission, that “atomic power makes interplanetary travel not just possible but imperative. As long as it was confined to Earth, humanity had too many eggs in one rather fragile basket.” That feeling informs dreams of space travel today. Musk, in particular, talks of war, pandemics, rebel AIs and asteroid Armageddons all making it vital for humans to become a multiplanetary species. A more junior Silicon Valley space mogul told me he wants to help build a moonbase for the same reason that, before cloud computing, he would back up his files to a second hard disk: something might happen. (Of course, such plutocratic panic feels dangerously close to the idea of a bolthole for the select.)

As active proponents of the new space age, Clarke and Heinlein realised that linking the moon only with nuclear catastrophe would be a poor sales pitch. To get the public on board, a more fertile idea was the dream of building human settlements on the moon, which could somehow be portrayed as both wonderful and mundane. In Heinlein’s short story “Space Jockey”, the problem facing the astronaut protagonist is not Ming the Merciless or a swarm of comets but the amount of time he has to spend away from home; the resolution is his decision to take a desk job in comfortably domestic Luna City, built under the surface of the moon. A teenager whines that “nothing ever happens on the moon”. This dualism of the familiar and the fantastic is epitomised in the motif of Earth playing the same role in the moon’s sky as the moon does in Earth’s, lighting the landscape’s darkness.

It is not a new insight; Galileo realised that nights on the nearside of the moon would be earthlit, just as earthly nights are moonlit. All early lunar fiction draws the reader’s attention to Earth waxing and waning in the alien sky as the clearest possible indication of the revolutionary Copernican insight. Twentieth-century heirs made a similar use of the image of worlds reversed. Earthlight (1955), Clarke’s first moon-set novel, opens with the accountant Bertram Sadler, new to the moon, looking out of his train window at the “cold glory of this ancient, empty land” illuminated by “a light tinged with blues and greens; an arctic radiance that gave no atom of heat. And that, thought Sadler, was surely a paradox, for it came from a world of light and warmth.”

Clarke’s paradox was made plain to see in the famous image Earthrise captured by Apollo 8: a world of warmth and light rising above the cold glory of ancient emptiness. The contrast was strong enough – the blasted basalts below unworldly and unappealing enough – that the colonised, normalised moon which Clarke and Heinlein had imagined fell back into the realm of fancy, if not that of the absurd.

So why does returning to the moon now seem plausible again? For one thing, China, or any other country, can put a man or woman on the moon with far less effort than it took the US in the 1960s: as a way to claim parity with a fading superpower, that relatively modest effort has obvious attractions. And as the effort involved has been reduced the resources in the hands of private individuals have increased: Bezos may choose, in the near-term, to yoke his dreams of expansion into space – unlocking untold wealth – to the more parochial ambitions of the US government. But that is convenience, not necessity. Being the richest person on the planet brings with it its own superempowerment.

Science fiction, too, has cast space travel in economic, rather than political, terms. Once again it is hard to avoid Heinlein, this time his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950). Its main character is DD Harriman, a tycoon who, having made his fortune from other technologies, persuades and cons investors of all sorts to provide the further resources he needs to realise his true dream, the founding of a moon colony. After the sheer Soviet Union-surpassing, 2.5%-of-GDP scale of the Apollo effort became manifest in the 1960s, the story seemed quaint. Moon missions were the work of nations, not cigar-puffing wheeler dealers. Now it seems oddly prescient.

If strategic rivalry, existential fear and plutocratic caprice were the only narratives science fiction had lent the moon, one might feel justified in taking a dim view of the whole affair. But there is more. A lifeless world may again provide new insights into a living one, as it did with Earthrise. It is in such changed perspectives on worlds and their peoples that the true promise of science fiction surely lives. Heinlein’s most successful lunar novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1967), is driven by a thrilling plot. But the reason it continues to be loved by many, especially in Silicon Valley, is the strange, contradictory, savage but cosy, polyamorous, Malthusian, libertarian, utopian and carceral society it conjures as its cyborg setting. Similarly, the most striking recent novel about the moon, John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other (2017) sets itself in the “Society of Cousins”, a matriarchy inspiring and troubling, idealistic, indulgent and somewhat stifling. It is, to borrow the subtitle of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), an ambiguous utopia.

Which is as much as you can hope for. The moon, as it becomes a target for politicians, billionaires and enthusiasts inspired by science fictions past, should remain ambiguous, longed for and desolate, always the same and yet shockingly new, a strangeness sitting in the sky for all to see.

This is known as “bad luck”

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

The creative class drives cultural and economic flourishing, Richard Florida argued (in The Rise of the Creative Class), but now the “superstar cities” that attract the creative class have grown increasingly unequal, a problem he dubs The New Urban Crisis:

We find that as a city gets bigger, denser, more productive and more economically successful, inequality rises. In a way, the more successful a city or metro area becomes, the more unequal it becomes, and that is quite challenging.

I’m reminded of what Heinlein had to say about creativity and poverty:

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck.”

Is transgenderism an autism spectrum disorder?

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Steve Sailer has a vague hunch that the transgender movement is somehow related to what he calls the Nerd Liberation movement, the most unexpectedly successful identity movement of his lifetime:

It’s not clear if autism, Asperger’s, and/or nerdism is becoming more common, but it’s definitely more of an identity than it once was.

There has been a little research into this subject, breaking trans people up into three main categories:

  1. Effeminate early transitioning male to female trans individuals (ladyboys) are of course not very nerdy at all. They tend to be people persons (e.g., prostitutes) and not big on logic.
  2. Female to male trans are very nerdy.
  3. Late transitioning masculine male to female trans people (the Wachowskis, the baseball stats person, my MBA school teammate, the economist, etc.) tend to be at least as nerdy as the average man and much more nerdy than the average woman.

I’ve found that the third category, which includes most of the celebrities and high achievers, tends to have a science fiction aspect to their interests. They often seem like characters from old Heinlein sci-fi stories.

Heinlein, a dedicated professional writer, believed in fan service and studied the wants of his various kinds of fans. In 1941 he was both guest of honor and de facto host of a convention for sci-fi fans at which he emphasized to the attendees that, sure, they might be social outcasts today, but they would be a world-changing elite tomorrow!

It doesn’t strike me as absurd that Heinlein would have sensed a market for these kind of fantasies among some sci-fi fans as early as 1958, the year of his solipsistic transsexual time travel short story “All You Zombies.”

In general, much of transgenderism seems like a weird flavor of a sci-fi fan’s traditional interest in Subduing Nature through New Technology.

Tribalism in a Starkly Capitalist Atomic Age

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

James Lafond reviews Heinlein’s classic Destination Moon:

A scientist, a retired admiral, a test pilot turned entrepreneur, and a second string radio technician decide to defy U.S. environmental edicts, and blast off in their atomic space ship from the Mohave Desert instead of waiting to apply for new unaffordable permits in Fiji. These men judged that the privatized space mission would be scrapped if it was delayed any longer, and acted out of a patriotic impulse to beat the Soviets to the moon.

In 1950 the Moon was envisioned as a ballistic platform, and the Cold War was only a few years old. Heinlein was writing before the Korean Conflict took off, and envisioned atomic space travel in a Cold War future that might be placed in the 1980s.

The technology imagined was fascinating — and horrifically dirty. The ethics of the men involved were anchored by patriotism and the desire not to permit the one man among them who had children to perish. The masculine ethos of the story is nearly timeless — excepting our own neutered age. The men declare, one after the other, in various discussions, that their first duty is to the group — the tribe. This is a book on tribalism set in a starkly capitalist atomic age in which nations walk the knife edge of nuclear Armageddon. The most interesting and workable aspect of the story is the quote leading into each chapter from a book on the history of transportation by an Arabic author of a more distant future than that imagined by the author for the first lunar landing.

Destination Moon was simply a great, thought-provoking read that holds up after 65 years for the pointedly simple reason that it is about men testing the boundaries of humanity, which has the purpose envisioned for men across all cultures and ages except, curiously, for our present one.

I haven’t read the original story, but I vaguely recall the movie.

Why Starship Troopers Is the New Art of War

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, published in 1959, is aging remarkably well, because it offers practical lessons for modern warfare:

What Is War Good For?
“Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than any other factor, and contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”

— Mr. Dubois, Johnnie’s history and moral philosophy teacher.

Mobility Is Essential
“An infantryman can fight only if someone else delivers him to his zone; in a way I suppose pilots are just as essential as we are.”
— Johnnie Rico

Focus And Automation
“If you load a mudfoot down with a lot of gadgets that he has to watch, someone a lot more simply equipped — say with a stone ax — will sneak up and bash his head in while he is trying to read a vernier”
— Johnnie Rico

There Are No Dangerous Weapons, Just Dangerous People
“Maybe they’ll do without us someday. Maybe some mad genius with myopia, a bulging forehead and a cybernetic mind will devise a weapon that can go down a hole, pick out the opposition and force it to surrender or die — without killing the gang of your own people they have imprisoned inside. In the meantime, until they do, my mates can handle the job.”
— Johnnie Rico

A War By Any Other Name Can Still Kill You
“Everything up to then and still later were ‘incidents,’ ‘patrols’ or ‘police actions.’ However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an ‘incident’ as if you buy it in a declared war.”
— Johnnie Rico

True Professionals Control Violence
“The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him but to make him do what you want him to do. Not killing… but controlled and purposeful violence.”
— Johnnie Rico

Heinlein’s Political Evolution

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Jeet Heer is baffled by Heinlein’s political evolution:

Heinlein went from being a left-wing New Dealer in the 1930s and 1940s to flirting with the John Birch Society in the late 1950s and supporting Barry Goldwater in the 1960s — and yet, he insisted that his politics were unwaveringly consistent. “From my point of view what has happed is not that I have moved to the right; it seems to me that both parties have moved steadily to the left,” Heinlein wrote his brother in 1964. Patterson, as was his wont on all major issues, sides with his subject and maintains that Heinlein’s politics remained fundamentally unchanged through his life. Heinlein was no “rightist,” Patterson assures us, but a lifelong “radical liberal” with a “democratic soul.” Patterson never explains how that “democratic soul” came to believe that the right to vote should be severely restricted, a position Heinlein advocated not just in Starship Troopers but also in nonfiction works.

[...]

Some of Heinlein’s friends speculated that his shift in politics was connected to his divorce and remarriage. That’s too simplistic an explanation, but Heinlein acknowledged that Virginia helped “re-educate” him on economics.

In truth, Heinlein’s shift to the right took place over a decade, from 1948 to 1957. In the early 1950s, the Heinleins travelled around the world. The writer was already a Malthusian and a eugenicist, but the trip greatly exacerbated his demographic despair and xenophobia. “The real problem of the Far East is not that so many of them are communists, but simply that there are so many of them,” he wrote in a 1954 travel book (posthumously published in 1992). Even space travel, Heinlein concluded, wouldn’t be able to open enough room to get rid of “them.” Heinlein treated overpopulation as a personal affront.

Heinlein had caught a bad case of the Cold War jitters in the late 1940s. He accused liberal Democratic friends, notably the director Fritz Lang, of being Stalinist stooges. With Heinlein’s great talent for extrapolation, every East-West standoff seemed like the end of the world. “I do not think we have better than an even chance of living, as a nation, through the next five years,” he wrote an editor in 1957. The USSR’s Sputnik launch in 1957 and Eisenhower’s moves toward a nuclear test ban the following year both unhinged Heinlein, who called Ike a “slimy faker.” By 1961 Heinlein concluded that even though it was a “fascist organization,” the John Birch Society was preferable to liberals and moderate conservatives.

The Moses of Nerds

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Steve Sailer calls Robert Heinlein the Moses of Nerds:

A central figure in the evolution of obsessive geeks into a self-aware, self-confident community was science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). For many of the mid-20th century’s lonely youths, discovering Heinlein stories in pulp sci-fi magazines or at the public library was a you-are-not-alone moment.
[...]
A touching scene in Patterson’s biography illustrates why Golden Age science-fiction writers and readers so loyally regarded Heinlein as their dean. At a 1941 science-fiction convention where Heinlein was the guest of honor, he took great pains to be a suave host for his awkward fans:

[Heinlein] was probably the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan person the fans had ever come into contact with, and he seemed to them like something out of a movie.…Science-fiction readers in 1941 were social outcasts. To be told—seriously—that they were personally an important element in human progress was apparently…intoxicating for them.

With fans this desperate for leadership, Heinlein likely could have set up a personal cult in the manner of his contemporaries, the lesser novelists Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. (Although unconfirmed, it has been widely reported that Heinlein gave Hubbard the idea of turning Dianetics, originally a low-cost competitor for Freudianism, into the tax-free religion of Scientology.)

Fortunately, Heinlein resisted the temptation to found a cult. He had too much generosity of spirit and too little monomania for the Rand-Hubbard path. Three of his books became cult novels anyway. Tellingly, they each found their way to a different cult. Starship Troopers appeals to militarists, Stranger in a Strange Land to hippies, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to libertarians.

Heinlein was not an ideologue, Sailer emphasizes, but rather an artist whose medium was ideas, an intellectual provocateur.

The Disheveled Old Mystic of Das Kapital

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

You can quickly see why Heinlein’s Starship Troopers would get labelled fascist — it mocks communism:

He had been droning along about “value,” comparing the Marxist theory with the orthodox “use” theory. Mr. Dubois had said, “Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

“These kitchen illustrations demolish the Marxian theory of value — the fallacy from which the entire magnificent fraud of communism derives — and to illustrate the truth of the common-sense definition as measured in terms of use.”

Dubois had waved his stump at us. “Nevertheless — wake up, back there! — nevertheless the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital, turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx, nevertheless had a glimmering of a very important truth. If he had possessed an analytical mind, he might have formulated the first adequate definition of value… and this planet might have been saved endless grief.

“Or might not,” he added. “You!”

I had sat up with a jerk.

“If you can’t listen, perhaps you can tell the class whether ‘value’ is a relative, or an absolute?”

I had been listening; I just didn’t see any reason not to listen with eyes closed and spine relaxed. But his question caught me out; I hadn’t read that day’s assignment. “An absolute,” I answered, guessing.

“Wrong,” he said coldly. ” ‘Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human — ‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values, all of which must be quantitatively different or trade would be impossible.” (I had wondered what Father would have said if he had heard “market value” called a “fiction” — snort in disgust, probably.)

“This very personal relationship, ‘value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him… and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.” He had been still looking at me and added, “If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier… and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?”

“Uh, I suppose it would.”

“No dodging, please. You have the prize — here, I’ll write it out: ‘Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.’ ” He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest. “There! Are you happy? You value it — or don’t you?”

I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids — a typical sneer of those who haven’t got it — and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.
Mr. Dubois had looked surprised. “It doesn’t make you happy?”

“You know darn well I placed fourth!”

“Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you… because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understood this little morality play. I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion… and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

(From ChapterVI, page 75 in my old paperback edition.)

Violence Never Solves Anything

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers presents many ideas through Mr. Dubois:

I thought about it during the last session of our class in History and Moral Philosophy. H. & M. P. was different from other courses in that everybody had to take it but nobody had to pass it — and Mr. Dubois never seemed to care whether he got through to us or not. He would just point at you with the stump of his left arm (he never bothered with names) and snap a question. Then the argument would start.

But on the last day he seemed to be trying to find out what we had learned. One girl told him bluntly: “My mother says that violence never settles anything.”

“So?” Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that. Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”

They had tangled before — since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”

“You seemed to be unaware of it,” he said grimly. “Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea — a practice I shall always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral — doctrine that `violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”

He sighed. “Another year, another class — and, for me, another failure. One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think.”

(From Chapter II — page 24 in my old paperback edition.)

History and Moral Philosophy of Puppy Housebreaking

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

In reference to Foseti’s theory of crime and punishment, Winchell Chung just mentioned this passage from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers:

I found myself mulling over a discussion in our class in History and Moral Philosophy. Mr. Dubois was talking about the disorders that preceded the breakup of the North American republic, back in the XXth century.

According to him, there was a time just before they went down the drain when such crimes as Dillinger’s were as common as dogfights. The Terror had not been just in North America — Russia and the British Isles had it, too, as well as other places. But it reached its peak in North America shortly before things went to pieces.

“Law-abiding people,” Dubois had told us, “hardly dared go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons… to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably — or even killed.

This went on for years, right up to the war between the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and the Chinese Hegemony. Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were parks the only places — these things happened also on the streets in daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings. But parks were so notoriously unsafe that honest people stayed clear of them after dark.”

I had tried to imagine such things happening in our schools. I simply couldn’t. Nor in our parks. A park was a place for fun, not for getting hurt. As for getting killed in one — “Mr. Dubois, didn’t they have police? Or courts?”

“They had many more police than we have. And more courts. All overworked.”

“I guess I don’t get it.” If a boy in our city had done anything half that bad… well, he and his father would have been flogged side by side.

But such things just didn’t happen.

Mr. Dubois then demanded of me, “Define a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ ”

“Uh, one of those kids — the ones who used to beat up people.”

“Wrong.”

“Huh? But the book said — ”

“My apologies. Your textbook does so state. But calling a tail a leg does not make the name fit ‘Juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms, one which gives a clue to their problem and their failure to solve it. Have you ever raised a puppy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you housebreak him?”

“Err… yes, sir. Eventually.” It was my slowness in this that caused my mother to rule that dogs must stay out of the house.

“Ah, yes. When your puppy made mistakes, were you angry?”

“What? Why, he didn’t know any better; he was just a puppy.

“What did you do?”

“Why, I scolded him and rubbed his nose in it and paddled him.”

“Surely he could not understand your words?”

“No, but he could tell I was sore at him!”

“But you just said that you were not angry.”

Mr. Dubois had an infuriating way of getting a person mixed up. “No, but I had to make him think I was. He had to learn, didn’t he?”

“Conceded. But, having made it clear to him that you disapproved, how could you be so cruel as to spank him as well? You said the poor beastie didn’t know that he was doing wrong. Yet you indicted pain. Justify yourself! Or are you a sadist?”

I didn’t then know what a sadist was — but I knew pups. “Mr. Dubois, you have to! You scold him so that he knows he’s in trouble, you rub his nose in it so that he will know what trouble you mean, you paddle him so that he darn well won’t do it again — and you have to do it right away! It doesn’t do a bit of good to punish him later; you’ll just confuse him. Even so, he won’t learn from one lesson, so you watch and catch him again and paddle him still harder. Pretty soon he learns. But it’s a waste of breath just to scold him.” Then I added, “I guess you’ve never raised pups.”

“Many. I’m raising a dachshund now — by your methods. Let’s get back to those juvenile criminals. The most vicious averaged somewhat younger than you here in this class… and they often started their lawless careers much younger. Let us never forget that puppy. These children were often caught; police arrested batches each day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret — in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that spanking, or any punishment involving pain, did a child permanent psychic damage.”

(I had reflected that my father must never have heard of that theory.)

“Corporal punishment in schools was forbidden by law,” he had gone on.

“Flogging was lawful as sentence of court only in one small province, Delaware, and there only for a few crimes and was rarely invoked; it was regarded as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ ” Dubois had mused aloud, “I do not understand objections to ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment. While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism? However, that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense.

“As for ‘unusual,’ punishment must be unusual or it serves no purpose.” He then pointed his stump at another boy. “What would happen if a puppy were spanked every hour?”

“Uh… probably drive him crazy!”

“Probably. It certainly will not teach him anything. How long has it been since the principal of this school last had to switch a pupil?”

“Uh, I’m not sure. About two years. The kid that swiped — ”

“Never mind. Long enough. It means that such punishment is so unusual as to be significant, to deter, to instruct. Back to these young criminals — They probably were not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes. The usual sequence was: for a first offense, a warning — a scolding, often without trial. After several offenses a sentence of confinement but with sentence suspended and the youngster placed on probation. A boy might be arrested many times and convicted several times before he was punished — and then it would be merely confinement, with others like him from whom he learned still more criminal habits. If he kept out of major trouble while confined, he could usually evade most of even that mild punishment, be given probation — ‘paroled’ in the jargon of the times.

“This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and viciousness, with no punishment whatever save rare dull-but-comfortable confinements. Then suddenly, usually by law on his eighteenth birthday, this so-called ‘juvenile delinquent’ becomes an adult criminal — and sometimes wound up in only weeks or months in a death cell awaiting execution for murder. You — ”

He had singled me out again. “Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house… and occasionally locked him up in an outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he is now a grown dog and still not housebroken — whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead. Comment, please?”

“Why… that’s the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!”

“I agree. Or a child. Whose fault would it be?”

“Uh… why, mine, I guess.”

“Again I agree. But I’m not guessing.”

“Mr. Dubois,” a girl blurted out, “but why? Why didn’t they spank little kids when they needed it and use a good dose of the strap on any older ones who deserved it — the sort of lesson they wouldn’t forget! I mean ones who did things really bad. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” he had answered grimly, “except that the time-tested method of instilling social virtue and respect for law in the minds of the young did not appeal to a pre-scientific pseudo-professional class who called themselves ‘social workers’ or sometimes ‘child psychologists.’ It was too simple for them, apparently, since anybody could do it, using only the patience and firmness needed in training a puppy. I have sometimes wondered if they cherished a vested interest in disorder — but that is unlikely; adults almost always act from conscious ‘highest motives’ no matter what their behavior.”

“But — good heavens!” the girl answered. “I didn’t like being spanked any more than any kid does, but when I needed it, my mama delivered. The only time I ever got a switching in school I got another one when I got home and that was years and years ago. I don’t ever expect to be hauled up in front of a judge and sentenced to a flogging; you behave yourself and such things don’t happen. I don’t see anything wrong with our system; it’s a lot better than not being able to walk outdoors for fear of your life — why, that’s horrible!”

“I agree. Young lady, the tragic wrongness of what those well-meaning people did, contrasted with what they thought they were doing, goes very deep. They had no scientific theory of morals. They did have a theory of morals and they tried to live by it (I should not have sneered at their motives) but their theory was wrong — half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry. The more earnest they were, the farther it led them astray. You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct.”

“Sir? But I thought — But he does! I have.”

“No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not — and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind.

These unfortunate juvenile criminals were born with none, even as you and I, and they had no chance to acquire any; their experiences did not permit it. What is ‘moral sense’? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. This truth is mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do.”

“But the instinct to survive,” he had gone on, “can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your ‘moral instinct’ was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive — and nowhere else! — and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.”

“We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race — we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations. But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: ‘Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.’ Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing.

“These juvenile criminals hit a low level. Born with only the instinct for survival, the highest morality they achieved was a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang. But the do-gooders attempted to ‘appeal to their better natures,’ to ‘reach them,’ to ‘spark their moral sense.’ Tosh! They had no ‘better natures’; experience taught them that what they were doing was the way to survive. The puppy never got his spanking; therefore what he did with pleasure and success must be ‘moral.’

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ ”

“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”

Mr. Dubois then turned to me. “I told you that ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘Delinquent’ means ‘failing in duty.’ But duty is an adult virtue — indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents — people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail.”

“And that was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways an admirable culture. The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’… and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”

(That’s from Chapter VIII, pages 90–96 in my old paperback edition.)