Don’t do anything

Saturday, March 6th, 2021

The MacGuffin in Glory Road is the Egg of the Phoenix, a cybernetic record of the experiences of two hundred and three “emperors” and “empresses,” most of whom “ruled” all the known universes — and serves as an excuse for Heinlein to share his thoughts on politics:

For the one thing that stood out as this empirical way of running an empire grew up was that the answer to most problems was: Don’t do anything. Always King Log, never King Stork — “Live and let live.” “Let well enough alone.” “Time is the best physician.” “Let sleeping dogs lie.” “Leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.” Even positive edicts of the Imperium were usually negative in form: Thou Shalt Not Blow Up Thy Neighbors’ Planet. (Blow up your own if you wish.) Hands off the guardians of the Gates. Don’t demand justice, you too will be judged.

Above all, don’t put serious problems to a popular vote.

Our hero meets a comparative culturologist from one of the many other inhabited planets:

But tell me: How were things when you left? Especially, how is the United States getting along with its Noble Experiment?”

“ ‘Noble Experiment’?” I had to think; Prohibition was gone before I was born. “Oh, that was repealed.”

“Really? I must go back for a field trip. What have you now? A king? I could see that your country was headed that way but I did not expect it so soon.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “I was talking about Prohibition.”

“Oh, that. Symptomatic but not basic. I was speaking of the amusing notion of chatter rule. ‘Democracy.’ A curious delusion — as if adding zeros could produce a sum. But it was tried in your tribal land on a mammoth scale. Before you were born, no doubt. I thought you meant that even the corpse had been swept away.” He smiled. “Then they still have elections and all that?”

One of our hero’s companions later adds:

“Except that he sees only the surface. Democracy can’t work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that’s all there is — so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group.

“But a democratic form of government is okay, as long as it doesn’t work. Any social organization does well enough if it isn’t rigid. The framework doesn’t matter as long as there is enough looseness to permit that one man in a multitude to display his genius. Most so-called social scientists seem to think that organization is everything. It is almost nothing — except when it is a straitjacket. It is the incidence of heroes that counts, not the pattern of zeros.”

He added, “Your country has a system free enough to let its heroes work at their trade. It should last a long time — unless its looseness is destroyed from inside.”

[...]

“I could never be a democrat at heart. To claim to ‘respect’ and even to ‘love’ the great mass with their yaps at one end and smelly feet at the other requires the fatuous, uncritical, saccharine, blind, sentimental slobbishness found in some nursery supervisors, most spaniel dogs, and all missionaries. It isn’t a political system, it’s a disease. But be of good cheer; your American politicians are immune to this disease…and your customs allow the non-zero elbow room.

One should never be killed by a stranger

Thursday, March 4th, 2021

In Glory Road, our hero faces another skilled swordsman — “an ugly cocky little man with a merry grin and the biggest nose west of Durante” — who does something he had heard of, never seen:

He retreated very fast, flipped his blade and changed hands.

A right-handed fencer hates to take on a southpaw; it throws everything out of balance, whereas a southpaw is used to the foibles of the right-handed majority — and this son of a witch was just as strong, just as skilled, with his left hand.

Goldman improved on the idea.

When the big-nosed fencer gets run through, he grasps the blade:

“No, no, my friend, please leave it there. It corks the wine, for a time. Your logic is sharp and touches my heart. Your name, sir?”

“Oscar of Gordon.”

“A good name. One should never be killed by a stranger. Tell me, Oscar of Gordon, have you seen Carcassonne?”

“No.”

“See it. Love a lass, kill a man, write a book, fly to the Moon — I have done all these.”

A sword never jams

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

In Glory Road Robert Heinlein makes the case for his hero to carry a sword:

A properly balanced sword is the most versatile weapon for close quarters ever devised. Pistols and guns are all offense, no defense; close on him fast and a man with a gun can’t shoot, he has to stop you before you reach him. Close on a man carrying a blade and you’ll be spitted like a roast pigeon — unless you have a blade and can use it better than he can.

A sword never jams, never has to be reloaded, is always ready. Its worst shortcoming is that it takes great skill and patient, loving practice to gain that skill; it can’t be taught to raw recruits in weeks, nor even months.

Heinlein also reiterates S.L.A. Marshall’s famous point from Men Against Fire:

Do you know how many men in a platoon actually shoot in combat? Maybe six. More likely three. The rest freeze up.

Marshall infamously fabricated much of his research — but other sources do corroborate this.

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.