The Joke Is on Us: The Two Careers of Robert A. Heinlein

Gary Westfahl in Locus Online:


Readers of contemporary science fiction might understandably grow impatient with commentators who keep talking about older science fiction writers, since they have largely been supplanted by new favorites in today’s marketplace. Still, there is at least one classic writer that every science fiction reader must come to terms with; for when you visit a bookstore today, the science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.

To convey the full extent of his pervasive effects on science fiction, one can consider the three, commonly accepted periods of Heinlein’s career, as first defined in Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension (1968), a pioneering and seminal study despite its flaws. From 1939 to 1942, Heinlein wrote exclusively for the science fiction magazines, with John W. Campbell, Jr.’sAstounding Science-Fiction as his venue of choice (since it paid the highest rates). From 1945 to 1959, while still contributing to science fiction magazines, Heinlein focused most of his energies on breaking into more lucrative markets, including a famous series of juvenile novels for Scribner’s, stories written for “slick” magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, and film and television projects. And from 1961 until his death in 1988, Heinlein specialized in writing novels that were increasingly long-winded, idiosyncratic, and highly opinionated.

Each of these three bodies of work has had its own sort of influence. The remarkably variegated and creative stories and novels from his first period remain the favorites of critics and connoisseurs, and science fiction writers who are serious about internalizing and maintaining the genre’s finest traditions will carefully study, and seek to emulate, the most memorable items from this era. Thus, many writers have produced their own variations on the intricately convoluted time-travel story, as so artfully rendered in “By His Bootstraps” (1941), or have provocatively explored the notion that reality is not as it seems, as exemplified by stories like “They” (1941) and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” (1942). The novels of his middle period, especially the juveniles, have inspired almost all of the science fiction writers who produce space adventures, both the generation who grew up reading and admiring those books and later authors who absorbed Heinlein tropes from second-hand sources ranging from Star Trek to Lois McMaster Bujold. And the cracker-barrel philosophy foregrounded in the later novels was most admired by writers and readers of a libertarian bent, who virtually deified Heinlein as their patron saint and created entire subgenres of “military science fiction” and “libertarian science fiction” that seem especially indebted to those works.


What Do Animals Want?

Conversation with Marian Stamp Dawkins at Edge:


The questions I’m asking myself are really about how much we really know about animal consciousness. A lot of people think we do, or think that we don’t need scientific evidence. It really began to worry me that people were basing their arguments on something that we really can’t know about at all. One of the questions I asked myself was: how much do we really know? And is what we know the best basis for arguing for animal welfare?

Therefore, to base the whole argument of animal welfare and the ethical way we treat animals on something as nebulous as having solved the hard problem of consciousness seemed to be a really bad thing. Not at alI’ve been thinking hard about that, and I came to the conclusion that the hard problem of consciousness is actually very hard. It’s still there, and we kid ourselves if we think we’ve solved it.l a good thing for animals. I was interested in trying to find other arguments to support animal welfare; reasons why people should take notice of animals that didn’t rest on having solved the hard problem of consciousness.

It seemed to me that if you think about human beings, the way to get them to change their behavior is to show them that their own self-interest lies in doing something. For example, if you argue that animal welfare improves human health, improves the health of their children, it gives them better food, it gives them better quality of life. Those arguments may actually be much more powerful for people who aren’t already convinced about animal welfare than trying to use an argument based on animal consciousness, when really we haven’t got the good basis for it that some people would like to think we have.


What is College For?

collegeMatt Beiber interviews Louis Menand:

Louis Menand is a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of English at Harvard and a staff writer for the New Yorker. His most recent book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, traces the rise of the modern university system and asks hard questions about whether higher education’s historical goals and structures are well-suited for today’s world.

In a June, 2011 New Yorker article, Menand expanded on Marketplace, laying out three theories that seek to answer the question: What is college for?

Theory 1 sees the university as a quality filter – a means of sorting young people according to their intelligence and capabilities and providing signals to society about the roles for which they might be well-suited.

Theory 2 is the classic liberal arts vision of the university – in Menand’s words, an opportunity to teach “the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.”

Theory 3 is a more brass-tacks view: it sees the university as designed for professional or vocational preparation.

In this interview, Menand and I dig into Theory 2. What does an education designed to create “informed citizens” or “reflective and culturally literate human beings” actually look like? What books and pedagogical techniques might it include? How much will it seek to answer the ‘big questions’, and to what extent will it be content with simply asking them?


Japanese Gun Control

David B. Kopel on Gun Control in Japan:


In October 1992, in Louisiana, a Japanese exchange student named Yoshihiro Hattori went into the wrong house on the way to a Halloween party. The homeowner’s wife screamed for help and the homeowner drew his .44 pistol and yelled for the student to ‘freeze!’ Not understanding the American idiom that ‘freeze!’ means ‘Don’t move or I’ll shoot’, the student continued advancing towards the homeowner. The homeowner pulled the trigger and shot him dead. While the incident initially attracted only brief attention in the national American press, the shooting horrified Japan; hundreds of thousands of Japanese have signed petitions calling for the United States to implement gun prohibition, and Hattori’s parents have announced plans to begin working with the American lobby, Handgun Control Inc.

To many Japanese, and to many Americans, it is simply incomprehensible that the United States has not implemented strict gun controls or prohibitions along the Japanese model. Gun control in Japan is the most stringent in the democratic world. The weapons law begins by stating ‘No-one shall possess a fire-arm or fire-arms or a sword or swords’, and very few exceptions are allowed. Gun ownership is minuscule, and so is gun crime. As gun crime in other nations increases, many advocates of gun control urge that Japan’s gun control policy be imitated.

But before other nations, particularly the United States, decide that Japanese-style gun control is the magic elixir for the disease of gun violence, it is necessary to understand more fully what Japanese gun control is. Exactly what kinds of controls on guns are imposed by the police? How do the controls fit into the context of the overall relationship between the people and the Government? How has Japan, which earlier was a violent nation with large numbers of guns, become almost totally disarmed and come to have such a low violent crime rate? Why do the Japanese comply with stringent controls, when much milder controls have met such intense resistance in America and other Western nations? And what effect have Japanese gun controls had on suicide?


A Psychotronic Childhood

Colson Whitehead in The New Yorker:


Growing up on the Upper East Side in the nineteen-seventies, I was a bit of a shut-in. I would prefer to have been a sickly child. I always love it when I read a biography of some key

Modernist or neurasthenic Victorian

I dwelled in a backward age, full of darkness, before the VCR boom, before streaming and on-demand, before DVRs roamed the cable channels at night, scavenging content. Either a movie was on or it wasn’t. If I was lucky, I’d come home from elementary school to find WABC’s “The 4:30 Movie” in the middle of Monster Week, wherein vengeful amphibians chased Ray Milland like death-come-a-hopping (“Frogs”), or George Hamilton emoted fiercely in what one assumes was the world’s first telekinesis whodunnit (“The Power”). Weekends, “Chiller Theatre,” on WPIX, played horror classics that provided an education on the subjects of sapphic vampires and ill-considered head transplants. I snacked on Oscar Mayer baloney, which I rolled into cigarette-size payloads of processed meat, and although I didn’t know it at the time, started taking notes about artists and monsters.and it says, “So-and-so was a sickly child, forced to retreat into a world of his imagination.” But the truth is that I just didn’t like leaving the house. Other kids played in Central Park, participated in athletics, basked and what have you in the great outdoors. I preferred to lie on the living-room carpet, watching horror movies.


The Abolition of Work

Bob Black at


No one should ever work.

Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost all the evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance. Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us [will] want [to] act. Oblomovism and Stakhanovism are two sides of same debased coin.

The ludic life is totally incompatible with existing reality. So much the worse for “reality,” the gravity hole that sucks the vitality from the little in life that still distinguishes it from mere survival.Curiously—maybe not—all the old ideologies are conservative because they believe in work. Some of them, like Marxism and most brands of anarchism, believe in work all the more fiercely because they believe in so little else.


Secret Societies

Gary Lachman in The Daily Grail:


Secret societies have existed almost as long as society has itself. The initiates of ancient Egypt; the priest-kings of China; the acolytes of the Greek Mysteries; the shamans of humanity’s early dawn; the holy masters in their inner sanctums in the hidden cities of the world – all are alive today, and work their strange practices and issue their commands, unknown, unsuspected, and undetected by us.

The Secret Chiefs, the Hidden Masters, the Inner Circle, the Illuminati, the King of the World: we know them all today, perhaps in different forms and perhaps by different names. But we know them. They are the ones in control. They are ones behind the closed doors and within the locked rooms. They are the ones with the secret knowledge, who speak a secret language. They know the magic symbols that unlock the gates that lead to worlds beyond our own. They have passed through the trials and ordeals of initiation. They have found the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Emerald Tablet, the dreaded Necronomicon and the lost continent of Atlantis.

Many have belonged to this school. Some say Buddha, Christ, and Plato were its students. There were others too, names so great that to mention them in the context of secret schools would shock the uninitiated. All received the secret knowledge and kept it from profane hands. They have spoken with the angels and listened to the music of the spheres. They have traveled to the interior of the earth and brought back the precious metals of the mind. They have confronted the awful Dweller on the Threshold and they know the song the sirens sang. They have taken the Journey to the East and followed the bark of Ra as it sinks into the west. They have set their controls for the heart of the sun. They built the pyramids and the Sphinx, Stonehenge and Notre Dame, the lost library of Alexandria and the labyrinth at Chartres. They are the elite. They are the elect. They are the few who know, who dare, who will – and who keep silent.