Self-discovery, crime, law, anarchy and the social compact: Robert Heinlein’s Coventry, the 2017 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here’s the Prometheus Blog appreciation for Robert Heinlein’s Coventry, the 2017 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction:

By Michael Grossberg and Jesse Markowitz

What is the ideal society? Is utopia even possible?

How close has the United States come to an ideal society, even with the inevitable flaws that beset every country and culture?

These are among the perennial questions explored and dramatized in Robert Heinlein’s classic story Coventry.

Related questions also emerge: How do you build a utopia and who do you build it for? Is it possible, fair and just to build a utopian alternative for some, but not for others?

First published in 1940 in Astounding Science Fiction, the story begins with the sentencing of a man who is being thrown out of a future American society – and is about to enter a strangely different one, for which he is woefully unprepared.

The story is intriguing in setting up a quasi-libertarian society based on the Covenant, a social compact under which there is no law other than do no harm to another nor put others in peril of serious harm. Criminals, as such, are not punished but they also are not allowed to continue in society as they are. They are given two choices: Have their minds adjusted by the professional doctors, or accept banish from society – and enter Coventry.

Heinlein explores in his alternate sociopolitical scenario two different ways that society might deal with flawed human beings and address the ever-present possibility of violent crime.

The primary focus is on one man’s self-discovery and difficult transition in finding his place in society, especially after finding out that Coventry isn’t the paradise that he imagined.

David MacKinnon, the immature central character, is a romantic idealist charged with assault, who undergoes a court trial for his crime.

MacKinnon is given a choice: to either allow Covenant psychologists to “fix” him, or to leave on a one-way ticket to Coventry, a rugged frontier beyond a Barrier where people are exiled if they refuse to respect social norms.

At first, he is overconfident, glad to be “out of here” and eager to become his own person and live his own life beyond the frontier – something he imagines as a utopia. Yet, as Heinlein shows, the young man has a rude awakening that challenges his assumptions and rocks him to his core.

MacKinnon doesn’t realize how much he’s been limited by the sanitized world he grew up in. His inexperience is embarrassing: He doesn’t know how to be self-sufficient or independent, and he can’t even figure out how to carry all his luggage with him into exile. He’s so naïve that he didn’t even know that he would need to learn how to fire a gun for self-defense.

Thrown out of his own world for being anti-social, he doesn’t realize that social and practical skills will prove crucial to his survival in his new world.

Here Heinlein dramatizes a wider point, raising the question of what kind of society anti-social exiles like this will or could realistically form.

In some measure a satisfying albeit condensed coming-of-age story about a man who’s really a boy when his journey begins, “Coventry” is especially rewarding for Heinlein fans in how it dramatizes MacKinnon’s growth – and especially the hard lessons he learns about facing reality and becoming a responsible and caring human being, which lead eventually to a satisfying story ending.

Heinlein’s tale also resonates as a cautionary fable, along the lines of “be careful what you wish for, because you may get it – good and hard.”

One of Heinlein’s most poignant themes  in “Coventry” is how most of us don’t appreciate what we have until we’ve lost it – and how precious is the opportunity we sometimes have to get it back.

When writing “Coventry,” Heinlein was early in his career and only beginning to explore alternative social scenarios and libertarian ideas.

Even in the earliest years of his influential and bestselling half-century-long career, Robert Heinlein had enough curiosity, imagination and desire for a better world to envision alternate social systems, laws, customs and political rules that might perhaps better nourish freedom – and thus further human progress and peace.

Although still far from the mature views that would shape his 1967 Hugo-winning novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress about an explicitly libertarian revolution, Heinlein’s early story offers intriguing contrasts between a quasi-libertarian society and a lawless “anarchy” into which those who break the Covenant are sent.

Heinlein’s depiction of the less-than-ideal practices of a strange new frontier resonates deeply within American history and American fiction, itself often grappling with the possibilities – positive and negative – of the frontier.

Perhaps inspired and informed partly by the actual history of the Old West as America expanded into and settled the frontier of a new continent, “Coventry” today remains a superior example of what could be called “social” science fiction – where the emphasis is on different laws and customs more than disruptive or liberating new technology.

Although a few aspects of the story may have become dated eight decades after Heinlein conceived his two-alternative-societies scenario, “Coventry “continues to command interest and respect as one of the most thought-provoking examples of social science fiction of sf’s early Golden Age.

That’s just as much sf as the “hard” stuff, and in this area, too, Heinlein was a Grand Master.

Robert Heinlein (Creative Commons license)

Note: Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), a mentor to several generations of younger sf writers, ultimately became the author most recognized by the Prometheus Awards, with a record seven awards as of 2020.

Other works inducted into the Hall of Fame include his bestselling novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (in 1983), Stranger in a Strange Land  (in 1987), the novel Red Planet  (in 1996), the novel Methuselah’s Children (in 1997), the novel Time Enough for Love (in 1998) and the story Requiem  (in 2003).

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Jack Williamson’s story “With Folded Hands…”, the 2018 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans. Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on “Self-discovery, crime, law, anarchy and the social compact: Robert Heinlein’s Coventry, the 2017 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner”

  1. One thing I find interesting about “Coventry” is its contrast with Beyond This Horizon. Many people like to quote the line from Beyond This Horizon that “an armed society is a polite society.” But it seems noteworthy that where the quasi-utopian future of Beyond This Horizon has a custom of duelling, and its standards of politeness are maintained by the threat of paying for rudeness with one’s life—the same author, at roughly the same time, portrayed the quasi-utopian society of “Coventry,” whose protagonist does no more than punch another man who insulted him, but is faced with the choice of psychotherapy or exile, being regarded as dangerous psychologically disturbed. It seems that Heinlein was not advocating any specific set of customs, so much as exploring the implications of different possible customs.

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