Just a LOC (Letter of Comment for those of you who don’t speak fannish) on Greg Costikyan’s review of Friday.
Being a fan of Heinlein’s for as long as I can remember (I must have started reading him as early as 9 or 10). I was one of the first people to get Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimensions and I drank in what Panshin said about my literary hero. I thought so well of the book that I recommended it to Heinlein when I first spoke to him back in July, 1973—an interview that I conducted with Heinlein for the New York Sunday News which that paper bought and paid for, but which ended up being published instead in Reason and New Libertarian Notes in different forms.
In the course of that interview, however, and subsequently in further conversations with Heinlein, I have come to the conclusion that Panshin just didn’t know what be was talking about a lot of the time.
Let me illustrate. Panshin talks about how Heinlein was repressed about sex in his early fiction—I don’t have the book in front of me so I can’t give an exact quote—but there’s something about Heinlein having a boy-scout’s view of sexuality. In fact, what Panshin was noting was the repressive editorial standards that restricted what Heinlein could publish in the science fiction pulps and in the Scribner’s line of juvenile books. Given a Kay Tarrant—John Campbell’s assistant at Astounding—who would systematically go through each manuscript and cut out anything that was even vaguely sexual, I find it astonishing that Heinlein managed to get in as much as be did in his early work.
The same sort of sloppy research and thinking can be found in H. Bruce Franklin’s booklet on Heinlein. The charges of racism in Sixth Column and Farnham’s Freehold are both vile and absurd to anyone familiar with Heinlein’s personal attitudes. He is, and has always been, an individualist, no matter what else his political views were and are. In sloppy research found in H. Bruce, Heinlein’s The Sixth Column, which Heinlein wrote from an outline by John Campbell—and of which he says, in Expanded Universe, he didn’t want to write and still doesn’t like very much —Heinlein goes out of his way to treat the “Pan-Asian” conquerors of America as villains because of their racism, and pointedly makes an American of Asian extraction a sympathetic and heroic character.
And in Farnham’s Freehold, Heinlein makes the most powerful and uncompromising attack on racism that I have found anywhere: the book is a role reversal where in a future, post-nuclear-holocaust Earth, whites are the slaves of blacks, and the role reversal is complete down to every nuance. Whites are lazy and servile; blacks are supercilious, show “king’s mercy” to emphasize their superiority, and treat whites as animals.
This is not the first time I have heard the charge of racism against Heinlein: I also heard it from Samuel R. Delany in a speech he made at the university of Colorado in 1981. Delany was and is wrong—and frankly, I expect better criticism from a man of his talents. Heinlein was not putting us on when he said that Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers both make exactly the same statement about humanity: both show individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of humanity.
Here, if anywhere, is where I have a fundamental disagreement with Heinlein: but one which I think is peripheral to much of his literary intent. But let me get this into print for once. Heinlein stated to me in our 1973 conversation—and goes into detail in Expanded Universe—that the highest morality consists of the individual who is willing to give up his life for the sake of his family, village or nation, and—ultimately—the survival of his species. (He also goes out of his way to make clear that he considers this a choice which must be made voluntarily by each individual; no collective has the right to demand this as a duty.)
Where I disagree is that I value the individual above any concept of a collective. I don’t see any gain for a family, village, nation, or species that survives by the sacrifice of its best individuals.
Mind you, I can well see selling my life to buy the lives of people I dearly loved—parents, sister, children, wife, friends. But it would be a choice made for individuals I loved—not “others” in an abstract sense. To paraphrase Rand, if the future of the human species demands the sacrifice of the best of the present, then the future of the human species be damned.
The only rational case I can make for placing the value of others above one’s own life is the case argued by Christianity: love of all mankind. If one does, in fact, love all of mankind as brothers, then sacrificing one’s own life for them is a good bargain. It’s a choice that people argue that Jesus made—and history provides other examples, with better evidence, of many people who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of a greater good. But let me point out here that Christianity offers a specific value to the individual for that sacrifice; which—to my knowledge—Heinlein’s stated metaphysics does not: those who love others well enough to give up their lives for them live forever. This is an appeal I can understand, and if I were convinced this were true, it would seem to me to be the best offer I’ve ever had.
Lacking conviction on this point, I don’t see why others per se are of such ultimate value. They, too, will eventually die. (Yes, even if the human race expands into space, the human race will eventually die—either by changing into something non-human, or by the death of the universe itself—whenever that happens.)
So I remain an uncompromising individualist, and when Heinlein focuses on this aspect of his values, I applaud and will continue applauding.
This is perhaps much too heavy for what started out as a simple letter in reply to a book review, but inasmuch as it deals with values necessary to evaluate perhaps the most central aspects of Heinlein’s libertarianism, I hope I will be forgiven.
This said, to Friday itself. I do not intend ever again to go into print with an opinion on Heinlein’s current fiction—I find the task of critical review an obstruction to my own enjoyment of a writer’s work. So, without any evaluation of whether Heinlein’s intent is good or bad, let me just say that I think Heinlein circa the 1950’s would have executed this book differently than Heinlein circa 1981. In Citizen of the Galaxy, when Baslin dies, Thorby is given explicit instructions on how he is to carry on—and he decides, specifically, to carry on Baslin’s work. In Friday, when Friday’s mentor dies, she is left completely at loose ends, and the work is abandoned as hopeless.
This reflects, in my view, a shift in Heinlein’s emphasis from an optimistic view of life to a pessimistic view. Whether Heinlein is convinced of this—or whether he’s simply trying to scare us into getting out into space—I can’t guess. But I don’t think anyone needs to develop any elaborate theories about the “stages” of Heinlein’s career to explain the change of direction in his fiction.
I have just one question for Greg Costikyan: why bother with the opinions of the Panshins and Franklins—and, yes, the Schulmans, for that matter—when Heinlein is perfectly capable of explaining what he’s up to in his own words? And has done so in detail in Expanded Universe?
I was especially interested by David Suits’ article examining the fascist tendencies of Pascal programming in the Spring issue of Prometheus.
Some background about me is necessary. I was employed by a service-oriented company as a typist, file clerk and general “gofer” when my bosses invested in a computer system and I became a self-taught programmer. I recently received a journalism degree, but until last fall had never taken a computer programming course of any kind. Until that time, I had been programming in Microsoft Basic and, if I may say so, my employers were well pleased with my work. Then, with my bosses’ encouragement (and money), I re-enrolled in college to get some formal computer education. The choice of courses being left to me. I chose a Pascal programming class—having heard its wonders extolled by (as I recalled after reading Suits’ article) institutional sources.
As Mr. Suits might guess, I was not, according to Computer Science Department dogma, doing anything right. First, I had cut my teeth on Basic, a pariah language to the academicians. Then, to their further dismay (though not surprise after learning of my background). I committed the “sin” of being more concerned with function than form. Still worse, I wrote programs (in Pascal) which ran faster, better, and easier than the formats they tried to shove down our throats. “This isn’t right,” they said. “It works,” I would reply. “But it’s just not structured properly,” was the rejoinder.
Obviously, I decided, as Cool Hand Luke’s warden might say today, what we have here is an I/O parity error. Since I’m the only programmer where I work, my concern is for the users of my software. The good folks at the university were training me to work for Texaco or IBM (or the university). For them a good program is one which can be easily read and understood by “your supervisor.” Work without a supervisor? For them, it seems, that concept does not compute.
My nominations to the Hall of Fame (did I belong): The Dispossessed, Van Vogt’s “Weapons Shop” (the story, not the novel): Russell’s “And Then There Were None,” Laffetty’s Camarol stories (or treatises), and the moment (in The Stars My Destination) when Gully Foyle jaunts thru the world’s capitals tossing PYRE into the crowds, calling, “Make them tell you what it is!”
...And I was disappointed to see so much bad writing in nomination, including—count ’em—FOUR Ayn Rand novels. I’d heard you guys had outgrown that.
I was glad to see Prometheus and of course to learn that Catching Fire has been nominated for the current award. I also liked Michael Grossberg’s review of the book, but—forgive me for quibbling—I have to point out that the info in the nominees listing is all inaccurate, except for the title. It’s Kay, not “Kate”; the publisher is Coward, McCann & Geoghengan, not Del Ray; and the year is 1982, not 1981. None of which keeps me from being pleased that the Society has again made one of my books a nominee!
Kay Nolte Smith
Tinton Falls, New Jersey
I have apologized in a letter to Ms. Smith, and should also apologize to the subscribers for the typos. I can only be grateful that I got the title correct.
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