years ago I did a study on the accuracy of science-fiction
predictions by four acknowledged masters of the field, two older
(Verne and Wells) and two modern (Heinlein and Clarke). One fact I
learned quickly is that this facet of the literature, like science
itself, is highly cumulative. Later writers build on those who
preceded them, while often trying to outdo their predecessors in
great many of the ideas of Verne and Wells have either come true, or
been proven unlikely ever to become fact. This contrasts with many of
the stories of Clarke and Heinlein, often so far ahead of modern
science that they do not yield predictions that can be verified or
discounted. The following examination of selected Heinlein works,
however, illustrates a well established fact. Science fiction
writers can be very good at depicting possible alternate futures,
including what it would be like to live in one, but are no better
than other types of futurists in predicting which of these will
stated more than once that his books and stories were intended
primarily to entertain (he famously said that someone with the price
of a six-pack in his pocket must want to read his book more than to
drink beer). Nevertheless, he worked hard at creating a logical,
believable and consistent possible future, both for the relatively
near term and a few centuries ahead.
many writers of science fiction, who presented their guesses only in
fictional form, Heinlein was bold enough in 1950 to make a list of
clearly stated projections, examine and update it fifteen years
later, and present a final update fifteen years after that, in 1980.
Like most of his contemporaries, he was far more often wrong than
right. The list is too long and detailed to even summarize here; see
Universe (ACE Books, February 1981)
this book Heinlein tells the truth right up front, stating in the
first sentence of the foreword that it is an expanded version of The
Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, and includes the latter book in
its entirety. The first set of predictions, made in 1950, appeared in
the original “Worlds”. It also includes two possible
scenarios for the year 2000 A.D. Heinlein believed there was a 99.92+
chance that either he or this civilization would be extinct by then,
and he would not again have to account for his mistaken prophecies.
Sad to say, this was an accurate prediction. He died in 1988.
NOTE: This book has several articles dealing with the U.S.S.R., and
more specifically, the six-month trip Heinlein and his wife Virginia
took through Russia in 1960. They include “"Pravda"
Means "Truth"” and “Inside Intourist”.
The Heinleins were able to make such a long tour because his books
had sold well in Russian translations, and he had a huge stack of
rubles piled up -- but at that time had to come to Russia to spend
them. Over the Labor Day weekend of 1961 Heinlein was Guest of Honor
at the 19th World Science Fiction Convention, in Seattle, Washington
-- where I happened to be living at the time, while working for The
Boeing Company. My then-wife Juanita and I attended, of course, and
heard Heinlein give a long, apparently extemporaneous GOH speech on
Russia and their experiences there. (Ginny Heinlein had spent two
years learning Russian before they left; they wanted to talk to
regular people, when occasion allowed, without an official
interpreter.) He paced the floor and spoke without notes. It was
vintage Heinlein, colorful, strong, well-delivered, and highly
controversial. Among other predictions, he stated that war was
inevitable; suggested we all build bomb shelters; and be prepared to
shoot our grasshopper neighbors who would want in at the last minute.
He talked about the fanaticism of the Russians, the endemic lying,
the dangerous convictions the government had successfully instilled
in most of its citizens, the probable spread and possible success of
communism, etc. The talk, like Heinlein's later books, was over-long,
but very interesting. He was booed a few times, and a number of
people chose to publicly and loudly disagree with some of his major
points after the speech. I suspect he was pleased as punch to have
'stirred up the animals’.
was generally considered the preeminent science fiction writer of his
time (though a case can be made that Clarke was more popular in
Europe). I did not meet Heinlein in Seattle, but later he and Ginny
were guests at the Greenhouse, at the Apollo 11 prelaunch party in
1969 (and Ginny returned after Heinlein’s death, for a small
dinner party in her honor). I also talked with him at length during
his 3rd Guest of Honor appearance in Kansas City for the 1976
WorldCon, and exchanged some slight correspondence. He called me, I
think really to say good-by, not long before he died (and apparently
called many other people as well).
- When he gets to the actual predictions (page 323) Heinlein chooses to
reprint his 1950 forecasts, followed by the 1965 ones, and then his
new (1980) ones, where appropriate. This provides the reader with an
immediate basis for comparison, without a lot of flipping pages back
and forth. In his introductory remarks Heinlein carefully points out
that all good science fiction writers tell a story first and prophesy
second, using arguably the greatest of them all, H.G. Wells, as an
example. Heinlein's record of prediction is better than that of
Wells, which time has proven largely wrong; but he still has more
misses than hits.
- Heinlein also plays Cassandra in other articles in this book, such as
in “The Last Days of the United States" (page 148). It
deals primarily with the idea of forced dispersion of the entire
population, to make the country less subject to the worst affects of
atomic attack. "How to be a Survivor" (page 163) describes
the basics of buying or building yourself a cabin deep in the
woods/hills, and preparing to live there indefinitely. At the end, it
mentions that the enemy who has conquered your country can't then use
the big bombs, because his own people occupy the territory; so you
hidden survivors can now become a deadly guerrilla force. He uses the
same theme in the story "Pie From the Sky". (One wonders if
Heinlein's popularity -- he is read fairly widely outside the science
fiction field -- had anything to do with the tremendous upsurge in
the last few decades of the survivalist movement.)
last part of this book is “The Happy Days Ahead". Heinlein
obviously meant the title to be ironic, since he proceeds to list a
series of serious upcoming traumas & travails. But the final item
is "Over the Rainbow”, a fictional scenario in which a worthless new President of the United States dies in a plane crash
shortly after taking office, and his Vice-President, a black woman
and professional actress put on the ticket to get votes, becomes the
new President. She proves to have integrity, a lot of common sense,
an iron will, and a determination to do her job and make the USA into
a better country. She institutes many changes, largely involving a
tightening of discipline in the armed forces, a resistance to
pressure groups that is total, and a commitment to scientific and
technical progress that is unswerving. (1) She does so well that of
course she gets elected to a second term. This is pure Heinlein
speaking, that odd mixture of old-fashioned gentleman and far-future
thinker, expounding on his beliefs of what it would take to return
this country to its original road of high promise (from which he
apparently thinks it has strayed).
Summing Up: It's difficult to sum up a book as diverse as this one.
If there is a theme, it must be the art of prophecy, and the hazards
thereof. There are more articles speculating about the future than
any other subject. Heinlein makes a consistent effort to recount his
career as a prophet, warts and all. He sees far more bad than good
ahead, but admits progress is being made in some areas. His overall
philosophy of unreconstructed libertarianism comes through clearly
here. And he quite often makes the same point, in a short article or
story, that he later expounds on and amplifies in a novel of great
length and wordiness.
Man Who Sold the Moon (New American Library, April 1959)
“The Roads Must Roll" Heinlein postulates a set of roofed
conveyors, equipped with variable speed strips, that run long
distances across the country. A person rides the 'roads' by getting
on a slow strip at the edge and transferring (by walking) to strips
of increasing speed; the center one rolls at 100 miles an hour. It’s
a bold concept, conceived ten years before the rapid development of
commercial air traffic and the Interstate highway system. A
straight-line forward projection, the idea makes no allowance for
side turns, such as the development of communications systems so good
they often replace physical travel. Heinlein states in his preface to
this book of four long stories that they are intended as ‘what
if’ speculations, not his personal predictions of events likely
to actually happen.
page 63 in the novella “The Man Who Sold the Moon",
Heinlein uses a throwaway concept, a sensor switch that turns lights
off automatically when the last person leaves a room. This is in fact
now a viable idea, but so expensive the technology has not yet sold
pages 68 -71 the name character, Delos Harriman, explains why private
industry should develop the means to travel to the moon; so that it
could be claimed, carved up, and sold as real estate. The idea that
it would be done for reasons of political prestige and international
rivalry apparently did not occur to Heinlein. Nor did he foresee
jumping ahead of the orderly development of needed space-borne
infrastructure, and going directly from the face of the Earth to the
moon. In real life, logic and an orderly progression of technology
played a secondary role in humanity first reaching the moon.
page 143, the first rocket leaves for the moon, without Delos
Harriman aboard; he was too valuable to have his life risked that
way. The ship runs along a track and up the side of a mountain, then
jumps into the air and lights its "jets." (2) This was one
of Heinlein's few failures in basic physics. Rail-guided takeoffs
require more propellant than a straight vertical liftoff. And jets,
as they developed, were all air-breathing engines. Still, the overall
story is more logical than the way moon landings were actually
in 2100 (Baen Books, 1981)
This is a reprinted novel about a theocracy taking over the United
States, one of the earliest and best examples, often since imitated.
As is usual with Heinlein, the action occurs within the known world
of the central protagonist, in this case John Lyle, and what we learn
of the ruling Prophet and his cohorts emerges slowly, through John's
viewpoint. On page 18 he learns that the rulers are corrupt, as
anyone with more experience would have expected.
is interesting to note (page 32) that the Cabal, the secret group
organized to overthrow the Prophet, appear almost equally religious
and fanatic in their beliefs. It is not clear whether the people
who rule the Cabal are themselves genuinely religious, or are only
using the trappings of religion as tools in their own struggle to
gain recruits. A parallel occurred during the founding of Israel
after World War II, when many Jews with little or no religious belief
nevertheless worked shoulder to shoulder with the most fanatic of
Jewish fundamentalists to found the new state. (And this continues
to some extent today.)
This novel was first published as a series of shorter works in
1939-40, then later combined and revised into a book; about a decade
before George Orwell published “1984”. But the means of
keeping total control over the ‘Angels of the Lord’, the
elite guards of the Prophet, are very similar to what Orwell
forecasted for all the citizenry in his novel. There is an "ear"
and an "eye" in every room, with monitors at television
screens both watching, listening, and, if need be, recording every
action of the guards. The rulers have mind control drugs (also
possessed by the Cabal), use torture, psychological conditioning, and
most of the other techniques Orwell outlined so convincingly. One
would suspect that Orwell read this book, though it does not address
some of his more profound l inspirations, such as 'doublethink,'
Summing Up: Overall, a very good book, high on thought-content and
with the human and believable characters for which Heinlein is
famous. It has little value as prophecy, but is certainly a fine
example of what Heinlein said he was attempting to do: provide a
vivid example of what could happen ". . . if this goes on."
Past Through Tomorrow (ACE Books, July 1987; incorporates
the early novel Methuselah’s Children)
Summing Up: This was a seminal work for Heinlein, marking the first
appearance of Lazarus Long, the archetype of Heinlein's 'wise old
man' figure. And Heinlein's obsession with immortality, presumably
because of a concern with his own expected life span (he spent parts
of his life in ill health, starting fairly early), appears here in
full strength. (3) It’s interesting to note that during their
hegira the Howard Families encounter not one but two separate species
who seem far superior to man in intelligence and development, an
attitude toward Mankind that seems more typical of Clarke than
Heinlein. Regardless, a great deal of Heinlein's later work appears
to use this book as a springboard -- and of course some, such as Time Enough for Love, are a direct follow-on (4).
Methuselah seems the first book or story in which
Heinlein fastened on what was to become one of the major themes of
his writing, the search for immortality. Apparently it was also the
debut of his most famous single character, Lazarus Long, the
archetypical 'wise old man’ who figures so prominently in much
of Heinlein's later work.
page 655, first page in Methuselah: "Mary had no
intention of letting anyone know where she was going. Outside her
friend's apartment she dropped down a bounce tube to the basement,
claimed her car from the robopark, guided it up the ramp and set the
controls for North Shore. The car waited for a break in the traffic,
then dived into the high-speed stream and hurried north. Mary settled
back for a nap." This is the type of writing which made Heinlein
justly famous -- the brief, passing description of technologies which
must have seemed incredibly far away to readers of 1941, when this
book was published. The author makes the technology appear even more
a part of everyday life by providing nicknames for some of the
machinery. The "bounce tube" is apparently some form of
anti gravity; "robopark" seems self-explanatory; setting
the destination point and ordering the car to take her there,
including decision-making authority to dive into high-speed traffic,
indicates a degree of automation and computer control still only on
the horizon today.
page 656, the little car transporting Mary converts to a surface
effect vehicle that can skim over water, then to a submersible that
drops below the surface of Lake Michigan, taking Mary to a meeting of
the Howard Families in a secret hollow island in the lake called the
the time of the meeting of 2125, eleven years ago, it had become . .
." Heinlein feeds the reader the data needed to form a good
mental picture. But the world has moved much faster than Heinlein
projected; most of the automated functions he describes in personal
transportation could be built now, if the economics of the society
profession of 'psychometrician' is introduced on page 664, at the
Howard Families meeting. (And while there Mary meets Lazarus Long,
attending for the first time in 100 years.) This turns out to be a
psychology of mass behavior, with statistics to back up the
conclusions; as opposed to theoretical psychology without numerical
proof. The statistic most interesting to the Howard Families, the
hidden long-lived humans, is the one that establishes the behavior of
groups; verifying that they can and often do function quite
differently from individuals. This may have been known, at least to
some extent, at the time of writing. But modern psychology has
verified Heinlein’s insight.
Mary Sperling is 163 years old, a gift of her genes, but looks 'early
thirties’, a gift of 'biotechniques'. Heinlein does not spell
out what these are, except to say the results are from “. . .
hormones and symbiotics and gland therapy and some psychotherapy --
things like that." This is the standard clever way for the
science fiction writer to avoid having to go into convincing but
boring detail. On page 671 Heinlein, in brief passages, mentions the
'second' Centauri Expedition spaceship Lazarus Long (a.k.a. Woodrow
Wilson Smith, his original birth name) and Mary can see being
assembled in orbit, when she
draws back the shutters over her 'sky view' ceiling. Lazarus is the
oldest known member of the Howard Families, 214 in the year 2136
(though the breeding program that noticeably extended the life spans
of the Howard Families began many years before his own birth).
page 672 Lazarus tosses his kilt toward a wardrobe -- which catches
it, shakes it out, and hangs its neatly inside itself. This devoutly
wished-for projection has not yet come true.
After a night of only two hours sleep, Mary takes a 'sleep surrogate'
-- a drug we could all use! Again it is not explained, the term alone
page 680 Lazarus and Mary are pursued by three men in a helicopter.
This machine seems an anachronism in a world otherwise so far
advanced technically. One would have expected such awkward devices to
have been replaced with something better.
character called “Slipstick Libby the Calculator” appears
on page 688. Obviously the idea that the slipstick would die with the
advent of the pocket calculator never occurred to Heinlein; one of
his more serious misses.
Machines that control the weather, but are sometimes overwhelmed by
the size of particular fronts, are mentioned in passing on page 690.
We are still a long way from realistic weather control.
page 721 Lazarus Long decides to visit the permanent space station
New Frontiers, which is located over meridian 106° west,
declination zero, at a distance from the center of the earth of
approximately 26,000 miles. Since the perfect height for a
geosynchronous orbit is 22,238 miles above mean sea level, this is
quite close to the true figure.
page 745 Heinlein describes ‘free-fall nausea’, obviously
a prediction of what has come to be known as SAS, or Space Adaptation
Syndrome -- the malady of the astronauts. One wonders if Heinlein had
some data on such sickness occurring among people in free-fall
parachute jumps, allowing him to make such an accurate projection.
Some of Heinlein's speculations on mass, energy, and light speed on
pages 748-50 are highly advanced stuff. He explains just enough to
make it sound believable, within the context of background science
not understood by the chief protagonist, Lazarus Long. In 1940, not
one reader in a million was qualified to say whether the physics
explained here are believable or sheer hogwash.
page 753 Heinlein presents techniques on the psychodynamics of crowd
behavior, political manipulation, and social control that are only
now emerging into the mainstream of consciousness as effective
systems. Political symbol of today -- handsome, clean-cut
young-to-middle-age man striding vigorously along an urban street,
wearing a good suit, with tie loosened and jacket held over right
shoulder. . .
pages 774-5 Lazarus Long remembers the ‘water people of Venus’.
Heinlein, like almost all other science fiction writers, went by the
'known' or 'best guess’ facts of his day, and the best guess of
1940 was that Venus was covered with water and/or swamps. We know
page 801 the Howard Families discover the people on the planet they
have reached, the second in their search for a new home, have
progressed past the point where they need machinery. The cute, furry
‘Little People’ are telepathic, have from 30 to 90 bodies
sharing a 'group mind,' and an 'individual' is one such grouping.
It’s an interesting concept, but too far away from current
human concerns and technology to be of much relevance to this study.
page 809 Lazarus chairs an assembled meeting of all 100,000 members
of the Families, using a microphone. A helper stands to one side and
aims a ‘directional pickup’ at speakers who rise in the
crowd, to amplify their voices. Such devices are relatively common
today, but I believe they existed only in theory in 1940 -- if even
page 823 the Howard Families learn, on returning to Earth, that
during the 75 Earthyears they have been away, scientists have solved
the longevity problem for everyone. One of the rejuvenation
treatments consists of replacing the entire blood supply with 'young'
blood. The amount needed could never be produced by donors. Instead,
scientists have learned how to manufacture blood, apparently through
growing bone marrow in vitro and gearing the production of blood
cells up to factory levels. This is the type of speculative science
idea that provides a real and immediate payoff, if it inspires some
scientist to go do in fact what was done in fiction. One wonders how
often this has actually happened..
book ends on an optimistic, upbeat note, with the Howard Families
preparing to land and reclaim their
property on Earth, knowing they too can take the rejuvenation
treatments and plan to live, not just long lives, but indefinitely.
Lazarus Long decides to take the treatments and then head out to the
stars again, looking for habitable planets. They will be needed to
handle the overflow from Earth, now that the refugees have brought
home a practical interstellar drive that provides a means to relieve
the extreme overcrowding. This is, of course, a replay of the 'leave
crowded Europe for the Americas' idea. In the world of today, what
we have learned is that the birth rate drops dramatically when women
gain the power to control
their own fertility. Many countries, including some of the largest
(The USA, Russia and China) now have birth rates lower than the
needed replacement level.
Troopers (edition lost in the mists)
With the publication of this novel Heinlein was perceived by some
fans as entering into a new phase, a deep concern with war and
military philosophy. Here he projects a professional soldier being
prepared for combat by injections and hypnotic suggestion. These turn
him into a fearless fighter, unworried about death. This seems an
updated version of a very old technique, used by several types of
religious fanatics in the middle ages. It was also used by societies
of professional assassins, a technique that survived for a few
hundred more years in Japan. Heinlein substituted injections for
ingested drugs, and hypnotism for religious conviction/frenzy, but
the results are the same.
equipment used by the Mobile Infantry (Heinlein's nomenclature) in
this novel (pages 8-17) is far advanced over anything that exists
today. Both the weapons and techniques of use have been carefully
thought out, and are detailed with typical Heinlein thoroughness and
off-beat 'prediction' in this novel (page 38) is the use of oriental
fighting techniques in hand-to-hand combat, particularly for trainers
such as military drill instructors. At the time this novel was
written oriental martial arts were known in this country, but little
practiced. Today the western techniques of fighting with the fists
are generally acknowledged as inferior, and Taekwondo, Karate, and
other oriental arts instruction centers abound.
page 79 our viewpoint character, Johnnie Rico, starts describing the
‘powersuit’ that Mobile Infantry use as fighting
equipment on most raids. Power-assisted exoskeletons are now being
developed and tested by the U.S. military, with expected use just
around the corner.
of the less believable aspects of this book (brought out very well on
pages 110-14) is that Heinlein takes present military life and simply
extends and exaggerates it for future soldiers. A good case can be
made that future military personnel will do almost all their fighting
by remote control, keeping their bodies at a safe distance. In which
case, like high-altitude bomber crews,
or those now manning the control centers for the Minuteman
multiple atomic warhead ICBMs, they might kill
vast numbers of people with little direct emotional involvement;
making war even more horrible -- and impersonal -- than it is today.
Summing Up: This books opens with a very lively and exciting battle
scene, and closes (except for a few wrap-up pages) with another. It’s
a defense of the military, and of the need any large nation has for
defense forces. But it espouses a philosophy which the world of
today seems to be outgrowing.
in a Strange Land (G.P Putnam’s Son’s, 1961)
This is Heinlein's most controversial novel, the one by which he is
best known to the general public. It appeared after “Starship
Troopers”, and takes moral and philosophical approaches to life
almost directly opposite those expressed in the prior novel.
Heinlein, in a conversation with Patrice Milton (Green), said he
wrote the first half in 1948, and put it aside because he felt the
public was not ready for it. Ten or more years later he brought the
manuscript out and finished it, when he judged that public tolerance
had increased enough to make the book acceptable. It won a Hugo in
1962, and has had strong and continuing sales since its first
appearance. This novel was purportedly a guidebook for the Manson
Family, some of whom have stated that they attempted to actually live
by its precepts. It also became a cult book for some students of the
late 1960s, years after its first publication. The awareness of its
virtues as a novel for the general public grew slowly. Like “Dune”,
which began as magazine serials and, mostly on word-of-mouth
publicity, grew to be a huge bestseller, “Stranger”
expanded its audience every year for at least a decade. Its sales
have not equaled those of Herbert's classic, but only because (in my
opinion) no movie appeared (though rights were sold).
This book is divided into five parts, and the titles -- His Maculate
Origin, His Preposterous Heritage, His
Eccentric Education, His Scandalous Career, and His Happy Destiny,
all indicate immediately that this is a Jesus myth, or parody.
page 13 we have World War III having been completed, and the second
expedition to Mars (a cautious unmanned one, unlike the first)
reporting back from Martian orbit that the canals are huge
engineering works, and the apparent sites of former great cities are
visible. In less than a decade after this book was published both the
USSR and the USA sent probes by Mars, which verified that the air is
too thin to support life-as-we-know-it, no canals exist, and there
are no visible artifacts.
page 33 Heinlein relates a little history, which includes the USSR
sending the first spaceship to the Moon, the USA and Canada combining
to send one, and then a private company sending up a big spaceship
with colonists -- and thus actually homesteading the Moon, and
claiming it for the settlers. The courts upheld the rights of the
occupants, as opposed to the rights of those who landed and left, and
the Moon belongs to them. The real space program had started when
Heinlein returned to finish this book, and the first satellites were
up. The actual landings on the Moon varied considerably from this
Automated, unmanned flying cabs are used routinely throughout this
story -- a minor prognostication done many times before, and yet to
page 73, in a semi-news-of-the-day report: “The Kingdom of
South Africa, Federation associate, was again cited before the High
Court for persecution of its white minority". Both Heinlein and
Clark have used South Africa as the example of a lasting bastion of
racial prejudice, though both had the major actors change places. So
far, South Africa seems to have survived the transition to black
majority rule without instituting an equally abhorrent reverse
page 216, nearing the end of what seems to me the first section of
the book, written a decade earlier, Heinlein mentions the planning
being done to establish a colony on Jupiter. The context makes it
clear he is referring to actually living on the 'surface.' By the
time this book was published the accepted theory -- now confirmed --
was that Jupiter had no surface at all, only thicker and thicker gas
layers, down to a possible solid core about the size of Earth.
Summing Up: A re-reading confirmed what I already believed, that this
is Heinlein's best novel. Its focus and emphasis is not on science
and technology, but on philosophy and religion -- and it does a
superb job of exploring and depicting major aspects of both. It is a
thoughtful, intense, mentally stimulating exercise in looking at
religion -- and American society, as shaped primarily by religious
beliefs and old technology -- from an outsider’s point of view.
Organized religion does not stand up well under such detailed
scrutiny. Its emphasis on human relations, as opposed to the effects
of technology and change, renders it only partially suitable for this
Heinlein ~ Summary
Heinlein vaulted to the front rank of science fiction writers within
a few years of his first appearance in print, and has remained there
since. Two polls taken 20 years apart by the leading science fiction
news magazine, “Locus”, showed exactly the same result:
The most popular science fiction writers in the world were Heinlein,
Asimov, and Clarke, in that order.
has to be read to be understood. In my opinion it is about equally
likely that in the future he will be a) respected as an insightful
social thinker and inspiration for real scientists, or b) forgotten
and ignored except as a writer of fiction. Regardless, his place in
the history of science fiction is secure.
years later, in 2009 – one can’t help but believe
Heinlein would have been very happy to see a highly educated,
articulate African-American, who is pro-science, serving as
President of the United States.
actually saw such a U-track (not in use) on Santa Rosa Island, off
the Florida coast from Hurlburt Field, when I worked there in 1958
at the Bomarc Missile Development site.
life extension isn’t here yet, but a tremendous amount of
serious work is underway. It would be very interesting to know how
much of this was inspired by Heinlein’s fiction. He was one
of the first (and most popular) to present the idea as a practical
- If you
go by what he wrote about in fictional form, particularly in his
last, consciously ‘wrap up’ novel, “To Sail Into
The Sunset”, a second obsession was to have sex with his
mother. I find the first one much more understandable.