Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2009

The Predictions Of Robert A. Heinlein

Joseph Green

illos by Randy Cleary and Kelly Freas

Several 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 imaginative speculation.

Today, a 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 actually occur.

Heinlein 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.

Unlike 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 original publication.


Selected Works

Expanded Universe (ACE Books, February 1981)

  1. In 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.


    PERSONAL 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’.

    Heinlein 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.)

  4. The 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.

 

The Man Who Sold the Moon (New American Library, April 1959)

  1. In “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.

  2. On 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 very widely.

  3. On 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.

  4. On 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 achieved.

 

Revolt in 2100 (Baen Books, 1981)

  1. 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.

  2. It 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.)

  3. 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,' 'doublespeak,’ etc.

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."

 

The Past Through Tomorrow (ACE Books, July 1987; incorporates the early novel Methuselah’s Children)

  1. 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.

  2. On 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.

  3. On 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 'Families Seat.'

  4. "By 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 permitted it.

  5. The 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.

  6. 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).

  7. On 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.

  8. 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 being enough.

  9. On 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.

  10. A 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.

  11. 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.

  12. On 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.

  13. On 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.

  14. 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.

  15. On 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. . .

  16. On 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 better now.

  17. On 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.

  18. On 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 that.

  19. On 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..

  20. The 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.
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).

 

Starship Troopers (edition lost in the mists)

  1. 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.

  2. The 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 believability.

  3. An 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.

  4. On 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.

  5. One 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.

 

Stranger in a Strange Land (G.P Putnam’s Son’s, 1961)

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. On 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.

  4. On 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 scenario.

  5. Automated, unmanned flying cabs are used routinely throughout this story -- a minor prognostication done many times before, and yet to come true.

  6. On 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 discrimination.

  7. On 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 study.

 

Robert A Heinlein ~ Summary

Robert A. 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.

Heinlein 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.

~~~

NOTES

    1. Speaking 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.
    2. I 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.
    3. Real 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 scientific possibility.
    4. 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.

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