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Sixth Column — Robert A. Heinlein, 1941

Once again, unable to find any new (or newish) science fiction that I wanted to read, I turned to an oldie — Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column, which was first published in 1941.

Of course it’s dated, but part of the fun of old science fiction classics is the nostalgia. It’s recognizably Heinlein, though — snappily and skillfully written, often funny, with lots of good snark that never quite turns into preaching. Old books also remind us moderns that the writers and intellectuals who came long before us often had things figured out that we think weren’t figured out until much later. For example, from a biography of Theodore Parker, I learned that our intellectual predecessors had fully explicated the moral poverty of the Bible and the case against slavery by early in the 19th Century, building on a strong 18th Century base. Or consider the social critiques of Jane Austen, or the prescience of writers such as George Orwell. Voltaire was born in 1694. 1694!

Heinlein, though, was no philosopher. His libertarian notions are tiresome, in my opinion. And though he was once a liberal, Wikipedia says that Heinlein and his wife worked for the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964. So go figure.

Since I’m a person who wouldn’t give two cents for all the theology that was ever written, I found Sixth Column amusing for its rude treatment of the church. The plot of the novel is that the United States has been taken over and enslaved by Asians, and only six members of the American military survive. To take the country back, these six members create a fake religion. “The average American,” writes Heinlein, “is completely unimpressed by scientific wonders; he expects them, takes them as a matter of course…. But add a certain amount of flubdub and hokum and don’t label it as scientific and he will be impressed.” What befuddles me is that, even though “Amazing Grace” was written in 1772, and even though intellectuals have been shaking their heads at the stupidity and gullibility of the average American for almost as long as there has been an America, we are still surrounded by crackpot religion, crackpot politics, and a technologically amazing global network providing the crackpots with their daily supersized bellyloads of flubdub and hokum, since television — brand new in 1941 — can no longer meet the demand. The master Tweets, and his slaves obey.

Sixth Column is extremely politically incorrect, which is another part of the fun. The book police brats at Goodreads have slammed it for that. A “steaming pile of crap,” one Goodreads reviewer wrote. Though some of the reviewers, I must acknowledge, know how to read old pulp fiction in its historical context. One reviewer even wrote, “When we start telling writers what they can and can’t write about we may as well give up reading.”

The year 1941 was 79 years ago. And yet here we are today, actually governed by crackpot con men and crackpot voters who think that a return to the Dark Ages will make us great again. (The Americans of 1941 had Franklin D. Roosevelt. We are backsliding.) Heinlein writes: “These savages and their false gods! I grow weary of them. Yet they are necessary; the priests and the gods of slaves always fight on the sides of the Masters. It is a rule of nature.”

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