Posts Tagged 'robert heinlein'

The immigration heresies.

I. Selective indignation.
II. The Nogoodnik Rule.
III. Phase transitions.
IV. Managing diversity.

These four essays, all on the topic of immigration, were written at intervals over the last three years. I’m finally posting them as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

It would annoy me if readers came away with the impression that I’m opposed to immigration, let alone (as the media will lazily slur anyone who expresses reservations about the subject) “anti-immigrant”.

As I see it, I’m pro-immigrant: I want immigrants to do well. My fear is that struggling newcomers will coalesce into a resentful ethnic underclass – as seems to be happening in parts of Western Europe. The way to avoid this is to select the applicants who are likeliest to thrive, and to give them, once they’re here, every opportunity to do so.

Taking in any and all who wish to come, however downtrodden and ill-educated, may lead to feelings of universal brotherhood and plaudits from the Toronto Star editorial board, but such newcomers are more likely to struggle – and their descendants to wonder why they and all their relatives have incomes below the Canadian median.

I try as a rule to avoid stridency in my writing, but let me give vent to my exasperation for a moment. Here in the west, a couple generations back, we discovered the exception to what Robert A. Heinlein in 1950 described as “the basic theorom of population mathematics”:

Life is not merely persistent … life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there has never been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life — the ragged edge of starvation.

Happily, that turned out not to be true: in advanced human societies the combination of birth control and female emancipation will not only arrest population growth, but actually reverse it. What luck! It turns out we have the flexibility to undo some of the more damaging decisions made by our ancestors as they rushed pell-mell to clear space for the apparently unstoppable surge of civilization. Forests clear-cut, wild prairies tamed and fenced, wildlife driven into preserves, urban streams buried in metal pipes: a shrinking population leaves room for us to rethink these short-sighted actions – not only for the good of wolves and bison and migrating salmon, but for the good of our children and grandchildren, who can enjoy living in proximity to the natural world that, with the best of intentions, we and our parents mutilated. This needn’t mean everyone retiring to thatched-roofed huts and hoeing their gardens by hand. It might mean fewer, bigger, denser cities, with clusters of high-rises overlooking newly-replanted forests where subdivisions once sprawled.

Admittedly we have the short-term problem of funding a comfortable retirement for the baby boomers. But once that demographic lump has passed through, it should be possible to run a productive economy with a stable or gradually decreasing population, kept in balance by modest, selective immigration from the parts of the world that haven’t yet stepped off the Malthusian treadmill.

It’s true that it would be more profitable to go on basing our economy on cheap labour and galloping population growth. It may even be true that my idyllic vision of the future is unachievable, and that the only route to sustainability requires mass immigration for the foreseeable future. For many people, the fact that free market eggheads and social justice mushheads fall back on the same open-borders gospel proves the gospel must be true: for cynics like me, the question is which side has co-opted which.

Maybe I’m wrong. It’s not that I think that mine is the only acceptable vision for Canada’s future. It’s just that I resent like hell being dismissed as a Nazi for holding it.

M.

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What’s above the text.

There’s a funny exchange in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona. An American with time on his hands in a foreign city tells his friend that he’s been doing a lot of reading, and:

Fred: One of the things that keeps cropping up is this about subtext. Plays, novels, songs, they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?

Ted: The text.

Fred: [Pause] Okay, that’s right. But they never talk about that.

Fred is right, we use the term subtext a lot without really considering its topological implications. If we think of a story or narrative as a series of layers – at the bottom, the subtext; above that, the text – is there another layer, still further out?

If the subtext is the “hidden message” which can be accessed only at one remove, through the mediating layer of the text – does this hypothetical outermost layer mediate our interpretation of the text in the same way? What might this layer consist of?

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about French critical theory, specifically the branch of it known as Structuralism. But while poking around last week for terms to help me refine Josephine Tey’s concept of Tonypandy I kept coming across references to Gérard Genette’s theory of transtextuality, which gives us a bunch of fancy words for classifying the ways texts interact with and are interpreted through their connections to the world outside the text:

  • Intertext is when a text is quoted in other texts.
  • Metatext is critical commentary on a text.
  • Archetext is the way a text conforms or doesn’t conform to the conventions of whatever genre it belongs to.
  • Hypo- and hypertext refer to a source material and its later adaptations; so, the script of the 2002 movie Spider-Man is a hypertext based on the hypotext of the character’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy issue #15.
  • Paratext is all the text surrounding a text, including the title, back-cover blurb, and introduction; and at a further remove, author interviews, publicity materials, and ads intended to guide how readers should interpret the text.

For a good summary of how paratext can shape readers’ interpretations (written in 1963, and therefore unsullied by French critical jargon), consider the opening lines of Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato:

It sometimes happens in the history of the written word that an important work of literature carries a title which does not accurately reflect the contents. A part of the work has become identified with the whole, or the meaning of a label has shifted in translation. But if the label has a popular and recognisable ring, it can come to exercise a kind of thought control over those who take the book in their hands. They form an expectation which accords with the title but which is belied by much of the substance of what the author has to say. They cling to a preconception of his intentions, insensibly allowing their minds to mould the content of what they read into the required shape.

Havelock is referring to The Republic, which he claims isn’t really the book of political philosophy its title would suggest; it’s really about the shift, still ongoing at the time Plato wrote, from a primarily oral to a literary culture.

Last year I wrote about how nearly all of the events we think of as the Odyssey – Polyphemus, the Lotus-Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, and so on – are related in flashback in a few chapters in the middle of the epic. Knowing that odyssey means “a long, adventurous journey”, we read the work expecting a journey – just as readers of Plato’s Republic expect a book about politics. Someone who’d never heard the word odyssey, encountering the epic for the first time and asked what it was about, would answer not “a journey” but “a homecoming”.

***

There’s an old standup bit by Father Guido Sarducci where he talks about launching a Five Minute University, where “in five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

So for economics class, you’d learn the phrase supply and demand; for Spanish you’d learn ¿Cómo está usted? ¡Muy bien! …And so forth. The $20 fee would cover “tuition, cap and gown rental, graduation picture, snacks…everything.”

Father Guido doesn’t mention it, but we can assume that the Five Minute University would include a literature department. What would its scholars be taught about, say, Robinson Crusoe?

An island…a footprint…Friday.

FMU grads who subsequently peek into Crusoe will discover there’s a lot of unfamiliar stuff in there. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the story should be reduced to the thirty or so pages of Crusoe and Friday dwelling peacefully amid the palms – just as it seems inevitable that the Odyssey should be reduced to some sailors fighting a cyclops. But why should those thirty pages of island idyll have attained such fame, relative to what comes after – a breathless cascade of cannibals and mutineers leading to our heroes’ escape? Or what about the preceding 150 pages of Crusoe’s solitude? I have no evidence to support this, but my impression is that what people who’ve actually read the book remember best is Crusoe’s gradual conquest of his environment – fitting out his cave, taming the wild goats, shaking some loose grains out of an old sack and delightedly seeing barley sprout up a few days later. Crusoe alone seems to me inherently more intriguing than Crusoe plus one other guy; but the popular imagination disagrees.

In the 1980s J.M. Coetzee wrote Foe, a feminist, postmodern retelling of the Crusoe story. In this version, it won’t surprise you to learn, Crusoe is no longer a self-improving Christian but a slovenly misanthrope; Friday is an abused slave; and a third castaway, a woman, is written out of the narrative by the villain, Daniel Defoe himself. In Gérard Genette’s terms we would call Foe a hypertext based on the hypotext of Defoe’s classic. But in fact it’s not the text of Robinson Crusoe that Coetzee is deconstructing, but the Five Minute University summary – the hazy, somewhat inaccurate version picked up second- and thirdhand from Looney Tunes and variety show skits. [1]

looney tunes robinson crusoe jr.

Robinson Crusoe Jr., 1941, starring Mel Blanc. Image source.

Nowadays Robinson Crusoe, the novel, is a small and, perhaps, not terribly essential component of the wider Crusoe mythos. Defoe clearly identifies Friday as a copper-skinned Caribbean Indian; in the hazy popular mind he’s usually an African; the South African Coetzee found this variation more fruitful to his creative efforts, and in making it central to Foe, helped thicken the haze.

Genette’s transtextualist lexicon goes some way toward defining this haze – the insubstantial yet opaque Venerian atmosphere we have to dive through to get a clear view of the planetary surface. Most of us never get anywhere near the surface: we accept the smudge of cloud immediately in front of our viewscreen as representative of the whole thing.

But we’ve been presuming that there is a solid body at the centre of every cloud mass: a text, more or less stable: an Odyssey or a Robinson Crusoe, a comic book or a film. Whereas in fact, many of our stories are like Jupiter – clouds all the way down.

***

A few years back I came across this article by Scott Beggs endorsing the then-current internet crusade to get Spider-Man recast as a black guy. I copied this excerpt into my “Future Essay Ideas” folder:

I don’t care whether Hamlet is a Danish prince from Mexico or Mauritius or Mongolia. More than that, the central premise that leads anyone to deny that a character like Hamlet can be another race (beyond the apparently all-encompassing “white”), is a faulty one that should be dismissed with great prejudice. Which is why it’s infuriating to see people – especially decision-makers – clinging to it like it’s some kind of Get Out of Racism Free card. It’s the same argument some fans made when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. “Viking Gods aren’t black!” they cried, as if the statement didn’t deserve to be tossed instantly on the tall pile labeled Who Gives a Luxurious Fuck?.

I had to chuckle, because the author seemed unaware he was writing a 3000-word article proving just how luxurious a fuck he gave about the skin colour of his superheroes.

In the end, Sony and Marvel hired a young English actor named Tom Holland, who conformed to previous representations of Peter Parker as white, slim, and nerdy. Then to play Peter’s Aunt May – in the comics a white-haired old lady – they cast the forty-something and still sexy Marisa Tomei. Then in Spider Man: Homecoming they gave Peter an A.I.-enabled super-suit.

What is a character? The concept we call “Spider-Man” is a diffuse cloud of story points; it’s impossible to draw a distinct line separating the essential from the inessential. In the comics he starts out as a skinny white high school kid who lives with his aunt in Queens. He’s bitten by a radioactive spider. He feels responsible for the murder of his beloved uncle. He slings webs. He crawls on walls. He has spidey-sense. His costume is red and blue. He has money problems. He gets a job as a news photographer.

I could go on like this for a page or two. None of the above is essential. Even the most faithful adaptation will change or omit many of these details. On the other hand, if you don’t have some of these things, maybe most of them, you’re no longer doing Spider-Man.

Some story points seem more essential than others. How much does it matter that Peter Parker is a New Yorker? Couldn’t we set the story in Los Angeles instead? The radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, the Daily Bugle, all those could take place just as easily in L.A. Shouldn’t matter, right? But it does matter, if for no other reason than because our hero needs tall buildings to swing from. A West Coast Spidey might find a new and interesting means of locomotion – car-hopping on the Pomona Freeway, say. But even if Los Angeles suddenly sprouted a Manhattan-sized complement of skyscrapers I doubt any filmmaker would risk the switch. We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King‘s adventures take place.

Peter Parker’s (or Hamlet’s) whiteness means something too. The meaning is different for every audience; and every day brings a new and slightly different audience.

In the West, our most famous stories originated in a milieu where the overwhelming majority of storytellers and readers shared a common racial identity. Dr. John Watson doesn’t feel it necessary, when delineating his new roommate’s excessive leanness, piercing eyes, hawk-like nose, etc., to specify the fellow’s skin colour. In a few of his sci-fi novels Robert Heinlein plays with this assumption by offhandedly mentioning near the end that a main character is black, or Filipino, or whatever; but Heinlein was writing in the optimistic age when it was assumed that skin colour would soon recede into unimportance. It looks instead like in the future storytellers will be expected to think deeply about the meaning of the racial identities they assign their characters. Every story inherited from the old monochrome era will be re-examined under the Social Justice spectrograph: racial identity, dismissed by past generations as a trace element, will be declared the essential component of the atmosphere; and stories will present new and unexpected lucencies, while homely old patterns are lost to view.

***

I’ve been tinkering with this essay for ages, wondering whether I would ever arrive at something that could be passed off as a conclusion.

I guess I have two conflicting insights, each captured in a famous quote. The first is from James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, among other novels and stories less successfully adapted by Hollywood. Cain shrugged:

There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. [2]

Maybe Cain’s right. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much haze accumulates around a novel. Barring total civilizational collapse, future readers will always be able to go to the shelf and pull down the original text of Robinson Crusoe.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night that:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

While Robinson Crusoe might not change, all that semi-opaque stuff swirling above the text determines how we read it, and whether we bother to read it at all. Or to put it in Vonnegut’s terms: Our stories become what we pretend them to be.

Is The Merchant of Venice a tragedy about anti-Semitism or a comedic cross-dressing romp? Is Satan the villain of Paradise Lost, or the hero? Is Huckleberry Finn an appropriate book for kids or should it be held back till university and swathed in trigger warnings? What if Sherlock Holmes is black? What if Friday isn’t?

You can’t blame people for getting worked up about these questions. It’s true they’re punching at clouds. We live in the clouds.

M.

1. I suspect Friday became famous in part because Defoe gave him such a memorable name. Why is the Lilliput episode of Gulliver’s Travels so much more famous than his stay among the Houyhnhnms? Probably for the same reason my spell-checker accepts Lilliput while being stumped by Houyhnhnm.

2. Thirteen years ago I quoted the comics writer Alan Moore misattributing this comment to Raymond Chandler – apparently a common error.

Earlier this year I tried (and failed) to apply some numerical analysis to questions of race and representation in Hollywood. I mentioned Gulliver’s description of the immortal Struldbrugs in my 2014 review of the artsy vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. And way, way back in 2001 I read Robinson Crusoe for the first time and was put off by the hero’s frequent theological digressions.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Crazy Years.

Before Stranger in a Strange Land made him a household name in the early sixties, Robert A. Heinlein was best known as the author of a string of juvenile sci-fi adventure titles – still worth reading – and a loose sequence of short stories taking place in a single timeline, now known as the Future History.

The chronology stretched from what was then the immediate future – the mid-20th century – out to the year 2210. Somewhere between World War II and the first man on the moon Heinlein prophetically placed the Crazy Years – “a gradual deterioration of mores, orientation and social institutions, terminating in mass psychoses in the sixth decade”.

In 1987’s To Sail Beyond the Sunset the heroine gazes back from the distant future on that era of mass psychoses:

So many casual killings in public streets and public parks and public transports that most lawful citizens avoided going out after dark…

Public school teachers and state university professors who taught that patriotism was an obsolete concept, that marriage was an obsolete concept, that sin was an obsolete concept, that politeness was an obsolete concept – that the United States itself was an obsolete concept…

Cocaine and heroin called “recreational drugs”, felony theft called “joyriding” … felonious assault by gangs called “muggings”, and the reaction to all these crimes was “boys will be boys”, so scold them and put them on probation but don’t ruin their lives by treating them as criminals…

Millions of women who found it more rewarding to have babies out of wedlock than it would be to get married or to go to work…

As disgusted as he was by hooligans, bums, and tenured anti-intellectuals, Heinlein actually cheered on most of the cultural changes that emerged from the sixties. He was an emphatic anti-racist, disdained organized religion, practiced nudism, and favoured open marriage. He foresaw and foreliked the reformation in sexual morals that progressives are now working to lock in: open homosexuality, gender fluidity, “sex work” as a respected career. Going by Heinlein’s prognostications, we shouldn’t expect the taboos against incest and polygamy to endure much longer.

But when I talk about Heinlein’s Crazy Years, I’m not talking about his politics or philosophy or sex practices, but the way those obsessions colonized and undermined his storytelling, starting in the late sixties – coincidentally or not, around the time the success of Stranger in a Strange Land meant he no longer had to tailor his writing to please anyone besides himself.

Heinlein had always specialized in seat-of-the-pants stories that careened his characters from one implausible scrape into another. This had led to a lot of efforts in the forties and fifties that would start out full speed, zip along at high efficiency, then suddenly break for the nearest exit as an arbitrary word limit drew near. In his best and most popular works he’d somewhat curbed this picaresque tendency – for example, he mentions (in an essay in Expanded Universe) that Stranger was one of the rare stories in which he’d “plotted every detail before writing it, and then stuck precisely to that plot.” And it shows! I’d guess Starship Troopers, Farnham’s Freehold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress were also mapped out in advance. But sticking to maps had never really interested Heinlein – and it turned out, once he was liberated from commercial concerns, that even telling stories was only of secondary interest. What he really wanted to do was imagine his characters chilling in a future free-love Utopia, getting naked and bantering about sex.

The major flaw with late Heinlein, therefore, isn’t that his books became kind of aimless – they’d always been like that. The problem was that their already aimless plots were now broken up by lengthy scenes of characters bathing each other, trying on sexy clothes, and arranging who was to bed down with whom tonight. If that froth had been swiped away by an unforgiving editor, his final seven novels could have been every bit as good, on average, as his fifties and sixties classics. Heinlein never lost his knack for whiz-bang storytelling – he just grew bored with demonstrating it. Here are the first paragraphs of 1985’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls:

“We need you to kill a man.”

The stranger glanced nervously around us. I feel that a crowded restaurant is no place for such talk, as a high noise level gives only limited privacy.

I shook my head. “I’m not an assassin. Killing is more of a hobby with me. Have you had dinner?”

Two pages later, the stranger slumps over the table, murdered by an explosive dart fired from offstage. Intriguing! But another two pages on, Heinlein is already making excuses, as the narrator – disgraced ex-military, now a hack fiction writer – grouses to his girlfriend:

“The total stranger who gets himself killed while he’s trying to tell you something – a cliché, a tired cliché. If I plotted a story that way today, my guild would disown me.”

A bad sign. Heinlein is able to simulate enough interest in his age-worn scenario to animate a couple hundred pages of entertaining space-hopping, as the hero and his girl escape from an orbiting space habitat, crash-land on the moon, shoot their way out of a moon-buggy ambush, and so on. It’s fast-paced enough that you can overlook the protagonists sharing a bed with an underage moon-maiden who snuggles up to the hero and asks to be spanked. But then around page 250, with our heroes under fire in a Luna City hotel room, the girl shouts something into a communicator, a portal opens up in the bare rock wall – and we’re whisked away to Heinleinland, the story waved to the background, while our hero spends the last third of the novel submitting to the advances of gorgeous naked lady geniuses.

***

How did it come to that? Let’s skip back to 1970’s I Will Fear No Evil, set in the Crazy Years (though not in the Future History timeline). The well-off have retreated into walled compounds, going out for an unprotected stroll being a virtual invitation to murder. An immensely aged, ill-humoured billionaire tycoon, on the verge of death, hires a mad scientist to transplant his brain into a healthy young body. (Brain-dead bodies being a cheap commodity in this anarchic world.) Against all expectations, including his own, the operation is successful, and the billionaire wakes up in the body of…wait for it!…his gorgeous secretary.

We can predict that the sexist tycoon will resent being stuck in this voluptuous female body…erm, no, actually, he adapts to it pretty quickly. He’ll struggle comically to walk on high heels, apply makeup, pee sitting down…no, it turns out Eunice’s consciousness is somehow in there with him, giving him instructions on how be a lady. He’ll attempt to reconcile his attraction to girls with his body’s contradictory sexual urges…no, he starts hitting on dudes pretty much right out of the gate.

One more try: the tycoon will track down his secretary’s murderers, uncovering evidence that he himself gave the orders that…oops, forget it. Eunice’s bodyguards took care of the random muggers already. The tycoon shows her gratitude by having sex with them.

Okay, okay. My ideas are all pretty humdrum. But they at least offer the potential for drama, conflict, suspense. What happens instead in I Will Fear No Evil?

The billionaire eagerly screws everyone. The end.

I’m only slightly exaggerating. One source of drama is a lawsuit filed by the billionaire’s parasitic grandchildren, claiming that the supposed brain-swap is a hoax being perpetrated by the secretary. That’s promising – how does our heroine prove she’s really who she says she is? But this subplot takes place mostly in the background and is wrapped up by the two-thirds mark.

The billionaire goes to pay her condolences to Eunice’s bereaved husband, whose new live-in girlfriend resents the arrival of what she sees as her predecessor’s reanimated corpse. Drama! …But this lasts only a page or two, before the three meditate together to chase off the bad vibes. Then they all get naked.

Look, I’m a fan of E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot. I can verify that you don’t need spaceship crashes, blaster duels, and telepathic aliens to supply drama. But in the absence of those things, you need something – for instance, characters with clashing personalities and objectives.

Heinlein’s biggest weakness as a writer is his odd lack of interest in interpersonal conflict. When the action lets up, his characters don’t really have anything to do except get naked.

***

Overgeneralizing recklessly, I’d say Heinlein had three and a half character types at his command. Their names, professions, and biographies change from book to book, but their beliefs and behaviours don’t: any non-plot-related exchange between Richard and Gwen, heroes of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, could be swapped into a Zebby-and-Deety scene in 1980’s The Number of the Beast and the reader would never notice.

(Am I being too hard on Heinlein? Philip Roth and P.G. Wodehouse got by with four or five characters. Kingsley Amis could draw on a multitudinous supporting cast but his narrators were all the same guy. “More characters” doesn’t equal “better”. If you like an author’s characters – find them interesting, I mean – you don’t much mind when they reappear under new names in a new book and a new predicament.)

The Omnicompetent Lunkhead is the basic-model Heinlein hero. He’s got a hands-on trade – engineering, soldiering, space-piloting – or, if still a teen, displays a precocious aptitude for one of the above. He can calculate the profit in a three-way business deal or the trajectory of a flight to Venus. When in danger of losing his temper, he’ll count backward from ten in an exotic foreign language.

Despite the OmniLunk’s evident near-genius IQ (which he would humbly disclaim), he’s weirdly clueless about history, politics, and philosophy. If another character (usually the Patriarch, see below) attempts to discuss one of these topics at the level of your average undergraduate lecture, the hero will reply “Huh?” or “You’ve lost me” or “I must be dense”.

The Genius Sexpot is the female version of the Heinlein hero. If the main character, she’ll have all the traits of the OmniLunk, plus fashion sense, maternal instinct, and an even greater distaste for abstract philosophy. If romantically paired with an OmniLunk, she’ll defer modestly to his masculine leadership, but in at least one skill – often math – she’ll surpass him.

She gets her name from her tendency – absent in her male counterpart – to discuss her sex urges in ickily straightforward terms:

“[T]here is nothing that beats the tingling excitement of lying back, legs open and eyes closed and bare to the possibility of impregnation.”
–Maureen Johnson, To Sail Beyond the Sunset

The Heinleinian Patriarch is the OmniLunk aged up and given a more philosophical turn of mind. In other words, the author’s mouthpiece. Given half an opportunity, he’ll ramble for a chapter or more about the problems besetting humanity – or formerly besetting humanity, back in the dark ages of the twentieth century. (People in the far future remain deeply interested in twentieth century affairs.) The Patriarch has retired from the active life and now writes, or teaches, or maybe bosses some large organization that puts him in the company of much younger people. A bachelor by temperament (whether or not he participates in some kind of plural marriage), he appreciates female beauty but doesn’t chase girls – they’re drawn to his rumpled charisma and constantly offering to crawl into his lap. He may harbour outmoded inhibitions about, say, walking around pantsless, or having sex with his female relatives. He knows these inhibitions are silly – he’ll tell you why at chapter length – and they’re easily shed.

(There are, of course, a handful of major characters that don’t fit into one of the above buckets – for instance, the All-Powerful Naïfs who propel the plots of Heinlein’s two best books, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But he tended to lose interest and kill off or sideline anyone who didn’t fit into one of the three categories above.)

The OmniLunk, the Sexpot, and the Patriarch will argue playfully. Sometimes they’ll even have genuine fights, which quickly end with one side or both apologizing for their bullheadedness. But they never really disagree about anything. If they don’t start out as gun-toting libertarian atheistic polyamorous nudist body odour fetishists, they take smoothly to the lifestyle when given the opportunity. Therefore all drama in Heinlein’s novels must arise from conflict with character type three-and-a-half:

The Booby is cowardly, conceited, irresponsible, and susceptible to gross mental deformations such as socialism, pacifism, race prejudice, and prudishness. Since the bulk of humans would be boobies in Heinlein’s eyes – I’m one; so, in all likelihood, are you – you’d expect this type to loom larger in his fiction. In fact, few of these feeble creatures are drawn with sufficient detail to qualify as “characters”. The brainless mass of boobies are there in the background, obstructing our heroes with their petty regulations, irrational taboos, and general unreason, but their representatives are rarely granted more than a line or two.

The trouble is that Heinlein can’t stand boobies. He finds them so exasperating that he’ll write them out of his stories as swiftly as he can. When a presumed ally or friend is revealed to be a secret booby, the reader perks up – maybe for once another character will stand up to our heroes, upset their assumptions, force them to defend their beliefs. The excitement never lasts. Boobies either get themselves quickly killed, or banished from the group, or are converted through firm yet compassionate discipline to non-boobyhood, at which point they cease to be interesting characters and fade into the scenery:

• In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw’s salt-of-the-earth employee Duke objects to the customs of Harshaw’s Martian-born houseguest – specifically, ritual cannibalism. This earns him a chapter-long rebuke from Harshaw which cures Duke of his boobyism – and banishes him to the background.

• In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress an earth-born booby named Stuart LaJoie nearly gets himself killed by responding too handsily to a Lunar floozie’s advances. Our hero is luckily there to intervene, and to lecture the new arrival on Loonie sexual etiquette. Stuart starts out as an interesting character, but once he commits to the Lunar lifestyle he recedes into complacent blandness.

• In To Sail Beyond the Sunset Maureen’s youngest daughter shows her boobyhood not by hooking up with her older brother (she does that too, but Maureen approves) but by whining, lying, using drugs, and catching a venereal disease – by acting, in other words, like a real-life teenage girl. Her rebellion lasts only a few chapters before Maureen sends her packing to live with the ex-husband whose lax discipline ruined the child.

• In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls a homeless ragamuffin named Bill is hired by unknown enemies to lure our heroes into a trap. Seeing through his clumsy deceit, they take him into their custody – then, feeling sorry for him, decide to bring him along on their escape. Bill tags along willingly and mostly silently until, on arriving in Luna City, he pipes up to complain about being expected to pay an “air fee”:

“Nobody should have to pay for the breath of life! It’s a natural right and the government should supply it free.”

As the hero can’t let such idealistic ravings go unopposed, he reminds Bill that he has a full belly, and is partaking of Luna City’s expensive oxygen, and is alive at all, only because of the heroes’ charity. This leads to a fight between the hero and his girl, whom he accuses of coddling the booby. Girl and Bill storm off one way, our hero the other. That happens on page 190-91.

On page 196-97, the girl returns and apologizes:

“But you were right, dear. Bill’s attitude about paying for air reflects his wrong-headedness in general. … Bill has the socialist disease in its worst form; he thinks the world owes him a living. He told me sincerely – smugly! – that of course everyone was entitled to the best possible medical and hospital service – free of course, unlimited of course, and of course the government should pay for it. He couldn’t even understand the mathematical impossibility of what he was demanding. But it’s not just free air and free therapy, Bill honestly believes that anything he wants must be possible…and should be free.” She shivered. “I couldn’t shake his opinion on anything.”

The next time the booby appears, on page 208, he gets two brief lines, the last we’ll hear from him. On page 234 we learn he’s been secretly communicating with the bad guys. And on page 240 he’s among the gang of disguised assassins lurking outside the protagonists’ hotel room. The hero spots him and knocks him out – clear out of the story. Poor Bill! If he’d just kept his mouth shut about the stupid air fee, he too could’ve gone to naked lady heaven.

***

Let’s skip back again. The last entry in the Future History timeline, concerning the interstellar peregrinations of a cantankerous 213-year-old named Lazarus Long, was Methuseleh’s Children, originally published in 1941 and expanded to novella length in 1958.

In 1973 Heinlein picked up the adventures of Lazarus Long in a novel set two thousand-odd years later, Time Enough For Love. After lifetimes of intrepid roving, Lazarus has grown tired of the grind. Before he can kill himself he’s kidnapped by distant descendants living on a faraway planet – free-loving nudists, obviously – who insist that he record his life story for their archives. As he narrates his memoirs, and gets mixed up in the affairs of his extended family, his zest for life returns, and he accepts their offer to regenerate his body to youthful good health. Then, learning that they’ve mastered time travel, he decides to pop back to his own childhood in twentieth century Missouri where – obviously – he winds up having sex with his mother.

Time Enough For Love is quite readable, stands more or less on its own, and satisfactorily wraps up the saga of Lazarus Long. No-one – I assure you, absolutely no-one – has ever closed the book thinking, Gosh, I wonder what happens next to Lazarus, his crew of bare-ass time travellers, and their sassy sentient spaceship.

Therefore no-one was expecting The Number of the Beast, which came out seven years later, to reveal itself midway through as a stealth Time Enough For Love sequel. Beast starts out excitingly with four stock Heinlein characters – a widowed father, his adult daughter, and their respective love interests – narrowly escaping assassination by unknown enemies. The father has been working on a theory of six-dimensional spacetime, along with a practical method for hopping between parallel dimensions, the number of accessible dimensions being six to the power of six to the power of six, or:

6 to the power of 6 to the power of 6

Our heroes install the father’s gadget in their own sassy sentient spaceship and flee into the multiverse. Beast is heavy on clothes-doffing, open-mouthed kissing, and sexy dress-ups, but despite all that the first three hundred pages chug along pretty tolerably until our heroes materialize in what turns out to be the Land of Oz…and it becomes necessary, sadly, for me to describe to you the premise of what would come to be known as the World-As-Myth books. These are:

  • Time Enough For Love (1973, sequel to Methuselah’s Children, but can be read on its own)
  • The Number of the Beast (1980, sequel to the above)
  • The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985, sequel to the above, and to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress)
  • To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987, sequel to all the above)

Nothing about the World-As-Myth will be especially mindblowing to anyone who read those old DC comics where the Flash could vibrate into a parallel universe and interact with his creators, or for that matter the Merrie Melodies cartoon where Daffy is tormented by a sadistic animator. In short, all imaginary worlds are real; Heinlein and his books exist in the Number of the Beast reality; therefore Lazarus Long is a character known to our dimension-hopping quartet. By the time they run into Lazarus they’ve already blundered through Lilliput, Wonderland, the Lensmen universe of E.E. Smith, and, as mentioned, the Land of Oz, where Glinda the Good installed a pair of fully-equipped magical bathrooms in their spaceship. (No writer has ever lavished as much attention on bathrooms as Robert A. Heinlein.)

By the end of The Number of the Beast, the protagonists have all married into Lazarus Long’s extended family, and using time-travel and dimension-hopping have roped characters from a half-dozen other Heinlein works into their far-future pool party. The final chapter, concerning a pan-universal gathering of famous characters and their authors, most of them referred to by first names only, is so dense with in-jokes it seems like something meant to be read aloud for yuks at a sci-fi convention, not shared with a general audience. This is the low point of the Crazy Years.

***

Things got better. The eighties brought Friday and Job: A Comedy of Justice, both of them entertaining and mostly fully-clothed standalone stories (though Friday turns out to be linked, superfluously, to the 1949 novella Gulf). The hero of Job was something new – a rube from a parallel-universe Bible Belt America who believes in the literal truth of the Genesis story and sees no problem with killing witches…who finds himself bouncing unpredictably into a series of alternate Americas with radically different customs and manners. Job is like The Number of the Beast reconceived as a good idea. It’s kind of miraculous that Heinlein didn’t assimilate Job into the World-As-Mythoverse and wreck it.

After that, Heinlein made it through half of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls before being hit with the brainwave that the hero’s girlfriend should be Hazel Stone, the feisty grandma from the 1952 juvenile The Rolling Stones who was also the feisty kid in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, regenerated to her youthful hotness and sent back in time by Lazarus Long because…you know what, forget it. The first half is fun.

Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, trots out another endearingly hoary premise – naked woman wakes up in bed with a corpse, with no memory of how she got there – but the woman turns out to be Lazarus Long’s mother, the one he went back in time to have sex with, and the bulk of the book retells the incest-fantasy parts of Time Enough For Love from her perspective.

It turns out – who’da guessed? – his mother was a polyamorous nudist all along.

M.

 

Nevil Shute’s multiple vote: Would it do any good?

Last month Noah Millman linked to Damian Linker’s overblown argument that the modern Republican Party is actively plotting to disenfranchise the poor. To Linker, a liberal, it goes without saying that this supposed plot, if successful, would have monstrous results. Millman, judicious as always, took a moment to analyze what those monstrous results would actually be.

Millman summarizes two “Randite arguments” he claims to hear on the right for excluding non-taxpayers from the franchise – both of which he goes on to dismiss as “transparently absurd”.

The first argument, as he puts it, is “that it’s unfair for one’s representation to be less than proportional to one’s contribution (therefore people who don’t pay income taxes should not be allowed to vote).”

The second is “that it’s dangerous to give power to the unpropertied (because they don’t have a sufficient stake in stable property rights that promote productive enterprise).”

Having done a bit of browsing on the kind of websites where such sentiments are current, I suspect Millman has phrased these specimens of the “two most common forms” of right-wing anti-democratic thinking in a manner that makes them easier for him to undermine. Even so, I’m not sure he quite does the job.

Taking the points out of order, Millman’s criticism of Randite argument #2 is that we should “read [our] Livy”, and “take a look at the history of Latin America”, to see what chaos can result from entrenching the division between rich and poor. I’m sure Millman knows far more about both those subjects than I do, but in any case it seems obvious that there are a lot of intermediate steps between 21st century America and, say, the late Roman Republic; to argue that we may have extended voting rights a shade too far is not to say they must be rolled back to the days of the Gracchi. We might wish to go only as far as that notorious Randite John Stuart Mill, who conceded in an 1861 treatise in favour of universal suffrage that:

It is important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economize. [1]

On these grounds the compassionate anti-democrat might argue that, even if contracting the franchise does inevitably lead to some social instability, it will compensate by helping ensure the solvency of our institutions; the poor would be better off under a stingier but sounder government than they would be scrabbling in the ruins of a failed republic. (Obviously your receptivity to this argument depends on how much faith you have in the sustainability of the welfare state.)

As for Randite argument #1, the “transparently absurd” notion that representation should be “proportional to one’s contributions” to the state, all Millman really tries to prove is that such a change would be difficult to implement. Apart from taxpayers, any number of interest groups could argue that their non-monetary contributions gave them a moral claim to a greater say in government; Millman identifies soldiers, mothers, and the descendents of slaves as citizens who, whatever their contribution to the treasury, might justly make such a case. And on what principle would we adjudicate these competing interests?

But to say it would be difficult isn’t to say either that it’s impossible or that it shouldn’t be done. We’ve already demonstrated our ability to democratically negotiate various deviations from the ideal of one-person-one-vote. In both the United States and Canada, residents of rural and more remote districts usually have greater weight apportioned to their votes than those who live in urban or more central areas. For instance, the 170,000 residents of the riding of Brampton West, in suburban Toronto, elect as many Members of Parliament – one – as the 26,000 residents of Labrador, making the Labradorian vote roughly six and a half times as weighty as the West Bramptonian. Regardless of whether you think this is fair, few would argue that a parliament elected under such rules was illegitimate, much less that it was incapable of debating whether Labradorian and West Bramptonian votes should be made either more equal or still less so.

In short, there’s no reason a legislative body elected under existing voting rules couldn’t debate and vote on the merits of changing the rules to favour certain voters in subsequent elections. This is in fact what Nevil Shute imagined in his 1953 novel In The Wet.

The novel is set in the then-near future of the early 1980s, mainly in a post-World War III England that is exhausted, impoverished, and stifled by rationing and central planning – not unlike the post-WWII England with which Shute and his contemporary readers were familiar. The hero is an Australian pilot who lands the plum job of captaining the Queen’s personal airplane. In contrast to the mother country, Australia is vibrant, prosperous, and growing, conditions which the author attributes to its adoption some years earlier of a system of “multiple voting”. Citizens can acquire up to seven votes, in any combination, according to the following criteria:

  • The first vote is given to every citizen on reaching the age of 21.
  • The second vote is for university graduates and commissioned military officers.
  • The third vote is earned after living and working abroad for at least two years.
  • The fourth vote is for raising two children to the age of fourteen without divorcing.
  • The fifth vote is for earning at least £5000 in the year before the election. (This is a pretty elite-level income. A newly-built three-bedroom house, we are told, costs four or five thousand Australian pounds.)
  • The sixth vote is for officials in any of the recognized Christian churches.
  • The seventh vote is given only at the discretion of the monarch. (At the novel’s climax our hero, a “three-vote man”, saves the Queen’s life, earning the rare and prestigious seventh vote.)

Shute is a little fuzzy on how this cockeyed scheme managed to get implemented. Apparently it began in the state of Western Australia, which, the protagonist explains, “was always pretty Liberal” (in the Australian and European sense of pro-free-market). As to what happened next:

“Aw, look,” said David. “West Australia was walking away with everything. We got a totally different sort of politician when we got the multiple vote. Before that, when it was one man one vote, the politicians were all tub-thumping nonentities and union bosses. Sensible people didn’t stand for parliament, and if they stood they didn’t get in. When we got multiple voting we got a better class of politician altogether, people who got elected by sensible voters.” He paused. “Before that when a man got elected to the Legislative Assembly, he was an engine driver or a dock labourer, maybe. He got made a Minister and top man of a Government department. Well, he couldn’t do a thing. The civil servants had him all wrapped up, because he didn’t know anything.”

“And after the multiple voting came in, was it different?”

“My word,” said the Australian. “We got some real men in charge. Did the Civil Service catch a cold! Half of them were out on their ear within a year, and then West Australia started getting all the coal and all the industry away from New South Wales and Victoria. And then these chaps who had been running West Australia started to get into Canberra. In 1973, when the multiple vote came in for the whole country, sixty per cent of the Federal Cabinet were West Australians. It got so they were running every bloody thing.”

“Because they were better people?” asked the captain.

“That’s right.”

I’m not going to try defending this as a piece of writing. Much of In The Wet concerns the boring romance of the pilot and his English girlfriend. There’s a lot of long-distance flying. I think we’re supposed to be awed by descriptions of the futuristic aircraft in which the Queen travels from Canada to Australia with just one refueling stop on Christmas Island, but in this respect Shute was too prophetic for his own good; what once seemed fantastical is now mundane. The voting scheme is by default the most interesting thing about the novel. Luckily, it’s fairly central to the plot. At the end of the book, the Queen essentially blackmails the UK into adopting the multiple vote by threatening to relocate permanently to Australia.

I am, to put it mildly, unconvinced A) that Shute’s scheme would ever pass in the first place, and B) if it somehow did, that it would have anything like such a dramatic effect on the quality of our legislators. Shute, like most political commentators, believes that if “sensible” voters were in charge, they’d elect the kind of governments he happens to favour – in his case, pragmatic, pro-monarchist, moderately right-wing ones. Just like Thomas Frank, who is convinced that the Matter With Kansas is that its citizens don’t share his left-of-centre outlook, and Bryan Caplan, who believes the properly informed Rational Voter must necessarily adopt libertarian views like his, Shute assumes that where he  has convictions, his political foes have only prejudices; where he reasons dispassionately, they are swayed by cheap emotionalism; where he considers the common good, they selfishly pursue their own trivial fancies. [2]

I don’t hold a much higher opinion of the electorate than Frank or Caplan or Shute. But I can’t help noticing that intelligent, thoughtful, idealistic people (like, for instance, Frank and Caplan and Shute) manage to hold widely divergent opinions on every imaginable topic of contention. John Derbyshire in an article somewhere made the point that if in the 1930s or ’40s the franchise had been restricted to university professors, the United States would probably have wound up with a Communist dictatorship. His point being that highly intelligent people often support stupid ideas. Why? For the same reasons stupid people do. Because those stupid ideas become fashionable. Because they’re emotionally appealing. Because they flatter our sense of self-importance. Because it’s not obvious how stupid they are until you see them put into practice.

So if you’re going to extend or limit the franchise, it’s not enough to say you’ll favour “sensible” voters. You need to work backwards from what kind of government you want to create. Shute desires a certain set of policies; he knows that wealthy people, parents of teenage children, military officers, and clergymen tend to support those same policies; so he gives their votes extra weight. In his day, no doubt, it also seemed reasonable to gamble on the conservative instincts of university graduates and those who’d worked abroad. The resulting electorate might not usher in an age of philosopher-princes, but it would probably stick up for Queen, country, and low taxes.

On the other hand, if you want more liberal policies, it helps to spread the franchise as far and wide as you can. Here in Canada there is occasional talk about lowering the voting age to sixteen; it won’t surprise you to learn that the New Democrats, Canada’s most left-wing mainstream party, have been the most enthusiastic proponents of this change. In the States, the Democratic Party is fighting to extend citizenship to a few million illegal immigrants who, by a funny coincidence, are highly likely, once enfranchised, to vote for Democratic candidates. This isn’t to say the NDP or Dems are cynically supporting these policies solely with an eye to their vote share. Like conservatives in the US and Canada who are pushing to tighten ID requirements to vote, on the probably spurious grounds that voter fraud is a widespread problem, they fully believe their own rhetoric, and get sincerely indignant when you challenge it. They believe they’re acting disinterestedly in the name of justice. You’d think intelligent people would be quicker than others to notice when they’re deceiving themselves, but their facility for self-deception is correspondingly more nimble.

People who put their faith in modern democracy make two assertions that strike me as debatable. The first is that the existing system is fairer than a system that would limit the franchise to those deemed, by whatever inevitably imperfect method, to be the most responsible citizens. Whether or not it’s fairer, it’s certainly easier to say “To heck with it – votes for everyone!” than embark on the awkward task of telling some of us we’re less qualified to bear the burden of governing. The second dodgy assertion is that our system is more effective at producing good government. This assertion of course depends on everyone agreeing beforehand on what constitutes good government, which it’s not in our nature ever to do; that’s why we resort to democracy in the first place. We can probably agree that avoiding outbreaks of anarchy is a good, objective measure of effectiveness; by which metric, universal suffrage has so far performed pretty well. But the experiment is less than a hundred years old. There’s no guarantee that fairness and effectiveness, in the end, must go together.

M.

PS. I might be the only person you’ll ever hear arguing against universal suffrage who doesn’t believe under a “better” system he’d enjoy a couple well-deserved extra votes. Under Nevil Shute’s rules I’m a one-vote man, and almost certainly always will be.

1. That John Stuart Mill passage is from Chapter 8 of Reflections on Representative Government, which advocates extending votes to “the very lowest ranks of the people”:

[I]t is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people.

However, “the prevention of greater evils” permits – in fact, requires, “by first principles”, Mill says –  the disenfranchising of tax evaders and parish relief recipients, as well as the uneducated: he advocates a “simple test” for voters in the presence of the registrar to determine literacy and numeracy. This reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s scheme, half-jokingly proposed in his 1980 collection Expanded Universe:

[S]tep into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over that booth – and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of the grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system – smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers – and fathers – decline to be humiliated twice.

In the same essay Heinlein recommends Mark Twain’s The Curious Republic of Gondour, which outlines a voting scheme very much like the one in In The Wet.

2. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Thomas Frank or Bryan Caplan’s books. Maybe they’re not as simplistic as their back-cover copy makes them sound.

 

Robert Heinlein and the basic theorem of population mechanics.

It’s been a project of mine, over the last few months, to catch up on some of Robert Heinlein’s less-famous books that I never got around to reading as a youthful sci-fi fan. That’s how I happened to be reading his 1950 novel Farmer in the Sky on the same day that I saw this Jordan Weissmann article on the Atlantic website about solving America’s demographics problem.

The problem is that the fertility rate in the United States has recently fallen below replacement level. That level in developed countries is around 2.1 children per woman – one baby to replace the mother, one to replace the father, and an extra fraction of a baby to cover accidental deaths. Below that level, barring immigration, a population will gradually contract. The problem isn’t contracting population per se. It’s that as fewer children are born, the ratio of working adults to non-working senior citizens tips toward the latter. With fewer workers, the economy can’t produce enough wealth to support its growing complement of seniors in the state of comfortable retirement they’ve come to expect.

Weissmann’s solution is straightforward – America just needs to bring in more immigrants. He needles the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat for his recent musings on the fertility problem which declined to endorse the open-borders approach Weissmann favours.

If America wants to stay productive, it’s hard to see how it (and other developed countries in the same demographic boat, like Canada) can avoid taking in more newcomers. As Weissmann argues, in the short run it’s probably necessary. But in the long run, reversing demographic decline isn’t a simple matter of slapping a welcome mat by the abandoned border checkpoints. First off, the decline isn’t limited to the developed world. The United States, Canada, and Western Europe are joined on the vanishing side of the 2.1 cutoff line by traditional people-exporters like China, Vietnam, and Iran. India’s fertility rate is 2.58 and falling fast – that’s about what the U.S. rate was in the 1960s. Mexico’s is down to 2.27.

In the past these countries were happy to watch their surplus population drained off via emigration to the West. If current trends continue, it won’t be long before they feel the demographic crunch too. They’ll begin offering incentives to keep their brightest and most ambitious young people at home. America will be obliged to compete against other rich countries, most of them in much direr demographic straits, for a shrinking pool of potential immigrants.

The West will have no difficulty recruiting newcomers, not anytime soon. But these newcomers will be harder to assimilate than ever before. If we want to bring them in sufficient numbers to counter demographic trends, there will simply have to be more of them than we’re used to – a larger lump dropped in the melting pot all at once. And the composition of the lump will resist mixing. Up till now we could take our pick of striving geniuses stifled by a lack of opportunity in their crowded home countries. Increasingly we’ll have to hustle for a share of the dissatisfied B-students whose countries couldn’t be bothered to make an effort to retain them. The easiest to recruit will be those from the poorest, most chaotic, and most fecund countries. They’ll be less literate, slower to pick up the language, more alien to the existing culture than previous immigrants. Being generally ill-educated, they’ll compete for jobs with the poorest slice of the native-born population, driving down the cost of unskilled labour and exacerbating income inequality.

Eventually, most likely, the West will absorb and be fortified by the immigrant wave, as it has previous waves. But it’s not such a cost-free operation as Weissmann implies. And once fully assimilated, the newcomers will be just as apathetic about reproducing as the rest of us.

What does all this have to do with Robert Heinlein? Here’s Paul du Maurier, an incidental character in Farmer in the Sky, discussing population projections with a fellow colonist on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. They’re debating how many ex-Earthlings their growing colony can accommodate:

“Studied any bionomics, Bill?”
“Some.”
“Mathematical population bionomics?”
“Well – no.”
“But you do know that in the greatest wars the Earth ever had there were always more people after the war than before, no matter how many were killed. Life is not merely persistent, as Jock puts it; life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there has never been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life – the ragged edge of starvation. In other words, if we bled off a hundred thousand people a day, the Earth’s population would then grow until the increase was around two hundred thousand a day, or the bionomical maximum for Earth’s new ecological dynamic.”

This lump of unleavened Malthusianism represents the best wisdom of the forward-thinkingest slice of the American intelligentsia circa 1950. In science-fiction from that era, unconstrained population growth is simply assumed. That was why all those intrepid space cadets blazed their trails to the stars in the first place – so that humanity’s teeming hordes could be deposited on the snowy plains of Ganymede, making room for more babies back home. It would never have crossed Heinlein’s mind that the Ganymede colony might have trouble attracting qualified geo-engineers because the aging home planet refused to let them emigrate.

I don’t read enough modern fiction to know if Heinlein’s successors are contemplating, as he did, the dystopian possibilities of current population trends. My sense is that the so-called demographic death-spiral has been relatively neglected, compared to the attention the population bomb got fifty years ago. I can think of a couple of recent-vintage sci-fi stories that are still built around population-bomb assumptions, but the only death-spiral story I know of is P.D. James’ allegorical The Children of Men, discussed in the article linked above. (I reviewed the entertaining but largely off-point film adaptation a few years back.)

Why has the death-spiral been neglected? For starters, many well-informed people seem oblivious to the direction the demographic arrow is now pointing. Secondarily, there’s an ideological bias at work. While death-spiralers are noticeably clustered on the political right, population-bombers tend to be on the left. Among the latter, there seems to be a widespread feeling that if we do dwindle away, hell, who’d miss us. Take this recent article in the New Yorker on the ethical implications of having children. Elizabeth Kolbert blandly quotes the philosopher David Benatar, who is untroubled by the prospect of human extinction:

“Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth,” he writes. “The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more” of us.

…But she’s openly skeptical of the economist Bryan Caplan’s suggestion that maybe having kids is, you know, a good thing:

“More people mean more ideas, the fuel of progress.” In a work that’s full of upbeat pronouncements, this is probably his most optimistic, or, if you prefer, outrageous claim.

Until recently that “outrageous claim” was held nearly universally. In a few rich countries it appears already to be the minority view. How much longer will it hold sway in the rest of the world?

The United Nations’ 2004 report World Population to 2300 projects the planet will peak at 9.22 billion people in 2075, then stabilize at around 9 billion. But that projection assumes fertility rates will do something weird:

[F]ertility will fall in all countries below replacement (in the medium scenario) and rebound to replacement after a period largely similar across countries of a century or so.

It’s obvious enough why the UN is projecting fertility rates to fall – that’s what they’re doing already, pretty much everywhere; the only question is whether they’ll plummet in the developing world to the depths they’ve reached in the rich countries. But what about the UN’s assumption that after a seemingly arbitrary period of “a century or so”, fertility will “rebound”? Is there any reason to suppose this will happen in the countries that have already fallen below replacement level?

Is it reasonable to expect fertility to rise from current levels? It is impossible to tell, but one can consider the implications if it does not. … By 2300 … [a]bout half the countries of Europe would lose 95 per cent or more of their population, and such countries as the Russian Federation and Italy would have only 1 per cent of their population left. Although one might entertain the possibility that fertility will never rise above current levels, the consequences appear sufficiently grotesque as to make this seem improbable.

As near as I can tell, this is the only explanation in the report for the assumption that in the long term, fertility rates will “rebound” to replacement level: It would be “grotesque” if they didn’t. Well, there you go.

The UN recognizes, and Farmer in the Sky demonstrates, that you can’t simply project current trendlines until they slope off the edge of the graph. Who knows, maybe there’s another baby boom right around the corner. Or maybe not. Robert Heinlein imagined that mankind was cursed with a biological imperative to overbreed, and that with a little gumption we would escape this curse by conquering the stars. But what if our imperative is nothing more than a polite suggestion, and our real curse is that, given the choice, few of us bother to heed it?

M.

I’ve been kvetching about this issue for years, most recently in a 2010 post about how the future will belong to fast-breeding religious conservatives.

New Maps of Hell (Kingsley Amis).

Granting a year or so between writing and publication, it’s been almost exactly a half-century since Kingsley Amis conducted his 1960 survey of science-fiction, New Maps of Hell. I wish Amis had revisited the subject later in his life; I’d be interested to see him assess his own prophetic powers from the vantage point of 1970 or so, by which time the genre had already gone a long way to correcting at least one of the deficiencies he’d identified.

That deficiency is in the area of sex. As Amis points out,

Amid the most elaborate technological innovations, the most outré political or economic shifts, involving changes in the general conduct of life as extreme as the gulf dividing us from the Middle Ages, man and woman, husband and wife, lover and mistress go on doing their stuff in the mid-twentieth century way with a kind of brutish imperturbability… The sentimental consensus that this is perhaps the only part of human nature that can never be changed…is a disappointing trait in science-fiction writers, who as a rule are almost over-excitable in their readiness to see as variables what are normally taken to be constants… Though it may go against the grain to admit it, science-fiction writers are evidently satisfied with the sexual status quo.

Just think of all those sci-fi stories from the 1950s with their alien diplomats, flying cars, and rocketships to Venus, and mom still bustling contentedly about the home (perhaps in a jumpsuit instead of a dress), giving orders to the robot butler and dialling up dinner on the auto-range, while dad jetpacks off to the office to earn his paycheque. As Amis hints, there is something stunted in the psychology of (nearly all male) writers who could extrapolate from current social trends such vivid consumerist and conformist dystopias, not to mention summon up extraterrestrials and cosmic cataclysms of the profoundest weirdness, yet fail to foresee how in the very immediate future birth control and Betty Friedan would radically remould the relations between sexes.

But Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came out just one year after New Maps of Hell, and by the end of the 1960s Heinlein and other writers were fully exploring the sexual revolution. This is what makes Amis’ vantage point so interesting – he’s hovering right on the rim of the old sci-fi cosmos, that quaint place of housewives with their robot butlers, while the new cosmos, more sophisticated (that is, more grown-up in its attitudes toward sex, not necessarily better written), has yet to show up on his viewscreen. Or so I would argue. Would the Amis of 1970 still say that the genre had not yet “come of age”? Would he still describe it as having “thrown up a large number of interesting and competent figures without producing anybody of first-rate importance”?

Even if New Maps of Hell weren’t a fascinating time capsule, even if it weren’t written with the typical Amis dry wit (of which more below), it would still be worthwhile as an introduction to a lot of authors I hadn’t heard of, or knew only by name. I’ve already placed an order on Abebooks. I’m particularly awaiting a collection of short stories by Katherine MacLean, a largely forgotten female pioneer in the field, who (judging from the brief excerpts Amis provides) appears to have been a progenitor of the great James Tiptree Jr., aka Alice Sheldon.

***

Just because I find it amusing, here is Amis’ synopsis of Damon Knight’s famous short story “The Country of the Kind”:

[A] practising artist…[is] apparently the only one left in a world built on universal benevolence and unbreakable social graciousness, a world that is hellish because without conflict. The artist, when not engaged on impromptu sculpture, goes round breaking into people’s houses and pouring hot soup over their furniture, a gesture again unjustified and justified. By a nice symbolical touch, he has been operated on at the authorities’ direction and given an intolerable smell which cuts him off from all human intercourse. Some readers will not be able to avoid seeing in all this a comparatively sober account of the behaviour of their own arty friends…

M.