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Starship Bloopers

A new look at the early Robert Heinlein: genre bender, Cold Warrior, monarchist -- and fellow traveler.

By 2.9.04

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If you wish to trace the sources of the libertarian strain in 20th-century American thought, you must include the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein in your accounting of Hayeks, Menckens, Rands, and Rothbards. He deserves no less, yet is not always found in the ledger. Millions have been influenced by his anarchic fantasies, his military and Second Amendment enthusiasms, and his vision of a world ever oscillating between chaos and progress.

Called everything from fascist to pornographer in his time, Heinlein is now recognizable as a particular sort of conservative, one who would get along well with Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and Barry Goldwater. He was a man's man; a religious skeptic; an agrarian sentimentalist heavily influenced by the frontier, or the idea thereof; and a keen exponent of armed politeness, particularly in foreign affairs. You can recognize this sort of fellow by asking which side he would have taken in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. RAH, certainly, would have picked up a musket and joined the moonshiners.

Heinlein may be best known for the pulp novel (1959) that served as the basis of Paul Verhoeven's movie Starship Troopers (1997). This book was one of the great genre-benders of the century. Throughout the 1950s Heinlein had been writing subversive, experimental ruminations on politics disguised cleverly as mass-market novels for young people.

Starship Troopers very visibly went Too Far. An allegorical love letter to the U.S. Marines, it was a blood-and-guts actioner envisioning a single world democracy in which only military veterans and certain similar public servants had the franchise. (Heinlein loved postulating alternatives to universal suffrage, which he considered to be a dictatorship of imbecility.) The novels that followed included some fine quasi-Randian tracts, practically revolutionary handbooks. Later, Heinlein's reach lengthened beyond his grasp, as he explored sex, metaphysics, and time travel.

Throughout it all, the Navy veteran was publishing political non-fiction too. There may have been fiercer Cold Warriors, but I don't know of another one who had the sheer bottle to learn conversational Russian, travel to the USSR, and come back with tales of dead-eyed Intourist agents and squalid Moscow eateries.

SO IT IS OF some interest that Heinlein's first novel, For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs, has now come to light. Written in 1938-39, it has just been published by Heinlein's estate. Its appearance raises a fascinating question: What was the ultimate anti-government conservative thinking about during the ultimate crisis of classical-liberal principles? The slightly astonishing answer is: Social Credit.

For a citizen of the province of Alberta, like myself, this is almost a cosmic joke. Social Credit was a monetary heresy devised in the 1920s by a Scottish engineer named C.H. Douglas, who was vexed by the eternal mystery of "poverty in the midst of plenty", and apparently deluded by certain analogies between the money economy and an electrical circuit.

Douglas theorized that capitalist societies suffered from a constant leakage of wealth that left consumers perpetually short of purchasing power and caused chronic and worsening "overproduction." The villains were fractional-reserve banks. Douglas did not see why private lenders should have the power to create money by, as he saw it, mere fiat. He proposed to nationalize credit -- create a savings account for every citizen, inject fresh money into it every month or so, and offer loans to business willy-nilly at some low rate tied to econometric statistics.

This madness found a rapt audience amidst certain parts of Western society. Any economic sector deep in hock to the banks could see the genius in nationalizing them. To anti-Semites, Douglas's dislike for shadowy "financiers" was catnip. And engineers were easily swayed by one who spoke their language -- which seems to have been Heinlein's vulnerability.

In For Us, The Living, Heinlein transports a young naval officer Rip Van Winkle-fashion into the world of 2086, in which the United States has gone SoCred. Everyone gets a share of the new money created continually (but without inflation) by the government, and no one works if he doesn't want to. Needless to say, most citizens in this future are humble artisans living in a continual creative rapture.

In the real world, advocates of Social Credit attained political power in only one place: Alberta. This was thanks to a rotund, bombastic radio evangelist and schoolteacher named William Aberhart, who popularized Douglas's theories in the early 1930s using playlets and jokes. Alberta farmers, suffering the torments of the Depression, caught Social Credit like a fever. Aberhart was swept to power in 1935, and clearly Heinlein had read some of the worldwide headlines that followed.

ALAS, ABERHART DIDN'T really understand the nuances of Social Credit, and as a provincial premier he had no constitutional authority to coin money or found a bank. He invited Douglas to Alberta to advise the new government, but Douglas informed the cabinet-table yokels that they hadn't understood his books or a damn thing else, and flew off in a Scotch pique.

Aberhart desperately tried several nostrums, including the issuing of "Prosperity Certificates" -- inflationary scrip. The Crown, the judiciary, and Ottawa disallowed this and most everything else he attempted. Yet he left a long shadow: After he died (1943), his party shucked the monetarist tomfoolery, became an early-model conservative movement, and held power in the province until 1971.

Social Credit had other celebrity adherents, notably Ezra Pound. Until now, it was little suspected that Heinlein had been one. It is impossible to imagine now how little confidence intellectual men had in the future of the free market during the Depression. The ultimate attraction of Social Credit was that it was a softer answer than Marxism to the suicide of capitalism, which everyone believed he was witnessing in the 1930s. One had no need to believe in such hideous Red principles as factory-floor warfare and collective farming. We just have to go after the banks -- and who loves a bank? Heinlein must eventually have cottoned to the true nature of credit creation (although, to be fair, it isn't just cranks who find something sinister about fractional banking).

Heinlein fans will want to know how For Us, The Living actually is as a novel. Answer: It's Heinlein -- preachy, prurient, structurally clumsy, and still charming despite these flaws. Reading it, at times I almost felt the adolescent thrill of perusing a "new" Heinlein that foreshadows many of his later obsessions. Most impressive, perhaps, is his conviction that rocket power and a lunar expedition were in humanity's future. Remember that R.H. Goddard was still a controversial figure in 1938, and the first practical demonstration of long-range rocketry -- in the form of Hitler's gruesome "revenge weapons" -- was years away.

Yet prescient as he was, Heinlein's crystal ball had smudges. He foresaw a European Union, but conceived it as a constitutional monarchy, headed by the dethroned Duke of Windsor. His vision of the Internet circa 2086 was a network of pneumatic tubes, criss-crossing the continent, by which paper documents could be sent quickly. This sort of thing is perhaps the real fun of For Us, The Living: watching a great futurist explore a tomorrow from which yesterday has already diverged.

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About the Author

Colby Cosh is a columnist for the National Post of Canada.