Future History
The Work of Robert A. Heinlein

by Milo Clark

(Revised January 16, 2004)

March 1, 2004   


[Ed. The original essay was published on January 20, 2003. This revision was prompted by the comments from Mr. Bill Patterson of the University of California at Santa Cruz, which we published in our Letters to the Editor of January 19, 2003. The author appends further thoughts in response to Mr. Patterson's comments at the end of this revised essay.]

Robert A. Heinlein cut the mold for sci-fi in many ways. A 1929 Annapolis graduate, illness sidelined him from the Navy in 1934. He did some work. He was an active Democrat. He took graduate courses in mathematics and physics. Sold his first sci-fi story to Astounding magazine in 1939.

He developed a breezy style. He almost always focused on his people, his characters. Their emotional and experiential vitality concerned him deeply as he wrote. Over time, cranking out his stories gave him a sharpened perceptual acuity which related to science in a human way, that is, with awe and annoyance.

He left the whiz-bang technology stories to others. And, like Arthur C. Clarke (2001, etc.) his scientific training was strong in mathematics with a natural affinity for engineering.

In some of his books, part of an evolving Future History series, there is a complex chart at the beginning. Heinlein developed his outlines for Future History as a plan for his work. The outlines, there are several of them, suggest more than 30 novels, countless short stories and novellas. He wrote most of them. The chart also names key characters who will populate his writings.

The Future History outlines and charts note that about now (1970 and extending to later in the twenty-first century C.E.) there would emerge a theocracy in the U.S.

Heinlein's remarks say, ". . . [there would be] little research and only minor technical advances during the period. Extreme puritanism. Certain aspects of psychodynamics and psychometrics, mass psychology and social control developed by the priest class."

My opening look at Heinlein's Future History began with The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950) which took us into "man's first faltering steps toward space." Heinlein set this novel in the closing years of the twentieth century. The second book is "The Green Hills of Earth." It takes man into space. Green Hills ended with the United States ". . . a leading power in a systemwide imperialism embracing all the habitable planets." The third story, "Revolt in 2100," (1953) ". . . finds the United States plunged into a new Dark Age, no longer space minded, isolationist even with respect to this planet, and under a theocracy as absolute as that of Communism."

According to the outline chart, three stories were to be written between Green Hills and Revolt. They deal with the coming of the "First Prophet" and the theocracy. The Sound of His Wings, Eclipse and Logic of Empire. These will not be written now. Heinlein feels he has dealt with the themes from Wings in two other novels not part of Future History. The themes for Eclipse and Logic of Empire deal with cessation of space travel and end in imposition of theocracy in the U.S. Heinlein found it difficult and unpleasant to write about Scudder, his central and not nice character in these books, with whom these themes are identified.

Space travel has died out becoming a ". . . marginal proposition, subsidized for military reasons." (Note the new thrust into space proposed in January 2004.)

"As for the second notion, the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture. It is rooted in our history and has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in the country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti- intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian."

"It is a truism that almost any sect, cult or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so. . . . The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue."

". . . Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not -- but a combination of the dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday's efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, Anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti- furriners' in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening -- particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington."

". . . Impossible? Remember the Klan in the Twenties and how far it got without even a dynamic leader. . . The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed."

Although seen as straight in many ways, Heinlein was very attractive to the "counter-culture" people of the 1960-70s. His 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, became a cult classic. Heinlein considered that he was more warning than prophesying with Stranger. As published in 1961, there was less said than Heinlein intended. His publisher had insisted in editing out about a third of the manuscript. In 1960, the publisher feared Stranger as too far out for the times. Naive?

Writing came for him after much thought and mental work. He wrote when he was ready and went about it directly for the most part. Stranger was a work out of his pattern. He thought and worked over the story line for many years before being satisfied. He resisted the editing but relented rather than lose his intended message.

He kept the manuscript, though. After he died in 1988, his widow, Virginia, retrieved the manuscript from the Heinlein archives at University of California, Santa Cruz. Working with his agent and some editors familiar with his work, agreement was reached to publish the unexpurgated version of Stranger in 1991.

I read it as a very different book although familiar in general direction. Stranger is not part of the earlier Future History line although some connection may be found through Jubal's progressions. Yet, it is essential to the logics incorporated in those prescient outlines and charts. A latter-day man imbued with a Christ-like dynamic ends up done in. Remember the book, If You See Buddha on the Road, Shoot Him?

Heinlein is not much in favor now although continuing in print. Somewhat like Louis Armstrong in relation to jazz, newer generations forget and even disparage those who pioneer a genre. New is not always better, only newer.

Further thoughts on William Patterson's comments:

". . . Perceptual acuity. . ." My experiences as a writer, now for more than 40 years, find a sharpening of perceptual acuities with time. My writer friends agree that time aids range and perspectives, acuities.

". . . Awe and annoyance. . ." Perhaps some projection here. I will stand by with the notion that most folks are both awed and annoyed at science. Heinlein's style speaks that way to me.

". . . Physics. . ." Stranger 1991, frontpiece: ". . . over the next five years held a variety of jobs while doing post-graduate work in mathematics and physics. . ."

Future History chart(s): My hazy impression was that the much battered and weathered paperback in which I first found a Future History chart was published in 1935. Most writers I know, including me, grind away at themes before they come bouncing out half naked much less full blown, then often to be sent back again for some more grinding. I was wrong in assuming both date and timing of Heinlein's grindings. Corrected along with other datings made out of whole cloth.

1991 Stranger: I relied much on Virginia Heinlein's Preface. I have no access to "Grumbles."

Editors exist to be resisted. Parenthetically, as I have written much on contract as an unacknowledged ghost, I didn't feel a strong need to resist editing of those manuscripts. For Swans, Gilles d'Aymery and Jan Baughman get the publisher and editor accolades. They can pretty much do what they want in my view.

The 1991 Stranger is a very different book if for no other reason than 1961 and 1991 cross a millennial divide. 1961 mindsets and mindstates are quite different from and alien to 1991. Mine certainly was. There is little doubt that 1991 is no preparation for 2004. Peace dividend anyone?

In 1961, few were then aware of Vietnam and its impacts. In 1987, few were then aware of the impending collapse of the Soviet Union and its impacts -- now faintly becoming clear.

Historian John Lukacs has been very perceptive, in my view, in aligning the centuries with the times they represent. He ends the 20th century in 1987, if I recall correctly. You may also find these kinds of perspectives in the works of political scientist Frederick L. Schuman. He wrote presciently about Western, especially American, reactions and causal relationships involved in the 70 years of Cold War. Heinlein, then, in his versions of Future History is not alone. And, since 2000, I have been ranging, ranting and raving via Swans along these and related themes. Heinlein's Future History fits into my schema thereby.

Still selling well. . . 80,000 annual sales rate is impressive and good for Virginia, et al.

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