27 december 2012

Visionaries of the future: Robert Heinlein



Many experts see Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) as the father of modern social science fiction. Not only did he think about the technology and science of his time, his stories are also strongly influenced by world politics. Heinlein started out as a military (navy) man in his early twenties. He held the military values of his time in very high esteem: self-discipline, self-reliance,  and opposition to communism are reoccurring themes in his stories.

In 1952 Heinlein’s novel ‘The puppetmasters’ was published.  In this story alien slugs invade earth and seize control of humans by latching on to their spinal cord. This idea of alien mind control was very close to Heinlein’s paranoia of communism and the fear of loosing freedom and betraying your country. Today, the idea of mind control is not as alien as portrayed in Heinlein’s novel. MIT’s Dr Saxe (neuroscientist)  is experimenting on influencing people’s moral choices by influencing electrical activity in the brain.

Heinlein’s most controversial story is Starship Troopers: some see it as a declaration of freedom, but others see it is a fascist manifesto. The story sets in an                         intergalacic war, between humanity and giant alien bugs. It is based on the premise that citizenship needs to be earned and argues that that freedom is founded on each individual taking responsibility for something greater than itself.

Schermafbeelding 2012-12-25 om 15.21.17Critics however accused Heinlein of glorifying war in this novel. The technology in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is being realised in our time: the humans use a kind of power suits, which we would now call exoskeletons, that give the soldiers extreme strength and fighting abilities.



While being accuses of writing a fascist manifesto with Starship Troopers, Heinlein starts writing on his next novel ‘Stranger in a strange land’. Again his story is perceived as radical but in a completely different way. He researches monotheism and monogamy, by creating a hero that is raised by aliens and therefor not constrained by traditional morality. When arriving on earth the main character confronts earthlings on several topics, breaking taboos by presenting a person that truly thinks for himself. The book made him an idol for the ‘flower power movement’.


In the novel ‘The door into summer’,  the hero is betrayed by his fiancée and his businesspartner. He want to escape from this situation and decides to go into ‘cold sleep’ for thirty years. Cold sleep is Heinleins term for suspended animation, now known as the science of cryonics. Interesting fact: Later in life, Heinlein was offered to make use of ‘cryonic suspension’, but he declined the offer.

In the mid 1960’s Heinlein is witness to the launch of a rocket. He starts thinking of long range rockets as the possibility to make space exploration reality. In his novel ‘The moon is a harsh mistress’ he envisions people not only visiting the moon, but living there. In his story the moon has become a ‘devil’s island’ for criminals. They are put to work to harvest hydroponic wheat for the overpopulated earth. The lunar convicts, known as loonies, decide to rebel for their freedom.  This rebellion reminds us of the American revolution, but played out in the future, on the moon. The rebels have the strong desire to be independent and serve no-one but themselves.

The idea of living on the moon is not as far-fetched as one might think: At the NASA Langley research centre, experts are working on inflatable lunar habitats, which might make staying on mars for a long period possible.

AmazonIn 1982 Heinlein publishes ‘Friday’: a novel in which he foresees the rise of the internet and all the privacy concerns that come with it. In ‘Friday’ credit cards are  tracked by a nation wide computer network allowing the government  to monitor citizens every activity. Heinlein warns how the freedom to rapidly access information can lead to a new kind of slavery; Internet addiction, a common phenomenon nowadays.

Heinlein is a very clear example of a science fiction writer that actually helped create the future he envisioned: In 1983 he, together with several other scifi-writers like Arthur C Clarke, became part of a Think-tank that was charged to write a paper on space defence. Heinlein comes up with the idea of putting up satellites to shoot down enemy weapons. He wrote a letter and eventually met with president Reagan on this topic. Reagan eventually called the program Strategic Defense Initiative, but the public called it ‘Star Wars. Today the initiative is known as Missile Defence Agency (MDA)

Heinlein throughout his life and in his work was a big advocate of personal freedom and the every man’s right to choose his own path. He made us think about our future responsibilities to society and the price of freedom.

Source: Discovery Channel: Prophets of science fiction