Tue
Aug 5 2008 6:31pm

The Dystopic Earths of Heinlein’s Juveniles

Heinlein isn’t usually noted for his dystopias. Indeed, his juveniles are usually considered upbeat cheery fare, suitable for twelve-year-olds of all ages. But as I was gazing out over the cornfields of Iowa (does anyone really need that much corn?) I found myself thinking about US rural poverty, which led me naturally to reflecting on US rural poverty in Starman Jones. In Starman Jones, Max is a dirt-poor farmer teen who leaves home in search of adventure and opportunity when his stepmother marries again. Max has an eidetic memory and is a lightning calculator, which is enough to get him promoted to starship captain practically as soon as he gets off the planet, but on Earth isn’t enough for him to qualify as apprentice to a dustman. Earth has become dominated by Guilds, all of which demand fees and recommendations and kickbacks to allow people to join. Max cheats, lies and bribes his way off this horrible place to make good among the stars.

The other Earths of Heinlein’s juveniles aren’t much better, as I remember. In Citizen of the Galaxy there’s no slavery actually on Earth, but Earth is decadent, corrupt, controlled by corporations and full of people living on the profits of offworld slavery. Ugh.

In Farmer in the Sky, a family emigrates to Ganymede to struggle with terraforming. Before they leave we see a little of Earth – food rationing, counting points, not wanting to waste the last scrape on a butter paper. This Earth is overpopulated and starving, even if it still has accordions and Boy Scouts.

Tunnel in the Sky is one of my favourites. Kids get to go on school trips through matter transmitters to other planets, and they can almost cure cancer, so far so good. But this Earth is overpopulated and repressive too. The Chinese are shipping out their population, and not very kindly. Food is being brought in from other planets, so nobody is starving, yet, but the smart characters are heading out for the stars as soon as they get the chance. How long will the colonies feed an Earth that loses schoolchildren for months in unexplored alien jungles?

In Red Planet and Between Planets, Earth is a pretty fair stand-in for George III’s England, repressive, aggressive and useless, with the plucky colonists of Mars and Venus as the fledgling US. In The Rolling Stones, nobody even considers visiting Earth in their tour of the solar system.

Time For the Stars has one of the worst imaginable future Earths. It’s so overcrowded that you have to have a license to have children, and if you have more than three you pay extra tax and get a big enough apartment allocated. Also, women wear hats all the time, even indoors and at the table... Just horrible. It doesn’t seem all that much nicer when the hero gets home three generations later in time to marry his great-great-niece, but at least it’s more colourful.

It’s funny how it’s overpopulation and political unpleasantness that cause the problems, never ecological disaster. Maybe that wasn’t on the horizon at all in the fifties and early sixties? I suppose every age has its own disaster story. It’s nice how little they worry about nuclear war too, except in Space Cadet which is all nuclear threat, Venusians and pancakes. They don’t make them like that any more. Come to think it’s probably just as well.

Have Space Suit—Will Travel has an Earth just like the US of the 1950s, with soap competitions and soda jerks. Yet it’s almost bad enough for the benevolent aliens to condemn it, and us.

In The Star Beast children can divorce their parents and live in government hostels, bureaucrats rule the world, and everyone is kowtowing to aliens. It’s not all that bad, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

No individual one of these would be particularly noticeable, especially as they’re just background, but sitting here adding them up doesn’t make a pretty picture. What’s with all these dystopias? How is it that we don’t see them that way? Is it really that the message is all about “Earth sucks, better get into space fast”? And if so, is that really a sensible message to be giving young people? Did Heinlein really mean it? And did we really buy into it?

47 comments
Ross Smith
1. Ross Smith
Did Heinlein really mean it? Yes, I think he did, on the whole. He seems to have bought into the whole "inevitable Malthusian train wreck" school of thought. Except that, unlike the traditional Malthusian doomsayers, he saw space travel as a potential escape route -- at least for some.

The impression I always got from most of his books -- and this was something the juveniles and adult novels had in common - was that he saw the present (for possibly multi-century values of "present") as Earth's golden age, that the overcrowded future would envy and try to emulate when it got a chance, i.e. on newly colonised planets. Notice how many of his colony worlds resemble 19th/20th century America; I don't think that was just lack of imagination.

Time Enough for Love, in particular, makes this whole attitude fairly explicit.
Bruce Cohen
2. SpeakerToManagers
I get the impression that Heinlein's youth in a small town in Missouri left him not fond of city life as a regular thing. He had read Malthus, and thought that, before the inevitable crunch, that cities would cover much more land and become the predominant kind of community. So he thought overpopulation was by far the most likely future for Earth.

For that matter, this view isn't just shown in the juveniles. Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, all show an overpopulated and overly-regimented future Earth, and some other novels show it to a lesser extent. I wonder if he ever believed in the shifts in demographics that now seem to show Earth's population stabilizing at about 7 or 8 billion max. Or if he thought that was just too much anyway; the dystopia had already arrived.
Jeff Soules
3. DeepThought
It's funny how it's overpopulation and political unpleasantness that cause the problems, never ecological disaster.
Ahh, but that's exactly Heinlein's point in a lot of these -- ecological disaster is usually in some way the result of overpopulation and political unpleasantness. I think that's a good reflection of the real world; for instance, North American carbon emissions would not produce global warming if there were only a couple thousand of us.

Further comment after I think about this a bit more; but my first impression is that the dystopia is not more characteristic of Heinlein's YA than of Heinlein generally.
Ross Smith
4. pts
My two favorite Heinlein juvies -- which I still go back and reread with some regularity -- are Time for the Stars and The Rolling Stones. I don't recall the latter being particularly dystopic, but it definitely exemplified the "screw this place, let's go be space capitalists" motif you see throughout his work.

When I was younger I certainly assumed he meant it, to the point that even now I have a knee-jerk "Let's go to SPACE!" attitude toward public policy, which frequently needs to be reality-checked. I'm sure I'm far from the only SF geek to be thusly affected by his work and the work of similar writers.

I still love The Rolling Stones, though. Always will.
rick gregory
5. rickg
Or think about the various references to the Crazy Years in his later novels (see I Will Fear No Evil for example). And, frankly, when I see a BBC story about how 40% of the primate species on Earth face extinction, when people are starving by the hundreds of millions and when governments - from Great Britain to my hometown of Seattle - propose extensive surveillance as a safety measure... I'm not so sure he's that far off.
Debbie Moorhouse
6. GUDsqrl
"Silent Spring" was published in 1962, so the environmental cause was only just getting started then.
Jeff Soules
7. DeepThought
As SpeakerToManagers pointed out, Heinlein's fiction generally sees a dystopian future for Earth -- even Starship Troopers has global warfare leading to a militaristic society prior to major Earth cities getting bombed by alien insects...
So I think he meant it (well, he wasn't setting a deadline on the alien warfare bit), simply because he was ornery enough in his political beliefs (wherever they went) not to fall in step with triumphalism. If you're writing about a lot of future (as he was), you'd have to be pretty naive to think everything's going to be peaches and rainbows the whole way through; and even so, space has got to be better/more interesting, right? Isn't that why we're going there? And even if RAH wasn't promising a dystopian future, he probably did see it as in touch with the anxieties of the 1950s; his contemporaries took these very seriously, however ludicrous they seem to us in hindsight.

So I think he meant it -- but whether he did or not, I think these kinds of dystopias are exactly what makes good young adult literature. You ask if it's "really a sensible message to be giving young people?"--but it's exactly the kind of message that young people want to read. Nobody wants to read about happy people leading predictable, conventional lives without challenges. Teenagers especially are very keenly aware of the flaws in the present; high school is a dystopic experience for many/most, and people who haven't grown accustomed to the injustices petty and severe of daily life are very willing to extrapolate from them to a dystopian present and near-future. And a lot of these protagonists are people with extraordinary talent that their society doesn't appreciate, who feel facelessly lost in an oppressive crowd (due to overpopulation), who come up against corruption, incompetence, and the petty meddling of parents, the school system, and authority generally -- teenagers ought to eat this stuff with a spoon.

...and at the end of the day, what's escapist literature without something to escape from?
David Dyer-Bennet
8. dd-b
Interesting thoughts. It's a background vision through a lot more than just Heinlein's works, though; a lot of SF saw overpopulation as a likely problem, and saw it as unpleasant to live more densely than one wanted to (whether that means a too-small apartment in New York, or a ranch where the house is actually in sight of a neighbor's house).

Also remember that Heinlein was big on "emigration as a sorting device". To write about that he needed environments that would encourage some emigration.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
DD-B, as a teenager I was deeply hurt by "The cowards never started and the weaklings died on the way".

On more mature reflection it seems to reflect the same misconception about genetics that you find in Piper's _Space Viking_ -- if all your engineers, say, emigrate, that doesn't mean your planet will never have any more engineers, nor that the planet they go to will have more, after one generation.
Bruce Cohen
10. SpeakerToManagers
Bluejo @ 9

Heinlein, for all his intelligence and native common sense was still a product of his time and education. He was taught early in the 20th century that evolution worked on something like the "social darwinist" model, and I don't think he ever quite let go of it. Remember that all his formal education came before the "modern evolutionary synthesis" in the 1930s and 1940s, let alone before genetics and the theories of co-evolution and cooperative behavior. Granted he was an autodidact of considerable ability, and continued to learn about new developments throughout his life; I don't see much evidence that he applied this new knowledge to re-examining his basic philosophy and worldview. The same could be said, even more so, for Piper, who wasn't as flexible of mind, IMHO.

Remember also that Heinlein considered himself the descendant of pioneers, the ones who did start (though Missouri was hardly the frontier even in his grandfather's lifetime); that philosophy probably resonated strongly with the stories his family told about their history.

I've never been able to reconcile the common image of Heinlein as a self-motivated free thinker with the fact that his entire notion of political and social philosophy seems to have done a complete 180 around the time he met Virginia. I've heard the opinion that in fact his political ideas were all someone else's, but I'm not convinced of that. It may be that he did not have strong political opinions, though I think he had strong moral beliefs. Perhaps he went along with the opinions of whomever he most respected whose ideas accorded with his moral and ethical beliefs. In either case, he certainly tended to express his opinions strongly, arguably more strongly than his convictions warranted.
Ross Smith
11. I Suspect...
...that STM is correct, not least because Heinlein grew up in a time before the pill. (He addresses the "Malthus pills," of course, around the same time that the pill became first available in the US -- 1960. If there are earlier references to "Malthus pills," I don' know of them.) And with the way Heinlein's characters tend to enjoy themselves, it's not hard to see why he thought overpopulation would be a problem.
Ross Smith
12. Dichroic
dd-b's right that it's not just Heinlein; it's especially explicit in Jack Finney's stories, where as soon as time travel is invented everyone's first instinct is to go back into the back (in one story, to the point where the future is left completely unpopulated, which seems like an odd cure for overpopulation problems).
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Dichroic: That's really bizarre. It also reminds me in an odd way of Tepper's _Beauty_ where all the homeless people one sees about are time travellers from a much worse future, making that future worse by overusing the resources now.
Mark Ensley
14. mensley
How coincidental... just last week I checked out a bunch of Heinlein juvies from the library and re-read them.

I agree with Deep Thought. I think these novels are perfect for your typical over-achieving alienated teen. In fact, I suspect this was exactly the audience Heinlein was aiming for. Get smart disaffected kids interested in math and science, then get them interested in developing ways to get humanity off this small and fragile rock.

He certainly continued this theme into his later period works.

In thinking about it, one of the only novels of his *at all* that doesn't have a dystopic Earth is Number of the Beast which starts off in a world that seems fairly peaceful and where people are healthy enough to regularly live to be 100. Of course, there are aliens infiltrating the math departments...

No one's mentioned Friday yet; while it's certainly not a YA novel it's fairly explicit about the breakdown of society and the need to flee the inevitable tyranny and chaos. Then there's the whole "crazy years" / religious dictatorship that underlies any of his future history works. Even in books like Stranger there is usually an interfering and rights-ignoring government.

One thing I noticed while reading the juvies this time through was that he seemed to be keenly aware of how bloody much energy space travel takes. Now why hasn't someone figured out how to build one of Heinlein's "converters" that gives 100% efficient mass to energy conversion in a package small enough to fit in a starship?
Patrick Shepherd
15. hyperpat
For Heinlein's stories to work, he needed to have his protagonists feel dissatisfied with the way things currently were. This shows up in a lot more than just his juveniles. Even in one of his very early works, Beyond this Horizon, where the portrayed society is one that most people would consider to be a utopia (no hunger, work only if you really wanted to, everyone healthy - well, except for the control 'naturals'), Hamilton is driven to action because he feels that there must be more to life than just existing, that being a dilettante was not the proper role for man.

Even one of the least dystopian juveniles, Have Space Suit - Will Travel, shows a dissatisfaction with people as sheep, content to just get by (reference his comments about the education system, his parents decision to leave the academic rat-race to raise their son as a role model for non-sheep, his father's methods of dealing with society's regimentation via how he files his taxes - and with only such short strokes, defining what was wrong with the fifties conformist culture).

So the various dystopian backgrounds of many of his novels become part of the driving force for his major characters, helping to define why they take the actions they do, while at the same time serving as a strong warning of just what will happen "...If This Goes On".

Heinlein was definitely a fan of the 'restless' spirit, the pioneer, those who drive to change the world, and it wasn't limited to just his juveniles, but within them he set an achievement bar for all his young readers to try and reach. And that's the message that I think resonates with young readers, that they can achieve their dreams if they just work at it. It's a timeless message that runs across all cultures and societies, and is probably why he's still so enjoyable to read today.
Craig Eddy
16. tyche
In defense of RAH, one must consider that he was, first and foremost, a writer. He stated over and over that his purpose was to make money from the written word. With the juvenal novels, his intent was to show protagonists overcoming some difficulty. The characters he therefore created had inherent talents that would allow them to overcome those difficulties once the talents were recognized and trained. The fact of the dystopian universe would then be a plot device against which he could develop those characters.

Does this mean that he felt that all roads lead to the eventual collapse of civilization as we know it? From other things I've read, such as "Expanded Universe", I'd have to say, "yes": that he felt that eventually mankind would come to a sticky end. One thing stands out, though, in that thought. The sticky end to which mankind would come varied according to the needs of the story. Sometimes it was overpopulation. Sometimes it was religious tyranny. Sometimes it was corporate oligarchies. The means of the sticky end were reflections of individual directions that society COULD take, and expanded and magnified to make them more obvious.

However, I don't believe that he was saying that they HAD to happen, as much as letting people know that they were a possibility, if one allowed one's freedoms to be nibbled away. The dystopias of Heinlein were a plot device, and not a forecast of things to come. They were the situation against which he pitted the character, in order to show that the character had the ability to overcome difficulties. Was there a theme there? Of course. But consider another creative artform - music. How many modern bands are always producing music that differs from what made them famous? Or go back further to Wagner, Berlioz, Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden. They each had their own style, and yet that is acceptable. So, to, with Heinlein, he had a style, almost a formula of how to develop a story. I would see his use of dystopias more as a product of what editors wanted during his early career, than as a belief that mankind's end was inevitable. The belief was more a case of "plan for the worst, and hope for the best". The device was a background of those things which would cause one to want change and, therefore, attempt to achieve it.
Francis Turner
17. FrancisT
I think Heinlein's dystopian views are all of a oneness. Overpopulation may be what he thought would be the cause in many cases but that is probably irrelevant.

What is relevant is that Heinlein felt that the world would slide into some kind of Orwellian "1984" police state. He also seems to have felt that there wasn't much that could be done to reverse that except quit to go somewhere else. Given "The War on *", the CCTV surveillance state (such a nice bit of background in Friday) and the growth of intrusive government combined with regulatory capture (where those being regulated e.g. unions or oil companies end up having the influence over the government regulator) that we see today it is hard to call him wrong.

Since Baen just republished Between Planets I read it yesterday and it wouldn't be hard to imagine the current TSA/FBI/NSA agencies morphing into Heinlein's feared IBI.

In fact the overreach of governments who decide, foten for the noblest of original reasons, to keep their subjects under restraint and/or ignorant is a very common trope in SF: Scalzi's Colonial Union. Hogan's UN(?) in Code of the Lifemaker, Doctorow's goons in Little Brother and so on. Heinlein is merely (as is so often the case) one of the first to make the point.

Indeed you could easily replace the name Heinlein in a comment at the end of a review of The Same Man about Waugh and Orwell:
...but the conclusion is dire. For as we read Orwell and Waugh's prophetic warnings we cannot help a shiver of recognition. We have created a world they would have abhorred.
Ross Smith
18. Nat Williams
It doesn't really surprise me that YA novels would so heavily feature dystopian Earths. I would think that a world so obviously corrupt, crowded, horrible, or otherwise worth escaping would resonate quite powerfully with the target age group. The reasonable actions of a protagonist in such a world would nicely mirror adolescent feelings of dissatisfaction or rebellion that many of the readers would likely be feeling.
Michael Roberts
19. Michael
I know that as a YA in rural Indiana, I sure liked Heinlein -- and I still came away thinking that sufficiently clever and/or good people could avert that otherwise impending societal doom.

I'd argue it's exactly the message we want to be sending young people: all is lost unless you help. Hell, we should be sending that message to everybody.
Ross Smith
20. MSG Tripps
If it has not been stated before; could this be the parts of the timeline referred to as silly seasons?
Ross Smith
21. Brian Dunbar
bluejo @ 8
On more mature reflection it seems to reflect the same misconception about genetics that you find in Piper's _Space Viking_ -- if all your engineers, say, emigrate, that doesn't mean your planet will never have any more engineers, nor that the planet they go to will have more, after one generation.

That isn't genetics, but culture. If all of your engineers leave, there isn't anyone to teach the next generation 'how' to engineer.

could this be the parts of the timeline referred to as silly seasons?

To borrow from silly television commercials "You're soaking in it!"
Ross Smith
22. Bill Altreuter
It seems to me that in some sense most science fictionconcerns itself with Dystopias. Most detective fiction is about crime and corruption. Westerns are about societies that are wild and lawless, or have wildness and lawlessness inflicted upon them. Romance novels are about societies that are repressive and make True Love impossible. Dystopias are a plot device that set up conflict, and not really different from the plot devices used in any literature.

And it isn't just genre fiction. What's "The Corrections" about? It is a novel about contemporary society where everyone is unhappy. That's Updike, and Cheever, and Hemingway, and everybody else I can think of off the top of my head. There are only two stories, right? A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. I suppose there are novels where the world is perfect and the individual is maladjusted-- I suppose that might be one way to read Dostoevsky-- but usually the world is disordered, and it is the protagonist's reaction to this that we care about.
Ken Walton
23. carandol
I'm reminded of Blish's juvenile A Life for the Stars, where Earth is in the equivalent of a 1930s type Depression, with mass unemployment and abandoned factories, and all the cities which can afford it leaving Earth to seek their fortunes among the stars. And the main character gets left behind by his home town Scranton because he doesn't have the qualifications to be a citizen, but knows his only chance of making something of his life is to get on a city that's leaving Earth.
John Adams
24. JohnArkansawyer
The juveniles do mostly leave one with the feeling Something Can Be Done (Farmer in the Sky being the greatest exception). By the end of Heinlein's career, from I Will Fear No Evil onward, the only thing to do was get the hell out of Dodge (with a case for Job being an exception to this, but I don't buy it). The sixties novels (which they were!) vary a lot on this point.

There's a lot of libertarian despair in the last batch of Heinlein's books.
James Nicoll
25. James Davis Nicoll
1447: "One thing I noticed while reading the juvies this time through was that he seemed to be keenly aware of how bloody much energy space travel takes."

Although he seems to forget the rocket equation as far as the torch ships are concerned. Even a rocket whose exhaust velocity is the speed of light won't be able to obtain close to the speed of light delta vees without inconveniently high mass ratios.

The calculations for trip times in TIME FOR THE STARS are also pretty wonky and don't get me started on the "what if we got to within an arbitrary unit of lightspeed and then added *two* arbitrary units? Hah?! Hah?!" from FARMER. We can tell from the torchship engineer's reaction that his primary qualification for his job is a willingness to sacrifice his life should the engines fail particularly badly.
Ross Smith
26. Evan Hunt
It seems to me that asking "Did Heinlein really mean it?" is rather beside the point. He was writing novels, not essays.

While he did go to considerable effort to give his stuff verisimilitude, its major purpose was to advance a story. And we're talking about coming-of-age books written for teenagers. It seems to me that "being on a planet where no one is really free, then getting up into space and having wonderful adventures" makes a pretty decent metaphor for "being a bright kid trapped in a lame high school, then growing up and having a good life."
Ross Smith
27. Peter Tupper
Heinlein sets up a dialectic of urban society (corrupt, corrupting, conformist, oppressive, decadent and doomed) vs. rural/frontier society (inhabited by technically skilled, self-reliant individualists). Don't bother trying to change society, just get out. That strikes me as a very American point of view, including the blind spot about the people who were living there first. He's carrying on a tradition of American nativist and back-to-the-land thought, in a science fiction idiom. Even his Malthusian ideas tie in to that.
James Nicoll
28. James Davis Nicoll
One of the interesting things about FARMER is that Heinlein goes into some detail about the amount of energy it takes to terraform a moon. Earth is starving and yet the best way they can think of to invest all that energy to feed themselves is to turn a hostile rock with a surface area roughly comparable to Africa's into marginal farmland.
Winchell Chung
29. Nyrath
Although he seems to forget the rocket equation as far as the torch ships are concerned.

Sad but true. However, in his earlier work, the math is good.

There is a solar-system rocketry simulator called Orbiter. A gentleman named Steven Ouellette wondered if the flight plan of the "Rolling Stone" could be simulated. Much to his surprise, it could be.

He discovered that given the fact that (as viewed from Luna) Earth was half-phase and close to Orion at launch day, there was a Hohmann launch window on September 23, 2150. Using hints from the stories, Heinlein fans knew the Stone had launched sometime after 2148, so this is a reasonably close fit.

Mr. Oueletted made an Orbiter plug-in (ZIP file) for the Rolling Stone. It includes a brief document about technical details.

I have some more notes about the delta-vee requirements of other Heinlein novels on my website (scroll down).
Winchell Chung
30. Nyrath
...and at the end of the day, what's escapist literature without something to escape from?

Hyperpat tends to agree with you. Heinlein is not predicting a dystopian future so much as he is giving a background with obvious things wrong with them in order to drive his characters to do something about it.

The fact that Heinlein's answer is generally "move to someplace better" is a separate issue.
Ross Smith
31. Clark E Myers
"Earth is starving and yet the best way they can think of to invest all that energy to feed themselves is to turn a hostile rock with a surface area roughly comparable to Africa's into marginal farmland"

For my money the investment is an investment as applied; granted it takes an unlikely find to make the investment pay off in a timely and happy ending.

Applying the energy to fixing nitrates and pumping water for raising food in Africa - or draining the Med for farm land or .... is not so much investing the energy as expending it. It's often possible to feast on seed corn - once.

I'd say the world for the young is no more dystopic than for the adults - the stories show the young being acted on and the adults acting - the youth of Red Planet have a hassle over guns; the adults of I Will Fear No Evil carry multiple illegal weapons; Captain John Carter of Virginia has no hassle over Gay Deceiver who is after all an illegal weapon hidden in plain sight.

I'd also say that for the good physician of Butler the Frontier was close enough - see e.g. Frederick Jackson Turner and dates and places for closing the frontier. My own grandmother went west in a covered wagon to say nothing of the travels of the Heinlein family from 1756 to the twentieth century. Perhaps not wilderness but certainly frontier.

Asimov wrote that Heinlein's opinions changed around the time he married Ginny (not met, the meeting was much earlier - notice the hitch and a rump gave Ginny a longer and more successful military career than Robert though nothing to match his brothers) She disagreed, implying I think, that Robert did not change his beliefs much from the time they first knew each other. Certainly Mr. Heinlein himself both acknowledged that he became more pessimistic over 40 years and wrote that pessimism is more accurate but optimism is more fun and gets more done.
James Nicoll
32. James Davis Nicoll
29: It's the fact that he got it right in the low-delta vee books that makes the problem with the torch ships stand out for me. Most SF authors don't bother with trivial details like orbits, launch windows and required delta-vee. Heck, Ben Bova once wrote a textbook-for-writers on space travel that had no math! Math shy people can always ignore equations that are provided but there's no way to use what isn't provided in the first place.



These days (as you point out), there are some very useful programs. Before it mysteriously stopped working after I installed an update, I had a lot of fun playing with Jaqar’s swing-by calculator. It's amazing how fast you can traverse parts of the solar system given plausible atomic rockets and a complete disregard for the risks inherent in close fly-bys of gas giants.
James Nicoll
33. James Davis Nicoll
2: "He had read Malthus, and thought that, before the inevitable crunch, that cities would cover much more land and become the predominant kind of community."

On Wednesday, May 23, 2007, humanity became a primarily urban species. That's the estimated date when more of us lived in cities than outside them.

I first ran across an estimate for the date when this would occur in a UN report that said, IIRC:

1: More and more people are moving to cities all over the world.

2: They do this because even the worst cities appear to offer more opportunity than do farms.

3: How can we keep people on their farms?

The fact that 2 implied that inflicting 3 on the rural population would limit their prosperity appeared to pass the authors of the report completely by.
Ross Smith
34. Clark E Myers
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I'd give Mr. Heinlein a pass on the torch ships as being indeterminate future technology with a plausible - especially for the time - name. Certainly the butcher paper approach to plotting (bearing in mind that Mr. Heinlein never plotted and that by Heinlein's lights what David Drake say does isn't the way a writer works - smiley interrobang) that was used from Rocket Ship Galileo and for some purposes for a few years after was tedious and arguably poorly paid. CJ Cherry equally did the arithmetic to establish ship schedules and wrote around them and her books may be the richer for it - or perhaps just for the extra attention implied.

I can live with Torch ships that violate the rocket equation just as I can live with movies where the part of Winchester 73 is played by Winchester 94 or the part of the Mig 17 is played by the Republic F84. As noted many times we are swept up in Heinlein's writing when similar defects from another writer might pop us right of willing suspension of disbelief.

Arslan say is a great book, see e.g. the cover blurbs, despite the fact that that deer don't behave like elk and IIRC unplugged freezers don't keep food so well.

Mr. Heinlein did say the juveniles allowed him to do more explaining and he enjoyed it I think. I'd guess that the same exposition in the adult books would have shown the same dystopic view of a crowded Earth. Crowd being defined as needing an ID card - cf current reality.
James Nicoll
35. James Davis Nicoll
31: "Applying the energy to fixing nitrates and pumping water for raising food in Africa - or draining the Med for farm land or .... is not so much investing the energy as expending it. It's often possible to feast on seed corn - once."

Constant inputs are a necessity for farming thanks to thermodymanics. The Ganymedians will have to make the same investments as terrestrial farmers but in a location that is considerably less suited to agriculture than the Earth is.

That said, what I had in mind was looking for some better way to turn energy in > the chemical fuels humans require, packaged in some esthetically pleasing form (so not Pseudo-Soy: It's Totally Not Homeless People Anymore). If you look at the ratio of the energy used to create the foods we consume and the energy we actually get from those foods, agriculture as we know it is insanely wasteful.

As an example of what I mean, your typical human's internal processes produce about 100 watts of energy. 6.5 billion people therefore require inputs that can produce at least 6.5x10^11 watts. The Earth's surface gets around 200 watts per m^2 at the ground (Unless I've forgotten the right value for albedo) so in theory we should be able to power all of us off about 325,000 km^2 or a patch about 600 km on an edge. In actual fact, we use a surprisingly large fraction of the Earth's land surface to very inefficiently produce the materials we need for sustenance. The people in Farmer appear to have had no interest in finding more efficient methods of producing food than an agricultural toolkit that would have been familiar to farmers in 1950.

Arthur C. Clarke used to have food synthsizers as a standard prop which puzzled me greatly until I ran the numbers.
Ross Smith
36. Clark E Myers
Different book - Pohl did some fine ones on CHOM.

The people in Farmer had an interest in the family farm as output. "The advantage of free enterprise is not that it's more efficient but that it's free" Mr. Heinlein as himself not a character roughly from memory.

I'd suggest the numbers proposed could do a better job of dealing with conversion, transmission and storage losses but taking Dr. Pournelle's numbers for energy conversion at (mostly low earth) orbit and microwave transmission to the surface it's a given that given LEO and half way to anywhere then the marginal cost for energy approaches zero very quickly (pecuniary calculations complicated by the
discrete math of one space station two space station ..... many space stations combined with one earth station two earth station.......).
James Nicoll
37. James Davis Nicoll


Jo, how much are you going to mind if this conversational thread continues?
Torie Atkinson
38. Torie
@ JamesDavisNicoll

Jo, how much are you going to mind if this conversational thread continues?

I appreciate that you thought to ask this question. As moderator, I'm asking that please keep THIS post on-topic re: Jo Walton's piece. If you'd like to continue this discussion (and by all means do), I encourage you to begin a new Conversation.
Ross Smith
39. Michaelc
I think a lot of the flavors of the dystopias mentioned reflect Heinlein's "Conservative"/Libertarian beliefs. Starman Jones has the Corporations and the Guilds (unions) dominating the populace. The fear of unions is a common right wing theme, even though the unions depend on their membership for survival, and are the natural check on corporate greed.
The theme of overpopulation is also a common conservative fear (we have it in the US today), being overrun by the unwashed masses who are undeservedly consuming all our stuff. Environmental disasters on the other hand are a no-no because they imply that we have to restrain capitalism.
Although not mentioned in the article "Starship Troopers" is a dystopia of endless war, and the fascination/dread of fascism and the "glory"/horror of war. Even "stranger in a strange land" is a dystopian Theocracy.
James Nicoll
40. James Davis Nicoll
Aren't there common references between BETWEEN PLANETS, THE STAR BEAST and STARMAN JONES? Specifically the Horst-Conrad drives? I know there was a thread on rec.arts.sf.written that touched on this but I can't find it just now. My memory is that there's a strong case for claiming THE STAR BEAST and STARMAN JONES are related (in which case the net effect of Mr. Kiku and company's careful management of Earth was to somehow give the planet a ruler) and if BETWEEN PLANETS is indeed connected (It mentions a paper called "Some Notes on the Practical Applications of the Horst-Milne Equations"), then what the rebels on Venus did was win a temporary victory while handing Earth the tools it needed to carve out a nice little chunk of the galaxy for itself.
James Nicoll
41. James Davis Nicoll
38: I think I will just drop the matter.

One thing that I like about RAH is that it's not obviously nonsensical to talk about whether his background details make sense. A lot of authors are moving other people's set pieces around with no real comprehension of what those set pieces represent. There's no point in double-checking Anne McCaffrey's orbital mechanics for the Red Star, for example.
Clark Myers
42. ClarkEMyers
I'd say rather Mr. Heinlein's background details - in his science fiction - are internally consistent though some are higher probablitity or were when written (there was a great deal of cross over with the Disney World of Tomorrow and Wonderful World of Disney and with the Bonestall paintings in the glossy mass market magazines) and some are low probability thought experiments - Starship Troopers is I think a low probability thought experiment as Mr. Heinlein repeatedly suggested in many talks/writings of voting schemes.

Certainly Mr. Heinlein was quite aware of a difference between science fiction and fantasy even as he said when he chose, deliberately, to blend the two.

I'd say it's a given that any victory by the rebels on Venus would be temporary and rephrase the conclusion to say "while handing Earth the tools it needed to create an expanding frontier at the edge of the nice little chunk of the galaxy becoming daily more like Earth itself.

For my money Mr. Heinlein did not think of himself as writing conscious dystopias as opposed to realism but of writing realistic tales. "(B)etter get into space fast" is indeed a shared message - Clarke - "if the human race is to survive then for most of humanity's existence ship means space ship" (from memory freely by all means feel free to correct) I take it as a given that Mr. Heinlein thought racial survival for his race a universal good.
Avram Grumer
43. avram
In Citizen of the Galaxy there’s no slavery actually on Earth, but Earth is decadent, corrupt, controlled by corporations and full of people living on the profits of offworld slavery.


This doesn't sound too far off from the real modern-day world. (Not just the US. First-worlders everywhere benefit from unfree labor.) Are we living in a dystopia?
Richard Treitel
44. richard.treitel
Broadly agree with Michaelc. A theme that seems to me to run through many of RAH's novels, though more clearly expounded in the adult ones, is that government sucks, because it tries to take away your freedom, yet humans have this distressing habit of saddling themselves with governments whenever their population density gets above some low value. Therefore it's a good idea to go where population density is low. Very low.

Compare, in The Rolling Stones, the depictions of Marsport and the Hallelujah Node. Marsport claims to be the fastest growing town in the Solar System, but it already has high taxes, high tariffs, and businessmen who try to use the court system to shut down their competition. In the Node, you may have to bar your airlock (what???) before you make breakfast, but you can be self-reliant and free as long as you remember to call the storekeeper by the name he prefers.
Ross Smith
45. Nathaniel01
When humans first began to form towns and cities my understanding is that we went from more equal nomadic tribes to unequal dictatorships where power was concentrated among a few and they decided how resources were used.

However, and democracy (provided it survives attacks on it like corruption and bribery) provides an interesting change in that dynamic where societies later became concerned about sharing resources and/or political power more equally among the population. So I'm not solid on the urbanism leading to dictatorship idea. If anything, some cities (perhaps after growing to a large enough size) provide a challenge to would be lords as they concentrate people and make it easier for a a population as a whole to coordinate against would-be overlords.

Also, on the whole resource use and environmental damage related issues. I would argue that this is more a result of economies at work than population size (which is why advocates for population control fail to save the planet). How many factories, cars, machines and so on are all generally due to the size of an economy-not a population. As these items/devices all take resources to build and operate the result is increased pollution (if the operation and construction of them generates it) and resource use. But this same resource and energy use doesn't happen just because there are alot of people around. A real world example of this effect is China where the number of people born each year is decreasing (meaning China's population will shrink sooner or later) but the number of factories is increasing meaning that the resources China uses and pollution it exports are also increasing as the birthrate falls. A scifi representation of this may be massive mechanized complexes with just a few human operators that churn out pollution and waste.
Ross Smith
46. Trelligan
Heinlein's juveniles (and pretty much his whole bibliography) are of the rags-to-riches, boy-makes-good variety. Read as Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby in space.
Don't get me wrong; I am a great fan of his work and want to dig out my copies of his juveniles to reread again. But I'm not blind.
His genre is the adventure story, heavily salted with quite well informed science for his time. All this so you don't notice the layer of libertarianish philosophy under all that sauce.

A rags-to-riches story needs a social background to cause and perpetuate the rags, and there Malthus was with all the ingredients he needed.
I guess even Heinlein figured we needed something to *push* us out to the stars.
Ross Smith
47. Dean Hardage
Perhaps a lot of his Earths were dystopian but they were extrapolated from history and reflected a lot of what is going on today. Most of these stories were about young people who got up, got going, and found a way to make a better life for themselves. It's not a new theme, he just put into a somewhat futuristic setting.

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