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?