Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part VII: Looking Back at Future History
by Travis Hedge Coke
“I guess we’re both a little bit racist.” The Avenue Q lyric a sort of intellectual as edgy as a basketball have been using to excuse their racism since 2003. I hate that lyric. I hate that song. I hate that musical. I hate the South Park culture which spawned the musical and bolstered the musical and the legions of folks who justify their petty bigotry with a global relativism rather than take five minutes to self-evaluate.
This kind of rationalizing of bigotry and relativism of condemnation is specialized to fit a particular bigot, every time. At its heart is a perceptual truth, that an idea or element exists in a range of saturation or rarefaction, of loud sound and loud silence. That things are things and things are relative. This kind of rationalizing, though, extends this out unfairly, in a manipulated and not entirely rational fashion, to justify what the justifier wants, while leaving, fair game or unfairly, room to still clarify what they do not wish to justify in a different fashion, under different rules, with different possible consequences.
Many fancier schools and advanced programs train students in this under the guise of debate clubs, academic society dinners, political and religious fundraisers, and communal social advancement organizations identifiable by badges, sashes, hats or sometimes handshakes and special winks.
In 1985, the San Francisco Chronicle called Robert A Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, “a thinking man’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Same self-serving energy. A novel written and published towards the end of Heinlein’s Future History sequence, The Cat ties in characters from The Rolling Stones, Methuselah’s Children, Strange in a Strange Land, and other works, while having much to say on race, culture, politics, literature and gender, wrapped in a comedy of manners package. The protagonist is Black, a rarity for Heinlein works, but not alone in the respect, and having a blackface to speak from, Heinlein has opinions. They are white-serving opinions. Which is why this is for “a thinking man.”
“A thinking man’s” has rarely ever been deployed unironically to anything except that which serves, above and beyond anyone else, white men.
That is a review, however, and not the novel in question. Or, it is the novel in question and the review is separate.
Robert Heinlein’s work can have its uses regardless of how it skews politically or socially. He has a good ear for certain kinds of dialogue. He knows what can be an interesting turn of phrase. His body of work is large and varied. Surreally, perhaps, you have a better chance of a woman, nonwhite person, or even a trans person narrating a Heinlein story than many of his contemporaries in American science fiction.
The human experience of the space race, visits to the Moon, colonization of space, interstellar travel, contact with extraterrestrial life, wars, American presidents, prominent corporations all vary from our world and that of Future History.
Nearly all of Heinlein’s fictions were kinds of societal examinations, model worlds, model cities, model politics. But the models were not run independent of outside influence, all shaped by conclusion and personal aesthetic, many directed by genre and by a sense of what would be palatable to the largest or most engaged audience.
“For Heinlein,” Farah Mendlesohn says in her, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, “the right ordering of society was in itself a civic duty.”
Heinlein’s Future History encompassed over two hundred years of fictive history, mostly set ahead of when the Future History began, 1941, but also several alternate points of history building up until then, as well, to the point that looking for a moment of divergence is futile except for fun. What belongs in Future History or is only History-adjacent or History-mirroring is also impossible to concretely say, though Heinlein experts and fans have their varying opinions. Some distinctions are causal or chronological, some tonal, some purely aesthetic. James Gifford, Farah Mendlesohn, and Bill Patterson do not agree, and I disagree (on many things) with the three of them.
What complicates matters most is that late in the creation/publication of Future History works, Heinlein introduces a related or a sub-cycle, the World as Myth stories. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is a World as Myth novel. To Sail Beyond the Sunset is a World as Myth novel. Some people believe, though both as partly or substantially set in the Future History chronology/world, or something closely resembling it and sharing many people, events, and places, one is a Future History novel and the other is not, or the other is, and the one is not.
The World as Myth cycle establishes that reality is a matter of confirmation bias, and that traveling to other realities only strengthens the connection to confirmation bias. We find, interpret, and operate in the world based primarily upon our most closely-held ideas.
The term, “Future History,” comes from John W Campbell, Heinlein’s primary publisher in those days, while Heinlein drew up a diagram of stories and general timeframe, which Campbell published in Spring of ’41, serving both as its own piece of narrative art and an advertisement, a kind of one page catalogue of now collectible Robert A Heinlein stories. It is a brilliant piece of marketing, an advancement in science fiction world building which helped complexify and concretize a fictive world, presented its own novel science fictional angle, and is an elegant way to tell stories that would be commercially unfeasible or a lot of work.
Some of the stories on the original Future History timeline have never been published in full, perhaps were never written in full, and yet, we know the broad strokes of them and in some cases we know precise details, because the stories were told without the stories being written out fully or published at all. Title, purpose, summation, and context have become those tales.
The Stone Pillow and The Sound of His Wings can be retold by familiar audiences, because story, narrative, piece, and plot are not the same. Indeed, the plot of the telling and the plot of the happening are also distinct from one another.
As Star Trek began to survive early on fanon and how an actor played a scene versus how written or how presented in an episode, and sitcoms like Frasier could highlight individual writers like Joe Keenan to also highlight the writer as a deity, Future History and its growth into the prism of World as Myth encourage both a rigidity to canonicity and ultimate flexibility within any audience member or fictional character’s reckoning and reconciling of canon.
Two of Heinlein’s great strengths as a writer are, in essence, one muscle: His work can be incredibly chummy and his work is always exceptionally commercially-aimed. In nonfiction, Heinlein could stretch the truth of his success outside the print science fiction market, he could outright lie about writing practices, the history of his writing career, and he could rewrite or recontextualize events or previously held positions to put a better shine on the statue of himself he erected in his own words. In fiction, he knew, almost uncannily, how to shape a world and events in such a way as to guide a character to the ideas and accomplishments he needed to make a predetermined point.
This sound bad, and in terms of how prevarication of real life and stacked deck politicking in fiction goes, it is bad. It is also, especially from a commercial standpoint, very smart and executed smartly. It also makes Heinlein’s work readable to many who disagree on even fundamental levels with the politics of his nonfiction or the politics on which his fictional worlds are founded and refined.
A basic principle of one of the later Future History novels, and several of the earlier works, is that it is impossible to be destitute if you are willing to work. In one instance, fairly loudly, the narrative and world of the story are concocted in such a way that anyone who wants to be a dishwasher can be a dishwasher and washing dishes will pay enough to support a person and stabilize, economically, a couple living together.
There is fiction and then there is fiction.
When Robert A Heinlein told audiences that if a story was rejected, he would not submit it elsewhere, or created a streamlined, self-serving myth of himself as a genius writer who really fell into his genius, it is both to self-promote and to discourage other writers from continuing to submit or continuing to write and it was all lies. See, also, Isaac Asimov and not doing drafts, various affected work ethics of Beat novelists, and the academic analyses of Harold Bloom.
Future History is good for reminding us that even if they can show you a chart, even if they can show you the math, it will never make a thing real or workable. What makes a good story does not always make a good life plan. What makes a good story is not always, and some might say not likely true.
The Future History has good engineering, elements which play to a wide range of sympathies, charts and declarative statements, truisms and example stories, but example stories are not examples, they are stories.
Time Enough for Love is a novel in stories more than one Libertarian has taken as Bible and Junior Woodchuck guide, since its publication in 1973, when it was nominated for several top genre awards, reified in 1978 and 1988 with the modified excerpts of aphorisms, sayings, and received wisdom entitled, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, with illuminated by D.F. Vassallo to resemble something medieval and thereby classy, educated, time-tested, or scriptural. Statements in Notebooks range from, “Rub her feet,” to a list of capabilities a human should have, from conning a ship and planning an invasion to building walls or shoveling manure.
The illustrative stories of Time Enough can be encouraging, they can be helpful, and they can be misleading and dangerous. The tale of the man who was too lazy to fail, is a healthy reminder to sometimes take the easy route, to not be too rule-bound or self-critical, but it is a fictional story of the one man in the story for whom this approach reaped great benefits. And, whenever a story does not ring true enough or seems reasonable, the narrative has built into it the excuse that the teller is an honorable liar, it is only for fun, it was a joke, just a laugh, playing devil’s advocate.
Heinlein, for much of his life, had a habit of defying or deflecting racism by claiming lineage of the ethnicity in focus. Another kind of fiction and storytelling which can be looked on as heroic or helpful, but is also, in presenting a falsehood as workable, societally dangerous.
Like Heinlein’s self-designed home of the future and of leisure, which received magazine coverage as a piece of art, futurism, and architectural advancement, which had horrible plumbing, bad septic, floor trouble, and required much revision and unforeseen upkeep, to read Heinlein is fun, to visit his world(s), a potential delight, but to try to live in a Heinlein world, to try to be a Heinlein protagonist, or even a secondary character who lives, is perilous, unfeasible, and just not going to work.
Future History is less informative than it seems, and mostly reaffirming. Thus, it can be proved with a diagram, and the diagram can be debated with rhetoric.
Only the ultra-competent polymaths survive and thrive and they, because the plot says.
There is a non-Future Earth short story by Heinlein, published as No Flags Flying, No Bands Playing, rejected by a handful of outlets before publication, concerning an anecdote, ostensibly drawn from real life, of someone dying receiving a medical treatment, then someone else dying immediately after receiving the same treatment, and a third ready to risk it anyway. The intended message is that the third acted bravely. The proof is that the first person died of something else and the second died of fright. The treatment was not the risk. Even if this happened one time, in real life, it is difficult to build a practice around it. As a story, it feels good while being read, while being experienced, and the idea of it is rewarding to us, but how long after does it continue to feel rewarding or sensible?
While we are pursuing the metaphysics here, let us also introduce the factor of this story as both a reflection of reality and a fiction, and that as a story it is an anecdote of an anecdote (framed as an anecdote in the anecdotal retelling). That the story in story is, as all stories with stories are, now a story about story.
And, with that recursive in mind, No Flags is not a Future History or World as Myth story, but why? Why? And, also, how can we tell?
Nothing in No Flags disconnects it from Future History, and its story about story nature allies it with the World as Myth.
Future History is a method to concretize story into something less definite. World as Myth is an invitation, at least by implication, to revisit our own preconceived concretizations of story into definiteness.
Because it gets complicated. And, it gets complicated because it is very simple.
“The ability of the male mind to rationalize its deeds – and misdeeds – cannot be measured,” narrates Dr Deety Burroughs in Heinlein’s “The Number of the Beast—“. Deja Thoris Burroughs is speaking to us of her father’s hypocrisies, but she has some of her own, just ostensibly less – as she is socially and societally afforded range for less – than men, and in particular white American men like Pop. Ironically/not-ironically, Heinlein uses this fictive female voice to express this opinion, in a way to bolster the veracity of her voice and opinions, which still come from a self-identified man. A tactic onto which race is added, with the fictive-blackface of Deety’s good friend and recent step-mother, Hilda Burroughs.
In “The Number of the Beast—”, Heinlein takes his four principal characters (and us) through a sequence of alternate realities they quickly realize are reflections of cherished, familiar worlds for them, and those worlds come from story, in particular serial stories. You can see how this connects to our present scenario, as you read this and feel as if you read it at the same time I wrote it, but for the writer it can feel fresh but it was always long ago. Time is as much part of reality as the physical, the causal and the tonal, gekiga time and cinematic time, time image and movement image, opsign, sonsign, the Monsignor.
Poorly received by many Heinlein superfans, “Number of the Beast—” plays jokes with its own four-person narration; sometimes two narrators read too much alike on the page and it can be difficult to be sure who is narrating in that moment. Despite that occasional sameness, there are tells in their opinions, foci, emphases, and more rarely, dialogue tics. In the broader sense, it does not matter, it is the world created by the words which takes precedent and we are to expect that the narrators are in some form all mouthpieces for another narrator, the author or the author in our heads.
“Number of the Beast—” also continues the tradition, both via cover images and in the rare illustrated edition, of misrepresenting characters’ skin color, heights, body types, even hair colors. Heinlein’s Black, Native, and Filipino protagonists are so readily rendered as light-skin, white-read characters on the covers of books, that it almost makes a kind of narrative sense that they are misrepresented on the illustrations in that one “Number of the Beast—” edition. In other works, the ethnicity of a character can be unqualified by Heinlein until late in the narrative, allowing readers to assume a whiteness. In film and other adaptations, just like the cover images, it can be easier on audiences, and on adapters, to default white. Starship Troopers defaults white, and I imagine it’s explicit turning of the novel into a Nazi parody would be more difficult with a multi-ethnic cast and a Filipino protagonist, just as the film version and other adaptations do not give women short hairstyles or bald heads, as the novel does, nor the men jewelry, as the novel does.
“Number of the Beast—” has an alternate version, an earlier draft which Heinlein buried and was only published recently, The Pursuit of the Pankera, which hews closer to the style of earlier stage Heinlein novels, including a length section in which the four protagonists learn quickly to enjoy a world where slavery is in practice, and to enjoy owning slaves, from bathing and feeding services to sexual. In the “Number of the Beast—” version of those events, much briefer, the four are shown the aliens they are running from as slaves, coded with a variety of hard workers but lazy thus we have to enslave and cannot take care of themselves, owning them is for their safety defenses used for chattel slavery throughout much recent history. In “Number of the Beast—”, this slavery is also an illusion tailored by psychics to the minds of our protagonist-narrators, rooted in their own racism and, in Hilda’s case, internalized racism, and they do not ever lavish in it, only accept it as a practice detached from them.
“Number of the Beast—” is about alternate worlds and how we perceive worlds. Their clarification and minutiae and their blurring and the misrecollection. If the four lead characters of “Number of the Beast—” have a television series or a sequence of books that share a world, or an anthology that they all or most dip into regularly, wells they return to, those wells form realities they can visit. They go to the Land of Oz. They go to a mishmash of edge-of-the-galaxy stories. Star Trek. The field with the rabbit hole outside of, yet inside of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They understand Oz, they understand hollow Earth world, when they visit their shared understanding of the world of The Bible, it is unaddressed if they recognize it as a story world and from where.
One of the worlds they end up in, towards the end of the novel, is that shaped of Future History, and in doing so, and in being, themselves, a fiction within Future History, they become always of that world and that world becomes bigger; variegated.
Looking Back at Future History
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