Posts Tagged ‘Robert A. Heinlein’

Is this the year of the jackpot?

October 29, 2020

Living through the year 2020 reminded me of a science-fiction story by the late Robert A. Heinlein called “Year of the Jackpot.”

The viewpoint character was a mild-manner statistician named Potiphar Breen. He followed trends and cycles, and had come to the conclusion that all of the cycles he followed—social, political, economic, the weather, sports scores—were due to peak at the same time.

He headed for the hills with his girlfriend and was able to wait out the economic and political collapse and the Soviet invasion. But sunspots, too, come in cycles, and so the story ends with the two of them watching the sun go nova.

I feel as if I’m living in that story.  Each month something unexpected happens, something I never would have been able to predict the month before, but which, as I think about it, is the result of things that have been building up for years.

Climate scientists for years have been predicting an upswing in weather-related disasters as a result of global warming and, guess what, they’re already here.  I read an article about this year’s catastrophe’s in Scientific American on-line, which was by a reporter whose beat consists of writing about catastrophes.

Epidemiologists for years have been predicting a global pandemic, and now one is here.  Recessions keep getting worse.  Riots and protests, many seemingly without any clear object, sweep the world.

The thing that worries me is the thought that people 10 or 15 years from now will look back on this year, not as the year everything went to hell, but as one of the last good years.


The Year of the Jackpot by Robert A. Heinlein in Galaxy Science Fiction (March 1952)

A Running List of Record-Breaking Natural DIsasters in 2020 by Andrea Thompson for Scientific American.

Historically dark mood clouds 2020 election by Marc Fisher for The Washington Post.

Why Is the World Going to Hell? by Jonathan Cook for Counterpunch.

Is 2020 the worst year of your life? Many Canadians, Americans say ‘yes’ by John Ackerman and Curtis Doering for News 1130 in Vancouver.

Here’s a Recap of 2020 So Far and It’s Painful to Read by Liucija Adomaite and Denis Tymulis for Bored Panda.  Painful and somewhat unfair, but funny.

A true history of SF’s golden age

February 2, 2019

I just got finished reading ASTOUNDING: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee (2018)

This book is the story of how John W. Campbell Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, and three writers most closely associated with him, shaped the American mind.  It provides a detailed and objective account of the personalities, relationships and accomplishments of these four figures, both for good and ill.

In 1937, when Campbell became editor of the magazine at the age if 27, popular science fiction was a minor subset of the action-adventure genre.  

His ambition was to make science fiction not only a source of entertainment, but a way of thinking about science and the future.

He was an outstanding editor, full of ideas, able to prod and provoke writers into doing better work than they thought they could.  

He was a second-rate intellect who was outside the literary mainstream, but he punched above his intellectual weight. 

Albert Einstein subscribed to Astounding.  Werner von Braun, in wartime Germany, reportedly took the trouble to obtain copies of the Swedish edition. 

Carl Sagan, Gene Roddenberry, Stephen King, Paul Krugman, Elon Musk, Newt Gingrich and George R.R. Martin all acknowledge Campbell’s influence.

When I visit my local Barnes & Noble bookstore, the space given to science fiction exceeds all other genres combined.

Without Campbell, there still would be adventure stories set against a science fiction background, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories, and there still would be literary writers, like H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapleton, who use science fiction themes, but It’s highly unlikely that science fiction would pervade the culture of the English-speaking world as it does today.

The other factor in the growth of science fiction, mentioned only in passing in this book, is science fiction fandom, a distinctive and maybe unique community in which writers and readers can interact and discuss the genre.

As for myself, I never participated in fandom, Astounding Science Fiction magazine and books by Astounding writers were my main source of intellectual stimulation when I was a young teenager.  I have continued to read science fiction all my life, and while I pass over the bulk of it, I find the best science fiction a source of great pleasure and food for thought.


The guaranteed incomes of the top 0.1 percent

January 14, 2017


Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.

Radicals propose a universal guaranteed income for all, regardless of whether you are gainfully employed or not.   But as Matt Breunig pointed out, it already exists in the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent income bracket.   They receive income from their financial assets regardless of whether they work or not.

There is a strong argument for a guaranteed.  It is that the reason that the national wealth today is greater than in the past is largely due to the inventiveness and effort of our ancestors, not to anyone living today, and that therefore all of us are equally entitled to the fruits of their effort.

This was the philosophy of the social credit reform movement, which provided the background for Robert A. Heinlein’s great utopian science fiction novel, Beyond This Horizon.


Why I don’t own a gun

January 14, 2013

I accept that the Constitution affirms an individual right to keep and bear arms, I believe that self-defense is a basic human right and I don’t think gun prohibition would work any better than alcohol prohibition did or drug prohibition does.

But speaking for myself, I have no desire to own a firearm.  I would be terrified at the possibility that, in a moment of panic, I might take a human life.

Double click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Williamsport, Md., a small town on the Potomac River at the foothills of the Appalachians.  Almost everyone in town owned a gun, mainly for hunting and sometimes for killing animal pests or target shooting.  I have fond memories of my father, with newspaper spread out across the kitchen table, cleaning and oiling his deer rifle prior to hunting season.  What I never heard back in those days was the need to own a gun to defend yourself against somebody else who owned a gun.

A Gannett editor who worked in Las Vegas once told me that young men in Nevada like to take junk refrigerators and other appliances out into the desert, and blow them to pieces with high-powered firearms.  That sounds like a lot of fun.  I don’t have any quarrel with anybody who likes to do that.

I’ve met owners of convenience stores in high-crime neighborhoods who think they need to own guns for self-protection.  That is their decision and their right.

But count me out.  If I bought a gun for self-protection, I would have to make up my mind that I was in such grave personal danger that I would have to be willing to take a human life.  It would be like being in the military.  Then I would take firearms training in order to be sure I could handle a gun safely and responsibly, without a danger to myself or bystanders.  That would not be a casual decision.  If my life had taken a different course, I might have found myself in circumstances in which I thought differently.  But such circumstances are not the norm.

The vision of a society in which everyone carried a gun at all times, like the movie version of the Wild West, is an appealing fantasy to some people.  To me, it is a nightmare.  Robert A. Heinlein many years ago wrote a science fiction novel, Beyond This Horizon, set in a future in which every citizen carried a gun and duels were common.  Heinlein thought this would result in a process of natural selection, in which survivors were either quick and accurate marksmen, or very, very polite.  I don’t think this would be the reality.

The idea of teachers in the classroom being armed is dreadful.  Teachers would be like prison guards.  If this idea were implemented, I would expect a rash of “stand your ground” shootings in the schools.  Now there might be circumstances in which bringing armed police officers into the school is necessary, but it would be a necessary evil.


Rocket science and free enterprise

March 19, 2012

When I was a boy, I read the Robert A. Heinlein books for boys — Space Cadet, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky and all the rest — and then graduated to his Future History series — The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Green Hills of Earth and so on.   They depicted the human race going to the Moon and the planets, and living among the ancient canals of Mars and the teeming jungles of Venus, and then figuring out how to get around the faster-than-light limit which kept us from the stars.

It turned out that Mars and Venus aren’t like that, but I still was stirred by the thought of exploring and settling the Solar System.  The moon landings took place in 1969, six years ahead of Heinlein’s schedule, but it turned out that it was just a stunt, and didn’t lead to Heinlein’s Luna City or anything else.

With all the urgent problems that need to be solved on our home planet, I’m ready to give up on this boyhood fantasy.  But Jeff Greason, who is shown in the TED video above, is not.  He is one of an number of entrepreneurs who, like Heinlein’s fictional D.D. Harriman, think they can make space travel a paying proposition.

I think the odds are against him, but I hope he succeeds, and I think it is just barely possible that he might.  In any case, he and his competitors represent the free enterprise system as it ought to function.  They aren’t trying to cheat anybody out of anything.  They are striving to outdo each other on the basis of performance.  If they succeed, everybody benefits.  If they fail, nobody loses except themselves and maybe their creditors.

Years ago, as I recall, Newt Gingrich had the idea that the federal government should finance the space program by offering prizes.  Rather than having a government-operated program, the government could award cash to the first companies to each certain milestones.  I forget exactly what they were—the first to keep human beings alive on the Moon for more than a week, the first to send a human in orbit around Mars, the first to send a human to step for on Mars, something like that.

This is a concept that could have many applications.  For example, the federal government could offer prizes to pharmaceutical companies for being the first to develop certain kinds of life-saving drugs for which the potential market is small.  Then the government could take the rights to these drugs, and license them to be marketed at affordable prices.

Hat tip to Virginia Postrel.

Robert A. Heinlein on patriotism

November 11, 2011

The following is a shortened version of “The Pragmatics of Patriotism,” a lecture given by the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy on April 5, 1973.  The complete lecture is given in Expanded Universe, an anthology of Heinlein’s works edited by Heinlein himself as an overview of his career and thoughts.

Heinlein himself graduated from the Naval Academy in 1929, but he was discharged from the Navy in 1934 for medical reasons; he had pulmonary tuberculosis.  After unsuccessful ventures in real estate sales and silver mining, he sold his first science fiction story in 1939, and soon became one of the most popular and influential science fiction writers.  During World War Two, he worked in research and development at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Robert A. Heinlein

… … Why are you here? … You are here to become a naval officer. That’s why this Academy was founded. That is why all of you are here: to become naval officers. If that is NOT why YOU are here, you’ve made a bad mistake. But I speak to the overwhelming majority who understood the oath they took on becoming midshipmen and look forward to the day when they will renew that oath as commissioned officers.

But why would anyone want to become a naval officer?

In the present dismal state of our culture there is little prestige attached to serving your country; recent public opinion polls place military service far down the list.  … … Why would anyone elect a career which is unappreciated, overworked, and underpaid? It can’t be just to wear a pretty uniform. There has to be a better reason. … …

As one drives through the bushveldt of East Africa, it is easy to spot herds of baboons grazing upon the ground.  But not by looking at the ground.  Instead you look up and spot the lookout, an adult male posted on the limb of a tree where he has a clear view of all around him – which is why you can spot him; he has to be where he can see a leopard in time to give the alarm.  On the ground, a leopard can catch a baboon – but if a baboon is warned in time to reach the trees, he can out-climb a leopard.

The lookout is a young man assigned to that duty and there he will stay, until the bull of the herd sends another male to relive him. … …

Patriotism is the most practical of all human characteristics.

But in the present decadent atmosphere patriots are often too shy to talk about it − as if it were something shameful or an irrational weakness.

But patriotism is NOT sentimental nonsense. Nor something dreamed up by demagogues. Patriotism is as necessary a part of man’s evolutionary equipment as are his eyes, as useful to the race as eyes are to the individual.

A man who is NOT patriotic is an evolutionary dead end. This is not sentiment but the hardest of logic.


Heinlein’s Rule

May 2, 2010

Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.

Robert A. Heinlein was perhaps the leading U.S. science fiction writer of the 1940s and 1950s and continued writing into the 1980s.  He wrote books for boys that I loved as a teenager.