Robert A. Heinlein: SIXTH COLUMN (1941/1949)

This was the earliest novel-length work by Heinlein, though it was serialized in Astounding magazine (Jan, Feb, and March 1941) and not published in book form until 1949, by which time two or three other Heinlein novels had been published as books. First published in hardcover under the magazine title, it was reprinted for many years in paperback by Signet under the blander title “The Day After Tomorrow,” a 7th printing of which I bought on 19 Sept 1971 at a discount big-box store in Northridge called Disco, with a Gene Szafran cover, shown above.

Also, it wasn’t Heinlein’s first fiction long enough to be serialized in multiple issues of a magazine; the novella “If This Goes On—” appeared a year before, in Feb and March 1940, and later included as the anchor story in the collection REVOLT IN 2100 in 1953. (I posted about that four years ago.) In both cases there are suggestions that the works were expanded for book publication, and some sources call “If This Goes On—” a novel; but it was never published as a separate work.

Gist: The United States has been conquered and occupied by PanAsians. At a secret research center in the Rocky Mountains, an internal experiment has killed all but six men. Those six refine the experiment to create a device with various miraculous effects: vortex beams, tractor beams, and the ability to kill people selectively by race. They set up a phony religion to fly under the radar of the occupiers, spread to numerous cities, and use various strategies to humiliate and defeat them.

Take: Despite its deus ex machina plot (relying on the amazing effects of their invention) and an unavoidably racist depiction of Asian invaders, this is fairly riveting story that fulfills its improbable premise: to show how six Americans (with virtually magic powers) can defeat an invading occupation force.

Summary:

  • The opening lines establish that radio reports confirm the destruction of Washington DC and Manhattan. The six men who gather at the Citadel, a secret research center, include a Major, who accepts the command to proceed on their own and prosecute the war, a mathematician, a biologist, a radiation specialist, and three others, a machinist, a cook, and a cook’s helper. Major Whitey Ardmore [Whitey was a not-uncommon nickname of the era, but still] has them repeat their oaths to the US Constitution.
  • The scientists investigate the experiment that mysteriously killed humans but not lab animals, and refine the ‘Ledbetter effect’ (after the lead scientist) to a controllable device.
  • The cook’s helper, Thomas, turns out to have been a former lawyer, and hobo. To get ‘intelligence’ about what’s going on outside, Thomas is sent out to contact other hobos, and scout nearby cities. He learns that more PanAsians are arriving every day, and American culture is being systematically wiped out. In the city, the whites are required to watch TV every night at 8 for orders. The churches are among the only institutions left alone; it’s common for invading forces to leave local religion alone.
  • They debate strategy and decide to extend the idea of European ‘fifth columns’ – traitors – to its antithesis, an internal ‘sixth column’ of patriots devoted to bringing the invaders unease. They can’t engage in crude attacks; the occupiers respond by retaliating against Americans at random in their homes.
  • Ardmore realizes they can start a new religion! They use the Ledbetter effect, with its tractors and repressors, to carve a temple out of the mountain right above them. Their Ledbetter force has whatever magical power the plot requires, it seems, e.g. making PanAsians, but no white person, overcome with unease should they attempt to enter the temple
  • Soon they establish a temple in the nearest city, Denver, in an abandoned warehouse, and deliver sermons about Lord Mota, and attract followers with free food bought with gold coins transmuted via the Ledbetter effect, which also allows them to heal the sick.
  • A spy breaks into their quarters; they execute him by slitting his throat in the bathtub. It’s war.
  • Temples spread to other cities; members of traditional religions join the secret army.
  • Eventually the PanAsians become concerned about this new religion, and Ardmore is summoned to a meeting with the Prince Royal. Ardmore takes his time and manages to twist the Prince’s words around to leave him on the defensive, while staying in touch with home base via a communicator in his headgear, using slang and doubletalk to confuse any spy microphones.
  • Then whole congregations are rounded up. The Citadel has manufactured cheap Ledbetter effect weapons to enable attacks directed at PanAsians. Ardmore and company invade the palace, issue a warning to the Prince Royal, and kill every other PanAsian in the building. Others kidnap PanAsian officials, strip them and stencil offensive terms on their bodies, and dump them naked in the streets – to humiliate them. As reports pass among the PanAsians, the whites jam all radio transmissions.
  • The white resistance use weapons that trigger ‘colloidal explosions’ against the PanAsians (their bodies explode into clouds of oily matter), and finally, project a 1000-foot high figure of Lord Mota to call forth Americans and warn the Asians to return to where they came.
  • In an aside, Calhoun, back at the Citadel, wonders if the government they set up after this is all over might be a scientific elite..? Led by..? Ardmore reminds him that military officers don’t meddle in politics. Calhoun subsequently goes mad, apparently, claiming the power of Lord Mota, but is quickly taken out.
  • Finally the Prince is captured, and confronted by Ardmore, who tells the Prince that his people were beaten by “science that your culture can’t match.” The prince will be tried for murder. But in the morning, he’s found dead in his cell.

Notes

  • Heinlein’s work was based on an earlier story by editor John W. Campbell, “All,” which was a standard yellow-peril story common in the era (in comic books and pulp stories) in which Asian were depicted as vile hordes eager to subjugate everything noble and true in white, Western society. Heinlein tried to tone it down. He introduced a native Asian-American whose family had been killed by the occupiers; he introduced a white man who’d infiltrated the PanAsian forces. Still—throughout the book the white heroes repeatedly use various epithets to describe and invaders, e.g.
    • Heathens
    • Monkeys
    • Flatfaces
    • Slant-eyes
    • Monkey men
    • Stinkyface
    • As well as Oriental and Asiatic
  • In the 2012 Baen Books edition I just read, the afterword by Tom Kratman (a writer of military SF for Baen) defends this language as the kind of things men at war would say about the enemy. Maybe so. But Heinlein’s depiction of the invading PanAsians isn’t the least bit nuanced; the PanAsians are indeed hierarchical hordes for whom the slightest infraction leads to the ‘joining to one’s ancestors’ (i.e. summary execution), and their overriding motivation is ‘face,’ i.e. honor, so that any dishonor swiftly leads to suicide.
  • The only way this story works is—
    • The deus ex machine Ledbetter device, which is basically magic; and
    • The idea that the masses can be manipulated through the benefits of a phony religion.
  • The latter idea is the interesting point of this book. Invading forces ignore local religions; ordinary people can be attracted to any religion, no matter how ridiculous, given enough free food.
  • (I seem to recall a similar sentiment in Heinlein’s relatively late 1973 novel TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, which I haven’t read since it was published; but I seem to recall a sentiment, by Lazarus Long, that it always pays to act respectfully toward the local religion in any town, no matter how ridiculous it seems.)
  • Even in this very early Heinlein story, his voice is authoritative and persuasive; you believe every word he writes (until you put the book down a thinks for a few minutes, perhaps). He seems to know everything; or, his characters do.

Quotes

  • At the very beginning, p11.9ff: “What would it be like, this crazy new world—a world in which the superiority of western culture was not a casually accepted ‘Of course,’ a world in which the Stars and Stripes did not fly, along with the pigeons, over every public building.”
    • Indeed, one of the key virtues of science fiction is to undermine the casually accepted verities of one’s parochial culture.
  • P81.9: “All religions look equally silly from the outside. –Sorry! I don’t mean to tread on anybody’s toes. But it’s a fact just the same and one that we will make military use of. Take any religious mystery, any theological proposition: expressed in ordinary terms it will read like sheer nonsense to the outsider, from the ritualistic, symbolic eating of human flesh and blood practiced by all the Christian sects to the outright cannibalism practiced by some savages.”
  • P79m: “Psychology is not a science because it is too difficult. The scientific mind is usually orderly, with a natural love for order. It resents and tends to ignore fields in which order is not readily apparent. It gravitates to fields in which order is easily found such as the physical sciences, and leaves the more complex fields to those who play by ear, as it were. Thus we have a rigorous scient of thermodynamics but are not likely to have a science of psychodynamics for many years yet to come.”
  • P95: “An honest politician is one that stays bought.”
  • P108: The former lawyer explains the purpose of a trial. “The whole purpose of the complicated structure of western jurisprudence in criminal matters, as built up over the centuries, has been to keep the innocent from being convicted and punished through error. It sometimes lets the guilty go free in the process, but that’s not the purpose.”
  • P162b: Even if they defeat the PanAsians, “Don’t ever think we can settle things ‘once and for always.’” With examples from history. “Life is a dynamic process and can’t be made static. ‘—and they all lived happily ever after’ is fairy-tale stu—” (and then he’s cut off)
  • P147: They anticipate what will happen when the priests of their invented religion reveal to their flocks “that the whole thing is really a hoax for military purposes. Nine people out of ten will be overjoyed to hear the truth and strongly cooperative. The tenth one may cause trouble, get hysterical… Be ready to turn the sleepy ray on anybody that looks like a source of trouble. Then lock ‘em up until the fun is over—we haven’t time to try to reorient the soft-minded.”
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