Serial Review: If This Goes On— by Robert Heinlein (Part 1/2)

(Cover by Hubert Rogers. Astounding, February 1940.)

Who Goes There?

Robert Heinlein doesn’t need an introduction, but I’ll write one anyway. Heinlein was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to writing SF; his first story, “Life-Line,” was published when he was already in his 30s, but whereas some authors spend several years doing apprentice work, Heinlein’s apprenticeship phase was virtually nonexistent. While “Life-Line” is by no means Heinlein’s best, it exhibits an inventiveness and economy of style that would quickly define his writing, and in the January 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction we got “Requiem,” his first great story. Heinlein’s rise to prominence possessed a swiftness which few authors in the genre’s whole history can come even close to matching, and despite having been active for only a couple years, he was chosen as the Guest of Honor for the 1941 Worldcon, held in Denver that year.

What else? He would go on to win four Hugos for Best Novel (a record only matched so far by Lois McMaster Bujold), and he also has several Retro Hugo wins under his belt, including one for If This Goes On—. Evidently Heinlein continues to be a favorite with SF fandom, and nearly all of his works remain in print. He also continues to be immensely controversial. Heinlein’s views on many subjects changed radically over the course of his life, and while he was a New Deal Democrat during the first phase of his career (1939 to 1942), by the ’60s he had become something like a Goldwater Republican. Some views Heinlein held remained consistent, though; for one, he seemed to be pro-military from the start (not surprising, given his time in the Navy), and yet he also seemed to believe in the virtues of the nudist lifestyle, as well as plural marriage (the word “polyamory” had not yet been coined in Heinlein’s lifetime, though some of his fiction unequivocally endorses it). With Heinlein there is at least something to enjoy regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum—and conversely, there’s always something to reject.

If This Goes On— was Heinlein’s fourth published story, coming right after “Requiem,” and it was also his longest up to that point, having to be serialized in two parts. By February 1940, Astounding Science Fiction had become without question the top SF magazine in the field, with its sister magazine Unknown also donning the crown for fantasy; by this time, John W. Campbell had mostly established his stable of writers—mostly men in their 20s, with a few holdovers from the previous era like Clifford D. Simak and Jack Williamson. There were quite a few talented authors writing regularly for Astounding, but Heinlein soon became Campbell’s favorite of the bunch, and it only takes a reading of If This Goes On— to see why.

Placing Coordinates

While Heinlein’s novels remain readily in print (with maybe one or two exceptions), the same can’t be said for his short fiction. If This Goes On— has the awkward position of being far too long to be called a short story, yet not quite long enough to count as a full novel; call it a long novella. Sad thing about novella reprints is that novella-oriented anthologies are a super-niche subspecies of something that’s already pretty niche—a shame, considering SF is often at its best at novella length (imo). It has appeared mostly in two collections, both of which seem to have fallen out of print lately, though I can’t imagine they’re hard to find used: Revolt in 2100 and The Past Through Tomorrow. Thnakfully the February 1940 issue of Astounding is on the Archive. Did you know that this issue also contains Leigh Brackett’s debut story, “Martian Quest”?

Enhancing Image

Rather than being set on an alien planet, If This Goes On— takes place in a future United States, where democracy has died and been replaced with a kind of Christian fascism wherein the ruler of the country is also the so-called Prophet Incarnate. I’m so glad we don’t have to worry about this happening in the real world. The story follows John Lyle, a junior member of a section of this future military called the Angels of the Lord, and during one of his routine night watches he thinks about the painfully obvious subtly growing corruption within the system he was born and raised to respect.

I sighed and returned to my lonely vigil. I mused glumly on the difference between life here in New Jerusalem and life as I had envisioned it when I was a cadet. The Palace and Temple were shot through and through with intrigue and politics, I was forced to admit. Where now, was the proud and altruistic motto of the service: “Non Sibi, Sed Dei?” I knew, too well, that the priests and deacons, ministers of state, and Palace functionaries all appeared engaged in a scramble for power and favor at the hand of the Prophet. Even the officers of my own corps, the Angels of the Lord, seemed corrupted by it.

Whereas protagonists in dystopian narratives tend to be loyal members who are convinced to join the other side through some violent revelation, John was already becoming skeptical about the government he worked for. We don’t get much backstory for John, outside of his military training, but we do get, in a remarkably short amount of time, a good deal of backstory as to the workings of the novella’s setting. If This Goes On— was not the first story to form part of Heinlein’s Future History, but it was the most ambitious entry up to that point, and it was the first to send everyone the message that Heinlein wasn’t fucking with his worldbuilding. In order to understand what makes If This Goes On— special, you have to also understand that nobody was concocting what we’d now call a future history at this time; while there were series, and stories set in the same continuity, nobody was mapping out a fictional timeline like Heinlein did.

Something that this novella does which is very much in line with other dystopian narratives, though, is that the (always male) hero starts to change his mind because he sees even the smallest opportunity to get some PUSSY; in this case it’s Judith, one of the Prophet’s Virgins (a Virgin being a nun, possibly also a sex slave). John talks with Judith while on his watch for literally five minutes and he can’t keep his mind off her for the rest of Part 1—his cock is just hard as a fucking statue the whole time. In fairness to the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet love story that unfolds, John and Judith are in positions where they are basically prohibited from interacting with the opposite sex beyond the absolute necessities. While the Angels of the Lord are not strictly celibate, becoming a volcel means you’re more likely to get promoted, and of course Judith is not supposed to fuck around at all. Now, while we’re never told this, it is rather heavily implied that the Prophet gives Virgins the Harvey Weinstein treatment, hence Judith’s own disillusionment with the government.

We then witness what may be the fastest turnaround in the history of fiction; in about ten pages, John decides that he’s had enough of being a dog of the military, and it doesn’t take long at all for him to rope in his friend and comrade Zebadiah, though it turns out Zeb knows more than he lets on anyway. In the span of a dozen pages we’re introduced to a vast and unfamiliar future society, a well-thought-out system of government, a military hierarchy, a conspiracy, and quite a bit of action. The thing I realized reading If This Goes On— is that this story has the unique problem of being actually too fast; it feels less like a proper short novel and feels more like a compressed novel, with Heinlein simultaneously overwhelming us with details while also omitting anything that could be considered fat. The result is a narrative which is almost packed more with sketches of scenes than scenes proper, and I have to suspect John is a first-person narrator so Heinlein wouldn’t have to worry himself with multiple perspectives.

We hear about something called the Cabal very early on, and if you have even the slightest idea where this is going then you know that the Cabal—an alleged underground movement working to undermine the Prophet—is a real thing after all. What happens after John joines the Cabal is something I’m saving for the spoiler section, but needless to say we get quickly wrapped up in a festering underground movement which seeks to expose the Prophet as a fraud. John now not only has to work with the rebels, but keep Judith as well as evade authorities himself, since by this point he has become a fugitive. Like I said, this all happens in pretty much the blink of an eye, yet despite my reservations about the pacing, it says something of Heinlein’s talent that his mixing of action and exposition never left me confused. Most authors, especially circa 1940, would’ve spent whole pages explaining the inner workings of this future theocracry, not to mention the futuristic technology (not that there’s a lot of that here), but Heinlein keeps exposition quick and mostly passive; he’s a wizard at this sort of thing.

There Be Spoilers Here

Things get more interesting once John enters the Cabal, although we don’t get much in the way of what becoming a new member is like. I suspect Heinlein made John a first-person narrator because he doesn’t wanna deal with subplots involving different characters, but also because with John recounting his own experiences, he can skim over them if he doesn’t feel like going into dirty details with his audience. Take the following passages, for instance, which compresses potentially a whole chapter of material into one paragraph:

It is not necessary, nor desirable, that I record here the rest of my instruction as a newly-entered brother. Suffice to say that the instruction was long, and of solemn beauty, and there was nowhere in it any trace of the macabre and blasphemous devil-worship that common gossip alleged. It was filled with reverence for God, brotherly love, and uprightness, and included instruction in the principles of an ancient and honorable profession and the symbolic meanings of the working tools of that profession.

Heinlein also wants us to know that while the Prophet is totally a sham, Christianity itself gets a pass. Now, I’m not sure how much of this was due to beliefs held at the time and how much was due to Campbell being squeamish about a plot where a Christian theocracy is depicted as evil, though it must be said that Heinlein and Campbell were not Christians. I have to assume this was done because at the time many readers were, while not outwardly religious, churchgoing folks; still, the idea that “reasonable” Christians like John would want to rebel against a corrupt government that uses the Gospels as a shield is not implausible. Indeed, what helps coax John into joining the Cabal is the notion that these rebels are themselves quite religious.

With Judith being spirited away to Mexico (they deliberated over whether she should flee to Mexico or Canada, and decided correctly that the latter was too horrible), and with John having abandoned his post, our hero now much take on an alternate identity. Up to this point in this story, we haven’t gotten much in the way of futuristic technology, but things take a turn when John has to take on someone else’s personality—literally. The higher-ups bring a short list of people matching closely enough with John physically who are in the unique position of being physically but not legally dead. John Lyle becomes Adam Reeves, a textiles salesman, and how the Cabal surgeon—sorry, metamorphist—is able to change John to resemble Adam is really something.

The most difficult thing in matching him physically, and the last to be applied, was artificial fingerprints. An opaque, flesh-colored plastic was painted on my fingers, then my fingers were sealed into molds made from Reeves’ fingers. It was delicate work and hard to get a satisfactory result. One finger was done over seven times before the metamorphist would pass it.

Hair, nose, ears, eyes, even fingerprints. John effectively becomes Adam, and for a while he works well as a doppelganger. We do come to find, though, that there is one area the Cabal could not have possibly accounted for, and which sends John fleeing once againat the end of Part 1: blood type. How will John get out of this debacle? Will he reunite with Judith? Will the Cabal succeed in overthrowing the Prophet? Stay tuned.

A Step Farther Out

There are SF stories from the late ’30s and early ’40s that I enjoy more than If This Goes On—, or at least the first half of it. As sentimental as it is, I find “Requiem” to be the more emotionally resonant and structually balanced story, but then we’re talking about a short story compared to something a good deal more ambitious. It only makes sense, I suppose, that a story about revolution should itself be revolutionary; this was the moment Heinlein went from a promising newbie to one of the big names in the field, and he had been active for less than a year at that point. This is not the Heinlein of much longer and more ungainly works like Stranger in a Strange Land, but the young Heinlein, the disciplined Heinlein, the fast-witted Heinlein. That If This Goes On— now reads as fairly predictable speaks more of its influence than its innate quality. We’ve gotten some pretty vast and complicated future histories post-Heinlein (Poul Anderson comes to mind), but Heinlein was the first to do it.

I’m sure when people read this thing when it was first being serialized they were glued to their seats, but from a modern perspective I more often found myself dissecting Heinlein’s methods, seeing how they worked, and how he managed to dish out (not always perfectly, it must be said) so much exposition with so few words without it being confusing. It helps, of course, that we don’t get what would later become pervasive Heinlein-isms here; John is not a perpetual wisecracker, Judith isn’t constantly thinking about making babies, the infodumps are shockingly constrained compared to what we’d get much later. I guess the biggest complaint I have is that when I finished Part 1 I was thinking less “I wonder what happens next” and more “Hmm, that’s interesting. Old-timey SF tends to be fast-paced, but this takes such quickness to at times ridiculous extremes. Will it get worse in Part 2, or will things slow down a bit and we get to learn more about this dystopian future United States?

See you next time.


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