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

(Cover by Gilmore. Astounding, March 1940.)

Who Goes There?

Need I introduce you to Robert Heinlein again? You probably know him already, either by reputation or because you’ve read a portion of his considerable body of work. Heinlein debuted in 1939 and became the most popular writer of SF in just a couple years; he remains the only person aside from John W. Campbell to have been made Guest of Honor at Worldcon three times. People love and hate him—occasionally at the same time! Yet he remains a seminal figure, most of his work remains very much in print, and at his best he continues to teach us. If This Goes On— was Heinlein’s longest story up to that point, and when it was serialized in February and March 1940, it was revolutionary in both its content and its impact.

Curiously, despite its themes, If This Goes On— has never been so much as nominated for induction in the Prometheus Hall of Fame, although its sequel, “Coventry,” is an inductee. I have to assume this is because the libertarian revolution thing was already well-covered with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which is, after all, far more advanced, more complicated, and more enjoyable than its precursor. It did, however, win the Retro Hugo for Best Novella of 1940, beating out no less than two other Heinlein novellas (the aforementioned “Coventry” along with “Magic, Inc.”) along with the first two Harold Shea stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, “The Roaring Trumpet” and “The Mathematics of Magic.” Did it deserve the win? I’m gonna say no. For one thing, even if we’re comparing the Heinlein novellas, “Magic, Inc.” is no less inventive while also packing a tighter narrative thrust, and a good sense of humor to boot. Really the whole shortlist could’ve been from Unknown, as its contents have aged more gracefully by and large than what came out of Astounding.

There are a couple Heinlein biographies out there, but if you want more insight into the man’s early career then I highly recommend Alexei and Cory Panshin’s unrivaled tome on the Golden Age of SF, The World Beyond the Hill, which focuses more on Heinlein’s artistic evolution, and also Alec Nevala-Lee’s much more recent book Astounding, which focuses more on Heinlein as a person. The former especially illuminates us about the place If This Goes On— holds in SF’s history, it being the first of Heinlein’s great experiments, not only cementing what would be known as his Future History but also paving the way for a kind of SF which genuinely anticipates future possibilities based on current trends. In other words, it would serve as a foundational document for Campbellian SF.

Placing Coordinates

The March 1940 issue of Astounding is on the Archive. I’m not sure where else the magazine version of If This Goes On— appears. I know Heinlein went back and revised it a decade or so later for inclusion in the collection Revolt in 2100, and if what I’m reading here is correct, the changes were indeed substantial. Still, it was the magazine version which won the Retro Hugo (though it wouldn’t surprise me if voters were going off the Revolt in 2100 version), and if you can believe it, Part 2 is even shorter than Part 1. I would have to guess that, when the parts are combined, we have a longish novella of about 35,000 words. Two-part serials are a tricky thing, because depending on the magazine (we’re talking type size, margins, overall dimensions), a two-part serial could total anywhere from as low as 20,000 words (a novella, but barely) to 50,000 words or more (a full novel). If only there was an easy way to calculate all this.

Enhancing Image

You may recall that at the end of Part 1, John Lyle, our brave hero, had gone undergone with someone else’s identity—a ruse that lasted all of about five minutes. Soon enough he’s on the run again! The opening stretch of Part 2 is an extended chase scene, with John hijacking a ship and blazing through several states in the west and midwest.

Provo is not a particularly large town and might not be expected to have a particularly alert police force, but Utah has been a center of heresy and schism ever since the Mormon Church was suppressed, during the lifetime of the First Prophet.

Once again we come across maybe the most interesting part of If This Goes On—, and it’s actually not territory that Heinlein would return to for many years (although he had started working on Stranger in a Strange Land in the ’40s), which is the topic of religion. I was surprised to find an overt reference to Mormonism here, for one because it’s a pretty divisive sect, and also because it’s a pretty obscure sect, very few people would know anything factually correct about it, let alone anyone who was a practicing Mormon (though it must be noted that contemporary SF author Raymond F. Jones, who we might cover eventually, was a Mormon). It also further establishes a link between the future world of the story and the current reality, or you know, what would’ve been the current reality in 1940.

Part 2 of If This Goes On— is hard to summarize, not because so much happens, but because not enough happens. Let’s look at this another way: in Part 1, we have a quartet of characters, with John, Judith, Zebadiah, and Magdalene, and while the plot was moving at a mile a minute, we at least got some character growth, never mind interactions. In Part 2, Zebadiah is barely here, and I hope you weren’t invested in John and Judith’s romance, because I don’t think Judith has even a single line of dialogue here. Even John himself becomes somehow less of a character; not unlike Ishmael, who basically evaporates midway through Moby Dick, John takes a back seat as an active character while also giving us details on events he probably wouldn’t know about firsthand. When I finished Part 1, I was worried that the super-fast pacing of that first part would, at some point, result in the narrative having to stop dead in its tracks from sheer exhaustion, and my fears were proven right. Part 2 is far less entertaining, far less interesting, and ultimately feels less finished than what came before it.

You see, once John meets up with his favorite weed dealer a fellow member of the Cabal, his direct role in the narrative is basically over; he can sit back, relax, and watch the fireworks. Well, he does get to do one more thing, but I’ll save that for spoilers. Point being, the narrative turns mostly third-person from then on, and all the character stuff from Part 1 has been thrown at the window. Now, if Part 1 was about Our Hero™ getting introduced to the revolution, then Part 2 is about the revolution actually happening, and in this case the setup is better than the payoff. As it turns out, when you try to capture a whole goddamn socio-political movement from a first-person perspective, and in the span of as a short a novel as this one, you’re probably gonna lose something there, like basic fucking character. Heinlein would try this again much later with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and a good deal more successfully; that novel is a real chef’s kiss, in part because it’s mostly dialogue and not much action.

The Cabal, which John had theorized in Part 1 as being an ancient underground society with its own traditions, turns out to be just that. Indeed, the Cabal is all but said to have descended from the Freemasons, that old chestnut of conspiracy theories. Shocking, and yet not shocking at all, is the realization that the Cabal, while not having millions of people in its employ, is highly organized, to the point of having its own military.

The system of gigantic caverns called General Headquarters is located southeast of Phoenix, about thirty miles from the Mexican border. It had been in use for more than twenty years and had grown from a hideaway for fugitive brethren into a complete, modern military base. It had a dozen different entrances separated by miles of desert terrain, each entrance carefully concealed and protected by sensitive eye and ear devices and by automatic mines capable of destroying all trace of the tunnels that led to GHQ.

Even so, with hundreds of people in on this, and with some ex-military in the resistance, the Cabal would not be able to take on the Prophet’s forces in a one-on-one battle. As it turns out, this is only a mild inconvenience, but more on that later; admittedly the Cabal’s solution here is kind of ingenious. Anyway, we have the beginnings of an all-out war, or at least a curb stomp on a nationwide scale, but don’t get too excited since this is, after all, written from John’s now-ghostly perspective, after everything’s been said and done. Not very tense, is it? You could say The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress runs into this problem as well, but at least with that novel there’s a lot more to chew on other than the revolution itself. The worldbuilding so prevalent in Part 1 has now largely been put aside, in favor of action, except it’s action that’s not particularly appetizing to read, simply for the fact that John is now removed from it, and we’re given what amounts to half a novel’s worth of combat in about 15 pages. It’s very short, to the point of feeling emaciated.

There Be Spoilers Here

How does the Cabal plan to gather enough people to take on the Prophet? By tricking people across the country into thinking the Prophet sitting in New Jerusalem is an impostor, of course! The process of doing this is a bit convoluted in how it’s explained, and reading this is a post-Trump post-truth era definitely makes this all seem a little implausible, but I do like the idea of tricking people into thinking the fake Prophet is the real Prophet and vice versa. If only it were this easy to convince people to wear masks in HOSPITALS. I’m digressing, though. People across the country rebel against what they see as a false idol, indirectly doing the Cabal’s bidding while the Cabal itself is putting what troops it has into action. The way the revolution works out in this story feels weirdly truncated and multi-faceted at the same time, since it’s not so simple as the Cabal telling people the Prophet is a corrupt asshole and everyone just buying into it, but I also find it hard to believe people would get bamboozled by the Cabal this easily.

Aside from the revolution itself, there’s also the problem (which I suppose I should credit Heinlein for considering in the first place) of what to do about the millions of people who are loyal followers of the Prophet. This is where we get to a passage that really bothers me, and I guess it just goes to show that no matter where you land in Heinlein’s long and winding career you’re bound to find something that’s problematic. In this case it’s something so stupid and backwards on its face that even Heinlein himself, when he went back to revise If This Goes On— for Revolt in 2100 over a decade later, felt the need to rebut it. Get a load of this:

You can see that we had our work cut out for us, and that we did not dare hurry. More than a hundred million persons had to be examined to see if they could stand up under quick re-orientation, then re-examined after treatment to see if they had sufficiently readjusted. Until a man passed the second examination we could not afford to enfranchise him as a free citizen of a democratic state. We had to teach them to think for themselves, reject dogma, be suspicious of authority, tolerate difference of opinion, and make their own decisions—types of mental processes almost unknown in the United States for many generations.

Keep in mind that Heinlein, in 1939, was a flaming liberal, to the point where he was arguably a fellow traveler to the leftist movement of the period (he had worked on Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor in 1934), so this is a bit jarring to see. Remember, however, that this is also pre-Maoist China, so it’s probably safe to assume that Heinlein was blissfully ignorant of the horrors that would necessarily come from re-education camps, not to mention the gross scale of the government apparatus required for such an effort. It’s uncomfortable to read now, given that to this day there’s a small but vocal portion of the American leftist population that thinks concentration re-education camps would be gosh darn neat. According to The World Beyond the Hill (as I’ve not read Revolt in 2100), Heinlein had evidently changed his mind on the whole brainwashing thing, inserting a bit character to decry the Cabal’s proposition of mass re-education.

It’s clear that Heinlein, regardless of when we find him, was always chiefly concerned with individual liberty—that the individual’s right to autonomy ought to be highly respected, and in this sense he was always philosophically libertarian. A problem that would always haunt Heinlein’s writing, though, is that his penchant for didacticism (and make no mistake, even some of his most disciplined works contain lectures) results in his actual beliefs getting shuffled with ideas he is merely putting forward for discussion. For instance, it should be clear to anyone with more than two brain cells that Heinlein is not actually advocating for ritual cannibalism in Stranger in a Strange Land, but it can be hard to tell at first since he throws in that devil’s-advocate argument with his genuine arguments for polyamory and nudism. Even with an early and well-rounded story like “The Roads Must Roll,” some people take that piece as anti-union, when it is in fact very much pro-union, being rather about corruption within what is otherwise a fine power structure. Some people, being sycophants, see even the most reasonable criticisms of unions as slander, but that’s their problem.

I’m digressing again. In all honesty I find Heinlein’s career far more interesting to talk about than Part 2 of If This Goes On—, and really I find this novella’s place in said career more interesting than the novella itself. There is one last thing I wanna bring up, though. There’s a question which probably no one asked up till now, but which is not necessarily a bad question: Why has John been writing all this? Well, another thing this story has in common with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is that the narrator also acts as an amateur historian; what we’ve been reading is actually a historical record about the revolution that John wrote after the fact. Oh, and he ends up with Judith, so there’s that. Another difference between the magazine version and the Revolt in 2100 version is that in the latter, John and Judith do not end up together, with John instead going with Magdalene at the end. Why not? It’s not like Judith had literally anything to do in the second half of the magazine verson. It’s just as well—maybe better—and hell, Heinlein may well have improved his story for book publication.

A Step Farther Out

I was worried that If This Goes On— was gonna let me down in its second half, and I’m sad to say it did, which is not to say it suddenly took a nosedive. There are some sprinkles of worldbuilding here that reminded me that Heinlein, impressively so for this early in his career, knew what he was doing with regards to mapping out what would become his Future History. The notion that the US, in a time not too far from ours, could fall to Christian fascism, is concerning and believable, and I was actually surprised by the more implied but still unmistakable notion that the generations of religious persecution which defined the country’s history would logically result in a Christian cult running the government—maybe not tomorrow, but perhaps a decade from now. We seem to be halfway there already. Heinlein was a supporter of religious freedom throughout his life, and while I do think the whole “the good Christians overthrow the bad Christians” thing is a bit of a copout, I can’t say it’s not plausible. That there aren’t any explicitly irreligious characters in the story is maybe more due to the social norms then being enforced in the magazine publishing business at the time.

I wouldn’t call If This Goes On— great by any means; it strikes me as too clunky, too lopsided in its pacing, and ultimately too conventional to be considered that. Upon rereading sections of The World Beyond the Hill (to refresh my memory), it now strikes me as unsurprising that Heinlein wrote “Requiem” after If This Goes On— and not before, given it feels like the work of an artist one step closer to perfecting his craft. Still, this is mandatory for Heinlein completionists, and even for those who just want a thorough understanding of how a master of the field got to where he was. I’m sure that without the great experiment of If This Goes On— we would not have gotten better long works from Heinlein in that first phase of his career, such as “Magic, Inc.” and “By His Bootstraps.” As such, it’s an important story, but not one I’m likely to read again.

See you next time.


2 responses to “Serial Review: If This Goes On— by Robert Heinlein (Part 2/2)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: