Baron Dave Romm (barondave) wrote,
Baron Dave Romm
barondave

Heinlein: Nuggets among the fearmongering

So I'm reading Expanded Universe by Robert A. Heinlein, when I get to the essay, "Where To?"

In a book filled with astonishingly bad predictions, sphincter-clenching warnings of doom and fiction that holds up as storytelling only, Robert Heinlein manages to come up with this, excerpted from a 1950 essay that was updated in 1965 and 1980. (p 349)

"(Still 1950) The greatest crisis facing us is not Russia, not the Atom bomb, not corruption in government, not encroaching hunger, not the morals of young. It is a crisis in the organization and accessibility of human knowledge. We own an enormous "encyclopedia" -- which isn't even arranged alphabetically. Our "file cards" are spilled on the flooor, nor were they ever in order. The answers we want may be buried elsewhere in the heap, but might take a lifetime to locate two already known facts, place them side by side and derive a third fact, the one we urgently need.

"Call it the Crisis of the Librarian.

"We need a new "specialist" who is not a specialist, but a synthesist. We need a new science to be the personal secretary to all other sciences.

"But we are not likely to get either one in a hurry and we have a powerful lot of grief before us in the meantime."

He then goes to say "The period immediately ahead [of 1950] will be the roughest, cruelest one in the long, hard history of mankind. It all. It might even end with a war with Mars. God save the Mark! Even if we are spared that fantastic possibility, it is certain that there will be no security anywhere, save that which you dig out of your own inner spirit."

So he correctly (though very generally) predicts the power of the Internet, the World Wide Web and Google to change the world. Then has the Earth invaded by Martians. Dig those fallout shelters and don't let anyone give you an ID card!

In 1965, he doesn't want to change any of his "negative predictions", though admits they are not likely to happen by the year 2000. A good thing, since none of them did, nor are they on the horizon a decade after that.

I loved Heinlein as a kid. Many of his works hold up. But his non-fiction is almost embarrassing. In 1980, he publishes a retrospective book with all sorts of predictions from earlier years and backs off from very few of them. With another thirty years of hindsight, we can see how dead wrong he was.

Still, I credit Heinlein and others for Saving The World (r). "Atomic" (ie Nuclear) weapons and the dangers of radiation were very real and are real now. Those that were scared that radiation would create giant ants and flame-breathing lizards were in agreement with Heinlein, who thought that the US should ban all airline flights to prevent an immediate attack on the US, even if we had to skirt the Constitution to do it. Well, we don't have giant ants (though cancer deaths have statistically risen in affected areas) and the US Congress (and the UN) have been more than capable of staving off planet-wide annihilation (though we had a long Cold War and are in the middle of several Chilly Wars). Creating a sense of danger about dangerous things was good, even if the specifics of the danger were hopelessly wrong. Sometimes, Security Theater needs to be played out.

I"m still in the middle of Expanded Universe, but need to take a break. I've read most (if not all) of the fiction before, and almost none of the non-fiction. I'll finish this book but: I was right the first time.
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