This week’s ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ focused on the works of Robert Heinlein. Robert Heinlein was a science fiction author who examined what would happen to humanity’s freedom in a futuristic world. Dubbed as the father of modern social science fiction, Heinlein tended to write biting social commentaries hidden in his futuristic tales.
Heinlein was an individualist and a libertarian who thought the military could play a wholesome and important role in society. He attended Annapolis which helped shaped his views during his life. The military way of living became his mantra with self-discipline, self-reliance, and opposition to anything that may jeopardize individual independence play throughout many of his books. His fear of losing his rights and freedom that is offered in America drove most of his writing.
‘The Puppet Masters’
Heinlein’s paranoia of Communism was so strong that it drove the plot of his 1952 novel ‘The Puppet Masters.’ Set in the 21st century, ‘The Puppet Masters’ is about alien slugs that invade Earth and seize control of humans by latching onto their spinal cord. There they could change the ethical behavior of their host.
Although this may sound far-fetched, at MIT, they are actually trying to figure out how one could influence and control another person’s moral choices. Neuroscientist Dr. Rebecca Saxe theorizes that if one could “short circuit” various temporal regions of the brain, it could affect the electrical activity that occurs there. Since all ideas, thoughts and experiences are basically a pattern of electrical activity, disrupting their path can influence someone’s thoughts and even moral choices. She uses new technology called Trans-cranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to theoretically demonstrate her hypothesis. To manipulate the neurons guiding moral judgment, Dr. Saxe specifically targets the region of the brain where scientists believe these judgments are made with a magnetic field pulse. If one could make the neurons in that area “sluggish,” then one can change another person’s judgments in a very predictable way. Surprisingly, her experiments have indicated that a shift in a person’s moral balance can be made with this application of this magnetic field pulse.
By the late 1950’s, Heinlein realizes that the Soviet Union now has an ICBMs and that a nuclear attack was a strong possibility. He was outraged by the pacifists and anti-nuclear groups that were demanding a unilateral cessation from the US of nuclear testing. Thinking he was safer if he moved out of Los Angeles (because at the time it was considered a nuclear target), he moves to Colorado only to find out years later that the military had built NORAD only 7 miles from his home.
So angered by the events around him, he wrote his most controversial novel to date: ‘Starship Troopers’. Heinlein was very concerned the US would not survive the Cold War and pens the story as an ode to the military. It was based on the premise that citizenship should be earned and that “freedom is founded on each individual taking responsibility for something greater than himself.” Critics argued that the novel glorified military conflict.
In ‘Starship Troopers,’ Heinlein’s military fought the aliens wearing power suits with high tech robotic exoskeletons that granted humans extraordinary strength and ability. Although it was just fantasy when Heinlein wrote about it, the US military is actually developing a version of Heinlein’s suit. Using robotic and Nano technology, they are working on a suit that will allow the soldier to be a “superman” on the battlefield.
But power suits are not only for the military. They can also be used to help civilian quadriplegics. Army veteran Monty Reed has created an enterprise called They Shall Walk, a nonprofit medical research company that is committed to developing technology that will improve the quality of life for paralyzed people. He is working on building a powered suit called the Life Suit Robotic Exoskeleton that could lift adults who are paralyzed, thus helping them become more mobile. The Life Suit is a two legged walking balancing robot that allows paralyzed people to walk. Originally, Reed wanted to call it the Heinlein suit as the idea is solely credited from the ‘Starship Troopers’ novel. Right now the Life Suit prototype weighs 75 pounds and works on compressed air. Once strapped in, the Life Suit is controlled by controllers in each hand directing each leg’s motion. The robot legs do all the work supporting the person and moving the legs so they can stand and walk around. Reed hopes that one day the Life Suit will be automated removing the need for the controllers.
‘Stranger in a Strange Land’
Amidst the controversy of ‘Starship Troopers,’ Heinlein writes another book posing the question about personal liberty called ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.’ Oddly this book becomes the bible for the counter culture in America and the flower power movement. In it, he decides to tackle the subjects of monotheism and monogamy.
‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ is about a human named Michael Valentine Smith who is raised by Martians who teach him about levitation, transmutation and how to grock. Smith then confronts other Earthlings about various subjects. Unconfined by traditional standards, Heinlein examines what happens when someone thinks for themselves.
‘The Door into Summer’
Heinlein’s plot lines become increasingly more controversial showcasing sci-fi technology and time travel. In ‘The Door into Summer,’ Heinlein writes about bionic preservation, where one can be preserved for a length of time under “cold sleep” then wake up to the future.
What Heinlein calls “cold sleep” is what we now call suspended animation, aka cryonics. Although the human body can be cryonically frozen, there is still the problem of how to keep the brain cells from deteriorating.
‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’
By the mid 1960’s, Heinlein realizes that travelling to the moon could be a possibility. Not just travelling there but also living on the surface. In ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’, Heinlein imagines that the moon is a prison work colony holding 3 million prisoners who work harvesting hydroponic wheat for the overpopulated Earth. The convicts, aka “lunies” decide to rebel for their freedom.
Heinlein’s vision of a lunar colony has captivated the public and scientists for years. Currently, scientists are working on building a habitat that can actually allow humans to live on the moon and NASA is experimenting with materials that they could use in order to allow a habitat to be transported and used on the moon’s surface.
One thing that had prohibited lunar colonization in the past was the lack of water on the moon. Since it would cost an enormous amount to transport water for humans to use, the thought of a lunar colony had stalled. Heinlein had solved this problem in his book by stating that there was ice on the moon to provide water. It is only during the last several years that scientist have discovered there really is ice on the moon! With this last obstacle removed, the possibility of a lunar colony as Heinlein had envisioned has moved one step closer to reality.
With the moon launch of 1969, Heinlein realizes that he is now living in the future that he had prophesized and wrote about. Now that space travel has been realized, Heinlein moves on to his next frontier: cyberspace.
By the end of the 1970’s, Heinlein’s health started to deteriorate. He underwent heart surgery which seemed to give him a new lease on life. By 1982, he wrote ‘Friday’ which foretold about a society that could be wired with the rest of the planet for information. Heinlein had just written about the internet before it even existed! But even then, Heinlein could see the privacy issues that would occur being wired to the world.
In ‘Friday,’ credit cards could be tracked by a nationwide computer that would allow the government to track the actions of its citizens. Heinlein warns that the freedom to rapidly access information could lead to a new kind of slavery: internet addiction.
Strategic Defense Initiative
By 1983, the White House starts a think tank dedicated to bolster America’s national defense with futuristic sci-fi weapons. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke were among the science fiction authors who were part of this think tank working alongside rocket scientist and engineers. While part of this think tank, Heinlein proposes a model where satellites could be used to shoot down nuclear weapons. He was so committed to this idea that a letter was written to President Ronald Regan explaining this notion. This concept was called the Strategic Defense Initiative and what was commonly known at the time as the ‘Star Wars’ program. It would use several technologies that would create a virtual missile shield against Soviet missiles. Geosynchronous satellites would identify missiles from the heat emitted from their rockets. These satellites would then deploy warheads and x-ray lasers to disable the missiles. The program is still in existence today but has been renamed the Missile Defense agency.
In 1988, Heinlein died peacefully in his sleep. His ashes were strewn with military honors and scattered in the sea. He leaves this world igniting the imagination of others to put to life what he envisioned in his books. He was deeply invested in the right of freedom and often wrote about what would happen if that freedom were taken away. He wrote about individualism and how one person can change everything. He took science fiction and purposely used it as a mirror of what was happening in society and forced those to think about the responsibility of society and the price of freedom.
Maybe it’s because Heinlein was influenced by events and history that most can relate to (lunar landing, Soviet threat to America) but I found this episode of ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ most entertaining. What is amazing is the huge impact ‘Starship Troopers’ made upon Reed who felt so inspired to create a company to actually build Heinlein’s robotic exoskeleton to live and use it for the benefit of mankind. To watch Reed, who is a paraplegic himself’ strap on the Life Suit and “walk” was truly amazing and is a perfect example of how these prolific science fiction writers can inspire the most ordinary of humans to greatness.
I was a bit daunted knowing that someone in MIT is actually devising a way to alter a person’s moral decisions and judgments using magnetic field pulse. The implications are staggering and I don’t think I’ve ever been scared of the prospect of technology as I had with this part of the show. I think of how devastating this could be in the hands of the wrong people. (I guess I’ve been watching too many sci-fi movies).
All in all, the episode brings to life how Heinlein felt as he wrote each of these books. This insight gives the viewers a deeper understanding on the complexities and subtexts that may not have been apparent when originally reading his books. His deep commitment to individual freedom was so apparent that it’s no wonder that he was invited to participate in the think tank. If one can learn anything from his books, it could be that one person can make a difference and that individual freedom is a precious commodity.
If you enjoyed this episode and missed last week’s, make sure you read the ‘Prophets of Science Fiction: Jules Verne’ recap to catch up.