Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein
Published 1949. Originally published as The Day After Tomorrow by Anson McDonald in Astounding Magazine, (later Analog),1941.
241 pages (from the Virginia Heinlein edition, based on the 1949 Gnome Press hardback.)
Review by Mark Yon
Here’s one of my occasional re-reads of Robert Anson Heinlein’s novels.
This one is what they call ‘a fixup’, originally being in three parts in the January, February and March editions of Astounding Magazine, under the editorial tuition of John W. Campbell. It became a slightly revised novel in 1949, with the author’s real name rather than his pseudonym, and a little tidying up.
Putting it in the context of Heinlein’s other writing, it was published as a novel after his juvenile book Red Planet and before Farmer in the Sky. As written by Anson McDonald, however, it was not written with the intention of being for the juvenile market, but as something more adult.
I found it less satisfying than Red Planet and Farmer in the Sky, its adult voice both uncertain and unreal. It reflects the fact that it was written before Heinlein had had any novels published, and seems a little wobbly both in its concept and its delivery: something which would become much less noticeable as Heinlein becomes more confident in later writing.
This lack of success may also be partly due to the fact that Sixth Column was based upon an idea given to Heinlein from Campbell, the only major work of Heinlein’s career to be plotted by someone else. It exhibits a more adult serious tone than many of his other stories from that time, yet still has that energetic over-exuberance normally associated with much of the pulp fiction of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Controversially, it centres on the concept of race and has been accused of exhibiting racism. The book was not seen as an artistic success by Heinlein himself, though fairly well received by critics at the time of publication, both in 1941 and 1949.
The story is one of those that deals with the defeat of the American government and her people by the Pan-Asians.
There are a number of survivors at The Citadel, an emergency secret research laboratory in the Rocky Mountains, who are our main characters. ‘Whitey’ Ardmore is the main hero, a person given the responsibility of trying to create order as the last representative officer of the military. Colonel Calhoun is the difficult leader of the remaining scientists. Private Jeff/Jefferson Thomas is our real hero (try reversing that name!) who in the end develops the United States’s intelligence network.
Facing an invading force of four hundred million, the surviving men of The Citadel have a secret weapon: the Ledbetter Effect, a newly-discovered magneto-gravitic or electro-gravitic spectra, which, with development and refinement, seems able to focus on and kill selected people.
Using a newly created religion to cover up their work, the team begin the fight-back necessary to rid the United States of her oppressors. Rather like a secret alliance between the French Resistance and the Roman Catholic Church in World War Two, the men become Priests of Mota and establish churches throughout the nation, whilst simultaneously training and enlisting support from loyal Americans. They are not the mythical ‘fifth-column’ of warfare, but a sixth column of resistance: as Heinlein puts it,
‘this would not be a fifth column of traitors, bent on paralysing a free country; but the antithesis of that, a sixth column of patriots whose privilege it would be to destroy the morale of invaders, make them afraid, unsure of themselves.‘ (page 36)
What works here? Well, it is a short tale, yet one with pace. There are moments where the Heinlein we recognise later appears, albeit briefly, and signs of the Heinlein trademark of lots of little details dropped in throughout, to jolt the reader offguard.
Some of the comments made about society and religion, of the need for something to bind a fractured society together, are quite astute. The actions of ‘the common people’ in an otherwise paralysed nation are quite touching, although in these cynical times it is quite incredible how quickly people fall into line to help.
It’s hard for me to decide whether this tale is a tribute or a criticism of L. Ron Hubbard, who both Heinlein and Campbell knew well. Campbell was an interested party in Hubbard’s development of Dianetics, and the idea of a religion being created to cover up other activities does sound like a veiled criticism that could be equally applied by its decriers to Scientology. It has been suggested by some critics that Calhoun, the stiff and rather disliked scientist who eventually ends up insane, believing himself to be an incantation of the god Mota, is at least partly based on Campbell himself.
Whilst Campbell’s version emphasised the race aspect, Heinlein’s tried to make it more scientific and using the so-called ‘soft sciences’ such as psychology and sociology to make the tale work. It is no accident that Whitey has a civilian background in advertising.
In the tale’s defence, the worship of science is not particularly original at that time. Atomic power as part of a religion was also used by Heinlein’s friend Isaac Asimov in Foundation (1942-1944) and also by A E van Vogt in his novel Empire of the Atom in 1957. Coincidentally, Van Vogt was a close ally of Hubbard’s and a convert to Scientology in the 1940’s.
Publishing a story about Asian invaders of America that would have been written at least a year before Pearl Harbour is quite prescient. Sadly, it degenerates into a tale that focuses on the fact that the conquering peoples can be defeated as a consequence of being a different race, which is, at best, a generalisation. How would our heroes have coped with the Germans, no doubt of a similar genetic makeup to theirs, working their way across Europe at the time of writing, I wondered?
Also rather unsatisfyingly, the use of a super-weapon created by scientists to defeat the enemy is straight out of the pulp fiction guidebook. The science used to create the weapon also allows them to do amazing things: carve a temple the equivalent of the pyramids (though box-shaped) out of a mountain, create gold for currency, stun people, make Asians disappear in a puff of smoke and so on. It makes you wonder rather why science allowed them to get into the predicament in the first place, though it fits very typically into that 1940’s and 50’s belief that science is unlimited and will solve all problems. There is a point made in the book that such results are based on research by a Doctor Fox in London in the 1940’s about haemoglobin, which I guess may be the precursor of DNA, yet the abiding impression is that it’s a super-science-invention taken to unrealistic extremes.
So, too, the characterisation, and dialogue. The bad guys are ‘bad’, which seems to be for no other reason than as a consequence of their race. Beatings, torture, harsh treatment: the Masters seem to show no mercy to their slaves. The good guys are flawed but generally morally upstanding and ethically positive.
There is one concession to adulthood more noticeable than in the juveniles: the killing of a PanAsian spy, so that their work remains undiscovered, is brief, though quite shocking. Heinlein doesn’t flinch from making the point that some will have to die if the Americans are to regain their freedom.
This extends to the introduction of Frank Mitsui, a loyal and noble Asian-American character. Heinlein biographer William Patterson has suggested that Mitsui was actually added by Heinlein to Campbell’s idea to try and make the race issue less problematical. Heinlein tries to mollify the race question, yet it still raises issues that sit uneasily today.
The dialogue is proto-Heinlein, veering between lengthy exposition (such as his explanation of the differences between a tramp and a hobo) and Heinlein’s later more overt lecturing, whilst combined with gung-ho phrases of the “Go get ‘em, Whitey!” type. Women have a decidedly low role in the plot, with women priests not allowed and their roles mainly consigned to the office typing and telephony.
The over-enthusiasm of the dialogue extends to the ending, which happens very quickly and is so positive and ‘happy-ever-after’ that to my mind it undermines what has gone before. In a matter of a few pages, the book moves from a troubling warning of what could happen under a demanding overlord to an ending that washes all that concern away in a state of ‘America-wins’ positivism. This seems rather too simple and optimistic, though perhaps no different to the post-WW2 mood after the Nuremberg war trials.
Although in the end this is perhaps rightly seen as one of Heinlein’s less-successful early novels, there are elements here to both enjoy and be annoyed by. Whilst very much a product of its time, there are hints and flashes of the brilliance that Heinlein was later known for. Whilst not an unmitigated disaster, it is, in the end, a rather disappointingly unsuccessful attempt to combine pulp style fiction with more adult ideas.
It might also explain why Heinlein was, in later life, never a collaborative author.
Mark Yon, May 2012