Review: Sixth Column

Robert Heinlein
1949

I think I mentioned elsewhere that I love reading early Heinlein.  I do.  There is nothing complex about his writing.  It’s very simple; the dialogue is simple, the plots are straightforward and the ideas are not challenging.  These are the reasons I could enjoy books like Starman Jones and Farmer in the Sky so much when I was 10 years old.  How fond are the memories of going to the Napier Public Library after school to pick up another Heinlein story, or another science fiction adventure from Hugh Walters.  Yet underneath the stories and adventures with which Robert Heinlein captivated my young mind, bigger ideas were waiting; social commentary and (sometimes harsh) critique of institutions such as religion and government.  Ideas that wouldn’t bring themselves to the fore until I was older and (somewhat) wiser.  Of course, in Heinlein’s juvenile novels, the protagonists were about my age back then and I could readily identify with the issues and feelings that they often had to overcome.

This book is not a juvenile novel (it lacks a young character for a start) but it reads like one:  Invading bad guys.  The last outpost of hope.  Wondrous secret technology.  The simplicity of it all as I alluded to earlier.  The content is a little more mature, however.  The characters don’t turn a hair at killing, and killing masses of people at that.  Indeed, one individual’s execution is described quite graphically.  These things are certainly out of bounds in Heinlein’s juvenile fare.

The US has been invaded and defeated by the ‘PanAsians’.  It’s not made specific who the PanAsians actually are, but I assumed them to be a bloc of countries including the likes of Japan, China and Korea.  They are of mongoloid extraction – that at least is made clear.  The military has been utterly wiped out, except for a research group under a mountain in The Rockies somewhere, and they have just all but eliminated themselves via an inadvertently uncontrolled use of the Ledbetter Effect (Dr Ledbetter himself didn’t survive) – a mysterious new force that isn’t fully understood.  This is where we pick up the story.  Our tiny group of heroes recognizes the powerful force they have on their hands and has to somehow utilize it to free America from the domination of the PanAsians.

In the Close Up of this book, I commented on the bizarre cover.  I also said that the cover is quite an accurate description of what is inside.  Our little band decides to set up a religious cult, capitalizing on food shortages and unemployment to attract followers, while assuaging the fears of the PanAsian authorities by dishing out gold coins – gold that is obtained by transmutation (one of the numerous and very handy uses the Ledbetter Effect can be turned to).  Other things are in their favor also, such as the occupiers reluctance to police things such as religious organizations and the worship of Gods.  The great God that is invented in this case is called ‘Mota’ – the reverse spelling of atom.  Under the guise of worshiping Mota, the cult travels freely around the country, and sets up a network of ‘churches’ that waits for the right time to rise up and use the Ledbetter Effect at it’s most devastating.

The Ledbetter Effect is truly a marvelous thing.  Just a little too marvelous to my way of thinking.  Cool looking divine halo; check.  Impenetrable force field; check.  Undetectable communications channels; check.  Transmutation; check.  Tractor and repulsor beams; check.  Fear-inducing subsonics; check.  Disintegrator; check.  Laser-like cutting focus; check.  Release surface tension on cell walls leading to explosive decompression of human bodies; check.  And get this one folks – race-selective death ray; double-check.  The last is especially useful when your country is occupied by a race that are referred to as monkeys, flat-faces, apes, baboons and slanties at various points throughout the book.

Apparently the book generates a bit of controversy regarding the depiction of the PanAsians in this way.  Too rascist or something.  I don’t have a problem with it at all.  To my way of thinking, it fits very well within the context of the book.  I’m sure if anyone was occupying my country, putting people in concentration camps, engaging in genocide and generally being a nuisance, I would think of much worse things to refer to them by.

I’ll leave the considerable scope for social and institutional commentary analysis to others who are smarter than I.  Before I wrap this up, I just want to mention the pacing of the story.  It breezes along at a good pace.  There is never a dull moment and the dialogue heavy exposition that characterizes some of Heinlein’s work is absent.  As I mentioned earlier, this has an RAH juvenile feel, and it all wraps up neatly in the end.

I have two major criticisms of the book.  One is the Ledbetter Effect, it is just too powerful and I struggled to take it seriously even in a science fiction setting.  The other is in a similar vein to one thing I said about Silverberg’s Starman’s Quest.  The end comes too quickly.  Not as quickly as ‘Quest’ but more time should have been taken over unfolding the climax of the story.

A rather obscure work from Mr Heinlein, Sixth Column (retitled as The Day After Tomorrow is some subsequent editions) is good brisk fun from an author who has always been very enjoyable for me to read.

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2 Responses to “Review: Sixth Column”

  1. Joseph McGuire Says:

    Just to let you know, in case you didn’t, Heinlein wrote this based on a story outline by John W Campbell. Before editing Astounding SF Campbell wrote superscience stories.

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