Of what benefit is reform? Given the blood-soaked pages of history, and the road to hell paved with good intentions, is it even worth the effort? To answer that, I propose to look at two literary men bent on reform: Robert A Heinlein and John Steinbeck. They are of interest because they were 1. good writers, 2. thoughtful individuals, and 3. looking at American society and its various problems during the same time period, but with different perspectives and through works of radically different setting.
Heinlein began his literary career after a failed political one. His first book, then, was a reaction to the thwarting of his political life. Being very opinionated, he could not help but do something, even if office holding was not in his stars. For Us, the Living is a story about a man catapulted into the future, one where the barbarities and injustices of the 20th century are laid bare for the time traveler by the inhabitants of the future. It is full of blunt criticism, the kind Steinbeck would likely approve of. He dwells on wealth disparity, class disparity, political corruption, and our ridiculous sexual mores, to name a few. Indeed, the protagonist’s chief future liaison is a woman, one with much more education, responsibility, and vigor than the typical (read: culturally idyllic) woman of the America of the mid 20th century.
Later in Heinlein’s career he authored Starship Troopers. It is remembered as a militaristic polemic wallpapered in sci fi gadgetry and alien warfare. In reality, it was Heinlein’s attempt to clarify and defend his political views against those in the science fiction community who took issue with his support of nuclear armament. In broad strokes, he envisioned an earth where the weak social democracies, built on the laziness and entitlement of the mob, failed into violence and chaos. From that chaos rose the veterans, who built for themselves a two-class global polity. Civilians enjoy the rights of free expression, economic endeavor, and justice; citizens enjoy the privileges of political life. The difference between the civilian and the citizen is federal service, usually military in nature. Only a veteran can vote or hold office. It is Heinlein’s solution to what he saw as a crippling problem of modern democracy, namely that those who have no active stake in society dictate policy for that active minority that seeks to defend hearth and home. It is doubtless his most controversial and (I think) misunderstood work. This misunderstanding is most clearly evinced in the film version, which satirized its fascist undertones, forgetting that fascism stole erratically from anything that looked practical at the time, thus negating its superficial similarities to other political ideologies (militarism, limited political franchise, etc).
His two greatest works, Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love, look uncompromisingly at the human condition. The former does so on a future earth by way of an alien analogue to Christ, a satire of the worst aspects of Christianity and of the corruption of bureaucratic government, a complex look at human love and sexuality, and a pantheistic faith where “Thou art God.” The latter takes us centuries into the future, wherein humanity has colonized the galaxy, moving from world to world. It chronicles the oldest living man, his history according to his own accounts, and his potential future. He regales us with tales about buying two child slaves, raising them to be self-reliant frontiersmen, and then setting them free, to feast or famine on their own; about his adventures raising a family on dangerous, almost uncharted frontier worlds, etc. The main line of the story has the protagonist regenerated from self-inflicted old age, reinvigorated by his discussions with a sentient computer, that computer’s transformation into a person, and their attempt to forge yet another new world for them and their growing family.
Heinlein spent his whole literary career critiquing humanity in general, but he also attempted to point towards reform. We will get to his vision in a moment, but first, let us outline Steinbeck. Unlike Heinlein, I have not read enough Steinbeck to give a representative account of his body of work. I’ve read three of his books: Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus (short, personal, psychological character studies), and The Grapes of Wrath (a reformist manifesto if ever there was one). It is upon that last book that I wish to focus. Unlike Heinlein, it deals with a setting that was very much contemporary for the author, the America of the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck spends the majority of the novel railing against the injustices of banking, the greed and corruption of large business, and the governmental apparatuses that defend such inhumanity towards man. He chronicles the dehumanization that occurs when a man owns far more than he can cultivate with his own bare hands, the loneliness, isolation, and fear that accompany financial tyranny, and the misery suffered by the poor when they are crushed under the boot heels of such machine-men. This book, too, offers up some ideas for reform, both practical and philosophical. Let us now compare the reform notion in both authors.
Heinlein starts off by thinking of the future as a useful lens for the present, so that the present might see itself in a truer light and correct its blemishes accordingly. By the time of Stranger in a Strange Land, this proclivity is fully formed, as he uses the idea of a man raised by Martians and returning to earth as a vehicle for growth, critical analysis, and, ultimately, a profound attempt to change what it means to be human, ie the very make-up of society–of man’s relation to man. After this work, however, Heinlein turned away from reform in the here and now. This is clear in Time Enough for Love, where the main character points out that when a planet’s population grows obese with time, it always degrades–freedom always gives way to security, chaos to order; the system always grows too bloated for its own good, and the meddlers, thinking they know what is best for everyone, reign supreme. Thus, liberal humans are always striving towards the frontiers, and the main character himself has led many such expeditions to new, dangerous, chaotic, but free planets. It seems Heinlein’s contention, by at least the late 1970s, that humans will always muck things up, so the only practical solution is to keep expanding–if, that is, your desire is freedom.
In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck hints more and more as the book goes on that the plight of the poor and underprivileged is building towards something, that something is simmering under the surface, that the bankers are only hurting themselves by dominating their laborers, and that eventually the emotional dam will burst, letting out a flood of reprisal and reform. He looks towards collective action as a means to this end. He also sees pantheism, as expressed by the character of the ex-preacher, as the ideology of contentment for this new cosmos, where man will help man, where all the universe is God, where tyrannical hierarchies, be they corporate or Christian, have no place (the world being a level spiritual field; so long, Pseudo-Dionysius and your celestial hierarchy!). He does, however, brook caution. Realistically, he sees reform on the horizon, and has no love for the business class; at the same time, he sees the French Revolution and Ancient Rome as somber examples of failed reform, wherein the oppressed cast down their oppressors and oppressed in turn, perpetuating a cycle of domination and dehumanization. He ends the book with a single act of kindness between strangers, as a starving man is suckled by a woman who just had a stillborn baby. This indicates that he is suspicious of systematic overhaul, and places his faith more in individuals and their innate kindness towards each other in times of troubles.
What are we to think of these two men and their visions of reform? In the former, we see hope dashed against the inevitability of Systems, the victory of Order, the aristocracy of the Meddling class, leaving the frontier of the stars as the only refuge. In the latter, we have an author who sees reform inevitably on the horizon, who on the one hand relishes the collapse of corporate tyranny, but who on the other recognizes the historical precedent for a continual cycle of power and dominion.
I very much sympathize with Heinlein’s view that Systems seem inevitably driven towards decrepitude and stifling order, that the meddlers will always win out. Steinbeck seems to agree, at least so far as the verdict of history is concerned. In The Grapes of Wrath, he seems perhaps to agree that overarching reform will inevitably continue the cycle under different nomenclature, resulting in his very personal ending. Both men seem to think that there is more hope in individuals and small groups than there is in larger communities.For example, in Heinlein’s novel Farnham’s Freehold, the characters band together to weather the apocalypse (brought about incidentally, by the nuclear lunacy of warring factions); the emphasis in the Puppetmasters is on freedom of thought, liberal humanity over orderly aliens, and on the survival of one family in particular; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deals with the growing pains of a new lunar society and the struggle to free itself from a bloated and oppressive earth, etc.
Steinbeck’s family in The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads, stick together through thick and thin. A few members die, two flee, and the protagonist goes off to fight the good fight against the banks and oppressors–and yet the book ends with the majority of the family huddling together amidst a storm; and the book stops not with the grand pantheistic reformism of the protagonist Tom, but with the simple kindness of his sister Rose and her charitable breast. Steinbeck, it should be remembered, does assert that humanity progresses, that even a step backwards is only a half-step, a prelude to several steps forward. The French Revolution, after all, inspired those of 1848, the democratization of Europe, nationalism, self-determination (and the Great War of 1914-1949, and the Cold War, and the modern surveillance state…). He seems to think that such progress will always be towards better worlds. Does that mean the corporation from the Alien movies, whose slogan “Building better worlds” is stamped triumphantly on every human frontier? Again, his very personal, very small ending seems skeptical of this grand progress, so vehemently and earnestly proposed in the middle of Grapes. Perhaps Heinlein is right: our answer is a fresh start on a new world. Shall we throw up our hands in disgust and try again somewhere else, as the Puritans or Greeks of yore? Let us hope such endeavors are not funded by multi-planetary corporations; that would defeat the purpose.