Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Review – “Revolt in 2100” by Robert A Heinlein


If you love liberty, science, or good stories, you’ll love “Revolt in 2100”. What a ride! Great characters, compelling situations, great imagination and predictive ability (especially for being written in 1940). And in case you haven’t read my other book reports, SPOILER ALERT!

The setting is an America has become a (roughly) Protestant Theocracy that is oppressing the people. The protagonist is a naïve soldier who loves his country and his church who becomes disillusioned with it rather quickly as the book progresses, eventually joining the rebellion.

Reading the book was downright fun. Secret societies, military tactics and strategy (using military units that don’t yet exist), intrigue, betrayal, passwords, propaganda. It was a blast! It was able to communicate a message that, in the end, was contrary to my own opinion, but that didn’t stop me from having a good time hearing about it. This is the best of rhetoric, the best of persuasive writing. I hope to write someday like Heinlein. So I must say I enjoyed the book, despite the core message of the book being that people like me are what’s wrong with the world.

I must admit I really love the imagery of the “Church Militant” as GK Chesterton describes or in CS Lewis’ words the Church that is, “…spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”; the victorious Church which is able to go out like sheep to the slaughter in the first few centuries AD and the Church that is able to keep its doctrines despite the multitude of challenges throughout the centuries. Heinlein, intentionally I think, made me start with some warm feelings about his imaginary state, and then crushed them by showing how terrible a thing it would be when humans rule the earth in God’s name without His guidance.


One thing that surprised me throughout the book was how much I agreed with him. His criticisms of the corruption, the greed, the wickedness of the church in that imaginary world (and in this real one) are valid. Like reading Ayn Rand, I felt like I was in an ignored observer. Where was the rational Christian in the story? But I will admit that we’re not very common, and it might be possible for Heinlein not to have met one of us.

Nevertheless, there is much I agree with. I am ever growing in my support for a libertarian ethic of governmental non-interference. It seems that this is a good and effective way to run a government. And this is one of the dominant themes of the book. People should be allowed to live however they like so long as they don’t prevent others from doing the same. I think the sacrificial nature of the characters, the utmost respect for personal dignity and decision, and the value placed on individual human sovereignty were wonderful.


Heinlein argues for an agnostic faith and morality. No one has any access to God, and so anyone claiming to have it is probably lying. Therefore, all one can do is live one’s own life and not pass judgment on others. This is a pretty common conclusion, but Heinlein was actually able to build a world around it and communicate it freshly even to my mind. The only bad thing in the world is the one thing which I, a Christian, do: believe in objective morality.

Heinlein’s viewpoint here helps me understand some of my friends a lot better. It makes clear to me why public religion is so bad in their minds, and why evangelism is such a no-no: because, without revelation, it’s based entirely on the pride of those evangelizing. The trouble is that people with this mindset are especially hard to argue out of it. They believe that discussion itself is irrational, and so will tend to avoid it. And they think that every attempt to talk about it is some sort of power-grab or trick. Heinlein’s is a very well-insulating doctrine. This also may prevent relationships: you are the scum of the earth, the only real sinner. Relativism can incorporate all except the man who asserts Relativism is wrong. He is anathema. He is a heretic. And so, in the minds of many, I am anathema, a heretic. The same disgust that a Bigoted Southern Baptist has for a gay couple, Relativists have for me.

Religion, Sex and Nakedness
The idea that intrigued me the most was his views on public religion. His assertion is that one cannot know the mind of God, and so ought not speak publicly about what one believes. Though he makes a big point of defending the age-old doctrine, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” Zeb, his model Libertarian, gets really pissy when he’s asked about his religious beliefs. They’re private and should be kept covered.

But people shouldn’t be covered. Nakedness is something that should be public (or at least more public). Heinlein is unable to see any reason why we should cover up physical nakedness. Or for that matter, why we should be jealous about sex. And this helps me understand friends who are in Zeb’s position.

It is ironic that he reverses two things which have been pretty close to universal in human civilization: chastity (marriage and public modesty) and religion. For some reason, humans have decided that there are some parts of the body that should not be seen in public. There is a universal shame. There is a universal limitation on who one may sleep with and who one may not sleep with. And humans have decided that there must be some public way to worship God or the gods.

Heinlein doesn’t see any reason for these two things which are so close to the core of human identity. I think both of these stem from his disbelief in an invisible world. There is no invisible, mystical connection between man and woman in marriage. And there is no real being in Heaven that can be known. Essentially (as far as I can tell), because boobs are visible and God is not, the former should be uncovered and the latter should be covered. This explains the embarrassment or flustration (noun version of ‘to fluster’) when I share my religion with the non-religious. I’m dropping my metaphorical pants. I’m exposing to them the one and only thing that really should be kept private. And that’s just not OK in public settings.

These topics interested me, but I can’t say I’m persuaded. I’ve been thinking for some time about what marriage is (ontologically) and trying to (if it’s possible) translate that into something a Humanist could make sense of. And though it makes perfect sense on a Christian worldview, I have not been successful in translation. I think the God issue, on the other hand, is easy to respond to. Heinlein believes there is nothing to base a rational belief in God on. If God never spoke, then He’d be right. The question is: do we have any evidence that God spoke to us? There are a handful of contenders, but only one of them, the Bible, has sufficient evidence to verify the claim. The presence of explicit and confirmable prophecies and the inexplicable cryptographic features of the text show its supernatural origin. And this can form the rational basis of public religion. It has formed the rational basis of a public religion and has done so for nearly two millennia.

CS Lewis and Robert Heinlein

The most interesting thing about reflecting on this book was how many of the themes overlapped with writings of CS Lewis. With a bit of Googling, I realized they were contemporaries. They wrote on a lot of the same topics. They used fantasy to communicate their points. They were critical of totalitarianism. And perhaps the most intriguing difference is that they each thought the other’s philosophy would lead to totalitarianism. In both minds, the Great Sin is pride. Lewis believes it is pride before God; Heinlein believes it is pride in claiming to speak for God. Heinlein thinks there is no such thing as Justice, and so rehabilitative punishment (i.e. curing people of their neurosis that caused the wrongdoing) is all that can be justified; Lewis believes that there is Justice in the world, and retributive punishment (i.e. paying people back for what they did) is good and prevents the State from ‘curing’ dissidents.

They both presented their views of how society could degenerate in dystopian novels, Lewis in “That Hideous Strength” and Heinlein in “Revolt in 2100”. Lewis feared a calculating, bureaucratic, hyper-rational elite who would sterilize the world and conform all thought; Heinlein feared a corrupt, superstitious, power-hungry church who would proselytize everyone and conform all thought.

One of the most striking similarities between Heinlein and Lewis is their shared belief in 1940 and 1945 (in Revolt and Hideous Strength, respectively) that hypnosis and psychology will be able to be used by malicious parties for mind-control. It’s hard for someone today to see that as even plausible, as Psychiatrists have very little impact on anything today. I suppose it was an exciting time in Psychology, with the discoveries of the behaviorists and bold predictions about the expansive abilities of such practitioners. But it is shocking how wrong these predictions were. Usually sci-fi authors make mis-predictions, but it’s strange that these two would make the same wrong prediction for no good reason. It makes me want to read more about the expectations and accomplishments of psychology in the 1940’s.


Overall, I loved Revolt. First and foremost, it was truly a fun sci-fi book with interesting characters and a colorful world. Most importantly, it made me think about philosophy, justice, religion and politics. That’s what good literature should do, and that’s what it did. I think I agree with Heinlein’s politics almost entirely: a Libertarian government is best. But his metaphysics (or lack thereof), ethics and philosophy I think are based on false premises and so come to wrong conclusions. Nevertheless, his premises are common, and he was able to clearly communicate why I (and Christians) are seen in a bad light, all the while not making me want to punch him in the nose. And that, my friends, is what great writing is all about. So bravo, Mr. Heinlein, for this wonderful book. Thank you for sharing your vision for the world in so delightful a fashion.

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