Saturday, September 13, 2008

Isolationism as mistake, religion as tool

Robert Heinlein's work is always...interesting.  I recently finished his book Sixth Column, about a United States conquered by a imperialistic, communist regime: the PanAsian empire.  All that's left of America's government and defenders are six scientists, and one regular army type that used to work in advertising before the war started.  The six scientists are all that survive an initially poorly understood experiment in creating a new super weapon to combat those of the PanAsians.

While the plot was good, and the characterizations were varied and unique, what struck me as most thought-provoking were two things: one, that the threat wasn't seen as a threat, or even as a newly emerged technological superpower, until far too late because of a virulent form of isolationism; and two, that the heroes of the tale--the leftover American defensive forces--use the PanAsian policy of not harassing the religions of their conquered peoples as a method of fomenting a successful rebellion and defense of what was left of America.

I'll start with the isolationism.  Early in the novel, Heinlein warns his readers of the dangers of national isolationism through the sole surviving and free army officer's thoughts.  America had turned its back on the world.  We hadn't gotten involved in encircling Communist nations with freedom, or in proxy wars in Asia.  No involvement in Korea or Vietnam.  We'd turned eyes away from the enemy in an attempt to pretend that he wasn't dangerous.  The fictional America of Heinlein's imagination had gone so far as to pass a law called the Non-Intercourse Act, which forbade any business dealings with Russia, or any of its allies or business partner.

And, while America wasn't watching, Asia united--all of it--and absorbed Russia through conquest.  And, while America wasn't watching, the PanAsian Empire went about absorbing the rest of the world, and developing new weapons, and ultimately coming over the North Pole at us. 

Heinlein, as I've said, was a visionary.  Granted, our non-fictional United States has not become isolationist--yet--but we certainly have turned our backs on regimes that we never should have.  Many of our former allies in Central and South America have faced rebellion, and been taken over by communist regimes that are hostile to us.  This has happened while our attention was focused on Europe, and on the more obvious dangers in the Middle East.  

The second point that I found interesting was the choice by the main characters to use one of the bits of intelligence that one of the characters went out and gathered: that white males were not allowed to assemble, legally, anywhere but in church.  Nor were white females.  The army commander figured it out: the only way to foment and train for a successful rebellion was to set up a new religion.  This was successful mostly because, as Heinlein pointed out, to the outsider, all religions look equally crackpot.

One of the things I found particularly interesting about Heinlein's created religion was that it managed to do nothing to offend any other established religion--Western or Eastern.  Would that all religions were so cooperative and non-confrontational with one another.

I won't give away any more of the plot, but this is an early science fiction story.  Everything turns out all right in the end, despite one of the scientists cracking mentally and attempting to use the technological breakthrough to seize power under the delusion that he actually was the god that they'd made up.  

I highly recommend the book.  It was as much interesting political commentary, as I've said, as it was an engaging read.  

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