Tag: robert heinlein

Quote of the Day: Peace and Freedom


“You can have peace or you can have freedom. You cannot get both at once.” – Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein made this comment during his speech at the 1976 MidAmeriCon World Science Fiction Convention, where he was guest of honor (skip to 7:40 to avoid a dull introduction). Heinlein was a cold warrior; he was a warrior, period. He understood freedom was not free, and the tree of liberty had to be renewed with the blood of patriots and tyrants. During his life, he saw the US struggle against four tyrannies: Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. He died before the ultimate victory against the Soviet Union, but he understood the only way to overcome tyranny was to fight it.

How to Build a Brain (Part 1) – The Challenge


How do you build a brain? How should I know? I’ve never built a brain. But I did spend a whole lot of time once thinking about how to do it.

In the mid-nineties, I was working for a software company in Dallas that did software for insurance administration. I was rolling off of the second project I had done there, starting my new job as Research Manager. This was technically a division level job, but my division actually consisted of me, and a part-time admin that I shared with the core Development group. My mandate was to explore various new technologies, in the expectation that at least some of what I did would prove useful and could be integrated into a future product. The projects that I had done are significant, because they had led me directly to the first request I got, and thus into my quest for a brain.

Quote of the Day: Specialists and Generalists


“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” — Robert Heinlein

I like this quote. A lot of people criticize it because there are a lot of advantages to specialization. As Adam Smith observes, specialization creates wealth. And there are some things you want to leave to specialists. Take brain surgery. If you need it, you would not prefer that someone who is simply a doctor does it, but want someone who is a surgeon, preferably one who specializes in brain surgery, and preferably the best brain surgeon around.

Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love


As I keep saying, the joke about Americans is, you love nature almost as much as conquest of nature. Heinlein certainly portrayed the American character this way time and again. For once, in this novel, he showed the dark side of this complex mind. For one, the dreams of freedom from misery, and freedom from longing, turn into a lived inhumanity that’s by turns ridiculous and depressive. Time Enough for Love, published in 1973 and amply rewarded with prizes by sci-fi lovers, is the only dishonest Heinlein title there is. The story’s really about the ultimate collapse of freedom; and should be understood as a warning about the likely consequences of our modern confusions of American freedom.

Finally, Heinlein’s most famous character, Lazarus Long, gets the completion for which he has always yearned. Love finally turns out to be bearable for human beings, on the horizon of eternity, when it is commensurate with the power human beings have unleashed through modern natural science. The contempt in which Lazarus Long held the world for thousands of years could be relieved only by a situation that fits his exalted powers. All this in an apocalyptic setting: Heinlein is thinking about what is now called the Singularity—the emergence of human artifacts beyond human understanding or control. What’s left to do then? How will we confront our nature reflected in a creation that might surpass us?

Lazarus is mostly his own story-teller this time around, recounting his various attempts to understand human happiness and attain it. What can complete this man who more than anyone else insists he is complete by himself? What does his great loneliness, isolation from mankind, lead to? By the time he stops narrating and starts doing things, it’s obvious that the book is one long apology for incest. It’s one thing to think Heinlein was a moral cretin and possibly cuckoo. He might have been. It’s another to think his writing doesn’t get at anything serious, because it does show fairly serious problems we must face. If you come to the end of the world, what’s left to do? Without a society, how is it possible to turn to anything but self-love? The man who has traveled the universe has failed to find anything more interesting or admirable than himself—at any rate, anything that lasts, or at least lasts for him. Inasmuch as space adventure is a pastime of American leisure, it’s quite shocking that its most famous exponent should come to this conclusion.

Robert Heinlein, Methuselah’s Children


Heinlein’s wisest protagonist, Lazarus Long, waxes and wanes in two novels, Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love. Methuselah’s Children, first written and serialized in ’41, then redone as a novel in ’59, is Heinlein’s book of prophecies about freedom. The story is set in the near future, when Hegel is vindicated: The World State is a fact, but without too much wealth. Everyone lives in an administrative order that rationalizes life, habits, and speech. It renders everyone a lonely individual, same as everyone else. Bureaucracy becomes the hope to which children are raised, the morning to which man awakes daily, the horizon of mortality itself. It is no longer possible for people to associate or to feel strong attachments or to conceive duties stronger than life.

Despite American hopes, what you end up with is the last men. Mankind is in a Nietzschean situation, therefore. The likely future is permanent mediocrity, a democracy in which only resentment makes people feel alive. The only thing that makes life worth living to people is that they had no choice in it. For the most part, however, people go on with their lives. What describes them, so far as we’re concerned, is how brittle they are. Life is organized, but, faced with difficulties, people, individually, seem to break down psychologically. Change crushes them. So far, it would seem that the result of modern political science is a crucial weakening of human nature. That would seem to be the price to pay for prosperous peace.

But then there is this other possibility–the shocking, incalculable possibility of a galactic future–the Space Age. This starts as a crisis faced by a select few. Among human beings, in secret, live exceptionally long-lived creatures, who get to 150 easy, the creatures of selective breeding. This is eugenics in its 19th-century sense, as one can read about it in Nietzsche or in Thomas Galton. Selecting the best and using science to improve on nature. In a sense, it’s natural for Heinlein to turn to this sort of thing–he writes in an age of confidence in the power of science to better mankind. The dreams of a previous such age come alive to him, regardless of the interim doings and goings on. This extremely long life serves a political purpose. It is a fulfillment of the ancient promise we know from Descartes: Medicine is the only real scientific power that can tame mankind. Fear of death, properly maintained among a people exceptionally long-lived, is the future of mankind. Everyone will be old people even in their youth, but without neuroses or hang-ups or repression. This is Hegel’s End of History: No one would ever fight to the death, knowing what long life awaits.

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At first blush, this seems like a fairly snarky comment made by someone who thinks the concept of prayer and miracles is silly. And in truth, it is difficult to tell what his actual feelings on religion were. At various times, he wrote both approvingly and contemptuously of religious believers among his many characters, and […]

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This is the third & last part of my interminable essay on Robert Heinlein. The first discussed Lazarus Long, his strangest character, in terms Americans would recognize as their various, conflicting yearnings for freedom. The second discussed the bit of prophecy in which Heinlein indulged with a view to the dangers scientific power poses to […]

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America was supposed to be a land of philosophy or a race of philosophers. American government was founded as a government of philosophers: It is the only government that prohibited tying a man’s legal standing to his confession of faith. American courts & all other public institutions are forbidden from requiring an oath by God. […]

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