Sixth Column (1949)
Robert A. Heinlein
Baen Publishing, Riverdale, NY; ISBN: 0-671-57826-X; Pages: 248
Review © 2003 Branislav L. SlantchevOne of Heinlein's weaker but highly controversial novels, which is chiefly responsible for earning him the unfounded reputation for racism, that is often hurled at us, poor Heinlein fans, by critics. The premise is so simple, it's hard to believe anyone could have written an entire novel about it. The PanAsians, after having conquered and absorbed the Soviet Union, Europe, India, and the rest of the eastern hemisphere, have finally subdued the United States. Ardmore finds himself at the Citadel, a super-secret, ultra-high-tech military installation engaged in weapons research, literally minutes after the fall of Washington, with orders to continue the war independently. There are only six survivors at the Citadel, the rest of the personnel has been wiped out by an invisible and yet unknown result of an experiment by the genius Dr. Ledbetter. It turns out, he has been working on the unified field theory (the one Einstein was convinced existed but could not develop) and found a way to manipulate spectra outside the common electro-magnetic one -- all combinations of electricity, magnetism, and gravity. Calhoun, a brilliant mathematician, and Wilkie, a progeny physicist, manage to finish Ledbetter's work and design a variety of new gadgets, which can move objects, transmute matter, and, above all, kill living organisms selectively -- in other words, a weapon that can be targeted by race; one that vaporizes Asiatics but will not harm Americans. The rest of the novel concerns itself with how the half-dozen freedom fighters set out to drive the entire invading force out of the United States. What they lack in numbers, they make up in brains and psychological subterfuge. They set up a new religion, the cult of Mota, under the noses of the oppressors, who tolerate every religion (a pragmatic philosophy derived from their earlier experiences in India). Under this cover, they develop a network of churches and volunteers (priests), wage demoralizing warfare by performing miracles through the undetectable forces their science affords them, and finally succeed in inflicting heavy damage on the PanAsians while driving them completely out.
One of the more startling aspects of the narrative, aside from the racial weapon, is the description of the PanAsiatic rule of the United States. As this author himself comes from a totalitarian country (what Bulgaria used to be before 1989), it is all too easy to recognize the unmistakable marks of complete control. All Americans are issued identification cards, which encode their place of residence and permission to travel. This is similar to the situation in the USSR, where peasants did not have passports and therefore could not travel anywhere, or in Bulgaria where everyone had to enter his name in the ``house register'' when staying anywhere for more than a week. Dehumanizing and degrading. Although Heinlein does not go into much detail on the conversion of America into totalitarian slavery, there are few glimpses here and there that reveal a depressing picture. Apart from the usual lackeys to the new masters, the rest of the population is in the steel grip on the efficient and merciless bureaucracy. After one miscarried attempt at rebellion, the PanAsians retaliate by killing 150,000 civilians. To top it off, the indigent, ``mongrel'' Asians (i.e. those of mixed heritage born in America) are systematically persecuted and exterminated. The new caste rule has no place for them, neither masters not slaves.
It easy to see why some infer Heinlein to be a racist. This, however, is entirely unjustified. His description of the PanAsian rule bears strong resemblance to the actual deplorable conditions in the communist countries, even the more ``humane'' ones (if one compares this with the Khmer Rouge Cambodia or Stalin's USSR, or Mao's China, Heinlein would appear to lack in imagination, cruelty, or both). In addition, it is not clear that such a race-weapon could not be invented. The only questionable thing about the ``Sixth Column'' to this author is how Heinlein proposes that the new United States should protect itself. What's to stop the PanAsians from regrouping and attacking after their scientists match the discovery of the unified theory? The answer is not clear, although Heinlein himself suggests that the dynamic nature of life prevents any static defense from being permanently effective. An interesting question... kill them all?
December 16, 1999. BLS