Robert Heinlein’s Future History Series
Book Two: The Man Who Sold the Moon
(con’t from the last post)
This book is broken up into 3 major stories that do not have obvious relation to one another. Just finishing it now, I have to say that it was an excellent book, one that I will remember distinctly. Heinlein fits a lot of information into a relatively short book.
There were times when the politics were too much for me but I was never seriously tempted to quit. I can’t think of a science-fiction writer that is quite as politically oriented in his works of fiction as Heinlein (although there are many I haven’t read). Sometimes I felt his opinions “forced” on me, for lack of a better word.
But there were times when I agreed with the argument I thought he was trying to make.
The final story in The Man Who Sold the Moon was about atomic energy, which is a crucial energy source to the people in this story. (The time frame was in his future, after 1950, but in our past, if I remember correctly. I was listening to it, not reading it, so I can’t just go back and look very easily.)
The “pile” of radioactive material that gives off energy is very dangerous and the employees who work with it at the atomic energy plant must be thoroughly screened and watched. Turns out, the bizarre behavior some of them start to display is from adrenal burn out, occurring because of the constant stress of concern about the safety of themselves, their families and those who live around the plant. (The “watching” by psychiatrists doesn’t help either.)
At the same time they discover the problem of adrenal burn out, a new mathematical discovery shows that the pile is even more dangerous than previously believed. The discoverers learn that the owner of the plant, on behalf of his shareholders, will not shut down the plant just because of this new information, while the scientists argue he should.
This is a storyline that has been played out probably hundreds of times in our day and age: large corporations putting the public at risk, and actually harming them, for the sake of profits. Heinlein uses the word “public interest” a lot and I am going to go so far as to say that being safe in the public interest must have been important to him. How that reconciles with his libertarian attitude, I do not know, but perhaps he believed that there are limits on the freedoms Americans should have, and that limit being that if you are hurting someone else with your actions for whatever reason, in this case profits, you must stop. But, as with atomic energy in the story, there was a chance of hurting others, so sometimes (almost all the time you have good lawyers) that’s not very clear cut.
I wonder if in his later books he takes this issue further and explores how clear cut it needs to be. That is, how obvious the harm to others must be before an action should be against the law. He makes the point in the story that even the President of the United States on his own couldn’t make the owner shut down the plant since they are not operating against any laws, even if they convinced him it was necessary. Here is a quote by one of the experts:
“Nor can the president act in an arbitrary manner…if he is shuts down this plant without a sense of law the federal courts will tie him in knots. I admit that Congress isn’t helpless since the Atomic Energy Commission takes orders from it. But, would you like to try to give a congressional committee a course in the mechanics of infinitesimals?”
You’ll have to read the story yourself in order to find out how this problem is resolved…all I will say is it involves blackmail and human ingenuity, not Congress…! (A perfect libertarian answer…!?! just kidding)
More to come in the next post and this time it will have something in it that’s actually about the moon!