October 20, 2019

Review: Sixth Column by Robert Heinlein.

On sale now!

Heinlein is one of the greats, an American Science fiction master on par with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.† I grew up reading such works by the seminal great at Space Cadet, Farmer in the Sky, and Friday. To date, die-hard fans still rave about his Starship Troopers as ďStar Wars before there was a Star WarsĒ and lament its 1997 movie adaptation. And with his naval background, Heinlein can arguably be called the grandfather of military sci-fi to boot.

It was thus we were anxious to pull Sixth Column out of our review file and for our perusal. Sixth Column is one of Heinleinís first novels, published in serial format by Astounding Science Fiction in 1941 and as a hardcover novel in 1949.

Picked up in its present form by Baen Books, Sixth Column is Heinlein before he was Heinlein. Why read old science fiction books? Arenít we living the sci-fi lifestyle right here in good oleí 2013? I think itís a fascinating history lesson in & of itself; future generations may look back at our modern tales such as Fallen Skies and The Walking Dead to gain insight as to what our hopes and fears mightíve been.

Sixth Column presents a (then) future where a PanAsian superpower reigns supreme over the United States and the world. A small pocket of U.S. resistance remains, set on undermining the occupying force by use of an experimental super weapon.

Though many argue the merits or outright racism of the book (the weapon is tuned to only kill Asians) I think that Heinlein depicts the racial dilemmas of the day in a manner similar to Mark Twainís Huckleberry Finn, albeit Finn with atomic super-weapons. The occupying Asians are depicted as malevolent conquerors straight out an old Movie Tone newsreel. Itís worth noting that Heinlein wrote this shortly before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor which drew the United States into World War II. Tom Kratman points out in the afterward that Heinlein definitely would have known of the Japanese atrocities committed during the invasion of Manchuria.

Sixth Column isnít the only Heinlein novel to deal with racism; another lesser known work of his, Farnhamís Freehold confronts the same. Though not his literary greatest, Heinlein does demonstrate the possibility of using science fiction to discuss taboo subjects, something that didnít come back around again until the first interracial kiss by Kirk and Uhura in†Star Trek. We can point at Heinleinís depiction of Asians in the 1940ís, but stop and wonder; how would future generations look at the depictions of Arabs as terrorists in shows like The Unit and 24?

Finally, it amused us Heinleinís (and many early science fiction authors) abundant use of exposition, something largely anathema to science fiction writers today. It often seems as if modern sci-fi plots are almost solely dialogue driven, and many feel that lengthy explanations kill the story line. Call me old-fashioned, but I actually prefer that the narrator gives us a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, putting the science in the science fiction!

But thatís just me. Do check out the re-issue of Heinleinís Sixth Column for some classic sci-fi from the authorís early years!

Comments

  1. Emily says:

    So cool that you like this book. It’s one of my favorites and almost no one I know, even the hardcore scifi fans, have even heard of it.

    I’m writing a story set to be published by the end of the year and was looking for someone who could answer a few astronomical questions. Is it possible to start an email exchange? I’d give you credit in the book and on my blog.

  2. Harv Griffin says:

    It’s been at least a decade since I last read SIXTH COLUMN. An oldie but a goodie from my POV. Even before WWII Heinlein was pushing the limits of appropriate themes and plots for his science fiction. Concur with most of your review, which contains new facts I didn’t know. Cheers! @hg47

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