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A common theme in much of Heinlein’s fiction is the idea of, if not a super-hero, at

least someone with extraordinary skills. Sometimes there is not one person but an
elite closed group. Common to both however is the idea that these people believe
and act on the premise that they know what is best for humanity and are in some way
the last hope. While this is closely related to another common Heinlein theme of
individual choice as the source of moral action, it is slightly contradictory, since by
their actions these closed groups are often making irreversible decisions affecting
humanity at large.
Often the closed group manifests itself as such because of superior knowledge that
is kept secret. In a minor way, the guilds in “Starman Jones” are such a group,
although in this case not presented positively – at least until Jones manages to gain
membership. Similarly, in The Roads must Roll the engineers running the rolling
roads see themselves as an elite body, with a semi-sacred duty to keep the Roads
More typically, in “Lost Legacy” we have a group with apparently supernatural powers
who use those powers to destroy those they believe to be evil. The opposition group
is such a caricature however, that there is no real tension to the story. There is no
doubt in the minds of the protagonists that their actions are the right one and hence
the reader is not given the chance to consider alternatives. The ending of Lost
Legacy, sees evil defeated, whereupon humanity moves on to a ‘higher plane’
leaving the great apes behind to follow in their footsteps. In practice this story seems
to have much in common with another proponent of the superhero, A E Van Vogt.
In “Gulf” this idea is carried even further, with a new race, homo novis, being created
from the mass of humanity, by a group of self declared ‘New Humans’. The New
Humans again take it on themselves the right to kill or destroy others they believe to
be acting against the interests of homo novis.
The most significant example of a new race emerging from the body of humanity is
probably the Howard Families, who make their first appearance in “Methuselah’s
Children” but reappear in most of his last books. In the case of the Howards, there is
no superior knowledge that can be withheld since their sole source of superiority is
their longevity. By the time we get to the final novels where the Howards reappear, it
is suggested that the longevity of the Howard families is in fact all down to Lazarus
Long and his freak genes. This is something of a cop out and doesn’t explain how his
mother and all those of her generation lived not just for a long time, but also
maintained their youthful appearance to the extent that they had to periodically
relocate under new identities.
In “The Day after Tomorrow”, originally called “Sixth Column”, the idea of a closed
group is carried to extreme, with only six people (Americans of course) possessing
the knowledge to defeat and destroy the ‘Pan-Asian’ invaders of the USA – who are
probably a metaphor for Communism. In practice, the story is a parable of how
rugged American values will defeat the collectivism of Communism. I don’t think it
works as a parable however, because the so-called ‘sixth column’ is actually put into
place through a fake religion so outrageous that it is impossible to believe those
same rugged individualists would ever swallow it to the extent depicted in the story –
even to get the food that is distributed by the new ‘temples’
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “If this goes on" (also called “Revolt in 2100”)
also employ the idea of the closed group, albeit in different ways. In “Moon”, the
group is a typical revolutionary cabal, although equipped with special knowledge in
the form of an intelligent and self-aware computer working with them. “Revolt” is
actually about a counter-revolution, the first having put in place a theocracy. The
revolution in this case is guided by what may be the Freemasons, in an ironic twist on
the idea of Masonry as a secret society.
What is common to all of these stories is the Randian concept that an individual or
group in possession of knowledge or power should not view itself as morally inhibited
from using that power to secure their own ends. This is by no means a clear cut
position however. In “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls”, Maureen Johnson comes
up against the “Committee for Aesthetic Deletions”, a group of terminally ill people
who have taken it on themselves to ‘delete’ people they judge to be deserving – or
rather undeserving. Matched against them are the ‘Circle of Ouroborous’ and the
‘Time Patrol’, which includes Lazarus Long and various characters from other
Heinlein novels.
Also making an appearance are two other groups involved in ambushing Maureen
and her party on a trip across the surface of the moon, each with their own agenda.
This idea of competing time-changing groups is similar to that in Fritz Lieber’s
“Changewar” stories published between 1958 and 1965, although once the possibility
of changing the past is admitted, conflict over such changes is probably inevitable as
for example in the Time Patrol series by Poul Anderson.
For Heinlein, this idea is more than just the revisiting of a theme. He uses the idea of
an independent elite acting outside of society so often that it is clearly something
important to him. I think in practice however it is the individualism that appeals. In so
many of his novels the hero or heroine is placed in situations where they only have
their personal resources available. From Space Family Stone to Number of the Beast
he doesn’t write novels about government or any form of political unit, but about
individuals or family units. Even Starship Troopers, often attacked for the neo-fascism
implicit in its militaristic society is actually about individuals. The military units are
based not on loyalty to the ‘Federation’, but to the unit commander. The individual
trooper has firepower - lovingly described in the opening chapter – that could take out
a whole army of the 20th century.
This obsession with individual choice as the source of moral action takes Heinlein to
some unpleasant places. I don’t know if this ever gave him pause for thought. He
never seems to reflect on his conclusions or consider if his original premises were in
fact correct.