Book Review #4: A SWING, A MISS, AND A PULLED GROIN
Here’s the follow-up Heinlein review as promised, to a novel originally entitled SIXTH COLUMN (magazine publication as a serial in Astounding: January to March 1941 as by Anson MacDonald) and also THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (in hardback by Gnome Press in 1949 and in paperback by Signet in 1951).
Before jumping right into the review, however, a few words on its complex origin. John W. Campbell, the autocratic editor of ASTOUNDING and the man who published a lot of Heinlein’s early fiction, had written a story called “All,” that he handed over to Heinlein to improve. In commentary in EXPANDED UNIVERSE, Heinlein states that he “reslant[ed] it to remove racist aspects” and it was not “…an artistic success.”
Well, he got that right. There is no way around it. This book is awful. It’s not only a swing and a miss, it should have sent Heinlein’s career to the disabled list, and, in a sense it did. It took eight years for it to appear in book form and ten years for a major publisher to pick it up, despite the fact that Heinlein was arguably by then the most popular sf writer in the world. The most disturbing thing about it is the racism. If Heinlein rewrote it to “remove racist aspects,” I’d hate to have seen the original screed. Second is the shoddy plotting. Third — but why go on? Read the review.
Campbell’s reputation dodged a bullet with this one, since not one in a thousand Heinlein readers knows that Campbell actually came up with this turkey. But it’s Heinlein’s name on it and even though I’m sympathetic to the fact that a man’s gotta eat, he’s also gotta take the heat when he produces work less distinguished than he’s capable of.
Day After Tomorrow, The/Sixth Column 1941; book pub. 1949; 1951
Characters: An ensemble cast without the usual Heinlein uber-mensch approach, though these guys are powered mainly by good old American git-go to do some pretty super stuff. We know virtually nothing about the protagonists, except the jobs they held before the war and they’re virtually interchangeable. Sure, there’s the science-guy asshat, the young punk science guy, the guy who was a lawyer but likes being a hobo better because of all the freedom it entails (a character obviously written by someone unfamiliar with stoop, farm, or menial labor), and the press agent. Only two named female characters, I believe. One who died offstage, another who is summarized but doesn’t appear in a scene, or at least never speaks. The Panasian antagonists are so cardboard that none even have names. 22
Setting: The day after tomorrow, apparently, which from internal evidence (50 years after WW I) would be late sixties. One of those settings where everything is exactly as it is now, except for the casual mention of sky cars (needed for plot reasons) and videophones (needed to seem science fictiony). Asia has seamlessly melded into one race, the Panasians, that’s Chinese-Japanese (the only nationalities mentioned) but, yeah, I see THAT happening (read any early 20th century history to debunk that little fantasy). Apparently, though this is not entirely clear, they unified and took over India (clear) and maybe Europe (unclear), and now they’ve conquered America with a single sneak attack because America has ignored them for fifty years (while they were busy taking over the rest of the world) because of a LAW ENACTED BY CONGRESS that says we HAVE TO ignore them. Does this make sense to you? Once you get into the story, you find it set largely in Denver, but this is a Denver that is utterly without descriptive features and literally could be anywhere. 12
Plot: Just EXACTLY when the Panasians launch their attack, an experimental Army laboratory in the Rocky Mountains (the only functioning element of the US armed forces left after the invasion; really) creates the uber-weapon of uber-weapon, and over the course of a couple weeks adapts it to: kill humans only, or, if adjusted, kill animals only, or, if adjusted further, kill only Caucasians or only Asians (the only two races that exist in this world), or, if other adjustments are made, just knock out members of those various categories, or heal them of all diseases and injury, or transmute elements, or act as a radio, or project images. Heinlein’s “scientific” explanation of all this is as ludicrous as the light-speed with which they develop the theory and crank out the actual weapons at the hands of a single sergeant machinist. So, the Panasians take over and are awful, of course. They are called yellow baboons, slant-eyes, flat faces, etc, by the Americans. I can live with this because these guys really hate the Panasians because of what they’ve done. But to counteract this, Heinlein introduces only one American Asian character with a Japanese name and Chinese ancestry who they keep asking stuff like, What would an Asian think in this instance? What would an Asian do if this happened? As if magically, he would be an expert on how “Panasians” think, even though his family has been in America for like a hundred years. Finally, it’s white guys do this, white guys do that, there being no patriotic (or otherwise) Blacks, Indians, or Hispanics in this world (and only the one Asian good guy, who dies in a particularly useless and idiotic manner). No white women, either, except for secretaries and radio operators. The one interesting thing in this book is that the Americans come up with a fake, multi-theistic religion to spread their rebellion and fund it with transmuted gold, and, gosh, they get surprised when their Panasian overlords get suspicious when they throw so much gold around. But that’s all they ever do, get mildly surprised, because the good old all-American know-how of these soldiers who were press agents and advertising men and used car salesmen and corporate executives and hobo lawyers (there is only one line soldier in the entire book) are ALWAYS at least one step ahead of these stupid flat-faces, who, incidentally, were smart enough to conquer all of America in like, three days. Gah. 5
Style: Competent if lack-luster prose for the most part, though an awful lot of the plot is propelled by reports about action that took place off-stage, or is just baldy summarized. I got awfully tired of hearing about white men do this, white men do that, as well. 40
Overall, this book rates a 19, which is tied for (so far) the third worst sf/fan novel of the 1950s. Four down, about 700 more to go.