Listening to: SIXTH COLUMN by Robert A. Heinlein

First novel version, photo from THIS bookseller’s site.

Written in 1940 from an outline by his editor at the magazine ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, John W. Campbell, “Sixth Column” is not one of my favorite works by Heinlein, but even so, when I saw that a new audiobook version, was available from Audible.com I decided to buy it and have a listen. I own a copy of the book under a different title, which I believe I only read once in the 1970s, and I remembered almost nothing about the story except that I knew it was a post-atomic war one. Before writing this blog entry, I checked to see what William H. Patterson Jr., author of a new Heinlein biography, had to say about it. Turns out Campbell’s story was considered not publishable because of the strong racist slant. Campbell offered it to his new star writer, Heinlein as a “pre-sold” serial. In other words, as long as Heinlein kept fairly close to Campbell’s outline, it was guaranteed acceptance for publication. Heinlein took the job because he needed the money, and never felt the book was a good effort on his part, though he managed to tone down the racism and play up the social and societal conflicts of the opposing sides instead. It first appeared in the January through March, 1941 issues of ASTOUNDING under the byline “Anson McDonald,” and became a hardcover novel from small SF publisher Gnome Press in 1949, as shown above. In 1951 it became a Signet paperback under the new title “The Day After Tomorrow.”

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in quite some time, and the first on my new iPad. It was great, reader Tom Weiner does an excellent job throughout, managing about ten different vocal styles and accents for different characters. One thing I noticed about the experience is that the characters’ names did not stick with me as they might have if I was reading them myself, and some elements of the plot slipped away from me as well when I got distracted with work I was doing, so I had to repeat some parts. Otherwise, it was an excellent experience.

The story begins with the arrival of a military officer named Ardmore in a secret military scientific research bunker hidden underground in the Rocky Mountains. An atomic war has recently brought the end of the United States as we know it. The country has been conquered and occupied by the army of the “PanAsians,” meant to represent the Japanese and Chinese combined. They have taken over the country and essentially enslaved the remaining populace. This bunker, known as the Citadel, is the last outpost of the U.S. military, and only remains so because the PanAsians don’t know about it. When Ardmore checks in, he finds out things are in bad shape here, too. One of their top researchers has been testing a new weapon, and it has killed all but five of the staff!

Over the course of the next weeks and months, Ardmore and the five staffers regroup, investigate this new weapon, and realize it’s immensely powerful and versatile. They hatch a plan to use it to tackle their new overlords, but six men, no matter how well armed, can’t defeat untold millions of invaders in a direct fight. They have to go about it slowly and carefully. Ardmore’s idea is to essentially create a new religion, as that’s the one area the invaders have left largely alone. This religion, and it’s god “Mota” (Atom backwards) will create a new infrastructure of resistance if they can pull it off without being caught.

This book is very plot and idea-driven, with characters that are not much more than charicatures. The ideas are great, though, and Heinlein gets in lots of zingers about politics, religion and the way in which people can be influenced and manipulated by everything from advertising to free food. The PanAsians are even more charicatured, though Heinlein does try to even things a bit by bringing in one of them on the U.S. side. The science behind the new weapons they develop is mostly smoke and mirrors, essentially letting them do whatever the plot requires. The real interest for me was seeing how Heinlein’s own background in the military and politics came into play here in a campaign that is more political than military in the end. In some ways it’s dated, but in others it seems quite modern even now.

Well done audiobook and recommended. The story itself is flawed, but still well worth a listen.

 

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