Keeping the Peasants in Line

on November 26, 2011

I interrupted my excursion through 1940’s science fiction several entries back because I kept feeling there was something important going on in Robert Heinlein’s short novel Waldo that I hadn’t yet come to grips with. And though I still don’t have the complete answer, I’ve become convinced that the underlying dynamic of that story is to be found in the nexus between higher knowledge and elite control.

There’s a strange tension in Waldo, which I believe arises from the fact that Heinlein was confident of his own ability to cope with a universe in which nothing is certain and anything is possible but seriously doubted whether the average person could entertain such a belief without compromising their sanity.

He therefore performed a kind of fictional bait-and-switch, starting off with hints of chaos on the loose but then swapping in a conclusion where Chaos is easily reduced to Order to suit the preferences of a nobody-in-particular like Waldo. And he cut the story short before this double-shuffle could be exposed as the con job it was.

Moreover, it wasn’t just higher knowledge that Heinlein felt most people were unable to handle, but difficult facts or decisions of any kind. Over and over, his stories were constructed as arguments for the necessity of elite control.

This was not a widely-held position at the time. The period from roughly 1915 to 1970 was dominated by a struggle to eliminate the old 19th century class system, and the populist impulse was particularly strong in the late 1930’s and early 40’s. But there were always a few people who, like Heinlein, had little faith in self-government and pinned their hopes on the emergence of a new elite based on merit rather than heredity.

Heinlein was born in a small town in Missouri and raised in Kansas City, and his family was far from wealthy. However, his intelligence and determination secured him a place at the U.S. Naval Academy, and he served in the Navy from 1929 until he contracted tuberculosis and was invalided out in 1934. This meant that while most of the country was suffering through the traumatic early phases of the Great Depression, Heinlein was out at sea playing the role of an officer and a gentleman.

In the context of the late 30’s, Heinlein passed as a leftist because he believed in the need for social reform, but he was never a populist. In his eyes, society needed to be run by people much like himself — scientists and engineers with a touch of military-style discipline. And when his personal dreams of becoming such a leader fell short, he found his way to a new career as a science fiction writer and began setting forth his ideas in his stories.

There was one major complication, however — which was that those stories were published in pulp magazines whose audience Heinlein thought of as peasants, people unsuited for genuine knowledge or power. He therefore consistently wrote in such a way as to give his readers the flattering illusion that they were among the elite, while disguising his true beliefs about the nature of reality and their place in it.

And that brings us back to Waldo.

I described the story earlier as a bait-and-switch — which from the perspective of the average reader, it was. I suspect, however, that Heinlein’s true purpose was rather more subtle, and that the story was deliberately constructed in such a way as to convey two messages at once.

One message, aimed at the masses, was a bit of reassuring mumbo jumbo about how magic could be reduced to science and used to keep things humming along in an orderly and predictable manner. But the other, intended for what Heinlein took to be his real audience, was an assertion that ancient occult truths had been reborn in the form of chaos and could be drawn upon for power by those who knew how.

And the most elegant part of the exercise was that Waldo’s conclusion about “Orderly Cosmos, created out of Chaos — by Mind!” conveyed both messages simultaneously. It all depended on whose Mind was calling the shots — and Heinlein dropped abundant hints that Waldo was not the one in control.

Heinlein must have been laughing up his sleeve over the sleight of hand he had pulled off in this story — but out in the real world, things weren’t nearly that simple. Chaos was truly on the loose, control over the nature of reality was up for grabs, and the heretics of the era were as aware of that as any would-be occult master.

Henry Kuttner was a born heretic. His father had died when he was young, and he had grown up not only poorer than Heinlein but without Heinlein’s opportunities to catapult himself into the ranks of the elite. The stories he co-wrote with his wife often featured protagonists who had been cheated out of their birthright, and Moore would later say, in describing what each of them had contributed to their collaborative work, that “Hank’s basic statement was something like, ‘Authority is dangerous and I will never submit to it.'”

Kuttner’s distrust of authority is apparent in the way he borrowed imaginative devices from Heinlein but always managed to give them a subversive twist. “Time Locker,” for example, was clearly inspired by Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps,” but this story — in which a crooked lawyer unwittingly reaches into the middle of next week and crushes himself like a bug — transformed Heinlein’s simple time travel paradox into a dark little morality play about the unscrupulous exercise of power backfiring on the user.

“Time Locker” was the first of the Gallegher stories, and it opens with a description of its protagonist:

“Gallegher played by ear, which would have been all right had he been a musician — but he was a scientist. A drunken and erratic one, but good. He’d wanted to be an experimental technician, and would have been excellent at it, for he had a streak of genius at times. Unfortunately, there had been no funds for such specialized education, and now Gallegher, by profession an integrator machine supervisor, maintained his laboratory purely as a hobby.”

It appears that Kuttner had put a lot of himself into his creation, from his failure to attend college due to lack of funds to his tendency to drink to excess. However, the most interesting thing in the passage may be its description of Gallegher as an “integrator machine supervisor.”

This phrase may strike the ear today as a meaningless bit of 1940’s technobabble, but a bit of googling suggests that Kuttner had an actual piece of equipment in mind — an early proto-computer invented in 1930 by Vannevar Bush that was known as the differential analyzer or mechanical integrator.

This non-electronic, analog computing device, which relied upon a complicated system of shafts and gears, would have been familiar to Kuttner from an article, “Tools for Brains,” that had appeared in the July 1939 issue of Astounding.

To make the operations easier, each input table is arranged with connections for starting and stopping the machine, and with gear shift levers for three speeds forward and one reverse, so that if one operator loses his place on the curve, or can’t turn the crank fast enough, he can always shift. There is also an automatic speed control on the machine itself, and a control board panel with a fascinating array of lights to show which tables and shafts are in operation, which directions they are going, and their speed, with warning lights flashing as speeds approach the maximum allowed. . . .

In full operation, with five input operators, one person on the printing mechanism, a general captain of the team, and a mechanic standing by, the full complexity of the machine and its great power become apparent.

Back when this machine represented the leading edge of computing technology, there were no computer programmers. The first programmable electronic computer was the ENIAC, whose construction began six months after the publication of “Time Locker” and whose existence remained a secret until the end of World War II. But within the limits of Kuttner’s knowledge, Gallegher’s day job as the supervisor of a mechanical integrator was as close to being a computer programmer as it was possible to get.

And once we start to think of Gallegher as the prototypical computer programmer, it inevitably follows that in his brilliantly intuitive after-hours tinkering, he is also the prototype of the computer hacker.

This is far from a coincidence — since as I suggested a few entries back, Heinlein and Kuttner represent two diametrically opposed ways of relating to the chaos vision. In Heinlein’s stories, chaos is outwardly subordinated to scientific materialism, while its central premise of a universe where anything is possible remains an esoteric secret. But for Kuttner and certain others, the insights of chaos are available to anyone and serve by their very nature as a weapon against illegitimate authority.

And that is extremely important, because we live today in the world that Heinlein imagined. We are governed by a self-proclaimed meritocracy of political and corporate leaders who claim the right to make decisions for the rest of us and are prepared to lie, keep secrets, bend the law, suspend the normal operations of democracy, and call out the full force of the police at a moment’s notice in order to maintain their power.

And at the same time, the most determined opponents of this illegitimate usurpation of authority are Gallegher’s many offspring — the hackers, do-it-yourself inventors, and wacky pranksters who have no troops at their disposal, no worldly fortunes, and whose only strength lies in their ability to draw upon the power of higher knowledge.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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