Sixth Column first appeared in the January, February, and March 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. For it, Heinlein used the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald, so it’s not considered part of his Future History series. Sixth Column is generally thought of as one of Heinlein’s bottom-of-the-barrel novels. Critics sometimes try to defend Heinlein by pointing out he wrote Sixth Column based on a story given to him by John W. Campbell, Jr., thus transferring some of the blame for this stinker to his editor. Also, it’s often dismissed as a racist Yellow Peril novel that was common back in the 1930s. Even if you ignore the racism, the story itself is silly and unbelievable. The story’s sense of reality is equal to a comic book.
The basic plot is six American servicemen are the sole survivors of an overwhelming attack on the United States that completely destroys all our military. We are occupied by soldiers from an unnamed Asian country, that Heinlein refers to as Pan Asian. The six surviving soldiers were in a hidden mountain bunker doing secret scientific research, and one of them just happens to be smarter than Einstein who can churn out exotic weapons based on theoretical physics. The story is about how they conquered the invaders and freed America.
Heinlein’s Sixth Column falls into the category of invasion literature. These were an early form of science fiction that began in the last third of the 19th century and ran until WWI. In England, the common fear was Germany would take over. But every country had authors that wrote scary stories about invasions from other countries. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Well is considered inspired by the invasion literature genre.
Since Sixth Column was written in 1940, and Japan had been invading countries since 1931, I have to assume Heinlein meant Japan when he wrote Pan Asian. It’s a shame Heinlein just didn’t write Japan and Japanese instead as he typed. It would seem much less racist now, and probably a bit prophetic at the time. Were there legal issues back then?
The Pan Asians who occupied America in this story completely controlled every aspect of Americans’ lives. They only allowed one freedom – the freedom of religion. Heinlein’s six soldiers invent a religion to spread to all the major cities as a cover and then use secret super weapons to defeat the enemy.
Sixth Column is readable, but that’s about all I can say for it. I did think the idea of creating a fake religion was neat. In another serial Heinlein wrote in 1940, “If This Goes On—” he has the U.S. overthrown by a theocracy. I’m reading that one now. Heinlein sure did like to think big in his plotting. The idea of six men repelling an entire invasion was exciting stuff in 1941, at least to pulp magazine readers. Heinlein loved creating characters that were confident in their abilities and could essentially do anything. Heinlein plotted Sixth Column better than Methuselah’s Children, his second three-part serial of 1941. I think that was due to focusing on fewer characters and a smaller scale if you can envision six men fighting off millions being a smaller setting than the events in Methuselah’s Children. But I do since Heinlein’s imagination ran to even bigger whoppers to believe in that story.
But even with this faint praise, I can’t recommend reading Sixth Column, unless you’re like me and studying all of Heinlein’s work.
James W. Harris