A science fiction story’s impact depends on when it’s read. Readers reading “If This Goes On —” by Robert A. Heinlein in the February and March 1940 issues of Astounding Science Fiction would have reacted to the story much differently than I did reading it in the mid-sixties. I felt like I was living in the “Crazy Years” that Heinlein predicted for America in his Future History, and I could believe a second American revolution followed by a theocracy could be in my future too. And I can still believe that happening today. Are we still in the “Crazy Years?”

I’m watching Ken Burns’s new documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, which reveals a much different America than I was taught in history classes, but one that those 1940 readers of Astounding would have known as real life. That documentary series is an excellent companion to my study of early Heinlein.

Reading “If This Goes On —” today changes the story’s impact again. Not, because anything has changed politically, but because I have a lifetime of reading under my belt and I know of much better-written stories on the same theme.

“If This Goes On —” is the perfect example of why science fiction goes out of fashion. Science fiction keeps evolving. Yes, Heinlein gave us the startling idea of a theocracy overtaking the United States, but since then Margaret Atwood took the same idea and devised a much better story with The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s worldbuilding, writing, characterization, and storytelling far exceed Heinlein’s.

“If This Goes On —” was later revised and expanded for the collection Revolt in 2100. In 1967 it was included in The Past Through Tomorrow which collected Heinlein’s Future History stories. Revolt in 2100 is currently in print for the Kindle and Audible, and contains two other short stories, “Coventry” and “Misfit.” It’s a shame that The Past Through Tomorrow hasn’t stayed in print. I wish I had both an ebook and audiobook edition of it.

“If This Goes On —” as revised is considered a novel, but I’m not sure how long the two-part serial was in 1940. It may have been just a long novella. It would have been Heinlein’s first published novel if it was novel-length.

The setting for “If This Goes On —” is three generations after a theocracy has taken over the United States and is about an underground cabal that works to overthrow it. The focus of the story is all over the place. The story is told in the first person by John Lyle, a West Point trained guard at the Palace of the Prophet Incarnate in New Jerusalem. While on guard duty he has a brief encounter with Sister Judith, a virgin on her way to service the Prophet. As in many Heinlein stories, Lyle falls in love with her immediately.

Judith is able to avoid a fate worse than death twice with the implication she wants to be with John Lyle, and Lyle and his roommate Zeb concoct a plan to rescue her. This plan goes awry and John and Zeb must join the opposition cabal. From there the story becomes a thriller with John Lyle acting like a proto-James Bond for a chapter. That part of “If This Goes On —” reminded me of “Gulf” which Heinlein would write at the end of the 1940s. This chapter lets us know that America’s theocracy is a well-developed police state, but one where most people are happy.

The story then slows down for many chapters allowing Heinlein to preach about freedom and some of his other pet subjects, including nudism. I never noticed what a nut Heinlein was about naked bodies when I was a kid. I wonder if readers in the 1940s picked up on that? Heinlein uses John Lyle as an innocent who must learn the ropes from his world-wise friend Zeb. So the rest of the story is a kind of a letdown. Sure, Heinlein has the cabal overthrow the theocracy, but it’s all done too quickly and easily. And the dying love that John Lyle felt for Judith, is unsatisfactorily waved off. That was annoying because Heinlein asked us to believe at the beginning of the story that John Lyle would throw away a promising military career and a faith he completely embraced after one encounter with Sister Judith.

That’s something I’m learning about Heinlein from this current study. Throughout his writing career, he produced stories where people fell instantly in love and even married right away, yet he never gives us believable reasons for their love. Heinlein also expects us to hate his bad guys with little justification too. In his later novels, he just refers to them as the Black Hats.

Even though I’m complaining about the parts I didn’t like, I have to also mention that Heinlein had a way of jumping in and immersing the reader into a completely new world. Most of my disappointment with the story came from Heinlein not delving deeper into this world. Here’s the opening page from the original 1940 version that was significantly rewritten for the book version.

When I first read “If This Goes On —” when I was a young teen, just the idea of an American theocracy was enough to make me admire the story. And the idea that the United States went through the “Crazy Years” was enough to make me excited about Heinlein’s Future History concept. But now, after decades of reading more evolved science fiction, I can see what little world-building Heinlein put into these stories. And after decades of reading literary novels, I can also see what little characterization he put into them too.

I assume if a young person today reads “If This Goes On —” and they’re not very picky or sophisticated about what they read, they might like this old 1940 novel. It has a number of elements popular in modern YA dystopias. The important when factor applies to both when in the development of the reader, and when in the development of our society. Since we’re politically in a time when some people want a theocracy “If This Goes On —” becomes relevant again. And if you’re young, naive, and unsophisticated, and feel oppressed by the current political situation, “If This Goes On —” could be a relevant read to you too.

I just think it’s a shame that “If This Goes On —” is so poorly written and underdeveloped. Novels like The Handmaid’s Tale or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow would be much better substitutes for young readers today. John Lyle and Zeb are in their early twenties, graduates of West Point, so “If This Goes On —” is not a YA novel, however, it feels like one. If Heinlein had fleshed out his American theocracy and truly developed his young characters fighting against it, “If This Goes On —” could have been a significant novel that we should remember. It’s not.

I think readers of 1940s Astounding sensed that Heinlein was onto something. “If This Goes On —” threw out enough ideas to excite those readers. And since they were pulp readers, they didn’t expect much in the way of literary development.

While watching the Ken Burns documentary, I wondered how close we were to a Protestant theocracy in 1940? I’m also reading The Plot Against America by Philip Roth which covers the same time period as the documentary. I’m not sure Heinlein had the writing chops, or the guts to write a novel like Roth’s, but can you imagine what readers of Astounding would have thought if The Plot Against America was serialized in that magazine in 1940?

James Wallace Harris, 9/20/22

20 thoughts on ““If This Goes On —” by Robert A. Heinlein

  1. Heinlein’s influence on young adult readers of science fiction (now old adult readers) is obvious (especially his books for Scribner’s). I’ve started re-reading them myself. Can anyone recommend a few YA authors who are writing today?

    On a side note — If you would like to read online from the original pulp sources, luminist.org has a huge selection of the best sci-fi pulps, including Astounding/Analog, The Mag of Sci fi and Fantasy, Galaxy, and a bunch of others. Each magazine is full and complete (John Campbell’s editorials provide fascinating historical perspectives). Go to the site, scroll down and click ARCHIVES highlighted in blue, then click PERIODICALS, also highlighted in blue. From there, go to the Science Fiction category.

    Luminist, according to the site, is a “non-profit organization dedicated to a future worldwide voluntary/cooperative society and the self-realization of all sentient beings.”
    Ok, whatever. I’m just thankful to them for setting up such a useful site.

    I just finished By His Bootstraps in the October, 1941 Astounding (under the pen name Anson MacDonald). He has two stories in that issue. The illustrations, dated, are still wonderful.

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  2. Yep, I donate to archive.org regularly. Good stuff — and free.
    My wife, a teacher, has a copy of the first Hunger Games. I’ll borrow it.
    Thanks.

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  3. These were my notes when I read If This Goes On—from the 2014 Gollancz edition of The Past Through Tomorrow. I think this contains the expanded version.

    John Lyle is a legate—a sort of palace guard—at the headquarters of America’s dictator, Nehemiah Scudder, better known as the Prophet Incarnate. The prophet also keeps an order of virgins (?) at the palace. Lyle, a real babe in the woods when it comes to worldly matters, strikes up a conversation with Sister Judith, one of the virgins, and promptly decides that he is in love. When he learns that the revered Prophet has demanded carnal services of Judith, he teams up with Sister Magdalene, a tough cookie far more seasoned than the innocent Judith, and with his more experienced friend, Zebadiah Jones, to help Judith escape New Jerusalem (which is situated in New York). All these characters eventually become involved with the Cabal, an underground organisation opposing the Prophet. They must all flee New Jerusalem, and there is some excitement as Lyle, who has already assumed a false name, has to steal a rocket plane in order to escape the authorities. The outcome is never in doubt—as the Cabal’s forces close in on New Jerusalem, the virgins exact their revenge on Scudder. The novel (the expanded version that appears in Revolt in 2100 and here is a novel, according to ISFDB) never rises to any mentionworthy level of suspense, perhaps partly because the reader knows that the first person narrator isn’t going to come to any lasting harm, and partly because the successful revolution has a perfunctory, by-the-numbers quality. The centerpiece of the novel is a skinny dipping outing in an underground rock pool—and the clear implication that Zeb has snuck off to have sex with his companion. This profoundly rattles the devout narrator and serves as an early testing ground for Heinlein’s free love tendencies, which came into full flower in later works. The author, who was honourably discharged from the navy but for many years longed to return to uniform, also lingers lovingly on the details of military rank and tactics, which foreshadows the charges of militarism that were later to attend Starship Troopers. And Judith? She promptly disappears from the stage, sends Lyle a Dear John, which paves the way for Lyle’s later involvement with Maggie. I criticised Heinlein’s depiction of women in some of the early stories, but Maggie is the real thing: an independent, smart, tough character with real agency. The background to the story is also sprinkled with women in positions of real authority, or in traditionally “male” roles. So that’s another pass mark for RAH in the gender examination.

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      1. Yeah, they’re summaries more than reviews, made principally because I forget most stories ten minutes after reading them. Also, I’m reading Stranger in a Strange Land at the moment, and I’m afraid I have to say I’m inclined to walk back some of my general comments. In the opening chapters, and specifically the dialogue between Ben and Jill, the attitude of the male character to his female companion is still rather cringeworthy. Some of Ben’s endearments are condescending and you couldn’t get away with writing like that today. The funny thing is that Heinlein is obviously trying to write strong female characters, but he’s tone deaf—the male characters still mostly talk down to them. And I find the dialogue of the male characters irritating for another reason as well—almost every sentence includes some street-smart witticism. And oh, how he loves haggling, wrangling, negotiating and dickering.

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        1. Heinlein’s male characters never seem to get away from 1930s style movie dialogue. Heinlein believe he or his characters could fast talk their way out of any situation. It comes across as I’m better than all you other schmucks.

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  4. I read Friday when it first came out. She was, as I recall, a very strong female character. Also very much abused. I also remember that I didn’t care too much for the book. Can’t put my finger on why just now, but I’ll pull it off the shelf.

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    1. I detest Friday as a novel and character. Heinlein’s later novels really annoy me. I dislike them as much as I love his novels from the 1950s.

      I think his later novels are his personal fantasies and I find what they reveal disturbing.

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  5. I just googled it and found, to my surprise, it was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula. Not sure what that says about the early 80s when it was published, but it sure wouldn’t garner that attention today.
    Yes, I much prefer the 1950s Heinlein. Anything after The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (even Stranger in a Strange Land) I find less entertaining. I plowed through The Cat Who Walks Through Walls recently and was greatly disappointed.

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  6. That’s it! The reason why I disliked Friday and why it left a bad taste even after forty years. I’d forgotten that specific scene, but now it comes back. You wrote:

    “I can’t forgive Heinlein for creating a woman character who could rationalize being gang-raped as part of her secret agent job but wanted to slowly kill one of her rapists because he didn’t brush his teeth and use mouthwash first.”

    Ugh! I’m by no means “woke” minded, or as we used to say “politically correct.” But that is so degrading. I haven’t read much about Heinlein’s life (I plan on getting the biography you mentioned in a past post), but it sounds like he had some serious sexual issues.

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    1. There are two biographies of Heinlein to consider. There’s a two volume work by William Paterson. Paterson was a faithful fan and the creator of The Heinlein Journal. Then there is the book Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee that is a combined biography of John W. Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard. It’s less flattering. There’s also an overview of his work by Farah Mendlesohn. She reevaluates Heinlein.

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  7. I have to wonder how much influence Heinlein actually had on us, baby boomers SF fans of his juvenile fiction. In my case, as a vapid teenager, all of his political preaching apparently went over my head unnoticed and without leaving a mark.

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    1. In my current rereading of Heinlein I’m realizing I tuned out most of his philosophy and loved the stories and characters. And Heinlein was at his best with storytelling and characterization with his juveniles.

      Also, I loved Heinlein’s stories the most when they were about space travel.

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  8. “If This Goes On–” was considerably revised and expanded for book publication, and some of the revisions were quite substantive. If you don’t feel like digging up the old magazines and comparing them yourself, the Panshins discuss the differences in THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL.

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    1. I’ve read that book twice but I’ve forgotten what it said. I’ll go reread that section.

      I figured the part about atomic bombs were added after the war. I wondered if the skinny dipping part was part of the expanded story since it felt like padding.

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