“The Roads Must Roll” is one of Heinlein’s most famous shorter works, yet I’ve never been very fond of it. Science fiction writers love to be inventors. They often imagine a gadget and then write a story around their imaginary invention. Secretly, I think they want to think up things before anyone else, and then get credit for them in the future after real inventors get around to building their fictional machines.

In “The Roads Must Roll” Heinlein envisions giant moving walkways, called Roadways or Roadcities, that carry people over vast distances at high speed. Just picture an airport slideway scaled up to take people throughout cities, between cities, and even across the country. To me, it’s always been one of the dumbest ideas Heinlein ever had.

Just contemplate a moving roadway that carries a million passengers a day. If one thing goes wrong, a million people are stranded. It’s much saner to have one car break down and allow 999,999 people to keep on schedule. And what about freight shipping? How do you push boxes or freight containers onto the roadways? Heinlein has passengers getting onto these moving roadways by stepping onto a slow-moving 5-mile-per-hour belt and gradually moving across a series of faster belts until they reach a wide 100-mile-per-hour belt where people can sit, shop, or eat while they travel.

The energy expenditure for such a system would be far greater than having individual cars and trucks. However, Heinlein did imagine these roadways being powered by solar panels. And it’s interesting that Heinlein, who was such an individualist, promoted mass transit for the future.

Once again Heinlein begins his story with a public discussion, a union meeting with an agitator. Heinlein loved public discussions because they give the illusion of drama and action. The plot involves Shorty van Kleeck, the Chief Deputy Engineer, convincing union members they are more important than any other worker in America, so they should be the leaders of America making the important decisions. Van Kleeck proposes a “New Order” in which he plans to be the leader. Concurrent with this action, Larry Gaines, the Chief Engineer of the Diego-Reno Road Town, has to entertain the Minister of Transport for Australia, Mr. Blekinsop, who wants to learn about the rolling roads technology. This allows Heinlein to do a lot of infodumping and describe how the roadcities work. While taking Blekinsop on a trip on a roadway, there is a catastrophic failure, and Gaines leaps into action. Eventually, Gaines meets up with van Kleeck and learns the failure was intentional, a demonstration of power by van Kleeck and his revolutionaries.

Most of the action sequences involve Heinlein showing Gaines’s importance. He’s able to snub the mayor and governor because his experience and knowledge trump everything. This is an annoying trick Heinlein often uses. Heinlein likes to set up superman-like characters who answer to no one. I can’t help but feel that’s how Heinlein felt about himself. It’s rather ironic that Heinlein worshipped the military and often used its structure in his stories, but personality-wise, he was a go-your-own-way kind of guy.

Heinlein was involved in California politics in the 1930s, and he saw a lot of violence, especially union and political violence. I assumed that experience inspired this story. Plus Heinlein was also obsessed with the American Revolution and revolutionaries. My hunch has always been that Heinlein wanted to design a better society. Heinlein pictured the roadway system being managed by the United States Academy of Transport, with workers having ranks.

Heinlein also likes to read books about social theory, and quite often used such theories in his stories. In “The Roads Must Roll” Heinlein even mentions a book by name, Concerning Function: A Treatise on the Natural Order in Society by Paul Decker, published in 1930. In this case, Heinlein is using “The Roads Must Roll” to attack the book.

I can’t find this book on ABEbooks or Wikipedia, nor in a quick search on Google. Google’s top returns deal with “The Roads Must Road.” So I don’t know if this was a real book or not. If anyone knows, leave a comment.

Overall, “The Roads Must Roll” flows along, full of action, and good world-building, with 1940s slang, and wit. Heinlein is a good storyteller, even when I disagree with his speculation. “The Roads Must Roll” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, where science fiction writers voted for their favorite science fiction stories that were published between 1929 and 1964. “The Roads Must Roll” actually came in 7th in the overall voting after “Nightfall,” “A Martian Odyssey,” “Flowers for Algernon,” “Microcosmic God,” “First Contact,” and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” and tieing with “”Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” “Coming Attraction,” and “The Cold Equations.” Obviously, “The Roads Must Roll” is a well-loved story by the first generations of science fiction writers.

[I sure would love to know which stories from 1929-1964 science fiction writers working in 2022 would vote for today.]

“The Roads Must Roll” came in second in the Analytical Laboratory (August 1940). But then serials usually come in first, and it was a big one, Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard. However, a letter writer praised the seriousness of Final Blackout, If This Goes On, and “The Roads Must Roll’ as proof that science fiction wasn’t just escapism. Another reader focused just on Heinlein:

It’s interesting, that on the cover of the June 1940 Astounding, which illustrates “The Roads Must Roll” we see individual vehicles shown in action. I assume they are the support vehicles the maintenance crews use below the rolling roads, and even then, they are not like how I pictured them in the story. The interior illustration got attacked in the letter column as being just a smear. It’s a shame that neither illustration pictures the roadway like Heinlein did in the story.

James Wallace Harris, 11/26/22

4 thoughts on ““The Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein

  1. Hello James,

    Thanks for your enlightening essay on “The Roads Must Roll”.
    Interesting that you mention the story’s appearance in Volume I of the “Science Fiction Hall of Fame”. I read the story in the mid-1970s, in Avon’s 1972 paperback edition of the book, when I was a high-school sophomore. (I suppose this “dates” me, eh?!)

    Your review vividly brought back my memories and general impressions of the tale – even now, several decades later! – and in a larger sense, clarified my opinions about Heinlein as a writer. Certainly I’ve always respected his ability to compose a fast-moving, smooth, gripping story, and create fictional “worlds” with an almost visual clarity. But, I’ve long felt there was something way too “pat and easy” about the plot and resolution of at least some of his tales, a particular example being “If This Goes On”. However, only in recent years, in light of essays like yours, or Alec Nevala-Lee’s “Astounding”, have I learned about the ideological and political underpinnings of Heinlein’s writing, which changed over the decades.

    Well, you know the phrase “straw man”…? Regarding Paul Decker’s 1930 “Concerning Function: A Treatise on the Natural Order in Society”, I believe that this is a “straw book”: Searching WorldCat (https://www.worldcat.org/) for either the author’s name, or title words, for any monograph published between 1925 and 1935 yields no results. So, it seems that Heinlein contrived the book and the theory of social relations therein, to present his own ideas.

    Thanks for your enlightening and well-written posts.

    Michael

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  2. I’ve always liked this story in spite of its flaws, including its arguably anti-union politics. I like it for the qualities which Jim mentions–“action, and good world-building, with 1940s slang, and wit.” I also like all the discussion which Heinlein wove into the story. By the way, the villainous von Kleeck character reminded me of Trump–I found it easy to picture him as Trump when I re-read the story not long ago.

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  3. I read it as a youngster in “Adventures in Time and Space” and haven’t read it since. What I have done since though, is think about how practical it would be.

    “Just picture an airport slideway scaled up to take people throughout cities, between cities, and even across the country. To me, it’s always been one of the dumbest ideas Heinlein ever had.”

    That’s pretty much my view of the story, or rather the roads themselves. In addition to what you mention is that little thing about air resistance — there’s a reason why windshields are on vehicles.

    I think I’ll give it another read, since it’s regarded as one of his classic stories.

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