“Coventry” by Robert A. Heinlein first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in July of 1940 and marks the end of his first year of publishing science fiction with eight stories. “Coventry” is also part of his Future History series and was first published in book form in Heinlein’s collection Revolt in 2100, which is still in print, including audio and ebook.
Heinlein’s legacy suggests he was hardcore libertarian, and that might have been true at times, but not always. “Coventry” shows a streak of liberalism or even utopianism. The “Coventry” of the title refers to land set aside for those citizens who do not want to abide by the Covenant, a future constitution of what the United States became after the Crazy Years. Under the Covenant, all citizens are guaranteed the freedom to pursue their happiness so long as they don’t commit violence against another citizen.
The story begins with the trial of David MacKinnon who is convicted of damaging another citizen’s freedom. David freely admits he punched out a guy but rationalizes he committed no offense because the guy had insulted him. The judge tells him that’s no excuse. I thought this was rather amusing because, in later Heinlein novels, Heinlein’s characters often claim that rudeness should be a capital offense, and sometimes his characters do kill people for being offensive.
David is given a choice: go to Coventry, or submit to psychological reeducation. David has a big ego, and he’s quite self-righteous about his actions, so he accepts being sent to Coventry. However, he has the illusion that it’s a wide-open frontier and he can go there and live in peace like a pioneer of old. He is allowed to take anything he wants into Coventry and converts his savings into fancy camping equipment.
Coventry is behind a giant force-field, and well guarded. David is told he can ask to leave at any time if he’s willing to undergo psychological reeducation. He swears that will never happen, and they open a portal in the barrier just large enough for David to drive his all-terrain vehicle through it. At first, Coventry seems like open free land, but soon David arrives at a guard station where he’s told he must pay customs duty. This enrages him and he refuses. The guards, which he thinks of as thugs, take all his possessions and start dividing them up. Once again, David goes before a court. He soon discovers that there are governments and laws within Coventry, three of them, each with their own approach to how things should be run. David is outraged that Coventry isn’t the unspoiled frontier he imagined. Again, he refuses to cooperate with the local laws and gets himself imprisoned. Eventually, David realizes he was wrong and wants to leave Coventry, but it’s not that easy.
It seems to me, Heinlein uses Coventry to model America in 1940, and the country of the Covenant to model how he imagines life should be in the United States. Heinlein also imagines another near utopia in his early novel Beyond This Horizon (Astounding, April and May 1942). Heinlein’s unpublished novel, For Us the Living written in 1938-1939 is also near utopian. Much of it was recycled for his early stories and Beyond This Horizon.
But after WWII, I’m not sure Heinlein ever imagined a positive big government again. Many of his stories, maybe even most, had characters trying to escape a big government by becoming a space pioneer, or by overthrowing a government. So it’s quite interesting to see Heinlein imagining a large well-run government. Wait — I’ve thought of one exception, Starship Troopers. If you can recall another, leave a comment.
And when I said Heinlein was being near utopian, I don’t mean he was advocating a perfect society, but one that was very well designed and had few problems. Heinlein obviously thought we could do much better than we were in 1940.
One of my friends regularly tells me she wishes the states could be divided up between conservatives and liberals so we didn’t have to live with each other. “Coventry” is Heinlein imagining this wish in a way. Most people accept the big government of the Covenant, while the anti-government folks are sent to a reservation where anything goes. What Heinlein does in the story is say anything goes leads to power structures run by strong men and gives three examples. One is a theocracy made of renegades from his earlier short novel, “If This Goes On—.”
Heinlein’s collection Revolt in 2100 includes “If This Goes On—,” “Coventry,” and “Misfit.” But you really need to read all the other early Future History stories, and to get them you need to track down a used copy of The Past Through Tomorrow. See my “Heinlein’s Super Collections” about which short stories collections to buy used.
Of course, what I’m calling a near utopia Heinlein might call a libertarian society. However, it is a big government running things so everyone is given the maximum freedom to pursue their happiness. I’m not sure theories about small government existed back then, not in the way some conservatives think about it now.
For those Heinlein fans who really want to get into Heinlein’s politics and philosophy, I highly recommend reading “Chapter 5: Heinlein and Civic Society” and “Chapter 6: Heinlein and the Civic Revolution” in Farah Mendlesohn’s The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein. I was at first somewhat disappointed with her book because she didn’t go story by story and write about each in depth. But as I write these reviews, I can see of the value of her writing about them theme by theme, referencing the stories by how each fit into Heinlein’s beliefs. It makes it hard to quote her about any particular story, but if you read each of her chapters as a whole, it has an overall cumulative summation of all of Heinlein’s stories.
“Coventry” came in first in the Analytical Laboratory but there were not any devoted letters about it in the letter column. I’ve been a little disappointed with the letter column because Campbell doesn’t give that much space to the discussion of stories. And quite often fans wrote about the artwork instead. At this time, Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard was still getting most of the story discussion comments. I need to read that novel. (“Brass Tacks” was divided into two sections. The first part was story comments, and the second section was devoted to science discussion. I think Campbell preferred spending space on this section more.)
James Wallace Harris, 12/3/22