by David M. Silver ©2001
“Coventry” is an oft-ignored short story in The Future History Series chronologically and conceptually taking place between the novelette “If This Goes On . . .” (ASF, Feb-Mar 1940, rewritten and expanded for collection 1953) and the novel Methuselah’s Children (ASF Jul-Aug-Sep 1941, rewritten and expanded for book publication 1958). The author postulates a highly evolved and comfortable society in which democracy has been restored following ‘The Second American Revolution’ against the theocratic dictatorship imposed by Nehemiah Scudder, the “Prophet,” and his successors, a revolution described in “If This Goes On . . .”. The patriots who restored this freedom have engrafted to the Constitution of 1791 an agreement known as the “Covenant,” defined as the custom of all to refrain from doing any damage to other citizens–a “golden rule” imposed into law, to insure the maximum possible liberty for every person.
In the story, Heinlein’s protagonist David MacKinnon is by occupation an English Literature Professor–immediately a tip-off of the author’s viewpoint, given Heinlein’s expressed disdain for some practitioners of that occupation [See, the essay “Who Are The Heirs of Patrick Henry: Afterword” republished in Expanded Universe (1980); see also: the character of Clyde Leamer in Cp. XI, Time Enough For Love (1973)]–who violates the “Covenant” by committing atavistic violence. He breaks the nose of someone who calls him an “upholstered parasite,” surely ‘fighting words’ to a Literature teacher! In his words, “I simply punched a man in the nose for offending me outrageously.” The State convicts him of the essential crime of believing himself capable of judging morally his fellow citizens and feeling justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses–being a danger to all that, from its societal standpoint, makes him mad as a March Hare. He is sentenced to choose between the Two Alternatives normally offered offenders in that society. The choice: either undergo submission to psychological readjustment to correct his tendency to wish to damage others, or having the state withdraw itself from him–by exiling him to Coventry, is Hobbesian in the extreme. Here, Coventry is a very real place–separated from the rest of the Country and kept so by an physical Barrier thought impassable–a mysterious wall of force fields. Addressing the Court, MacKinnon castigates his society for its choice to fit into a “cautious little pattern” of “compromising ‘safe’ weaklings with water in their veins . . . [who’ve] planned their world so carefully you’ve planned the fun and zest right out of it.” The English teacher, a self-defined “rugged individualist,” chooses Coventry. What do you suppose the author who many today consider the prophet of the Libertarian Party, “rugged individualists” all, had in store for this “rugged individualist”? What MacKinnon finds in Coventry changes him and is the story.
Plot synopsis of “Coventry”
Before passing through the Gate into Coventry, an Army guard advises MacKinnon he may elect to return at any time, by presenting himself at the Gate, at the cost, however, of mandatory submission to “psychological readjustment.” Entering Coventry, MacKinnon first encounters a customs station manned by fellow “rugged individualists” working for their own government who “tax” him by confiscating at gunpoint nearly all his “imported” possessions. So much for the Crusoe-like independence he imagined would exist in a land of “noble, independent spirits who give each other wide berth and practice mutual respect.”
Left virtually penniless, he next is conveyed to a court that fines him for ineffectually resisting the imposition of customs ‘duties’ (he had reached for his rifle which one guard neatly shot out of his hands to avoid filling out necessary reporting forms had he elected to kill him), then sentences him to an additional ten days for vagrancy to serve while awaiting auction of his remaining property to pay his fine. Undoubtedly the expected ‘deficiency judgment’ will result from the ‘auction,’ hence: more jail time. In jail he meets a fellow prisoner named “Fader” Magee who befriends and helps him escape. From him he learns that the territory of Coventry is subdivided into three realms, the largest, so-called “New American,” governed by the people who’ve taxed and imprisoned him; next, a smaller “Free State,” which is an absolute dictatorship ruled over by the “Liberator,” where the watchwords are Duty and Obedience; and, finally, the small mountain domain of the “Angels,” populated by an unreconstructed remnant of the Prophet’s followers under a theocracy complete with a Prophet Incarnate and all the trimmings. All three claim to be the only legal government of the United States and look forward to redeeming the rest of the Country. War is ongoing between the Liberator’s Free State and New America. While fugitive he meets a secret organized guild of thieves that, through Magee’s intercession, enables him to continue evading New America’s law by sending him to refuge with “the Doctor,” a natural healer in voluntary exile practicing his skill in a society that most needs his skills–whose person and household are sacrosanct. There, he also discovers Persephone, a fifteen year old orphan girl, adopted by the Doctor, whose naive and childlike innocence engendered by her lack of contact with the Outside or even with other inhabitants of Coventry is tempered with readings unchecked from the library of a sophisticated and protean-minded man of science. Finally, when ‘Fader’ Magee returns, he discovers through listening to a conversation between the Doctor and Magee that New America and the Free State have allied, developed a weapon that will defeat the Barrier around Coventry, and plan to attack the United States Outside the Barrier. Magee, who believes this weapon is certainly dangerous, leaves to attempt to penetrate the Barrier and warn the Outside against it, after telling MacKinnon how he intends to avoid the Barrier. Time passes, and when it appears Magee has been unsuccessful, naive Persephone decides to simply drive to the Gate and warn the Outside. MacKinnon dissuades her, knowing that Free State and New America guards are patrolling. Instead, he takes the life-risking route Magee explained to him. He incurs serious injury, but succeeds in bringing the warning to the Outside. Expecting mandatory submission to psychological readjustment, he is surprised to find society deems him “cured” of his maladjustment, the evidence of that being his physical sacrifice in bringing the warning. He is also surprised to find that ‘Fader’ Magee is Lieutenant Magee, an undercover intelligence officer, assigned to penetrate and spy out the doings of the societies of Coventry.
What exactly does the author intend one to make of this story? Does it have a bearing on the obligations of behavior one owes a society to which one belongs? Are you interested in what others might see in it?