If This Goes On…

A Study of “IF THIS GOES ON—” Bill Patterson

by Bill Patterson ©2000

This article originally appeared in The Heinlein Journal, Issue #7, July 2000

Editor’s Note: The revised version of “If This Goes On—” published in 1953’s Revolt in 2100 is eligible for consideration (subject to the Hugo administrator’s final authority on what constitutes a “Revised” work) for a Retro Hugo at the 2004 Worldcon, Noreascon Four, Boston, Massachusetts. As originally published at 33,000 words in 1940 it was a novella. The 1953 rewrite –the version that the overwhelming number of SF fans are familiar with as one of the keystones of Heinlein’s Future History— weighs in at 57,300 words, which makes it a novel for Hugo purposes. 1953’s Starman Jones is also eligible for consideration for a Retro Hugo at Noreascon Four.

Gifford NHOL 011 ca. 57,300 words in final version. Published in 33,800 word version February and March 1940 ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION; rewritten, expanded to 57,300 words, and collected into REVOLT IN 2100 (1953) and THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW (1967


Elements of the story [in brackets] were not in the original publication; elements stricken through were removed in the book version.

John Lyle, Legate and Angel of the Lord, a member of the elite corps that guards the holy person of the Prophet Incarnate, has a sickness in his soul: he finds life at the Palace, capital of the former United States, disillusioning. While standing guard on a parapet one night, he meets Sister Judith – a fresh-caught Virgin, nervous about her coming service to the Prophet. He is smitten with her. [They meet twice, briefly, before] her lot is drawn and she panics when she overhears the Prophet in a cynical discussion of taxes [called on to service the Prophet sexually]. At great risk, Lyle induces his friend Zebadiah Jones, to help set up a meeting with Judith while she is under discipline. They decide to recruit help from The Cabal, an underground resistance group, or consortium of groups led by Freemasons and committed to restoring secular, democratic government to the United States. Lyle and Zeb join the Cabal and the local Masonic lodge. Judith is arrested; the Cabal spirits her away to safety. Lyle undergoes the Inquisition but his hypnopedic conditioning holds, and the Cabal rescues him, as well. [Underground now, he begins to learn about his heritage of freedom as an American and as a Freemason].

Disguised as a textiles drummer, Lyle couriers information to various cells of the Cabal around the country. About to be unmasked, he steals a skycar and crashes out of custody. Evading his pursuers, he flees for the hidden center of the Cabal, somewhere in Arizona. He goes underground in a more literal way, meeting up again with Zeb, who has transferred to headquarters in the meantime, as well. Both Lyle and Zeb are valuable additions to the Cabal, as they have West Point training in the Applied Miracles and military strategy and tactics the Cabal will use to stage the Second American Revolution. [Lyle begins a process of personal growth, shedding some of his personal rigidity.] He winds up as aide to General Huxley, the military commander of the Assault forces. [He receives a “Dear John” letter from Judith and begins dating Maggie, the Virgin and Cabal member who had helped him rescue Judith]

Even when they are militarily ready, however, the Cabal’s professional psycho technicians insist that they can win the battle but still lose the civil war that will follow if the populace is not psychologically prepared for the Revolution. Zebadiah proposes that they coordinate the assault with highjacking one of the official miracles of the American Theocracy, substituting their own propaganda figure for the annual Miracle of the Incarnation so that the founder of the Theocracy himself denounces the reigning Prophet Incarnate. The emotional shock will delay automatic resistance until they can consolidate their military win.

The assault is successful, though New Jerusalem holds out for some weeks after the rest of the country is secured. The Cabal sets up civil government capitalled in St. Louis, and begins a program of mass hypnotic reorientation of the once subject populace. [A program of hypnotic reconditioning of the populace toward non-religious freedom is proposed and rejected because “free men are not conditioned. “]

Lyle [marries Maggie and] arranges to be with Huxley during the final assault on New Jerusalem, using telepaths to handle communications with the forces. During the assault, General Huxley is killed; John Lyle quietly issues orders to keep the assault on track, then turns over command to the next in line. At the crucial moment, the Cabal forces holed up within New Jerusalem join with the assault forces attacking from outside, and the citadel falls, the Prophet torn apart by his “Virgins” before he can be captured.

After the Revolution John Lyle gives up the military life, marries Judith, and takes up a career as a textiles drummer.

1. Composition and Publishing History

As the summer of 1939 drew to a close, Heinlein’s writing was going well. His first story, “Life-Line,” appeared in the August 1939 ASTOUNDING, and Campbell bought “Misfit” (also in August, following extensive revisions over the summer). He had also rejected half a dozen other stories, but Heinlein felt that he had found Campbell’s range, to use a gunner’s expression. “—Vine and Fig Tree—” was written in August, apparently after some correspondence with Campbell which has not been preserved, but which is implied in the few mentions of this story in GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE.

Campbell was extremely enthusiastic about the story, turning down an Asimov story proposal on the religious theme to avoid either conflict or undue repetition. [Asimov, 247]. The story was accepted on August 25 at 33,800 words, a novella, though sometimes spoken of as a novel, but in any case long enough to make a two-part serial. Campbell retitled it with a reflection of the most basic extrapolation technique of science fiction, “‘If This Goes On—.” For some time, the readership and fans of science fiction had been calling for more “sociological” stories, and this was it, with a vengeance. Campbell scheduled it for the February and March 1940 issues of ASTOUNDING, following serialization of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s GRAY LENSMAN, and wrote a special editorial for the February issue dealing with the development of psychology as a science, a topic on which the story turns. As it happened, a story written later (“Requiem”) was scheduled for the January 1940 issue of ASTOUNDING, so Heinlein was in the first three issues of the new year with exceptionally strong stories that put him in the first rank of science fiction writers. [Note 1] Heinlein’s personal technique of working out backstory on the level of domestic detail and combining imagined detail on a parity level with recalled, real-life detail had produced stories of unusual “depth” for science fiction at the time, and the readers were no less quick than Campbell to notice and applaud (though the striking cover by Hubert Rogers for the February issue got almost —but not quite— as much and as enthusiastic approval). The comment by reader Joseph Gilbert in the April 1940 “Brass Tacks” letter column is typical:

“Heinlein is really going places. He has a mastery of technical principles that is amazing in such a new writer. He is so convincing and logical, and so forceful, that it is irritating to reach the end of one of his tales. The thesis that he presents in ‘If This Goes On—’ is not only interesting; it approaches fact a bit too intimately for comfort. . .” [160]

Indeed, Futurian fan Johnny Michel wrote to Campbell saying that as he was reading the first installment, his home was invaded by a disciple of Judge Rutherford of the Watchtower Society (the Jehovah’s Witnesses)NOTE, declaiming about the coming Theocratic takeover. Too intimate for comfort, indeed!

Both parts of “If This Goes On—” placed first in the Analytical Laboratory (readers’ preference polls) published in May and June 1940. That summer, in a trip that included New York and Chicago, where he observed the Democratic National Convention re-nominate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Heinlein visited the Queens Science Fiction League specifically to talk about “If This Goes On-“

After World War II, science fiction experienced a boom that included development of a market for hardback books. A number of fan and specialty presses emerged, including Erle Korshak’s and T.E. Ditky’s Shasta Press. From 1950, Heinlein began to issue collections of his stories, including three volumes of the Future History, THE MAN WHO SOLD THE MOON (1950), THE GREEN HILLS OF EARTH (1951), and REVOLT IN 2100 (1953). [Note 2]

Heinlein carefully edited his stories for permanent collection, but the changes were usually minor (e.g., adding jets to “Elsewhen” or changing a reference to a “honey blonde” from Sally Rand to Betty Grable and then to Marilyn Monroe in “Let There Be Light”). In a few cases, he took the opportunity to undo an undue editorial interference —restoring the title of “Lost Legion” to its original “Lost Legacy” and returning the “Ambrose James” of the magazine publication to his original Ambrose Bierce, or restoring a character cut out of his original draft for magazine publication of “Elsewhen” (this, too, is a restored title; Campbell had published it as “Elsewhere.”) These looked like significant rewriting, but they were actually restorations to their original —i.e., “as written” —version.

For collection into REVOLT IN 2100, Heinlein completely rewrote “If This Goes On—,” almost doubling its size. Many of the changes add detail about the Cabal; others reflect the mature craftsman smoothing over roughnesses of style. He tones down the drama of the leap from the rocket skycar —quite dramatic without the description of leaping through a sheet of flame. But other changes work on the characterization of the individuals, making the motivations more credible. Perhaps he also took to heart another reader comment, about the ending collapsing, in the ASTOUNDING letter column. At any rate, Heinlein, 1953, was a much more skilled and polished craftsman than Heinlein, 1939, and he took the opportunity to revise this pivotal story of the Future History. This is the version that is most familiar to modern readers of Heinlein, for it was very widely distributed in paperback editions through the 1960’s and was collected again into the Future History omnibus THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW (1967).

Around the same time, Heinlein made significant revisions in several works, including METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN, before concluding that time spent on such revisions was wasted effort and his time and energy could be more productively spent on writing new material.

2. Story Structure and Technique

The story line of “If This Goes On—” unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner, with few obvious technical innovations. It is, again, a Wellsian story that “domesticates the impossible hypothesis,” and Heinlein makes full use of his technique, first explored in “Misfit,” of using recalled detail to give parity to imagined detail. Campbell spoke admiringly of Heinlein giving him stories that might appear in the POST or COLLIERS of the day in which the story is set, the furnishings of that future thoroughly imagined and integrated. Later he was to speak of this as the ideal for ASTOUNDING stories in general. Even in this apparently transparent story, however, there is technical innovation. Like “Life-Line,” whose story is composed of interlocking lines of thematic development (instead of a conventional, story-line driven plot), the story line of “If This Goes On—” is dominated by a thematic progression that significantly determines the imagery in use at any given point in the story. It starts in the faux-Medieval imagery of the Graustark romances, progresses into bourgeois secular modernism, and then progresses again to transcend secular modernism with the establishment of the “First Human Civilization.”

In the magazine version of the story, this progression carries the story along by itself (aided, it is true, by some probably unconscious transpersonal symbolism of sky and caves and underground). John Lyle drops out of the shield-and-buckler military of the Prophet Incarnate, significantly going underground in order to travel in the sky as a commercial traveler, a textiles drummer, then goes underground again, into a magnificent cavern. He joins the heart of the Cabal deep within the earth, where the transformative technology of the day is put into the service of liberal ideals of freedom. Along the way, his social usefulness has blossomed and gained scope: he has gone from a mere decorative ornament in the pomp and ritual of the Palace, to a useful citizen, to an important —even at one point pivotal— agent of human transformation. When John Lyle’s pivotal or transcendent moment passes, he goes back to being a merely useful citizen in the secular-bourgeois world.

Heinlein may not have been conscious of the progression in 1939; fourteen years later, he is more in command of his materials, more aware of the potentialities of his progression and the story developments that will suit them: the revision for REVOLT IN 2100 strengthens the progression by interleaving a story of John Lyle’s personal, intellectual, and moral growth into the broader story of a historical movement and moment of crisis. Heinlein builds in a double discovery-of-hidden-knowledge progression: the initiation into the Masonic-led Cabal with its implied (but not delineated) progression into the secret rituals and doctrines of Freemasonry is paralleled by his self-education into the knowledge familiar to us but made strange and esoteric within the confines of the story of the liberal traditions of the pre-Theocracy United States. The two parallel lines of progression are explicitly linked by Lyle’s discovery that a number of the Founding Fathers were themselves Freemasons, and Heinlein implies that the discovery of this esoteric and “hidden” knowledge is itself a psychological reorientation of an ongoing, self-rectifying type. John Lyle did not require the hypnotic reorientation proposed for the masses (actually carried out in one line in the magazine version and rejected as inappropriate in the book version). His exposure to Masonic theory and American history has taught him critical thinking, and on that foundation he erects the new man. At the start he passively accepts the values of his environment; by the end he has become proactive. The theme of “If This Goes On—” is thus individuation, the process of becoming an independent and self-actualizing human being.

Lyle’s re-orientation is portrayed in a third parallel progression in the 1953 revision: Lyle first loses his prudery and then courts and ultimately marries the somewhat shopworn but nonetheless supremely “grounded” Maggie —Sister Magdalene of the Cabal-in-the-Palace. In this version, we leave John Lyle caught at his moment of transcendence; the unsatisfactory “Prolog at the End” that reunites John Lyle with Judith and replaces him in the sublunary world is simply truncated out. The essential material, dernier pensees about the nature of personal freedom in despite of the manipulations of semanticists and propaganda, has been embodied within the story now.

The ellipsis of the magazine version’s unsatisfying “Prolog At the End” is probably also related to the changed treatment of hypno-conditioning the populace and reflects, not so much ambiguity or a change of heart on Heinlein’s part between 1939 and 1953 (as H. Bruce Franklin implies at 33), as a recognition that the technocratic program of reeducation and psychological reorientation, assumed as necessary as a matter of course, was not consistent with the liberal goals of the Cabal —which are also the liberal values of the America of Heinlein and his wider range of readers.

“If This Goes On—” is the first of Heinlein’s many important first-person narratives, and the “Prolog At the End” displays the magazine version in the artifice of a journal —a device Heinlein was to use more effectively when he was more in command of the technique (e.g., TIME FOR THE STARS and DOUBLE STAR). The artifice is removed in the book version, to very good effect: it jarred when we discovered John Lyle was not, as he had seemed, speaking to us at all —we have been snooping in a communication intended for the psychometricians of the Cabal. In the revision, John Lyle speaks to us directly, much more effectively.

The few instances of revisions in Heinlein’s work are all unusually impressive. Typically, the work was conceived as a whole and written straight through. Comparison of the submission versions of the manuscripts with the carbons of different versions, which are often preserved with the submission copies and tearsheets in the archives at the University of California, Santa Cruz Special Collections, suggest that he was accustomed to brush-pen his verbiage as a first step, “tightening up” the prose, eliminating dependent clauses and prepositional phrases. His self-editing thus tended to be a matter of excision. There are several stories in the archives (most particularly the stories for the POST and the “slicks” written in the late 1940s) that are substantially larger in their as-written form than the as-published form. Revision, on the other hand –rewriting— involved reconceiving the story in an ampler and denser form. Heinlein was, finally, the only person who could edit Heinlein.

3. Stylistic Considerations

The composition of “If This Goes On—” took place in August and September of 1939 and shows Heinlein in full command of his very identifiable prose style and distinctive “voice,” less than six months after he started commercial writing. Yet we find here very little of the slanginess of the New Deal era and much of the biblical quotations that ornament the speech of low protestant and pentecostal sectarians of the American Midwest and South (for both of which Heinlein’s Missouri background qualifies him, protestations of the deeper South to the contrary notwithstanding). Heinlein was raised a Methodist, a sect now regarded as staid but with a rambunctious and evangelical past. He uses the biblical language and imagery with ease, again, both recalling and imagining usages appropriate to his situations.

4. Prior Commentators

Each of the critics who has written general surveys of the oeuvre commented —sometimes extensively— on “If This Goes On—”

In HEINLEIN IN DIMENSION, Panshin places the story in “The Period of Influence” but remarks that it is not well told —”thrown together any which way.” [13] This seems to be a standard or ritual complaint of Panshin’s, not a critique per se, as he makes no attempt to analyze the story’s actual structure. He sees it as exciting but melodramatic, citing the incident of the “Mark Twain”-like character who dies (in the book version) denouncing the proposed hypno-conditioning of the American people as forced emotion. [112] Panshin analyzes John Lyle as an example of the Stage 1 (Adolescent) Heinlein individual. [129] In his later SF IN DIMENSION, cowritten with his wife, Cory Panshin, he places the story, in his “subjective” reading, viewing Heinlein’s first suite of stories as “meaningful self-questioning.” [112] It is an example of Heinlein’s supposed “first crisis,” an individuation crisis moving from self-in-family orientation to self-in-peer-group orientation. Consistent with his position that Heinlein has avoided confronting personal terrors, he notes that “[o]ne of the significant factors in Heinlein’s representations of this crisis is that the Demonic is confronted only distantly.” [113] [Note 3]

In CLASSIC YEARS, George Edgar Slusser sees John Lyle as an Elect individual carrying out a predestined role in history and experiencing different aspects of the revolution only for purposes of exposition. [25-27] Confusingly, he notes character and personality changes but insists that John Lyle nevertheless remains static and undeveloping.

H. Bruce Franklin carelessly (and sensationalisticly) conflates the two versions in his one-paragraph summary at 30 of ROBERT A. HEINLEIN: AMERICA AS SCIENCE FICTION. Pursuing the metaphor of his subtitle, Franklin looks at the story in terms of the two views of liberty (and what should be done about it) presented and concludes that Heinlein is unable to resolve the dilemma: the Revolution ought not to have been able to succeed by the terms of the story without the conditioning Heinlein accepts in 1939 but rejects in 1953. [Note 4]

Leon Stover in ROBERT A. HEINLEIN relates the Theocracy to Mark Twain’s well-publicized revulsion for the theocratic potential of Mary Baker Eddy’s First Church of Christ Scientist [55] and implies that the angry Twain-like Cabalist who inveighs against psycho-conditioning free men is an evocation of Twain speaking for the true spirit of America. [68]

“If This Goes On—” is referenced fifteen times in the index of the 1978 Ohlander/Greenberg collection of essays for Taplinger, ROBERT A. HEINLEIN, but the various essayists’ looks at the story add little to the major critiques, except sometimes by way of opposition (i.e., whereas Slusser sees the sexual content of the swimming incident in the hidden cave as “prurience” and “a higher form of titillation” [25], Sarti sees the same incident as a form of humanizing characterization, establishing John Lyle as “a vulnerable human being, subject to the doubts and fears which chain us all.” [122]

5. Thematic Considerations

Heinlein’s original title for this novella was “‘—Vine and Fig Tree—” a biblical quotation with a dual implication. Not only does it set up the pentecostal, low Protestant social and cultural background of the Scudder Theocracy with its constant and characteristic use of biblical imagery, it also recalls, quite deliberately, George Washington’s parting address to the nation, in which he used that quotation to describe the ideal of government in the new world he had helped to make. It looks forward to a time of stability, peace, and plenty. Freed from a tyrannous government, “he shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.” It also shows the quite conscious alignment of the Cabal with American liberal idealism, in opposition to the Theocratic state, thus turning the Theocracy’s biblical imagery back on itself —a mildly plangent irony.

This particular combination of images marks Heinlein as a liberal in the native tradition. Throughout the nineteenth century, the predominant issue of conservative movements in America had been what might loosely be called “establishmentarianism,” the desire to establish a church —and preferably a pentecostal church— as the overriding authority in the American system of government. The “blue laws” that resulted from this religious political movement (such as the Comstock Law regarding postal dissemination of “objectionable” matter) cast a blight over America’s cultural life well into the 20th century. By the time of the passage of the Comstock Law in 1873, the success of the gradual de-secularization process was so alarming that virtually all factions of America’s native liberalism united in the urgent need to fight the anti-secularists. [Sears, passim but particularly Chapter 2]. Secularism thus became the dominant issue of American liberalism, with the Freethinkers as a radical wing of the liberal movement. Heinlein’s concern with issues such as marriage reform and free love place him securely within the Freethought branch of the American liberal movement.

Even in 1940, religious dictatorships were common situations for science fiction. But Heinlein’s Theocracy is something special. Campbell was entranced by the mass psychology treated as an engineering discipline; others remarked on the Applied Miracles studied at West point and turned against the Prophet by the Cabal. The ironic possibilities in these “backstory” elements are fascinating in themselves, and it is possible that a great deal of the “depth” of story imagining attributed to Heinlein lies in the incorporation of realistic ironies of this type at many different levels.

Heinlein’s principal starting point for the Scudder Theocracy was probably Mark Twain’s gloomy prediction that the U.S. would likely be in a theocracy before 1940. Twain had Mary Baker Eddy in mind as his potential prophet(ess), but Christian Science was not the only such potential theocratic dictatorship. By 1940, the issue was by no means settled.

Heinlein’s original title is thus a writer’s encapsulation of the dominant internal imagery of his story. John Campbell, however, looked at the story from the “other end,” awed by its treatment of external and objective matters —particularly the treatment of mass psychology as a developing (or partially developed) science. He seems to have seen this story as the paradigmatic example of what science fiction could be and ought to be, for he gave the story a title which has almost nothing to do with the story line, but everything to do with its conceptual methods.

Under either name, this story display’s Heinlein’s basic progressivist faith, very strong yet in 1939 — that we can make things better by political action (war, or revolution, being conceptualized as an extension of political action by other means). This progressivist vision, too, is strongly rooted in the American liberal tradition, as “sociology,” in the 19th century and up to World War II, was conceived as a discipline oriented to social reform, which became, by Heinlein’s time, social engineering. Heinlein portrays the scientific development of psychometry as oriented entirely toward the preparation of the masses to inhabit their world —a highly Wellsian position that underlies the assumptions of both Theocrats and revolutionaries in this story.


The story opens firmly entrenched in the conventions of the historical romance: a soldier on the battlements is disillusioned with the life that has been chosen for him by fate; a beautiful woman in distress happens into his life, and the adventure begins. The principal revision to this section of the book version has John Lyle meet Judith twice before her distress develops, somewhat softening the historical-romance conventions. The hero faces torture by the Grand Inquisitor after spiriting his beloved out of danger.

Rescued by the Cabal [Note 5], Lyle leaves the Graustark romances behind. With his initiation into Freemasonry, a naturalistic-bourgeois phase of the story commences. Lyle travels around the Theocracy disguised s a textiles drummer – an occupation in which he finds a certain satisfaction. This phase is emblematic of the modern and secular world, in which initiates work and live unrecognized among the mass of humanity.

The progression continues into a third phase that transcends secular modernity as Lyle helps bring to fruition the Great Work of the Masonic confraternity. He again goes underground: he goes to a church and asks for “light.” He is transported to a cavern system where, in personal terms, his intellectual and moral education is completed by reading the works of the Founding Fathers —Freemasons, many of them, as Masonic lodges had participated in the underground freedom movements of the 18th century. Simultaneously he transcends the “merely modern” as a functionary of the Cabal’s super-high-tech military force making use of psychological technologies as adjuncts to military technologies. He is particularly suited to this, as he had studied both technologies (e.g., Applied Miracles) as a graduate of West Point. The barely conscious Legate John Lyle transforms into the ordinary human textiles drummer and then transforms again into a species of superman, controlling the Miracle of the Incarnation.

The overt story line here is a process-of-learning tale of a type Heinlein later characterized as a “tale of a man who learns better.” This is a story pattern very closely related to the story of Bildung, which Heinlein was to make peculiarly his own. In the process of learning better, John Lyle’s personal development allows Heinlein to exhibit the Scudder Theocracy matured into a totalitarian police state complete with its underground resistance movement dedicated to the liberal ideals of the U.S., which nevertheless achieves a transcendent transformation into the Covenant society – the first scientific social document. The implication is clear: this transcendence is latent in our U.S.

But it is humans making this transformation, not statues of dead statesmen. John Lyle must give up the prudery and straitness of his upbringing before he can advance to selfactualization. The pivotal scene of Lyle’s personal growth is not contained in the magazine version (as, indeed, the entire subplot is not contained in the magazine version): it is the swimming scene in which Lyle is brought to consciousness of his sexual nature and that of his fellows. In a pool of clear water in a cavern hidden away in the heart of a cavern, deep within the earth (fraught symbol piled on fraught symbol), John Lyle immerses in realization and regenerates himself. [Note 6] The implication is clear that sexual awareness is a key element of personal awareness; Lyle’s progress is held up until he “gets” Eros, and from that time he can make a direct, personal contact with Maggie. When Heinlein portrays an overgrown adolescent as “shatteringly naive” in this fashion, he is defining one of the key areas in which Bildung must take place. The commercial demands of his market often require ellipsis, however, in precisely this area. In 1953 Heinlein was out from under the editorial thumb of Kay Tarrant, John Campbell’s extremely Catholic editorial assistant who ruthlessly blue-pencilled everything remotely sexual. Now he could show the necessary epiphany in story terms. Sometimes it happens that people are just not “connected” into the sexual circuit of the world, and that moment of connection must take place for a person to be a whole human being. Again, it is not possible to say whether this is Heinlein speaking of his own experience or talking about an experience important to his readers.

Panshin finds Lyle’s sudden passion for Sister Judith improbable [HEINLEIN, 17], but it seems, on the contrary, quite well founded in the context of the story. Lyle lacks, at the outset, significant life experience; nor has he developed any introspective or reflective habits of mind. And he is dissatisfied with his life. This is a prescription for a character likely to be moved by impulse and prone to obsession —and this is exactly what we see in John Lyle at the start of the story.

By way of contrast, the provocative scene near the end, where the now successfully individuated John Lyle discovers that the commanding general has been killed at a crucial moment of the battle for New Jerusalem, shows Lyle weighing factors, evaluating options, and making a mature, command decision —arguably the best one that could be made under the circumstances.

Most peoples’ experience of military command is from the bottom-up perspective of the enlisted man (or, more commonly, the draftee). Orders are never to be questioned from the bottom —but this is not the perspective of John Lyle; nor is it Heinlein’s view. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, he has been taught the other —and far more important— aspect of chain of command: when an order must not be obeyed. A trained officer is guided by the Tradition of his Service, and this, as much as navigation trigonometry or the manual of arms, or a course in Applied Miracles, is why the military academies must exist —a point Heinlein makes again in SPACE CADET. Command, ultimately, is not a rote matter of regulation and paperwork, but an art form that relies on the trained intuition of skilled practitioners, proved in the cauldron of contingency. John Lyle has been raised in the West Point (army) Tradition, and this scene shows John Lyle fulfilling the promise of his training. [Note 7] The next-in-command, Penoyer, is physically unable to assume command through having inadequate communications circuits, and Lyle is not required to turn command over to his stolid, local commander. He must evaluate and decide based on doctrine and tradition.

In the end it is not John Lyle’s decision that counts so much as the fact that he has become the kind of person who is capable of making such a decision. His process of personal transformation —of individuation— is complete. Growth has come of choice at cusp.

The book version ends with the successful results of Lyle’s command decision. Contingent reality has ratified his decision. But the discarded ending of the magazine version has a final comment about this process of individuation which is well worth noting: after the moment of epiphany, of transcendence, John Lyle returns to the world to marry and have children and unroll a few bolts of cloth under his own vine and fig tree. This transcendence, so hard won, is ultimately the raw material of ordinary life.


That Heinlein chose individuation as the theme of his first long fiction [Note 8] is a very clear indication that Heinlein is not, and never has been, a genre writer —no matter what grade of paper his fictions were printed on. Individuation is not merely unusual as a theme for a pulp story, it is, in a sense anti-pulp. Pulp writing assumes the adolescent moment of seizing power over the self and freezes the state of emotional development so that the adolescent finds a perpetual Vahalla of battles appropriate to his life-stage, with healing and great feasts afterwards and fight again next month when the newsstands resound with clashing swords of the imagination. Power fantasies appropriately dominate pulp writing. Power, however, was not principally Heinlein’s thing; he resonates, rather, to the uncovering of hidden knowledge. To Heinlein, growth takes place in the context of a community. The problem of individuation, for him, leaves no room for the solitary preoccupation of the Magus. His writing insists on growth, destabilizing the moment of empowerment on which the pulp genres depend, and moving into the community of self-determining individuals, with its necessary attendant compromises.

The individuation theme is present in the magazine version, with its strong contrast between the natural man at the beginning —emotionally immature, vacillating, and impulsive, with hardly a “self” to call his own— and the initiated John Lyle who can command an assault force with decision and strength —but its presentation is a little blurred by the melodramatic conventions of the Graustark romances. With developmental lines added in revision, the book version of the story has its theme strongly and clearly drawn.


The magazine version, with its focus on the figure of the initiate unrecognized within the mass of humankind and returning to the world after his initiatic work is accomplished, may colorably be read as a Masonic allegory, in much the same way that Mozart’s DIE ZAUBERFLOTE is a Masonic allegory.

Freemasonry was a “cutting edge” liberal movement in the 18th century, sharing in the contemporaneous vision of the dignity of man and the importance of the individual as against entrenched aristocracy —then, a landed hereditary nobility; now the apparatus of the bureaucratic state; in the Future History, the low protestant Theocracy. It is not a matter of coincidence that so many of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons or that Masonic symbolism worked its way into public documents (such as the Eye-and-pyramid symbol on paper currency). Just as America has preserved in some elements of its linguistic conventions a phonological “snapshot” of English diction circa 1620, so do traditional American socio-political values preserve a cultural “snapshot” of Enlightenment liberalism. These “classical liberal” values have been abandoned by the political left in the U.S. since about 1930, but anyone who became politically conscious before that time -as did Heinlein— will resonate to Freemasonry to some extent, if exposed to it.

The implication is that Heinlein need not to have been a Mason —or even have been close to a Mason— in order to make this approving portrait. [Note 9] This particular question has been put to Mrs. Heinlein on the internet on several occasions, and she has indicated he told her a very good friend had interested him in Freemasonry as a young man during a period of impoverishment when he could not afford the cost; by the time he could afford it, the moment had passed. Much Masonic ritual has been published and is freely available to anyone researching the subject in a well-equipped library. However, Heinlein’s treatment shows more than mere research: it shows understanding of the goals of Freemasonry, in their own terms.

The linking of Freemasonry to the liberal ideals of the U.S. in this story expresses Heinlein’s orientation toward individualism within the context of community life. That lifelong orientation explains the unparadoxical paradox of his simultaneous opposition to both fascism and communism [Note 10] and throws great illumination on those situations in which a cooperating human group opposes hive mentalities (e.g., METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN, THE PUPPETMASTERS, and STARSHIP TROOPERS).

“If This Goes On—” also contains Heinlein’s first approving reference to the Mormons’ social philosophy. For reasons unknown, no one has felt it necessary to suppose that Heinlein was a Mormon.

Another signature Heinlein trope makes its first appearance here in print: the telepath used as communicator. At the assault on New Jerusalem, General Huxley’s command car houses the telepathic circuits that will provide secure and unjammable communications —a device he will use as the keystone of an entire book in TIME FOR THE STARS. But it would appear again and again —and in “Project Nightmare,” the sensitives would take an active role in assault and defense.

It is quite likely that this represents one of the few definite instances of a “belief” personal to Heinlein that can be pointed to with confidence —at least in the limited sense that he extrapolated these uses for telepathy as possibilities that might be realized when the anecdotal evidence of reliable witnesses such as Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair was investigated scientifically. That is, his belief (if belief it was) was highly nuanced, not a flat “Yes, ’tis.” Moreover, this is not anything like a religious belief —like the miracle of Transsubstantiation or the immortality of the soul— concerning which there is no evidence one way or another; rather, it seems to fall within the category of pragmatic opinion: He seems to have believed there was something there, and that the available evidence warranted including ESP in general within the subject matter of scientific investigation, stating firmly and in his own voice in EXPANDED UNIVERSE, in a 1980 footnote to “The Third Millennium Opens: “Anyone today who simply brushes off ESP phenomena as being ridiculous is either pigheaded or ignorant.” [385] Scientific investigation of telepathy and clairvoyance (which have proved surprisingly difficult to separate one from the other) has been ongoing since 1929, but the field is still substantially where it was in that year. The phenomena seem to fall apart upon investigation.

The aspect of “If This Goes On—” that excited the most immediate comment from reader and editor alike at the time of its first publication in 1940 was Heinlein’s treatment of psychodynamics as an engineering —and specifically a social engineering— discipline comparable to thermodynamics or electrodynamics. This element was expanded upon in the 1953 revision, with a discussion of affect indices, and linked to the new subplot of John Lyle’s personal growth curve, showing that at that stage Lyle is still predominantly reactive and not yet predominantly proactive, as he will later become.

John Campbell was so taken with Heinlein’s treatment of psychodynamics that he made this theoretical discipline the subject of his February 1940 editorial. Campbell had taken over editorship of ASTOUNDING in 1938 with a program of encouraging better and more varied writing, going outside the two predominant models for science fiction in the 1930s —adventure stories and gadget stories. Campbell’s own writing since 1930 had swung between super-science epic space operas inspired by E.E. Smith and mood pieces published under his “Don A. Stuart” pseudonym. But for ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION, newly renamed from ASTOUNDING STORIES (itself renamed from its original ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE), Campbell wanted more “human” stories that looked at cutting-edge science with a “modern” viewpoint, to go beyond 19th century romance-adventure story models. In this, Campbell was quite in tune with the more radical among the science fiction fans vocally demanding better writing and more “sociological” stories. In the 1930’s, before sociology became accepted as a limited academic study, the term had somewhat different implications than it does now. It was assumed that scientific organization of social and cultural statistical data would be used principally for political reform —and that these reforms would be socialist (though not necessarily Marxist) in nature. Politics would be put in the service of “social engineering.” The very concept of social engineering was new to Heinlein’s generation and cutting edge. By way of contrast, the “traditional” view was that politics effected compromises among competing demands, so that “the art of the possible” meant “what your neighbors will let you get away with.” Around the turn of the century, visionaries such as H.G. Wells redefined the art of the possible in ways we now regard as utopian and unrealistic, but which seemed to them merely “the possible.”

Heinlein clearly shared in this progressivist vision. He would, indeed, have been quite out of step with his times if he did not, to one degree or another. Progressivist visions flowered quite remarkable in the 1930’s. Technocracy was particularly well thought of —as well as Functionalism and Eugenics— among science-fiction readers of the day. All these technical enthusiasms for social engineering in the western liberal democracies died off in the wake of World War II and the worldwide public exposure of what social engineering had meant in actual political practice in Germany and in the Soviet Union (and still means in Communist China). But in 1939 the bloom of innocence was still on social engineering. It had not yet known sin.

Heinlein conceives his psychodynamics as rising out of advertising methods, rather than out of clinical psychology. It is portrayed as a handmaiden of propaganda (the Master of the Palace Lodge at one point refers to a “technician in morale and propaganda” [49]), manipulating populations by systems of mathematics that make use of semantic indices for words – quantification of the emotional impact of one word-choice over another in a given context, which sounds a little like the foundation disciplines for Asimov’s “psychohistory.” The mathematics and data collection that would be required to support such a discipline would be quite sophisticated, and the fundamental theory for such a discipline has not, even yet, been worked out. Perhaps it is simply that human intuition has been, to date, “good enough” to achieve the more limited ends of advertising.


“If This Goes On—” also contains the first of the “quotable Heinlein.” There are many quotable and aphoristic turns of phrase, but the most enduring of these kernals is a passage of concentrated classical liberal thought:

“Secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy … [sic] censorship. When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything —you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.” [53]

Coming close to the middle of the story, this passage shows the first fruits of John Lyle’s liberation, of his reading in the Cabal’s library while he recuperates from the torture of the Inquisition. The final statement has been viewed as rhetoric and hyperbole, but it is actually a summation of the example of Epictitus, a Stoic slave-philosopher of the ancient world who demonstrated the freedom of his mind by having his master twist his leg until it was broken.

Inside your head is where you are free. If there are cages inside your head, you are not free, no matter what your external circumstances may be.

6. Position in the Corpus

Clearly a Future History story, “If This Goes On—” marks the end of “The Crazy Years” and, coincidentally, the Korzybskyan childhood of mankind. The Covenant, termed the “first scientific political document” in “Coventry,” the next story in the Future History sequence, marks the beginning of the First Human Civilization on the Future History Chart. It is not a permanent utopia: further in the future, we see a period of civil disturbances around the time of METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN. It is a mistake to think that, just because the Covenant is “scientific,” Heinlein intends us to think it is necessarily perfect or even correct. It is the very first movement of the, again Korzybskyan, “adolescence of mankind,” with a presumed “adulthood” later on, off the chart. Certainly Secundus is portrayed as recognizably similar in some of its political features to the childhood and adolescent societies with which we are familiar. Perhaps the Tellus Tertius civilization is to be a model for the adulthood phase. Or perhaps the war of the Circle of Ouroboros in the World As Myth books with the multiplicity of villains and antagonists is intended to represent some kind of transition.

Certainly the Second American Revolution of “‘If This Goes On-“‘ is intended to represent a transition, sweeping away the last of the old order and presenting us with a true Novo Ordo Seclorum. The contradictions of insanities of the world order we live in froze into the Scudder Theocracy. Heinlein discussed the path by which the Theocracy came into existence in his postscript, “Concerning Stories Never Written,” for the REVOLT IN 2100 collection. The ideas were fully worked out in story terms, though he could never bring himself to write the three stories that led up to “If This Goes On—”: “Word Edgewise,” “The Stone Pillow,” and “The Sound of His Wings.” [Note 11]

Works Cited:

Analytical Laboratory, The. ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION (May, June 1940)

Asimov, Isaac. IN MEMORY YET GREEN. New York: Doubleday & Co. ,1979

Campbell, John W., Jr. “It Isn’t a Science —Yet!” ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION (February 1940)

Franklin, H. Bruce. ROBERT A. HEINLEIN: AMERICA AS SCIENCE FICTION. London: Oxford University Press, 1980

Gilbert, Joseph. Letter. “Brass Tacks.” ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION (April 1940)

Heinlein, Robert A. GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 1989

——————————- . “‘If This Goes On—” ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION (February, March 1940)

————————————— “If This Goes On—” REVOLT IN 2100. New York: Baen Books, 1980 (1954)

————————————— “The Third Millennium Opens.” EXPANDED UNIVERSE: THE NEW WORLDS OF ROBERT A. HEINLEIN. New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1980

Jung, Carl G. “The Visions of Zosimos.” (1938) ALCHEMICAL STUDIES. Vol. 13 of Bollingen Series XX THE COLLECTED WORKS OF C.G. JUNG. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967

Moskowitz, Sam. SEEKERS OF TOMORROW. MASTERS OF MODERN SCIENCE FICTION. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Co., 1966

Ohlander, Joseph D. and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. ROBERT A. HEINLEIN. Writers of the 21″ Century Series. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978

Panshin, Alexei. HEINLEIN IN DIMENSION: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS. Chicago: Advent: Publishers, 1968

Panshin, Alexei and Cory Panshin. SF IN DIMENSION: A BOOK OF EXPLORATIONS. Chicago: Avent: Publishers, 1976

Sarti, Ronald. “Human Sexuality in the Work of Robert A. Heinlein.” Joseph D. Ohlander and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. ROBERT A. HEINLEIN. Writers of the 21st Century Series. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978

Sears, Hal D. THE SEX RADICALS: FREE LOVE IN HIGH VICTORIAN AMERICA. Lawrence, KS: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977

Slusser, George Edgar. CLASSIC YEARS OF ROBERT A. HEINLEIN. Riverside, CA: The Borgo Press, 1976

Stover, Leon: ROBERT A. HEINLEIN (Twayne’s U.S. Author Series) Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987


NOTE: The original attribution of “Seventh Day Adventist” in the Heinlein Journal publication was incorrect. Thanks to Jan Roof for pointing out this error. –Bill Patterson

1. Sam Moskowitz in SEEKERS OF TOMORROW holds that Heinlein’s reputation was not firmly established until “The Roads Must Roll” in the June 1940 issue of ASTOUNDING. Published reader reaction, however, seems to justify setting the publication of “If This Goes On—” in February and March 1940 as an unequivocal acceptance of Heinlein as, as one of the readers put it in the April 1940 letter column, “the best of the new authors.” Interestingly, Isaac Asimov was the only contemporaneous fan to rank both “Life-Line” and “Misfit” among the best stories of 1939 —he was, in fact, one of the very few readers to mention those stories at all.

2. The title of this collection is unaccountably odd, for the Second American Revolution takes place in 2075, and, while “Coventry” in the same collection takes place twenty-five to thirty years later, there is no actual “revolt” in 2100. No correspondence relating to the title has survived, and Mrs. Heinlein is unable to offer an explanation. There is one famous “revolt” in 2100 that might have been in Heinlein’s mind: that is the year that the Sleeper wakes and touches off a worker’s revolution against his own estate. But is has not proved possible to relate the Wells book directly to any of the stories in this collection.

3. Panshin’s “subjective critique” of Heinlein in SF IN DIMENSION, while ingenious, misidentifies the object of his subjectivity. If Heinlein’s stories deal with individuation crises, it is quite likely that this is so because his market is young people who are concerned with their own individuation crises. The presence of these critical figures and congeries of symbology which Panshin has identified imply principally that Heinlein is in tune with his audience, and relays his experience in confronting and surmounting his own individuation crises. The inference that Heinlein continues to be personally concerned, late in middle age, with his own adolescent crises unconfronted is not logically drawn from the material, and is unlikely given the matters dealt with in subsequent publications.

4. We suggest, on the contrary, that the 1953 revision, with its rejection of technocratic interference, is Heinlein’s resolution what is not, for him, a dilemma. Perhaps he falls back on his faith in the basic decency of his fellow citizens as expressed in his 1952 postwar credo for Edward R. Murrow’s “This I Believe” radio program, preparation for which had occupied his attention for several of the months during which “If This Goes On—” was being revised. Such conditioning, he realized, was neither necessary nor desirable.

5. The word “cabal” is not a specific creation for this story, but is a general term for a conspiracy.

6. Carl Jung analyzes the pool-of-water symbology that underlies both alchemical [= hermetic] imagery and Christian baptism as self-destroying and self-generating. See, “The Visions of Zosimos” passim, but see also paragraph 97, inter alia, of ALCHEMICAL STUDIES, Volume 13 of the Bollingen Series XX COLLECTED WORKS OF C.G. JUNG. It could also be interpreted thus in Masonic terms: The old John Lyle goes into the cave pool and passes away; the new John Lyle emerges having given his prudery up to the appropriate governor.

7. At this point, we may infer that Heinlein knows whereof he speaks, and he speaks with personal authority, only slightly displaced. The incident is present in both magazine and book versions of the story and may, therefore, be assumed in some sense to be an essential part of the story in Heinlein’s writerly judgment; it may present the key to interpreting John Lyle’s name: “John” may refer to “Dumbjohn,” West Point slang with which he may have been familiar because his brother Lawrence graduated from West Point, but “Lyle” is significantly the maiden name of his mother and her father, Alva Lyle (Heinlein’s cut-rate pseudonym, Lyle Monroe, combines the two family names of his mother’s parents). Moreover, John Lyle’s best subject was Ballistics —an essential discipline for a fire control officer, Heinlein’s own naval specialization. Heinlein may be referring to himself by these obvious displacements.

8. Leaving aside the fictionalized economic tract he wrote, presumably, in 1937, —FOR US, THE LIVING—.

9. It should be noted that “If This Goes On—” never explicitly claims the leaders of the Cabal are Freemasons, though the quoted fragments of ritual, an invocation of the blessings of “The Great Architect,” and references to 18th century brethren among the Founding Fathers are unmistakable.

10. Franklin wishes to see these oppositions as topical and serial —i.e., Heinlein’s politics are conventionally anti-fascist in the context of World War II but become anti-communist during the Cold War era, reflecting a (non-existent) turn to the political right. But it is quite clear that when Heinlein speaks in 1940 of the “lights going out in Europe” it is to both communism and fascism he is referring.

11. Joseph Major discusses and speculates about these three stories in “Writing Stories Never Written: Speculation Concerning ‘Stories Never Written”‘ in THE HEINLEIN JOURNAL, issue 6, January 2000, pp. 8-17.

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