By Robert A. Heinlein
Published by Blackstone Audio
Read by Ton Weiner
From the preponderance of reviews I have written so far of Robert Heinlein’s works, one might think I was a big fan of his. Well, I do enjoy some of his writing, and some of it not so much. Sixth Column is one of his more obscure novels, but not with much justification. Perhaps this one has been become lesser known because it is not part of his multi-story future history that includes the Lazarus Long stories as well as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and quite a few others. It does not quite have the polish and intense action of Starship Troopers (the book, not the awful movie and later series). Of course, most of those stories were written later when Heinlein’s writing skills had developed and matured just a bit more to make him the SF master that he was.
But many of the features and messages of Heinlein’s stories appear in Sixth Column even if they are not as developed as they were later on. In Sixth Column you can see a touch of the same skepticism against governments in general we find in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, as well as the patriotic theme of Starship Troopers, a combination I might have said was incompatible before reading this book.
Sixth Column starts with the conquest of America (possibly all of North America, although only the United States gets mentioned) by the PanAsian Empire (a nation that apparently combines the worst of China and Japan – as Heinlein saw it in 1949 – and none of the best). The entire country falls rapidly and the PanAsians move in with a repressive government that rapidly stomps out all traces of freedom, liberty, apple pie and anything else that Americans prize. The conquered people are considered slaves of their new PanAsian masters, Standing against the empire are a mere six military men and scientists in what had been a remote research base. There had been an accident in the base just before their arrival and most of the personnel had been killed. Their deaths however, lead to the discovery of an incredible new “spectrum of energy” that when harnessed makes an amazingly flexible set of tools and weapons. But even with this new knowledge how can only six men take back a nation?
The answer, it seems, is by forming a new pantheistic religion. It is pointed out that successful empires have mostly respected the local religions of the people they conquered. This is not entirely true, but generally, if the religion has not itself been actively inimical to the conquerors it has been allowed. Heinlein’s faux religion involves a bunch of made-up deities that in turn are all aspects of the one Supreme Deity. And our heroes cleverly include the Divine Emperor of the PanAsians as one of this god’s aspects.
After that, the story just sort of flows to its ending. It’s Heinlein and for someone who has read several of his other stories it is obvious where it is going and how it’s going to get there, but the journey downstream is a pleasant one, nonetheless. Of course, it is all a little too easy and any set-backs are quickly and efficiently handled, but as I mentioned above, this was written fairly early in Heinlein’s career and does not have the depth and complexity he learned to include as he progressed.
The story and the teller has been accused of sexism and racism on numerous occasions, but I am not sure these accusations are entirely deserved. Yes, there are racist epithets directed toward the PanAsian conquerors, but none of them are any different from typical wartime nicknames and epithets for any enemy in any age. Sexism? Well, a little but for 1949 it was mild. There were even hints of Heinlein’s later, more independent female characters
So the story is a bit thin on plotline and message, but still an interesting read with a few interesting notions to ponder. It would probably make a good movie – at least they wouldn’t have to strip out the underlying messages like was done with Starship Troopers.
Tom Weiner reads this book very well, indeed. He does so in a no-nonsense manner that portrays each character as a discernible individual and that holds the interest of the listener. I liked the fact that he did not need to impress his own theatrical personality on the writing of the author. It is all too frequent that an actor will not just read but attempt to interpret an author’s words in some way in the performance of a book. In fact, that such readings are often called performances might be the problem.
Mister Weiner, however, manages not to fall into that trap. Some might argue that more energetic acting will sometimes enhance a story and if anything the lack of such might be considered a weakness in the reading, but in this case It felt to me as though I were hearing the story read as Heinlein would have wanted it. Would he have? Darned if I know, but that’s how it felt nonetheless.
In conclusion, this is an early novel by Robert Heinlein and lacks some of the polish he gained with further experience. The plot line is a bit thin and there is a noticeable lack of tension to be resolved, but this is an early work. If you like Heinlein’s other stories you will probably enjoy this one too. I did. Weiner’s reading complements the story well. Heinlein fans, take note.