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External Threat, Internal Rot The Psychological Effects of the Apocalypse

It seemed impossible to Heinlein and many of his fellow SF writers that American society could continue on the steep curve of technological advancement, isolationism and moral decline without some sort of explosion-or implosion. The task of these writers, then, was to decide how the apocalypse would take place, and what it would mean for the society of the future.

External Threat, Internal Rot

For Heinlein, the obvious answer was atomic bombing. Either systematic bombing of American cities, as in Free Men and On the Slopes of Vesuvius or an atomic explosion that would wipe out at least the Western world, at worst the entire planet, as in Blowups Happen or Farnham's Freehold. That was by no means, however, the only way that American society could pay for the sins of the present. In Solution Unsatisfactory, radioactive dust, the accidental discovery of a medical researcher, becomes the ultimate weapon. Easy to transport and easier to deploy, the dust is the type of "Absolute Weapon" that Heinlein defines as "one against which there is no effective defense and which kills indiscriminately over a very wide area" (EU, 313). The dust kills any living organism that comes in contact with it, and the area is inhabitable only when then radiation has decayed. Solution Unsatisfactory, Farnham's Freehold and Blowups Happen all emphasize the external, physical threat to the United States, but implicit in that desctruction was the moral weakness of American society.

Had more Americans listened to their inner pioneer and prepared for atomic attack like Hugh Farnham, complete obliteration could have been avoided. The corporate bureaucracy that seeks financial gain over public welfare comes within a hair's breadth of destroying the planet in Blowups Happen. Nowhere does Heinlein make the internal rot of American society more apparent than Starship Troopers, where the society of the future blames the failures of the XXth century on a twisted and inadequate form of democratic government, as argued by Mr. DuBois:

The tragic wrongness of what those well-meaning people did, contrasted with what they thought they were doing, goes very deep. They had no scientific theory of morals. They did have a theory of morals and they tried to live by it…but their theory was wrong…you see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct (Starship Troopers, 94).
This misperception by the people of the XXth century causes "the disorders that preceeded the breakup of the North American republic," also known as "The Terror" of crime and confusion that plagued America in the 20th century (Starship Troopers, 90-1). In Blowups Happen, there are several references to "The Crazy Years," when "pandemic neuroses" threatened American existence. For every complaint that Heinlein raised about American society-the lack of patriotism, the corporate greed, the mental softness-there is an appropriate and devastating end to the society, cooked up by the right mixture of external threat and internal rot.

The psychological effects of the apocalypse

The devastation of the apocalypse is Heinlein's method of making readers feel the noose around their own necks. He intended to play on their basic beliefs about America until the public trusted and believed him, and then sought to show them how their current state would most certainly lead to annihilation. This, he imagined, might move them to precautionary action. To that end, Heinlein spares no detail of the apocalyptic situations he creates. His characters view films of the effects of radioactive dust from Solution Unsatisfactory, in one of Heinlein's more graphic examples. Notice that when the apocalypse comes, the American soul will not be protected:
The last sequence showed Berlin and the roads around it a week after the raid. The city was dead; there was not a man, a woman, a child-nor cats, nor dogs, not even a pigeon. Bodies were all around, but they were safe from rats. There were no rats. The roads around Berlin were quiet now. Scattered carelessly on the shoulders and in ditches, and to a lesser extent on the pavement itself, like coal shaken off a train, were the quiet heaps that had been the citizens of the capital of the Reich. There is no use in talking about it. But, so far as I am concerned, I left what soul I had in that projection room and I have not had one since (EU, 123).
Heinlein wrenches hearts from several angles. Family ties, for one: in Starship Troopers, Johnnie Rico loses his mother and countless comrades because of poor preparation for combat against the vicious "Bug" race. Farnham's Freehold and Free Men all put a father in the position of having to abandon his son in order to preserve the family and the American way. Then, there is the sheer psychological weight of the new atomic order to the world. Although Heinlein often sniffs at modern psychiatry, he realizes the grip it has on American society. Blowups Happen centers around the premise that the mere knowledge of the bomb's capabilities is too heavy a responsibility for the most rational engineer's mind, as the men assigned to maintain the power plant go crazy at an alarmingly dangerous rate. When it comes to the apocalypse, Heinlein does not pull his punches; he aims right for the American jugular, with hopes that he will scare the public into believing his warnings.
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