Audiobook Review: Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

21 02 2012

Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

Read by Tom Weiner

Blackstone Audio

Length: 5 Hrs 57 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: While there is some pulpy fun to be had in this early Heinlein work, overall its language and cultural concepts are quite dated and its use of race as a plot device pushed close enough to the racist line to make modern listeners uncomfortable. Fans of classic science fiction and hardcore Heinlein fans may enjoy the opportunity to listen to this novel, if for no other reason than to see how the author progressed as a writer.

Grade: C

One of the cinematic scenes that has always stuck in my head is the opening of Red Dawn, with the kids sitting in the school room as the invading Communist forces Parachute all around them. It is a sight that will never really sit right with me, the idea of America being invaded and occupied by enemy forces. We are a young, petulant country who has spent so long as king of the roost, the idea of having an outside force controlling us is almost unimaginable. Yet, this is why we have fiction. I read speculative fiction largely because it presents and answers the question “what if” better than any other genre, at least the questions that interest me. About 10 years ago I read a novel by author Eric L. Harry called Invasion, about China occupying the United States. It is a total war, all out military thriller, and while it was never destined for any level of greatness, it was a novel whose concept fascinated me. I really don’t know of very many Occupied America books, although there are probably a few out there I have missed. Looking for some older science fiction to take on, I discovered Blackstone had put out an audiobook version of Sixth Column by Robert Heinlein, which was also titled The Day After Tomorrow. Heinlein wrote The Sixth Column not to long after World War 2. The story begins after the successful invasion and occupation of The United States by a Pan Asian alliance, and centers on the last bastion of the American Arm Forces, a small scientific compound set deep in the mountains.

I have recently read quite a few classic science fiction tales that have come off quite fresh despite their age. The Sixth Column isn’t one of them. The Sixth Column has this weird combination of dated and futuristic technology that gives it a strange disconcerting feel. While they developed a strange new weapon technology that used electric spectra-graphic waves to target people by specific traits including ethnicity they did this with the help of a punch card computer. There was also a strange use of language that came off uneven. There is one scene that got a chuckle out of me when someone said another person used to be a tramp, but that person corrected him by explaining he wasn’t a tramp, he was a hobo. This and the constant references to women as babes, and other dated vernacular kept forcing me out of the story. You expect some of this from a novel over 60 years old, but here it was more glaring than most. Many people have also called this novel racist. In my opinion, it isn’t. Just because a novel has racism in it, doesn’t make it racist. Yet, there were enough racial epithets thrown around by the characters to make me uncomfortable and it included an overly simplified dated concept of Asian culture which was highly influenced by the Japanese Kamikazes of WWII. Now, grant it, when this novel was written Japan was a member of the Axis of Evil, and, honestly, people being occupied by another racial group will throw around such slurs, but it doesn’t make it easy to listen to. Yet, I was more annoyed by the presentation of this being Caucasians vs. Asiatics without even making mention of people of other ethnic and racial descents than the slurs thrown around by the characters. For some reason, people of African descent were never even mentioned in this novel and because of that the presentation came off more as “White Good Guys” versus “The Bad Asians,” then America versus an invading force. The aspect I did enjoy, and probably what kept me interested enough to keep listening was the “Sixth Column” using a faux religion to build a base for revolution. I think if there had been more focus on this aspect then the weird Asian killing Dues Ex Machina weapons I would have enjoyed this novel more. While there is some pulpy fun to be had in this early Heinlein work, overall its language and cultural concepts are quite dated and its use of race as a plot device pushed close enough to the racist line to make modern listeners uncomfortable.

As usual, Tom Weiner does well with the material he has to work with. Weiner has a deep, strong voice, and sometimes his delivery of some of the more dated language invoked an inappropriately placed laugh from me. My only real complaint about Weiner’s narration was his voice for the main scientist, which came off a bit effeminate that I thought the character was female at first. Yet, for the most part Weiner’s narration kept me engaged enough in a story that I found equal parts uncomfortable, and dated. Despite this poor early novel, Heinlein went on to write many novels that I enjoyed, as well as a few I consider classics, including Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. Fans of classic science fiction and hardcore Heinlein fans may enjoy the opportunity to listen to this novel, if for no other reason than to see how the author progressed as a writer.

Note: A special thanks to Blackstone Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

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2 responses

21 02 2012
Laurie C

Thank you for this review! I like the way you have the short version/summary, then the full version for people who want more detail. I listened to The Cat Who Walked Through Walls not too long ago, and found the main character (the narrator) somewhat obnoxious, although I think he was supposed to be a sexy, confirmed bachelor who has suddenly fallen in love.

22 02 2012
Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick

It certainly is tough to read works written well in the past, and it’s tough to feel comfortable with dated references, epithets, etc. I imagine this story might have been tougher in the audio book format as well. Quite tough for the narrator to work with something that elicits a chuckle from a listener, too. I wonder what it was like for the narrator to read those sections!

I also enjoyed Red Dawn, and while I never thought about it until reading your post, I can’t quite think of any books that are about America being occupied. Odd, I would think there would be more, especially with the increase in dystopian literature.

Great thoughts in your post today!

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