Sixth Column

July 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixthSixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein


First written in 1941 and then revised in 1949, Sixth Column is a product of its time, and it’s important to keep that in mind while reading it in the 21st century. The bulk of the US’s involvement in WWII makes up a large part of the time in which the story was written, so the idea of the country having been taken over by Pan-Asians was a threat in that time. The perception of Asians at the time would lead to the perception of them that exists in this novel. That being said, it doesn’t handle that threat with any subtlety or grace. If there’s a pejorative word to describe Asians, it’s used in this novel.

Aside from the language, the representation of Asians in the novel is a little disturbing. They’re regarded as savages and animals by the main characters, blue-blooded Americans with the savvy and intelligence to fight back against the invasion of the Red Menace. It’s very much a US-centric, “God Bless America” kind of story, with anyone opposing the country being nothing more than vermin to be exterminated. To be fair, the Pan-Asians have a racist view of White America, but the book is a conservative’s wet dream.

Surprisingly, there’s an interesting story buried beneath the racism and xenophobia. The surviving military regiment (all six of them) take to creating a new religion as a smokescreen for a revolution against the occupying Pan-Asians. Heinlein uses that as a means to make commentary on politics, religion, human nature, and survival, while still pushing through his own agenda about libertarianism and Constitutionalism. I sort of expected that, based on all I’ve heard about Heinlein and his writings. This isn’t my first Heinlein book, but it’s been thirteen years since I’ve read Stranger in a Strange Land, and twenty-three since reading The Puppet Masters.

I listened to this on audiobook, and the narrator did a good job with the reading. He used accents to designate characters so I could differentiate between them, and he presented the story more than he read it. Unfortunately, the voices he used for the Pan-Asian characters were unfortunate in how stereotypical they were. On the one hand, he was capturing the characters in the same way Heinlein wrote them; on the other hand, they sounded offensive. I’m not sure if he could have managed them any other way, but it made me cringe.

Not being familiar enough with Heinlein’s greater body of work, I don’t know how this book compares to them, but I don’t know if I would recommend it. Conservatives would probably love it, but for the wrong reasons. For those looking for a mild skewering of religion (and possibly L. Ron Hubbard, who was a contemporary at the time this was written), though, it’s entertaining. You’ll just have to overlook the more unfortunate aspects of the story.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 17, 2018

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