July 3, 2021
“If This Goes On — “ is the story of a revolution to wrest control of the United States back from a fundamentalist totalitarian regime, founded by Reverend Nehemiah Scudder, that sprouted up after WWIII destroyed Europe in the 21st century. The lead character/narrator is John Lyle; other primary characters are Zeb, Maggy, Judith, Novak and Huxley.
It was published originally in Revolt in 2100 and serialized in Astounding Fiction, but the best way to get it is to buy The Past Through Tomorrow, Heinlein’s Future Series compilation novel.
Mentions in other stories: “If This Goes On — ” is foreshadowed by a Venusian warehouse worker mentioning Scudder in Logic of Empire; its main characters are referenced in Heinlein’s future series timeline; and Scudder is referred to occasionally in the book’s final three stories, “Coventry,” “Misfit,” and “Methuselah’s Children.” Scudder’s name comes up in the Lazarus Long series as well; he may have been Heinlein’s most durable bogeyman.
The good: Lyle’s character development, from a stiff, pro-state legate to a guy who would scare the hell out of Che Guevera, is well-paced. Heinlein manages to maintain the character’s shell of innocence throughout; Lyle never loses his idealistic nature, even as he morphs from doughy soldier into Die Hard With a Vengeance.
And the story mixes long narrative interludes in with action sequence without getting tedious. The plot is complicated and layered, and Heinlein pulls it off effortlessly.
With one exception:
The Bad: The story was written in 1940, so sex scenes were taboo. As a result, Heinlein’s characters were whitewashed and forgotten the moment they became sexually defined. Sex was mentioned, but it was always detached from the main characters, sort of in a don’t-ask don’t-tell sense. Some of them were obviously having sex all over the dammed place early in the book, but Heinlein had to pretend that they were nothing more than compulsive hand-shakers. Lyle couldn’t even take is pants off without pretending to an obtuse modesty, hiding behind a rock like a Victorian nun in the midst of what was obviously an orgy scenario.
Normally it wouldn’t matter in a Heinlein novel; Heinlein wrote dozens of sex-free adventures, and nobody missed the sex. But in this story, the lack of sex stood out in the atmosphere like an un-dumped Honey Bucket. Zeb and Maggie were powerful, vital characters until sex became narratively consensual (thus, impossible to hide within the narrative); from that point on, they disappeared like they’d been whacked and dumped in New Jersey.
The story didn’t founder, but it missed them.
The ugly: The Prophet’s dictatorship wasn’t overtly cynical about lying to the public’s face like the Trump cadre, but the scientific aspects of gaslighting and propaganda were chillingly familiar. Nothing is scarier than a gaslit culture proudly marching itself into the tar pits.
Favorite scene: A moment during the scene when they all went swimming. You know, the orgy scene that wasn’t an orgy because Zeb and Maggie only shake hands and John Lyle is going to be a virgin until God himself shows up behind that rock and buggers him. In the latter part of the scene, when Maggie told John, “I’m a hundred years older than you!” and ran off, Lyle noticed that Maggie was a lot shorter than he realized.
There was more pure human boy-girl emotion in that tiny passage than in the rest of the story combined, and that includes all the puppy-love silliness with Judith. Even if Heinlein had been free to describe every sexual encounter in the story, this would have still been the most erotic, most passion-filled scene in the bunch.
Rating: By normal novel standards, it’s a 10/10, a 100/100, a must-read and a fully, unconditionally recommended story. If you read it, you’ll be glad you read it.
By Heinlein standards, it’s still a 10. It’s one of his best stories, perhaps his best short story. The lack of sex was a quibble, not a complaint. The story stands tall without it. Had Heinlein been able to express the sexuality of the characters, it would have been a fully fleshed-out novel, I think. No pun intended. And it would have been comparable to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as a Heinlein classic.
If you want to order the story online, here are a couple of options for The Past Through Tomorrow:
Abe was quite a bit cheaper at the time I posted the links, but prices change. So I’d check both, and perhaps others if you have a favorite bookseller.