Robert Heinlein's Method for Adding Philosophical Arguments to Prose

Robert A. Heinlein is indeed my favorite science fiction writer.  There are many science fiction writers who would be considered great, but I always gravitate back to Heinlein because he was a master of writing science fiction stories that stuck with me.  The main reason they do this for me is because of his ability to write about deep philosophical issues through veiled science-fiction adventure stories.

Philosophical arguments are what give a novel more depth and "meat".  Adventure novels usually don't include deep philosophical meaning, and sometimes even science-fiction doesn't really stick to its general purpose of social commentary through far-out settings.  Heinlein taught me that science-fiction should always be about sending a message, standing on a soap box or generally speaking to a greater purpose than describing cool aliens or far-out tech.

Probably my favorite science fiction novel by Heinlein is Starship Troopers.  Yeah, I know.  There's that movie with Casper Van Dien (and we won't talk about that).  The book, as they say, is so much better.  But this time the book is more than just "better", it's night-and-day different.

I own various copies of this amazing novel from hard bound to dog-eared and highlighted soft cover, but the blurb on the back of the Ace Science Fiction paperback reads:

Join the army and see the universe!  In one of Robert Heinlein's most controversial bestsellers, a recruit of the future goes through the toughest boot camp in the Universe - and into battle with the Terran Mobile Infantry against mankind's most alarming enemy!

This description doesn't do the book justice.  Sure the Mobile Infantry is fighting "mankind's most alarming enemy", but really the "enemy" is the maguffin.  It's the thing nobody cares about but which drives the story along.  I have re-written the blurb for this book below.  Hopefully it reflects what I am about to share about Heinlein's ability to infuse deep philosophical concepts into his novels.

Juan "Johnny" Rico joins the Mobile Infantry to fight a horrific menace, but gives us a glimpse into what Robert Heinlein viewed as a well crafted governmental system, a system of democratic freedom based in a military hierarchy.  It is a veiled treatise on responsible citizenship, what it means to be a citizen of a nation, wrapped in an amazing and exciting adventure story.

As this description states, the novel is set in a future world where at some point in the past crime became such a problem that the veterans rose up to enact a coup to restore order.  The government "talked and talked" and never really addressed the core of the problem of society: responsibility to the safety and well being of our fellow man.  These veterans enacted a new form of government based on a military hierarchy which only allowed those who have served at least four years to be elected to government office.  They also abolished prisons in favor of public lashings.  Young people who committed crimes were flogged along with their parents.  

Many questions arise from this setting.  How would a military hierarchy maintain the rights of the individual?  What would such harsh punishments accomplish?  Is there freedom of speech, religion, etc.?

This is all discussed in chapter 8.

Heinlein sets up this governmental system to illustrate a deeper philosophical argument.  In this chapter, Rico recounts a memory of a course he was required to take entitled "History and Moral Philosophy".  He doesn't receive any credit for the course other than an attendance grade, but it is dripping with philosophical discussion about what it means to be a responsible citizen.  The course is taught by a veteran, a man named DuBois who is missing an arm, who points his stump at students in acknowledgement of those who wish to comment on his lesson.

The lesson DuBois teaches is thought-provoking, and I should probably caveat what I am about to write by saying that you should go read at least that chapter.  The section begins at the paragraph which starts with "I found myself mulling over a discussion in our class..."  In most editions it is usually about 3-4 pages in.

Writers should make a few observations about this scene:

  1. It is told in the form of a conversation.  Most of the best info dumps are done this way.  Rather than spend a whole three or four paragraphs of blocky text describing his manifesto, Heinlein engages the reader with these difficult concepts through a classroom setting.  Some of the students are confused, some of them "get it" and others are in-between.  The effect of this method is that it allows for readers to identify with the students in the class, to hash out the ideas as if they were participating, to see Mr. DuBois's points laid out for them like a carefully crafted lesson in a classroom.
  2. Arguments against the philosophical idea are expressed by students in the classroom.  DuBois then counters their arguments through object lessons, visual aids and historical information.  This is an Aristotelean form of expressing philosophical constructs.  Aristotle would write his philosophy in a form of a conversation so that all questions could be answered.  
  3. The questions asked by DuBois are intended to instruct more than query.  DuBois leads the students toward a predetermined conclusion, one that helps the reader understand the deeper commentary about the human condition.  Specifically Heinlein is commenting on the nature of human rights, that those "rights" are given to us by their society, and that humans are not born with them.

We may or may not agree with Heinlein, but that is the point.  He is illustrating complex ideas through his fiction, something that we all could learn to do in order to enhance our prose.  I will leave you with three things to remember when trying to weave these ideas into your prose:

  1. Think of your biggest "soap box" thought.  How can it be woven into your story without being preachy?
  2. Blend it well.  Use a conversation between characters to introduce it or seed it through the novel a little at a time.
  3. Make it a conflict.  Let the characters struggle internally about the philosophical issue.  If they are struggling with it internally it will drive great conflict especially with those characters who oppose the issue.

If you have any other ideas about how to express deeper philosophical concepts in your prose, please discuss them in the comments section below.  What is your favorite Heinlein novel?  Heinlein discussed other complex issues in other novels.  Can you discuss those?  Write about them in the comments!