In some recent posts, I have been reviewing Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles, partly in curiosity to see what they might look like to adult eyes. Here is an exception: not a juvenile but a posthumous. A TRAMP ROYALE is not science fiction, not fiction at all, but an account of the author’s round-the-world vacation with his wife in 1953. It was not published in his lifetime.

What I find odd about this, is that I enjoyed it more than rereading his fiction, but I would never recommend it to anyone who was not a devoted fan of his fiction.

What a 14 year old boy enjoys about reading Heinlein SF is, first and foremost, that sense of wonder, that sense that the future in large things and in small would be different, and, if we work hard at it, better than they are today. Second we like the characters, which Heinlein dresses up in different garb in different settings, but are usually the same three over and over again: first, the all-competent Connecticut Yankee who knows how to plow a field, clean a rifle, birth a baby and write a constitution; second, his lovely and high-spirited love-interest; third is a crabby old wizard who is highly moral (in an individualistic, libertarian sort of morality) without being moralizing (he never seeks to impose his rules on others). What a 44 year old man enjoys about reading Heinlein SF is certainly not the plot nor the action (there is none of either) nor really the characters, since they are always the same three over and over again, but the lectures, the observations, the sense of what life really is all about, which peppers Heinlein’s work. This work of nonfiction contains just as much or more of the little lectures and observations, Heinlein’s highly American brand of stark individualism, as his juveniles: as when the author pauses to tell you how a sextant works, for example, or why the British Commonwealth is failing. And the crabby wizard and his high-spirited love-interest are both here, this time as Mr. and Mrs. Robert Heinlein.

In his juveniles Heinlein did not spare his audience or speak down to them: there were many futures depicted where overpopulation was a reality (FARMER IN THE SKY, or TUNNEL IN THE SKY) or where thermonuclear war had ended our current era. The future might hold a police-state (BETWEEN PLANETS) an Imperial guild-run bureaucracy (STARMAN JONES) slavery (CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY) or war (STARSHIP TROOPERS). This unsparing sobriety might seem normal to those of us these days, who routinely see “Young Adult” novels revolving around pederasty or some other horrific grown-up theme, but it was not the sort of thing I can recall from the DANNY DUNN AND THE SMALLIFYING MACHINE or TOM SWIFT AND HIS TRIPHIBIAN ATOMICAR.

The same worries, overpopulation and atomic war are mentioned here. To be sure, most of the book concerns, as one might expect, with quotidian things: the traveler griping about his accommodations, or praising the natural beauties and spectacular sights, or recalling with gratitude the generosities of hosts. But since it is Heinlein, he makes also make observations on larger themes: about human nature, politics and economy, what goes wrong and what goes right, all the while carefully disqualifying himself—he knows he is only expressing his first impressions, his non-expert opinion.

As much time separates us from the author’s postwar world as his world was from 1900, when horsepower was still the main source of power, the Wild West was still wild, the heavier than air flying machine was as unheard-of as women voting. In that respect, the book is also interesting as an historical document.

For example, the McCarthy hearings were going on during that year, and it was a topic of much conversation with the American tourists. Heinlein proves that not all Americans allegedly suffering under the alleged repression of “McCarthyism” where all that impressed one way or the other: certainly he would be surprised that the propaganda surrounding the issues would be so successful that fifty years later, people would still be using the word “McCarthyism” to refer to an hysterical witch hunt. When, in fact, even at the time, it was noted that no one died, no one was imprisoned, no one was fined. The worst that was inflicted was a certain loss of reputation among some people, and then only when they refused to denounce America’s avowed enemies. Heinlein correctly points out that had Senator McCarthy held power in any of the countries he passed through, including the British Commonwealth dominions, the accused would have been treated much more harshly. Behind the Iron Curtain, they simply would have died, not gone on to lifelong fame as media darlings.

Heinlein also notices something present then with uncanny pertinence today. No outsider actually gave a Tinker’s Damn about McCarthy or any other purely internal matter of the USA: it was merely an excuse to beat up on the Fat Kid. All the help, all the money poured into a recovering Europe and a developing Third World, the military power used to save these places, first from Naziism, and next from Communism, had earned us all a great big fat goose egg for our troubles. Even a people like the Australians, who remember (to this day!) the role America played in quelling the threat of the Imperial Japanese, cannot help but be delighted when discussing our various scandals and dust-ups. The boy on the block who is both rich and handsome and powerful is always hated.

He also mentions that the Aussies of 1953 were not the most gallant to their womenfolk, and so when American G.I.’s were stationed there, whose habit was to bring nylons or flowers or candy to a woman they were romancing, or to hold the doors or help her out of cars—things any well-bred corn-fed boy from Smallville would do—to the locals, it looked like the same kind of sinister smoothness that the city slicker with the oiled moustache uses in the movies. The boy on the block who is both rich and handsome and powerful is always hated, even if, or especially because, he has manners.

Some of Heinlein’s kvetching about the paperwork needed to travel seems amusing in retrospect. What would they have made of modern airline security, where fluids cannot be brought aboard? But keep in mind, that the days where still in living memory, 1900, when a man could travel without any leave or passport at all, and no one carried identification papers.

Equally strange and quaint, strange to me at least, are his overpopulation worries. His heart is wounded to see the people stacked like cordwood in Indochina, when we here have golf courses and land lying fallow. He thinks population is a simple, deadly Malthusian equation between the number of babies born and the amount of acreage of fertile soil. And yet he is human enough, not like an intellectual, to state he would fight to the death to preserve his country against the hordes of hungry Orientals.

No Heinlein book would be complete without an author’ digression. Here is mine for his review:

I have always thought the overpopulation scare was unjustified. Like every other predicted eco-disaster, it is based on a category error of mis-stating the problem, a static analysis, and gross exaggeration. The category error involved is this: if you have five people and one pie, each person can have no more than a fifth without someone getting less; add five more people, and the maximum equal pie slices are now one tenth. But if you have five acres and five farmers, they don’t simply turn out ten bushels of corn to be split five ways. If they grow different crops using different means of production, one man on one acre using modern methods can turn out ten or fifty bushels; if another man finds oil under his acre, this worthless soil-poison might become a resource when some clever engineer invents uses for it, worth more than its wieght in corn; if another man has sand, which can be made to use silicon computer chips, the overall productivity of the five men is simply not measured by the number of acres. To characterize overpopulation as a ratio between people numbers and acres, you have misstated the problem.

Static analysis assumes a ‘game theory’ where each player makes the same move and follows the same strategy even when conditions change. It assumes a woman with no children and a woman with ten children are equally eager and able to have another child, no matter what her neighbors are doing.

The problem is the race between two interdependent variables. If progress of industry outstrips growth in population, and if the productivity of the population does not drop, there is no overpopulation in any real sense. Even resources alleged to be on the verge of exhaustion, in reality, are more abundant and cheaper than previously, because new methods of exploiting them, new methods of organization, lower the cost. Where they are more expensive, this is due, not to any absolute natural exhaustion, but due to political and organizational factors. (To use oil as an example: my State Trooper friend gets his gasoline for his police cruiser at cost, without state or federal taxes. His price is one half, I say again, one half of what you pay at the pump).

The problem is political organization. If every new baby born is a new mouth to feed, that is, the added body does not increase the productivity of the economy, you have overpopulation: too many people for your resources. If every new baby born is a new pair of hands to work, the added body increases the productivity, and you do not have overpopulation. If anything, you have underpopulation. When crowds of foreigners are pressing to enter your country, confident of finding work at wages above their native markets, as far as an economist is concerned, you are suffering underpopulation—artificially high wages due to too few people in the market.

Even a relatively minor change in technology, such as, let us say, the development of a ceramic sturdier than steel, an economic form of ethanol, a way to extract oil from shale, would turn resources that are new scarce and in demand, into a resource like Whale Oil. We used to use it for everything, didn’t we? Back in 1900, there was not a lamp that did not burn Whale Oil. If someone invents cheap solar power tomorrow, or a safe and efficient hydrogen fuel cell, all the efforts made to conserve Petrol will have been wasted, a effort that raised the price of a resource above its natural scarcity, and the Mullahs and Imams will be sitting on a huge pile, not of petrodollars, but of a waste product.

End of digression.

Reading this book, one recognizes a number of things. Mrs. Heinlein, when asked if there is anything to declare, answers “Three pounds of heroin!”—a scene you might recognize from PODKAYNE OF MARS.

We also recognize Heinlein’s one invariable motto, the banner that carried him to fame and notice during the heady days of the sexual revolution: “the laws of my tribe are not the laws of nature.” In small doses, this allows him to feel a warmth and human sympathy with neighbors whose ways are strange, and so it is not all bad as a motto. It also allows him to visit striptease clubs, and sniff his nose at anyone who might have an objection to the degrading nature of the entertainment. In other words, it is basically a dishonest motto, used only to escape from moral censure, not to make any judgments about conflicts of real duties.

It would have been great to lounge around the deck of some steamship in the ocean’s waters, jawing with Robert Heinlein on this and other matters. He has bid us farewell, and gone on to that Great SF Con in the sky, but if you are nostalgic for his curmudgeonly opinion and occasional complaints about the discomfort of travel, A TRAMP ROYALE is a fine way to beguile an afternoon.