I’ve made a few posts here about the writer Robert A. Heinlein and his immense influence on my weltanschauung; while in my maturity I don’t agree with everything he wrote and stood for, to my child self devouring his works circa 1971 he bestrode the world as a Colossus. His “juveniles” written from the late 1940s through the late 50s inspired a generation of bright young boys to put Americans on the Moon. He emphasized duty, honor, work, intelligence and grit, and his ability to draw the reader into strange new worlds and make them seem possible and, indeed, plausible, was unique.
The novella Gulf was quite unusual, for Heinlein or any writer, in its conception and execution. In the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction a letter had been published critiquing the…November 1949 issue. As editor John Campbell wrote:
“Generally, a desirable, practically attainable idea, suggested in prophecy, has a chance of forcing itself into reality by its very existence. Like, for example, this particular issue of Astounding Science Fiction.”
A good explanation of the “Prophecy” issue of the magazine is here. In the event, Heinlein was asked to write Gulf, having been given nothing but a title. The result was something that has fascinated me as much or more than anything else he ever produced, despite his multiple Hugo awards and best-sellers later in his career.
Gulf is available free (and legally) online now, so if you’re not familiar with it, here you go. You don’t have to read it to get the rest of this post, but I suggest you do. There are enough new, intriguing ideas in this brief novella to keep you thinking about it for a long time: an artificial, highly compressed, efficient and logical language (“Speed-talk”); a secret society of “Supermen” working behind the scenes to discover and regulate major scientific and technological discoveries; bar codes (in 1949!); but what I note here is focus, mental attitude, and what are now called “Dark Triad” traits and their usefulness in getting things done, rather than emoting and “virtue signaling.”
The details of the plot need not concern us, but if you haven’t read the story yet, our protagonist is one “Joseph Gilead” (pseud.), intelligence agent for a kind of future super-CIA. We begin cold, in the middle of a courier mission going bad:
When he had stepped out of the tube car he had been reasonably sure, first, that the persona of Joel Abner, commercial traveler, had not been penetrated, and, second, that the transition from Abner to Gilead had been accomplished without arousing suspicion. The pocket-picking episode had not alarmed him, but had caused him to reclassify those two propositions from calculated certainties to unproved variables. He had proceeded to test them at once; they were now calculated certainties again—of the opposite sort. Ever since he had spotted his erstwhile porter, the New Age runner, as standing outside this same drugstore his subconscious had been clanging like a burglar alarm.
It was clear not only that he had been spotted but that they were organized with a completeness and shrewdness he had not believed possible.
We’re bombarded these days with “scientific research” that purports to prove that we don’t actually make rational decisions about most things, most of the time; we make emotional, instinctual, subconscious decisions and then consciously rationalize and invent reasons for why they’re good. Perhaps this is true for most people, most of the time. However, instead of saying “that’s just the way people are,” should not we instead be taking action to improve on this ridiculously low standard of thought?
On to our next quote/lesson:
Joe, what is a man? What is man that makes him more than an animal? Settle that and we’ll take a crack at defining a superman—or New Man, homo novis, who must displace homo sapiens—is displacing him—because he is better able to survive than is homo sap. I’m not trying to define myself, I’ll leave it up to my associates and the inexorable processes of time as to whether or not I am a superman, a member of the new species of man—same test to apply to you.”
“You. You show disturbing symptoms of being homo novis, Joe, in a sloppy, ignorant, untrained fashion. Not likely, but you just might be one of the breed. Now—what is man? What is the one thing he can do better than animals which is so strong a survival factor that it outweighs all the things that animals of one sort or another can do much better than he can?”
“He can think.”
“I fed you that answer; no prize for it. Okay, you pass yourself off a man; let’s see you do something. What is the one possible conceivable factor—or factors, if you prefer—which the hypothetical superman could have, by mutation or magic or any means, and which could be added to this advantage which man already has and which has enabled him to dominate this planet against the unceasing opposition of a million other species of fauna? Some factor that would make the domination of man by his successor, as inevitable as your domination over a hound dog? Think, Joe. What is the necessary direction of evolution to the next dominant species?”
Gilead engaged in contemplation for what was for him a long time. There were so many lovely attributes that a man might have: to be able to see both like a telescope and microscope, to see the insides of things, to see throughout the spectrum, to have hearing of the same order, to be immune to disease, to grow a new arm or leg, to fly through the air without bothering with silly gadgets like helicopters or jets, to walk unharmed the ocean bottom, to work without tiring—
Yet the eagle could fly and he was nearly extinct, even though his eyesight was better than man’s. A dog has better smell and hearing; seals swim better, balance better, and furthermore can store oxygen. Rats can survive where men would starve or die of hardship; they are smart and pesky hard to kill. Rats could—
Wait! Could tougher, smarter rats displace man? No, it just wasn’t in them; too small a brain.
“To be able to think better,” Gilead answered almost instantly.
I fed you that answer; no prize for it.
Illusions and Their Discontents
Those of you follow me on Twitter know I’m an admirer of Scott Adams and have often linked articles like this one, “The Illusion of Knowledge“:
And so we have an odd situation in which both sides of the debate are in deep illusion, even if one side is right and the other is wrong. The illusion is that one side is obviously correct – and the belief that you could see that too, if only you would spend a little energy looking into it on your own. If you hold that belief, no matter which side you are on, you can be sure you are experiencing an illusion.
Adams also talks a lot about hallucinating certainty, about how when it comes to persuasion, emotion/ beats tribe/ beats mere facts.
But none of this ought to apply to Heinlein’s homo novis, who by definition must think better, a whole lot better, than the average emotionally driven tribalistic LDD (Little Deluded Dupe), and not just about one thing but about many things, about reality.
As convincing a persuader as Scott Adams is, I’m not convinced by radical subjectivism. We don’t live in an “illusion” after all, though most live, much of the time, “inside their own head.” I’m still of the solid conviction that the world is hard, and you are soft; that if you jump off the Empire State Building, you are going to die. If you’re really lucky, you won’t look so bad afterward…
A Perfect Landing
Mostly you won’t be so lucky.
There is indeed a Gulf, between a Peter Thiel and the “average” #AltRight shitposter doing it for lulz (i.e., emotional reasons), between a John von Neumann and a professor of “Womyn’s Studies.” Many of our “cognitive elite” are elite in only their specialized disciplines, though. Picture Einstein and his childish socialism.
Of a Vital and Necessary Hardness
Thinking better has never been and never will be replaceable. Neither will the “Dark Triad” traits of Psychopathy, Machiavellianism and Narcissism–properly understood. I touched on this in an earlier piece, The Good Psychopath, the Dark Triad Man and Me, and won’t go into detail here, but it struck me when reading Gulf how Gilead exhibits these traits, always at the appropriate time:
Mrs. Keithley pursed her lips. “Frankly, I do not expect to learn anything from her. I may learn something from you.”
The leader of the two men looked questioning at his mistress; she motioned him to go ahead. The girl stared blankly at him, plainly unaware of the uses of the equipment he had gotten out. He and his partner got busy.
Shortly the girl screamed, continued to scream for a few moments in a high adulation. Then it stopped as she fainted.
They roused her and stood her up again. She stood, swaying and staring stupidly at her poor hands, forever damaged even for the futile purposes to which she had been capable of putting them. Blood spread down her wrists and dripped on a plastic tarpaulin, placed there earlier by the second of the two men.
Gilead did nothing and said nothing. Knowing as he did that the tube he was protecting contained matters measured in millions of lives, the problem of the girl, as a problem, did not even arise. It disturbed a deep and very ancient part of his brain, but almost automatically he cut that part off and lived for the time in his forebrain.
Consciously he memorized the faces, skulls, and figures of the two men and filed the data under “personal.” Thereafter he unobtrusively gave his attention to the scene out the window He had been noting it all through the interview but he wanted to give it explicit thought. He recast what he saw in terms of what it would look like had he been able to look squarely out the window and decided that he was on the ninety-first floor of the New Age Hotel and approximately one hundred and thirty meters from the north end. He filed this under “professional”.
This is hard-edged stuff. The very fate of the world is at stake, but I’m sure your average 2017 Ivy League undergrad would diagnose Gilead as a monster. He ought to at least break down into sobs, vomit, and need drugs and therapy for the PTSD, afterward.
There is indeed a Gulf, between a U.S. Army Ranger and a Social Justice Warrior, even, perhaps, between a Rex Tillerson and a John Kerry. My examples are not perfect, but I’m sure you get the point.
Us “HBDers” understand well that the thinking part of homo novis is mostly genetic and not very amenable to training. The attitude part, the detachment from crippling and useless sympathy, the maximization of one’s physical assets, are.
As you can tell, I have a special fascination with this story and again, urge you to read it. If not, well, take the previous paragraph under serious advisement.