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Robert Heinlein vs. Lawrence Summers

Thomas Ball writes:

In this article about Nabokov and the influence of John Dunne’s theories on him (and others in the period l’entre deux guerres) you can see intimations of Borges’ story The Garden of Forking Paths….

The article in question is by Nicholson Baker. Nicholson Baker! It’s great to see that he’s still writing. I feel kinda bad for him though, as to my mind he suffers from what might be called George V. Higgins syndrome: his first book was his best. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of both Baker and Higgins; it just happens that their first books were their most characteristic as well as their best efforts.

Anyway, here’s Baker:

Speak, Memory was written, so it seems, under the influence of an aeronautical engineer and avid fly fisherman named John W. Dunne. . . . Dunne’s book, published in 1927, was called An Experiment With Time, and it went into several editions. “I find it a fantastically interesting book,” wrote H.G. Wells in a huge article in The New York Times. Yeats, Joyce, and Walter de la Mare brooded over its implications, and T.S. Eliot’s publishing firm, Faber, brought the book out in paperback in 1934, right about the time when Eliot was writing “Burnt Norton,” all about how time present is contained in time past and time future, and vice versa.

And there’s more:

Dunne’s Experiment seems to have become one of the secret wellsprings, or wormholes, of twentieth-century literature. J.B. Priestley believed that An Experiment With Time was “one of the most curious and perhaps most important books of the age,” and he built several plays around it. C.E.M. Joad, the philosopher and radio personality, said of the book: “It can be recommended to everybody who wishes to learn how to anticipate his own future.” C.S. Lewis wrote a short story, “The Dark Tower,” using Dunne’s ideas. J.R.R. Tolkien found the book helpful as he imagined Middle Earth’s elven dreamtime. Agatha Christie wrote that it gave her a “truer knowledge of serenity than I had ever obtained before.” “Everybody in England is talking about J.W. Dunne, the man who made dreams popular,” reported a newspaper columnist in 1935, though he warned that the innumerable geometrical charts would drive the reader “loco.” Robert Heinlein cited Dunne’s theory in his novella “Elsewhen” in 1941. In 1940, Jorge Luis Borges reviewed the book. “Dunne assures us that in death we will finally learn how to handle eternity,” Borges wrote. “He states that the future, with its details and vicissitudes, already exists.”

Graham Greene comes up too.

But here’s the name that really stood out in the above list: science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who’s come up from time to time on the blog. I happen to be reading The Puppet Masters, a Heinlein novel from the 1950s that I picked up in paperback format—I looove those old-time pocket books that really fit in my pocket!—and came across this line:

“Listen, son—most women are damn fools and children. But they’ve got more range than we’ve got. The brave ones are braver, the good ones are better—and the vile ones are viler. . . .”

This quote comes out of the mouths of one of the characters, but it’s a character who’s celebrated for his wisdom, so I think it’s safe to guess that Heinlein agreed with it.

I’m not trying to pick on Heinlein for his retro social attitudes. Rather, the opposite: it’s when authors let their guard down that they reveal interesting aspects of their life and times. It’s the Speed Racer principle: Sometimes the most interesting aspect of a cultural product is not its overt content but rather its unexamined assumptions.

What struck me about the above quote is how it goes in the opposite of current received wisdom about men and women, the view, associated with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, that men are more variable than women, the “wider tails” theory, which is said to explain why there are more male geniuses and more male imbeciles, more male heroes and more male villains, etc. Heinlein’s quote above says the opposite (on the moral, not the intellectual, dimension, but I think the feeling is the same).

My point here is not to use Heinlein to shoot down Summers (or vice-versa). Rather, it’s just interesting how received wisdom can change over time. What seemed like robust common sense back in the 1950s, has turned around 180 degrees, just a few decades later.


  1. Jake says:

    “Often in error, never in doubt.”

  2. I don’t think Larry Summers discriminates toward women. I gathered that from a presentation at Brookings. Women simply are less reluctant to engage in rigorous debate because some claim that there are ‘old boy networks’ that dissuade women from participating. I haven’t found that. It’s that one has to have the stamina that men demonstrate in their debates. Sure some people are annoying. But hey that can be handled too.

  3. Z says:

    I’m surprised Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t mentioned as influenced by this Dunne guy. From what I gather, its notion of time is pretty similar to how the Trafalmagorians (I think I got that a little wrong) see things. Maybe Vonnegut wasn’t actually directly (or even indirectly) influenced though, who knows?

  4. Lee Rudolph says:

    Maybe Vonnegut wasn’t actually directly (or even indirectly) influenced though, who knows?

    Pretty clearly Dunne was directly influenced by Vonnegut.

  5. ubik says:

    From what I understand, at least for the qualities we know how to measure, what Heinlein’s character says about women is actually mostly true of men. Men are “stocks” and risk-loving, women are “bonds” and risk-averse. There are fewer women who are extremely smart, but there are also fewer who are extremely stupid. Am I wrong about the data?

    “Listen, daughter (not as succinct as “son”, but hey… ) —most men are damn fools and children. But they’ve got more range than women got. The brave ones are braver, the good ones are better—and the vile ones are viler. . . .”

  6. Ethan Bolker says:

    Comment on

    “I looove those old-time pocket books that really fit in my pocket!”

    I’m a Trollope fan and read him in the Oxford University Press World Classics edition. Printed between the wars (I think). Hardbound, the size of those old-time pocket books, 300-400 pages with hot lead small type on thin paper but so well produced that they’re easier to read still than any modern book I own.

  7. Lord says:

    I wonder if these are in opposition. Perhaps it is the old stereotype of women being more emotional and men being more rational or aggressive with the excess in different dimensions, though avoiding risk may be more rational and testosterone emotional though perhaps different emotions and different reasons. Sort of something for people to read whatever they want into it.

  8. Wonks Anonymous says:

    Is Heinlein echoing the received wisdom of his own time, or is he idiosyncratic here?

  9. Was Heinlein’s notion here a generally accepted idea in the culture of the time, or was it one of his idiosyncratic ideas (of which he had many)? Was it based on any data beyond personal anecdote? The current idea of the male population varying more than the female population isn’t just a vague idea floating around the culture — it’s in the IQ data, which show a greater variance for male IQ’s than for female IQ’s. And this has been known for many decades — it’s not a recent discovery.

  10. hubble says:

    “S is a woman iff S is systematically subordinated along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.) and S is ‘marked’ as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction”

    Haslanger, S. (2000). Gender and Race: (What) are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?. Noûs 34: 31–55.

  11. Ben says:

    Oooo, Robert Heinlein

    I was listening to Starship Troopers (my first Robert Heinlein book). I got about 4/5ths of the way through before I got really suspicious that it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek like the movie. Bob & Mitzi concurred that it might not be.

    The action bits were super fun, but it felt more like Starship Philosophers than Troopers.

  12. Clark says:

    I wonder whether this is a matter of within-subject versus between subject variation? At a population level, the variation in males may be greater than females, but the within-person variation may be greater for females than males. Just speculating here, but with the notion fed by personal experience. Of course, much depends on the outcome being measured.

  13. Carlos Ungil says:

    What you call “current received wisdom about men and women” actually seems to be in the “dangerous ideas” department nowadays:

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