SPOILER ALERT!

Is Technological Advancement social advancement?

Have Space Suit-Will Travel - Robert A. Heinlein

I must say that when I read the first few pages of this book it had me in hysterics, particularly with the way Kip's father did his tax returns (by working it out in his head, then throwing a heap of money into an envelope and posting it off). Heinlein, in opening this story, created a rather eccentric family living in Centreville in what is known as small town USA. However, when I say eccentric, it is because Kip's father used to be a top scientist for the US government and then quit due to all the diplomatic rubbish that he pretty much got sick of dealing with (much like my own father).

 

 

However this book is not about his father, it is about Kip and his dream of going to the moon. This seems to be way out of his reach because, despite his father having immense influence, it does not seem that Kip will be able to get into a decent college. It is also interesting to hear Heinlein's indictment of the US public educational system, because the Centreville school is something that people like to go to, and they have fun going there, but it is hardly the type of school that will prepare you for an Ivy League education. Mind you, this is moreso today where unless you are going to a prep-school, don't think of being accepted into an Ivy League School.

 

 

Anyway, Kip stumbles across a contest where he can win a trip to the moon, however after doing everything that he can to stack the odds in his favour, he ends up winning a space suit, which he then spends most of his holidays getting into a better condition. This works out well because one evening, while wondering through the paddocks on his farm, he is kidnapped by aliens, uncovers an invasion plan, and then is whisked off to the Magellanic Cloud to be put on trial on behalf of the rest of his planet.

 

 

This is a classic example of speculative science-fiction, something that I have come to expect from the classics of the genre written around this time. It differs a lot to what we see in our Star Wars and Star Trek soaked society of today. The aliens that are encountered tend to be of such a level that it is difficult for us to understand what is going on, and they tend to have socially evolved significantly beyond our petty desires to control and oppress. This is not the case with all the races we encounter, as is indicated with the creatures that Kip refers to as Wormface.

 

 

I found it somewhat interesting that despite the intergalactic court finding that the people of Earth to be a violent and barbarous race, they still saw fit to teach them advanced mathematics and also allow them access to Wormface's technology. It is clear that the Wormface were an advanced race of aliens that still had violent and dominating tendencies, and they were put out of action because of this, however while humanity was found to be in a similar position, giving them advanced technological knowledge is hardly going to change their social attitudes.

 

 

This is the interesting thing about advancement because, and I think Heinlein recognises it in this book, technological advancement does not necessarily mean social advancement. We might be able to have a portable computer in our pocket that can pin point our location on the Earth with surprising accuracy, however if our neighbour is still starving and we do nothing about it then we are truly not an advanced race. Similarly with our desire to dominate others. We might be able to travel around the world with supersonic speed, but if we use that technology to bomb the crap out of other humans on rather flimsy pretences (namely that we simply cannot get along) then are we truly an advanced race? I think not.

 

 

To me technological advancement means absolutely nothing if it does not move with social advancement. Granted we may have this vague notion of human rights, but as Zizek indicates, what human rights end up being, to us Westerners, are excuses to live selfish lives. The right to privacy is in fact the right to cheat on your wife, and the right to bare arms is the right to kill people by whom you feel threatened (even if that threat is only perceived). Then there is fear: an advanced race has a mature understanding of fear (that is respect) however we seek to imprison others by using fear, whether it be on a government level or on a spiritual level. The church are experts at using fear to control the masses, as is the government.

 

I guess this is what some of these speculative science-fiction texts are exploring: the nature of what it means to advance. Even back in the 1950s we were patting ourselves on the back suggesting that we were truly advanced. We had fought our way through two World Wars to see the idea of democracy (with its rather misinterpreted idea of freedom) prevail over the dictatorships, however it has been suggested that what that amounted to was that one dictatorship – the dictatorship of the wealthy – prevailed over the totalitarian dictatorships of the nobility. As I have mentioned previously, World War II was not the triumph of good over evil, but the triumph of the lesser evil over the greater evil.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/607078450