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Sixth Column

Sixth Column

Sixth Column, also known under the title The Day After Tomorrow, is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, based on a story by editor John W. Campbell, and set in a United States that has been conquered by the PanAsians, a combination of Chinese and Japanese. Originally published as a serial in Astounding Science Fiction (January, February, March 1941, as by Anson MacDonald) it was published in hardcover in 1949.

Plot summary

A top secret research facility hidden in the Colorado mountains is the last remaining outpost of the United States Army after its defeat by the PanAsians. The conquerors had absorbed the Soviets after being attacked by them and had then gone on to absorb India as well. The invaders are depicted as ruthless and cruel—for example, they crush an abortive rebellion by killing 150,000 American civilians as punishment.

The laboratory is in turmoil as the novel begins. All but six of the personnel have died suddenly, due to unknown forces released by an experiment operating within the newly-discovered magneto-gravitic or electro-gravitic spectra. The surviving scientists soon learn that they can selectively kill people by releasing the internal pressure of their cell membranes. This makes for one of the story’s most controversial plot elements—a race-selective weapon which can kill members of one race while leaving those of others unharmed.

They devise other uses for the awesome forces they have discovered, but how can a handful of men overthrow an occupation force that controls all communications and when it is a crime to print a word in English? Noting that the invaders have allowed the free practice of religion (the better to pacify their slaves), the Americans set up a church of their own and begin acting as "Priests of Mota" (Mota is atom spelled backwards) in order to build a resistance movement—which Major Ardmore, the protagonist of the book, refers to as the Sixth Column (as opposed to a traitorous fifth column).

Portrayal of racism

The book is notable for its frank and controversial portrayal of racism. The conquerors regard themselves as a chosen people predestined to rule over lesser races, and they refer to white people as slaves. "Three things only do slaves require: work, food, and their religion." They require outward signs of respect, such as jumping promptly into the gutter when a member of the chosen race walks by, and the slightest hesitation to show the prescribed courtesies earns a swagger stick across the face. One character is Frank Mitsui, an Asian American whose family was murdered by the invaders because they did not fit in the new PanAsiatic racial order. The Americans in the novel respond to their conquerors' racism by often referring to them in unflattering terms, such as "flat face", "slanty" (a derisive reference to the look typical of Asian eyes), and "monkey boy".

Sixth Column and Farnham's Freehold, another novel by Heinlein, both center on the issue of race. Whereas some people perceive Sixth Column as racist, Farnham's Freehold turns the tables by reversing the racial stereotypes. The original idea for the story of Sixth Column was proposed by John W. Campbell (who had written a similar unpublishable story called All), and Heinlein later wrote that he had "had to reslant it to remove racist aspects of the original story line" and that he did not "consider it to be an artistic success. Heinlein did not provide details of his reslanting, but it is noteworthy that the mysterious force which has accidentally killed all but six of the two hundred American personnel at the beginning of the novel, is later revealed to be race-based, suggesting that the survivors were ethnic minorities. There are few clues to the ethnicity of the surviving personnel, though one of them has skin described as “brown.” A possible clue is provided by the nickname of the one soldier who was not at the laboratory when the accident occurred: “Whitey.” The irony is increased by the surname of the leading surviving scientist: “Calhoun,” the name of the prominent pro-slavery politician and political philosopher John C. Calhoun.

Heinlein’s work on Campbell’s “All” was considerably more than just a re-slanting; Campbell’s story was unpublishable as it stood, written in a pseudo-archaic dialect (with occasional inconsistencies), with no scientific explanations for the apparently miraculous powers of the American super-weapons. (There are plausible discussions of the weapons, but by the PanAsians, concluding that their powers must be divine.) George Zebrowski, in his afterword to the story, speculates that Heinlein was parodying Campbell in the character of Calhoun, who goes insane and actually believes the false religion created by the Americans. The bulk of Heinlein’s work on the novel, e.g., the explanations of the weapons’ effectiveness and the strategy for the American’s rebellion, are missing from “All.”

It was written in the same year as the attack on Pearl Harbor, while its hardcover publication coincided with the Communist victory in China; with the PanAsians being both Chinese and Japanese, it had a direct topical relevance in both cases. (The story is contemporaneous with Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, in which one of the three superpowers who share the world is Eastasia, which is likewise a combination of China and Japan).

Heinlein fans seeking to defend the book from the charge of racism pointed out that Mitsui's wife, who was killed by the invaders, had been Black (see ) -a quite daring anti-racist plot element for the 1940s.

A more complete discussion of race in Heinlein's fiction is given in the main article on Heinlein.

There are considerable similarities between the racist ideology and brutal methods of Heinlein's PanAsians and those of the later conceived world-conquering Draka in S. M. Stirling's books (who are depicted as being of White European and American origin).

Notes

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