Robert A. Heinlein,
Revolt in 2100
(Baen, 1954)

Revolt in 2100 is the third volume in Heinlein's Future History series (preceded by The Man Who Sold the Moon and The Green Hills of Earth). The bulk of the book consists of the famous novella "If This Goes On" and is rounded out with the short stories "Coventry" and "Misfit."

America is a much different place in the year 2100. What was a thriving, democratic country reaching for the planets and beyond at the end of the second volume of the series is now a theocracy typified by brutal repression and backward-thinking. Heinlein provides some information about the three unwritten tales that would describe the rise to power of evangelist Nehemiah Scudder, the First Prophet who tore asunder the Constitution and set up a regime as repressive and backwards-thinking as anything from the Middle Ages. In 2100, Scudder is gone, but a First Prophet reigns in his name. There are virgins to "serve" the First Prophet, and there are "Angels of the Lord" (such as protagonist John Lyle) charged to protect his safety. Pariahs are frequently attacked and repressed by the government to further its dictatorial control, and history has been essentially deleted and replaced by a new version of America's story drilled into the heads of all youngsters. For those who dare resist, a modern Inquisition exists to punish and torture them -- there is no bigger fear than of being subjected to The Question. Still, there are revolutionaries, even among the palace guard, and John Lyle finds himself joining their ranks after having fallen for a deaconess serving under the Prophet. The account of Lyle's soul-searching conversion from loyal soldier to doubting pariah is well told, as is the story of his admission to the cabal and attempt to escape the service of the Prophet. Once outside of the palace grounds, the narrative takes on a science-fiction feel built around the plans of the cabal to overthrow the corrupt theocracy. The transformation of Lyle is fascinating; as he discovers the unknown history of a free America and reads the words of men such as Thomas Paine for the first time, he has little choice but to accept the fact that the world of his youth was based on falsehood and corruption.

I didn't really care for the other two stories. "Coventry" seemed to have potential early on but never seemed to deliver. Coventry is the name of a region bordering America and serves as a destination for exiled citizens. The protagonist's expectations and hopes concerning life in the mysterious land are quickly proven wrong as the Jeffersonian society he hoped to find there does not exist. Finally, "Misfit" is rather weak indeed. It concerns a mission to bring an asteroid into Earth orbit to serve as a de facto space station. The protagonist and others like him find out that they can succeed and make a name for themselves in space, whereas at home on the ground they were misfits of no importance at all. I really learned nothing at all from this tale.

"If This Goes On" is one of Heinlein's most significant works, certainly among the Future History stories, and should not be missed by science fiction fans. Its surreal setting seems fantastic to anyone whose spoken or unspoken belief is that "it can't happen here," yet it provides an ever-timely warning against the dangers of extreme religious fanaticism gaining control over government. It is ironic, though, that the story that truly dominates the subject matter of this book is a story that was not actually written -- the rise to power of Nehemiah Scudder. Heinlein's postscript about "stories never written" is actually more interesting than the shorter two stories included here.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 16 July 2005

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