PART FOUR: INTERPRETATIONS
11. Pointing in Four Different Directions
"Solution Unsatisfactory" is like nothing else Robert Heinlein would ever write for Astounding, either under his own name or as Anson MacDonald.
A chart in the same May 1941 issue of Astounding in which "Solution Unsatisfactory" appeared demonstrated that all the stories that had been published there under the Heinlein name were part of a common fictional future. The one partial exception to this, a novelet entitled "Universe" also published in that May 1941 issue of the magazine, would later be confirmed to be part of the Future History, too.
The pseudonym Anson MacDonald was reserved for stories which didn't fit within this framework. That would include some of Heinlein's most provocative work, like Beyond This Horizon, a novel which set forth an alternative line of future historical development; the time travel tangle "By His Bootstraps"; and"Waldo," in which reality shapes itself according to how we conceive it.
But "Solution Unsatisfactory," the second of the seven stories under the Anson MacDonald byline, wouldn't be like the rest of MacDonald's or Heinlein's work. As a memoir of American military and governmental operations a few years in the future, it might well be the most apparently "realistic" story ever published in the pages of Astounding.
Underneath its plausible surface, however, it was a pack of lies.
That "Solution Unsatisfactory" should seem so sure of itself at the same time that it contained so many untruths was completely by intent. Heinlein was bent on fooling the readers of Astounding by appealing to their taste for certitude and then covertly working to subvert it.
He would take in Crown Publisher's editor Edmund Fuller, too, four years later. So successful was Heinlein at the appearance of just knowing the facts and reciting them, and so immediately striking would be the resonances between "Solution Unsatisfactory" and the actual end of World War II, that Fuller would insist that the story ought to be put at the front of The Best of Science Fiction as a demonstration of science fiction's ahead-of-the-headlines relevance.
So devious and tricky was "Solution Unsatisfactory," however, that what he actually wound up publishing wasn't the example of confident prophetics he'd intended to present but rather a four-way quarrel over what the story meant.
12. Foreign Policy -- What Foreign Policy?
The first person that Robert Heinlein set out to mislead was John W. Campbell. When the editor of Astounding initially announced "Solution Unsatisfactory" in the April 1941 issue of the magazine, he informed his readers that the author's title for it had been "Foreign Policy."
Even though he may have altered the title, however, Campbell was sufficiently taken by it to repeat in his preface to The Best of Science Fiction: "The author's original title for this story was 'Foreign Policy' -- in reference to the fact that the United States never has had a consistent, predictable, or understandable foreign policy."
The opening lines of the story reinforced Heinlein's faux title by declaring emphatically that its subject was American foreign policy and how the dust forced it to change. It begins:
“In 1903 the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.The narrator is saying that taken in sum the invention of the airplane, the splitting of the atom by a German scientist and the atomic research of Dr. Estelle Karst forced American foreign policy to alter, and that everything else followed inevitably. Once it had the dust and the means to deliver it, what else could the US do?
But what he is actually doing is feeding us the story's first lies.
Because the false information given us by DeFries comes before we're able to know that he's lying, it's only natural to take everything he has to say at face value. Rather than orienting us within the story, however, the effect of those initial dry statements of fact, some of which aren't facts, followed by a barrage of cleverness for emphasis and distraction, is to lead us astray from the outset.
Estelle Karst wasn’t working under the direction of the Federal Emergency Defense Authority, a body we never hear of again. She was doing medical research for the US Army under the command of Col. Manning.
American foreign policy did not have to change because Dr. Karst perfected the Karst-Obre technique in April 1943. She didn’t perfect it in April 1943.
She didn’t perfect it at any time.
K-O dust was in no way her doing. It wasn’t produced until late in 1944 after Manning had separated Dr. Karst from the fruits of her work and eased her out of the picture.
So, as definite, exact and authoritative as the things we’re told about her may sound, none of them is true beyond the fact that Dr. Karst worked with artificial isotopes. Instead, the effect of what the narrator says is to point a finger at her and assign responsibility to her that she doesn't deserve.
DeFries is also lying about his own role. As one of the King’s men – or, more properly, as Manning’s man – his job was always to assist in kicking American foreign policy to pieces. It was never to attempt to put it back together again afterward.
The phrase "foreign policy" is used on three occasions in the course of the story. And each time it has a different significance.
The first time it's used it means that as an inevitable consequence of Dr. Karst’s medical research (or rather Manning’s development of K-O dust) the US has to use the dust as a weapon in the war between England and Germany. Has to, has to.
The second time it’s used, it means that the dust having been dropped, the US must take charge of the world and rule it benevolently for the next hundred years.
The third time it’s used, it means that because American politicians can’t be trusted with that much power, control of the dust is to be turned over to Manning.
Whatever this sequence may be, it doesn't amount to a consistent, predictable and understandable new American foreign policy. And after this point in the story, with Manning now established in place as First Commissioner, we hear no more about it.
“Foreign Policy” was an intentionally deceptive title for a deliberately misleading story. It set forth a promise the story was never intended to keep. It focused attention where it didn’t belong and led it in the wrong direction. Then it flowed into the desert sand and disappeared.
No wonder John Campbell felt the title needed to be changed.
13. Watching the Watchers
The title he substituted, “Solution Unsatisfactory,” was more in keeping with the nature of the science fiction he aimed to publish in Astounding.
The proper business of science fiction as the editor presented it wasn’t to predict the future as much as it was to anticipate problems the future might bring and then deal with them imaginatively before they happened.
By retitling this story and thereby re-emphasizing it, Campbell turned attention from American foreign policy to control of the dust by what he described as “a dictatorship and a super-police force of the most ruthless and autocratic kind imaginable.”
We're told by DeFries that this super-police force, the Peace Patrol, is the only thing standing between humanity and self-destruction. In the name of keeping the weapon under control, these global policemen are prepared to use the dust to kill the President of the United States and even their own Commissioner Manning. They’re prepared to go anywhere and do whatever is necessary to see that nobody in the world has the dust or the means to use it but them.
In order to offset any inclination toward national favoritism, the Peace Patrol consists of men without a country, expatriates severed from their cultural roots, never allowed even to pay a visit to the places they were born. Instead, they're turned into a new aristocracy loyal to each other and to the Patrol, above and apart from the ordinary mankind they serve.
Manning's plan for this group of law-enforcers to become a new elite separated from their origins and bonded to each other had better work. As DeFries says, “There would be no one to guard these selfsame guardians. Their own characters and the watch they kept on each other would be all that stood between the race and disaster.”
If this solution seemed less than satisfactory to John Campbell, the reason may have been that in two stories published in Astounding during 1940, "The Roads Must Roll" in June and "Blowups Happen" in September, Heinlein had already set forth the problem of a fallible mankind attempting to control overwhelming future technology. And in neither case had the problem been convincingly resolved.
In both these stories once people put a new technology in place – in one case highways that move, in the other a nuclear power plant – they then become hostage to it and to the good sense and stability of the men responsible for operating it. In both cases, too, the situation becomes all the more precarious when the new technology is taken to the brink of disaster and the superior men in charge find themselves threatened by torturing storms of emotion suddenly bursting free of the inner compartments where they're usually kept in lock-down.
The answer that Heinlein attempted to offer in the course of these stories -- greater and greater watchfulness with added layers of ever more able men keeping guard -- had become untenable by the end of "Blowups Happen."
But now once more in yet a third story, another advanced technology, Karst-Obre dust, has to be used. It's capable of killing most of humanity and knocking civilization back to the Stone Age. And all that prevents it is the superior personal character, constant vigilance and emotional stability of the chosen men of the Peace Patrol.
This third time around, however, John Campbell was no longer willing to accept that character, ability, indoctrination, training and oversight were going to be enough to deal with the problem.
The Peace Patrol is a disaster waiting to happen. It can’t possibly work as it’s supposed to.
It’s a thin force, predominantly American in origin. It isn't fully operational. Its schools aren’t even in place, and who can say what someone who hasn't been properly trained and indoctrinated at the Academy might do?
Nonetheless, even though there are as yet relatively few Patrolmen and they’re inadequately prepared, they’re already expected to be everywhere at once all over the world right now, peeking in windows, poking through trash cans, sniffing out secret underground laboratories, preventing the dust from being made.
Realistically, they're never going to be able to do it, no matter how bright and dedicated they are or how hard they try.
As in Heinlein's two earlier stories, once again this is another untenable situation in which overconscientious men of superior ability and exceptional responsibilities must attempt to do the impossible by bearing down harder and harder, holding on tighter and tighter, and becoming more and more frantic until at last they reach the limit of their ability to cope and come to pieces.
Given this group of stressed-out men who’ve been taught to regard themselves as a breed apart, the only people worthy of possessing the dust, it seems just a matter of time before John Campbell’s fears come true and the Patrol starts using the threat of the dust to coerce and control lesser folk. In fact, they've already begun to do it with their bombers in the skies over Washington.
Not their least problem is that the last line of defense against the dust is the Peace Patrol.
At the same time, the Peace Patrolmen are also the only ones who have the dust.
It seems their work is cut out for them. These elite, tightly-bonded, alienated men are just going to have to keep a closer and closer watch on each other at all times to be sure they’re sure the dust is safe.
With more hope than sense, DeFries may insist, “It stood a chance of working. Had Manning been allowed twenty years without interruption, the original plan might have worked.”
But Manning doesn't have twenty uninterrupted years to devote to getting the Patrol squared away.
In fact, the Peace Patrol may already have been fatally compromised thanks to Manning and his coup. It’s a subordinate arm of the World Safety Commission. As soon as Manning seizes sole power, the World Safety Commission loses its former authority and the Patrolmen no longer have a job.
Whom are they to serve now? Do these men of the utmost ability and character simply fall into line and become Manning’s personal military force? Or is their individual bonding, their esprit de corps and their hubris great enough for them to attempt to seize power for themselves? Or do they just throw up their hands and go back where they came from?
That outbreak in the wing of the Peace Patrol based in Lisbon with its resultant wholesale dismissals may be a sign that the Patrol has already begun to come apart under the strain.
If the future of the human race depends upon perfecting the Peace Patrol and even DeFries is not sure that the Patrol can be made both self-perpetuating and trustworthy, then it seems that the fate of the world is in unstable hands.
So when John Campbell retitled this story, he was correct – the solution it offered to the problem of control of the dust wasn't satisfactory.
However, recognizing this and even making a point of it would not prevent the editor from buying and publishing the story anyway.
14. Dirty Bombs Don't Work
And that is where things might have remained, with "Solution Unsatisfactory" a half-forgotten curiosity buried in the graveyard of old magazine issues -- a story which might have been about American foreign policy but really wasn't or else a story which offered an indequate solution to the problem of control of an atomic weapon too awful to tolerate. But then World War II was ended by the dropping of two American Atom Bombs on Japan and overnight "Solution Unsatisfactory" came back to life with a new emphasis.
In the immediate postwar moment, with The Best of Science Fiction in the making, this story became a bone of contention between the editor of the book, Groff Conklin, and Edmund Fuller, overseeing the project for Crown.
I think the argument between them developed this way:
In the early fall of 1945, while they were still in the process of selecting work for the anthology, Conklin handed Fuller a copy of the May 1941 Astounding for him to read the cover story, "Universe" by Robert Heinlein.
In this novelet, a society living aboard a giant spaceship traveling from Earth to the stars has forgotten its original purpose. When one man sees the stars again and then tries to remind his fellows of what they no longer correctly understand, not only isn't he believed, he finds himself sentenced to death for heresy.
This commentary on human shortsightedness and resistance to truth was written immediately before "Solution Unsatisfactory." Both stories would then see publication, along with the Future History chart, all three together in the same May 1941 issue of Astounding.
In the six-and-a-half years of the Golden Age of Astounding, from the middle of 1939 to the end of 1945, this issue would be pivotal. It both consolidated the changes Campbell had been making in the magazine and set forth the nature and scope of the new modern science fiction that he was working to put in place.
These two stories -- one of them by Robert Heinlein with an interstellar setting hundreds of years from now, the other by Anson MacDonald taking place in the United States the day after tomorrow -- set forth the size of the territory encompassed by Campbellian science fiction, while the Future History chart indicated its depth and connectedness. The readers would rank "Universe" top story in the issue with "Solution Unsatisfactory" a solid second.
After he read "Universe," Edmund Fuller approved it for use in The Best of Science Fiction.
But then, paging on further through the magazine, "Solution Unsatisfactory" would catch his attention. Reading it only a few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the conclusion of World War II, he was amazed to see just how on target the story had been, with an American atomic weapon bringing the war to an end in 1945.
How right that was! It seemed perfect to go in the book.
But when he brought the story up with Groff Conklin, Conklin surprised him. He wanted no part of it. He'd never liked "Solution Unsatisfactory." And he didn't like it any better because it had made a lucky guess or two.
Just how prophetic was it, anyway? The resemblance to current events that had captured Fuller's attention all happened by the time the story was half done. In getting caught up by the similarity to the end of World War II, he was managing to ignore the rest of what took place in "Solution Unsatisfactory" -- the runaway Cabinet meeting, the Four-Days War with its millions and millions of casualties, the fatal plane crash, Manning making himself dictator. Did that foretell the future, too?
Conklin didn't think that declaring successful prophecy and shouting hurrah for science fiction was reason enough to use the MacDonald story in his anthology, let alone for putting it in a place of special prominence.
But he wasn't able to dissuade Edmund Fuller. Fuller recognized a good sales hook when he saw it and he didn't want to let go of this one. He kept coming back at Conklin about using "Solution Unsatisfactory" in The Best of Science Fiction.
And after the editor saw a newspaper account in the Washington Post in which a Nobel Prize-winning scientist said the existence of atomic weapons meant the United States might have to be ruled by a dictator, Conklin finally capitulated. With the argument he'd been making about the story's accuracy of prediction gone, he felt he had to concede to Fuller and give him his way.
But then just as soon as he did it, he regretted having done it. He still couldn't abide the story.
So he didn't let go of the matter, either. Instead, in the course of the introduction he wrote for The Best of Science Fiction placing this unfamiliar sort of story in context, Conklin would express his discontent and hang a warning sign around the neck of "Solution Unsatisfactory."
He wrote genially, or almost genially. He said his say in bits and pieces, a little here and a little there. But he got it all out:
He said that science fiction was a branch of fantasy. It was an exercise of the imagination offered to readers as entertainment. Its value was that it took them to places they had never been before. But it wasn't prophecy except by accident or by appearance.
He wrote, "That professional S-F writers (as they are familiarly known in the pulp-magazine trade) were able to write with some knowledgeability of the nature of atomic fission as far back as 1940 does not prove they had second sight. It only proves that they read the right science journals...."
He said that Edmund Fuller was still his friend. But that he'd learned to like science fiction so well in the course of working on the book it sometimes seemed he was about to take over the project and run away with it. In the name of Crown Publishers, Fuller had forced "Solution Unsatisfactory" on him against his better judgment.
Conklin said he thought "Solution Unsatisfactory" was dangerous. He didn't want to endorse its power politics or to help the story come true. Reader take heed.
Edmund Fuller didn't -- or else couldn't -- keep Conklin from casting doubt on the opening story in his very own book. But neither was he willing to remove "Solution Unsatisfactory" from the anthology.
The answer he found was to invite John Campbell, the original editor of this story, to write a preface to put in front of Conklin's introduction to help offset the damage. And Campbell obliged him.
In his preface he too would discuss the nature of science fiction and talk specifically about "Solution Unsatisfactory":
Campbell said that some SF stories were simple adventure. Some like "Universe" were philosophical in nature. But some were prophecy, and "Solution Unsatisfactory" was a Grade A example. He said he knew it had been read and discussed by physicists and engineers working on the Manhattan Project to build the Bomb.
The prophetic success of this story was no accident. A good science fiction writer armed himself with the facts. The author of this one had experience both as an engineer and as a politician and consequently knew what he was talking about.
He recalled a conversation he'd had in 1942 with a friend who was fond of fantasy but didn't like science fiction. He specifically disliked "Solution Unsatisfactory."
John Campbell -- who was founding editor of the fantasy magazine Unknown as well as editor of Astounding -- said: "...this man felt an overwhelming pressure on the part of the author to convince him that the story was possible, and could happen, a driving sincerity that oppressed and repelled him."
His friend wanted his fantasy to stay fantasy. He didn't want his fantasy coming true, and "Solution Unsatisfactory" was more plausible than he was quite comfortable with.
Campbell concluded his preface by adding that "secrecy" was no answer to the existence of atomic weapons. Congressional Representatives -- and, by implication, the reader, too -- ought to study the Smyth Report on Atomic Energy.
This was a reference to "Atomic Energy for Military Purposes," an official report by Henry De Wolf Smyth released on the heels of the Bomb in August 1945 to inform the American public about atomic weapons in a properly authoritative way.
Campbell would show it to Edmund Fuller. And to further counter Groff Conklin's introductory comments, Fuller would see that "Solution Unsatisfactory" was preceded by three consecutive numbered paragraphs excerpted from the Smyth Report.
These prefatory paragraphs had not been published with the story when it originally appeared in 1941, of course. Neither would they be printed with the novelet when it was republished in the 1965 Heinlein collection, The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, or in the much larger 1980 version of this book, Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. They were included in The Best of Science Fiction for the express purpose of contradicting Conklin and verifying the authority of "Solution Unsatisfactory."
The paragraphs said it was possible to extract deadly radioactive fission products and use them "like a particularly vicious form of poison gas." And also that while the United States had not pursued such a weapon itself, serious consideration had been given "to the possibility that the Germans might make surprise use of radioactive poisons, and accordingly defensive measures were planned."
With this testimony that the US had thought of the possibility of something like the dust -- although not exactly -- and feared its use during the war, and even planned to defend against it -- though Smyth didn't say how -- there was reason to take the story that followed not merely as fantasy written for entertainment but to see it by the light of America's new atomic weapon and read it as serious prediction.
There would be two problems with this, however.
In the fall of 1945 it may have seemed obvious and overwhelming to read “Solution Unsatisfactory” as being about anticipation of the Bomb. But this take on the story was simply the perspective of a particular instant. Its power wouldn't last.
The postwar moment passed as all moments will. New headlines came along to replace the old ones and the apparent predictive success of "Solution Unsatisfactory" would not be repeated by other science fiction stories. Gradually, the onetime impact of this story’s fictional anticipation of the end of World War II wore off until the-same-but-not-the-same mirroring of a portion of the story by the end of the war came to seem more like a coincidence or a similarity or even a bit of trivia than the vindication of science fiction it had briefly appeared to be.
The second problem is that time would reveal that dirty bombs do not work. As tests by the US government have demonstrated and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has made a point of repeating, when radiological dust is spread by conventional explosives, more damage is done by the explosives than by the dust. Far from sterilizing a whole city, killing the entire population, at best it would only have a chance of triggering cancer in a few people. Most likely, it would blow away in the wind.
The main effect of a dirty bomb would be to cause fear.
15. Dr. No No No
This leaves one last interpretation of “Solution Unsatisfactory”– on the face of it the most simple, obvious and complete. That's the way Groff Conklin, the leading anthologist of science fiction through the 1950s, saw the story.
According to this reading, “Solution Unsatisfactory” is about the rise to world domination of a ruthless man using K-O dust as his means.
That this could be what the story is about is something the narrator attempts to deny and obfuscate at every turn, from the opening where responsibility for the weapon is assigned to poor Estelle Karst and her medical dust, to the end where the villain of the piece is suggested to be the man who first made the bow and arrow and touched off a human arms race which hasn’t ended yet. In either case, DeFries suggests it wasn’t Manning who done it. He was just a victim of circumstance.
But, in fact, Manning’s quest for absolute personal power is confirmed by every event in the story. It’s Manning who brings the weapon into being. It's Manning who insists that it be used. It’s Manning who asserts the necessity of a military dictatorship. It’s Manning who draws up plans for seizure of power. And it's Manning who points to the Peace Patrol bombers in the sky over Washington and takes over the world.
It is this assumption of power by one man that is the politics that Conklin so abhored. And he certainly wasn’t wrong to believe that adopting Manning as a model of behavior could prove dangerous.
If a youngster of ten or twelve read “Solution Unsatisfactory” in its original appearance in Astounding in 1941, or in its favored position in The Best of Science Fiction -- someone like a young Donald Rumsfeld, say, or a Dick Cheney -- and found it impressive, it’s possible that he might grow up believing that special exemptions from ordinary honesty and decency are permitted to a wise and benevolent genius of hard sense who happens to know better than everyone else.
If such a reader of “Solution Unsatisfactory” were to rise to a position of power the result could indeed be dangerous. From reading this story, he might have learned the mouthing of euphemisms and false pieties to divert attention from true intent; evasion of accountability for the consequences of one's actions; the breaking of solemn oaths; deliberate violation of the Constitution of the United States; the invitation of attack as an excuse to go to war; the institution of a permanent state of martial law in America; the use and threatened further use of horrific weapons in order to convince other countries not to make those weapons themselves; and the extra-legal seizure of power.
However, when Groff Conklin suggested that behavior like this might be the politics of the author of "Solution Unsatisfactory," I don't believe he was right.
Robert Heinlein had a need to fly the flag and also an urge to revolt -- both of these in the name of freedom. In the Thirties, he'd been an active participant in Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California campaign for governor, regarded by many as radical and socialist. In his later years, he was perceived as a libertarian and an extreme conservative.
It's not simple to pinpoint what his politics were in conventional terms. However, I cannot believe the revolutionary patriot present in Heinlein at all stages of his life, and not least at the time he wrote this story, would ever have permitted him to support a man like Clyde Manning.
"Solution Unsatisfactory" actually has no readily identifiable political content at all, just like Heinlein's postwar political operating manual Take Back Your Government, eventually published in 1992. Instead, in keeping with the conventions of pulp storytelling, which weren’t prepared to alienate any part of an audience prepared to buy a copy of this month’s magazine, there's an avoidance of specific political identification in any conventional sense in the story.
At every point that the subject of recognizable policies and affiliations might be brought up, DeFries finesses the issue:
What party does Manning represent in Congress? We aren’t told. We aren’t so much as given the compliant President’s name, let alone his political orientation or which party he belongs to. And Manning offers the world no political program or direction beyond his own personal control of the dust.
Rather than resembling Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin, or any other known dictator, Manning doesn’t really seem a creature of politics at all. He’s more a story figure. His nearest relatives are James Bond style supervillains ready to hold the world at ransom with threats of mass destruction if they aren’t given all they demand by a chosen hour.
Though it might be frightening to imagine a man like Clyde Manning making himself dictator of the world -- and even though this interpretation manages to account for more of the content of “Solution Unsatisfactory” than any of the other candidates proposed -- there’s something fundamentally implausible about it.
It takes a lot of special arrangement of circumstance, deliberate looking away, unlikely assistance and handwaving to promote Major Clyde Manning from prematurely retired Army officer to Big Cheese of the World, ruler of all.
And even if we should accept all the unlikeliness for the sake of the story and agree that someone like Clyde Manning really might succeed in putting himself in charge of everybody in the manner he's said to have done, we have to wonder by what means he would be able to hold on to power and for how long?
He’s a solitary figure. Unless some remnant of the Peace Patrol chooses to support him, Manning has no military muscle to enforce his will. He has no secure base of operations. He has no economic foundation or political allies. Everyone in the world hates him. He has no successor, and his future lifespan is limited.
Not an unstressful set of circumstances for a man with a bad heart, and a situation that is destined to come to an end in pretty short order.
In fact, if Manning doesn’t drop dead from the strain of it all, in all likelihood there are enraged common men brandishing slide rules and monkey wrenches at the gates of his castle even as we speak.
It seems that one way or another, shortly after this story ends, the breach of normal reality that is Manning is destined to go poof and disappear.