Starship Letters II
[First posted to Starship Forum, March, April, October 2002]
Heinlein and the Starship Adventure
Mike Enright asked at OWL (3/24):
"I was wondering what other objectivists thought of Robert Heinlein & his works..."
Mike's question and the replies from John Enright, Joe Duarte, Mike Hardy, and Chris Cogan, prompts me to also offer my response:
Heinlein's "juvenile" stories (Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Farmer in the Sky, Podkayne of Mars, The Rolling Stones, Orphans of the Sky, Red Planet, Double Star, Starman Jones, and many others) have helped vitally shape my early vision of life's potential -- and indubitably prepared me for that day years later when Rand's The Fountainhead completed the vision.
I first read Heinlein when I was about 11 or 12, when I was just learning to speak and read English. (I had, just a few years before, escaped from China and been smuggled into Canada.) Along with reading Heinlein's and other's sci-fi stories, I was also reading the super-hero comics about Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman, as well as the Illustrated Classics about the Count of Monte Cristo, the Three Musketeers, and the Man in the Iron Mask. A little later, the Star Trek TV series added more fuel to thefire.
These stories nourished me in the oasis I created amidst a world that I was still learning to adapt to. In spite of the sadness of having been torn from the family I had forgotten in China and then being alienated from the family that adopted me in Canada, the future to me was a promise of adventure, marvels, and enchantment. The future for me was to go to the stars. I wanted to join the armed forces and then become an astronaut. (My friends in school called me "Astro-Man".)
By the time I approached high school graduation, however, I had enough doubts about actually becoming an astronaut -- doubts based on my belief that my poor eyesight was a disqualification and that my ethnic heritage was an obstacle -- that I decided to enter university to study astrophysics and become an astronomer.
At the end of the first year of studies, I was recommended to read The Fountainhead, which I did right away. The impact of that was an intensifying of my vision -- and a clarifying of what that vision meant -- by the philosophy that Rand offered. So I switched my studies to philosophy that Fall, and thus began my explicit quest for the definition of the starship adventure that had moved me since childhood. That quest was transformed, a few years later, into "Project Starship": my plan to build a starship I named Starship Aurora.
The project, for the next 25+ years leading up to the present, has been for me an adventure
beyond anything I had imagined as a boy. It has engaged me in fierce intellectual battles at
universities, encouraging and discouraging encounters with several objectivist-libertarian groups
(some of which I founded), disappointing but enlightening attempts to contact Ayn Rand about
the starship idea, proudly earning a difficult and unprecedented Master's in "Objectivist
Astronautics", being married
Today, the project is even more alive, as some of you may have seen signs of. Call me an "astronut" if you want (make it "objectivist astronut"), but my project has kept me purposeful, passionate, and spiritually prosperous all these years -- and will continue to do so until I die.
These are some my thoughts on Heinlein's stories, and how they have led me to the life I now have. I would recommend them to any boy or girl, in years or at heart.
Rand, Weiss, Peikoff, and Gotthelf
M. wrote (3/31):
M.'s question was in response to a mention of Ayn Rand in a paragraph from my post (3/31):
"The project, for the next 25+ years leading up to the present, has been for me an adventure beyond anything I had imagined as a boy. It has engaged me in fierce intellectual battles at universities, encouraging and discouraging encounters with several objectivist- libertarian groups (some of which I founded), disappointing but enlightening attempts to contact Ayn Rand about the starship idea, proudly earning a difficult and unprecedented Master's in "Objectivist Astronautics", being married to the same woman for 29 years -- and many other out-of-this-world experiences that I wouldn't trade for all the money in the world."
To answer M.'s curiosity, I wish I could elaborate on my attempts to reach Ayn Rand about starship, but I can't now, and it's a painful memory. I can only give a sketch here.
Why did I want to contact Ayn Rand? Well, after first reading The Fountainhead, I felt as if I was in love, and the love spread to the author. And after I read Ayn Rand's "Apollo 11", I felt an even more urgent desire to reach her. So when I finished my essay "Project Starship" in 1976, I mailed it to her, special delivery, knowing that it was unlikely to get to her, but also knowing that it was important enough to me to try -- and try, try again. In the end, I still don't know if she ever received it. I believe she did not.
Each time I tried to send the essay and letter -- including by way of other people close to her whose addresses I found, like Elayne Kalberman and Leonard Peikoff -- it always ended up in the hands of her secretary, Barbara Weiss.
Weiss wrote (Nov 30, 1976):
"Enclosed is the article "Project Starship" which you sent to me. I have not read it, as it is my policy not to read unsolicited material of this nature.
I had not asked for their "association" with the starship project, and I wanted nothing more than for my project to stand "on its own merit". I did ask Weiss about the apparent suspiciousness and reclusiveness, but I just wanted to know that Ayn Rand had received the essay in her hands. I still don't know if she ever did, and a few years later, it became too late.
As for Peikoff, I don't know if he received it in his hands either. In 1983, when I and an objectivist group (The Objectivist Philosophy Exchange that I started at the Univ. of Calgary) invited him to speak there, he sent back an unfriendly reply.
Intriguingly, in 1979, at a lecture on Romantic vs. Platonic Love given by Allan Gotthelf in Calgary that I attended, I asked Gotthelf during the Q&A period some questions, including what he thought of the relationship between the philosophy of objectivism and the idea of starship (without explaining too much what I meant by "starship"). His answer (paraphrased and from my notes) implied that he had heard before of the special meaning of starship that I held. He answered, "The question is a set-up. Not much is needed for me to say. I'm aware that some people hold the idea to be of some significance."
At the end of the question period, I went up to Gotthelf and presented a copy of "Project Starship" and "The Orator", saying to him, "I went through a lot to be here and give you this." He said, "I hesitate to accept this because I would feel obliged to respond." I replied, "You don't owe me anything. I have my reasons to give you this and you can do anything you want with it. If Ayn Rand or Leonard Peikoff were here, I would give this to them, too." He said, "I'll accept it on the condition that you don't expect me to reply. It may take me a while to read it." All this while, I noticed that he was avoiding my eyes. One of the last statements I made to him was, "This interchange is weird. Instead of asking me what it's about or why I want to give it to you, you're trying to explain why you wouldn't accept it. And I can understand why, because I been through this many times."
(To his credit, he did finally accept my offerings and later extended an invitation, through the host of the event, for me along with some others, to a restaurant, but it was already about 2 a.m., and we (Mary Jane, her sister, and I) had to drive 4 hours back up to Edmonton to go to work that morning. Besides, I was exhausted and discouraged.) No, I did not hear back from Gotthelf, so I don't know if he ever read the essay.
Back to Barbara Weiss: She had also instructed a lawyer to warn me not to use Ayn Rand's intellectual property in our promotional materials. So I stopped using the names; by then, I didn't care much about using them anyway. I had been using, in our little ads in Reason magazine and in our brochures, the statement, "Wanted: the spirit of 'John Galt and 'Howard Roark' to build the starship to happiness."
Objectivists and Romantics
Ram Tobolski wrote (4/5):
"I read your personal post about Heinlein in OWL and was moved."
Thank you, Ram, for standing up and letting me know. I benefit from knowing that I have an effect on the world around me, we each do. That benefit is the minimum we can offer to each other as human beings, as fellow travelers on parallel dreams, and as compatriot warriors in the battle for freedom and dignity.
Ram was also replying to comments I made in my previous post (4/4) about Mischa's startrek images, where I wrote:
"In many ways, I'm more inspired by looking at the posts of images from Mischa (who I assume is a startrekker, but not an objectivist) than I do from reading the typical post from the objectivist lists like OWL (where I get barely a nod when I post something there to get a rise from somebody.) Now, why is that? Who's in closer touch with life "as it could and should be?"
...And in my post (4/5) about Dennis May's (3/31) Catch-22 quandary, I wrote:
"The Catch-22 quagmire can be transcended, though I've been wondering if much help in doing so will come from the objectivists -- so many whom I know of, for all their readings of Heinlein and other sci-fi, appear to be earthbound in their thinking and a-romantic in their aspiration."
Ram proposed this explanation for the silence from OWL where I also posted my Heinlein article last week:
"The lack of responses may indicate, that your unique sense of life is not common among Objectivists."
Not only did I forward the post to OWL, but I also sent it to each person there that had written on the Heinlein thread, along with a personal invitation to check out the Starship Forum. Except for one off-list reply from someone else (about just whether I had read Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo), only one wrote back and then subscribed to this forum.
Is my sense and vision of life that unique, among objectivists or otherwise, such that I may as well be an alien from another planet? Do they not share the romantic sense of life that Ayn Rand had, and which she depicted in her art? Or, is the lack of response from them not due to their not comprehending what I was saying, but because of their lack of courage to acknowledge it? Why wouldn't they even just just say, "Thanks, I'll check it out." or "Hi. Welcome to America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave."
What are they afraid of? Why are they timid to acknowledge (publicly) their romantic sentiments? Are they worried about being scoffed, shunned, and sneered at as "astronuts"? Are they waiting for someone else, someone with "acceptable" credentials, to speak up first? Do they want an imprimatur from Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Branden, Leonard Peikoff, or David Kelley?
I didn't need it. I wanted their response (AR's, et. al.), but I didn't need it in order to proclaim my aim, to pursue my vision, to produce my starship. And though I'm made to feel sometimes like I'm a weirdo, and sometimes I have to overcome the embarrassment of "standing naked in front of slobs", I do not hide or forsake the dream, the dream that Rand wrote about in her Introduction to Fountainhead:
"[The exalted, reverent] view of man has rarely been expressed in human history. Today, it is virtually non-existent. Yet this is the view with which--in various degrees of longing, wistfulness, passion and agonized confusion--the best of mankind's youth start out in life. It is not even a view, for most of them, but a foggy, groping, undefined sense made of raw pain and incommunicable happiness. It is a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one's life is important, that great achievements are within one's capacity, and that great things lie ahead."
"Aren't you interested in the ongoing discussion in OWL concerning "Objectivism in trouble"? Even if OWL frustrates you, and especially if this is so, you may be able to contribute to an account of the current state of Objectivism (and of OWL), and about possible ways to improve it, from your own unique perspective."
I have been following the "Objectivism in trouble" thread and haven't read anything astounding there. It should be call "Objectivists in trouble". The philosophy is in grand shape. But, many, many objectivists are in trouble -- not because they don't understand the philosophy, not because they aren't "advanced", or "complete", not because there aren't enough women, not because there aren't inspiring orators -- but because, simply, they are denying the glory of their own heroic being.
They have become a-romantic -- with emphasis on "a". They have "matured" from the childish enthusiasm ("being filled with the divine spirits") that was sparked and nurtured by the romantic visions as shown in art like Heinlein's and Rand's. They are playing it safe in the sandbox of surgical logic. They "soar aloft in the night sky, afraid to face the dawn." They each need courage to become more of a romantic -- with emphasis on "romantic".
A romantic: because Beauty is the final cause, and its Glory is what moves humanity to Truth and Freedom.
Ram suggested I share on OWL my perspective about "Objectivism in trouble". I may so do. But I also have been doing that -- indirectly, and mainly as a foil to that "trouble" they spoke of -- in nearly all my past posts and in my previous moderatorship there.
Ram also wondered:
"P.S. I read that you were smuggled into Canada, as a child. I hope this doesn't mean that you still need to hide, from the mounties? ;-)"
Most of my years since "sneaking" into Canada had a covert element -- name and residence changes and such -- that, along with my amnesia about my original family, has hindered my outspokenness, making me feel as if I needed to "hide". Some of that shyness is still with me, although I don't need to worry about the mounties as much now because a few years ago, I was able to obtain a legal Canadian citizenship status. Thanks for asking, Ram.
Since leaving my original heritage, I've felt like a "stranger in a strange land", a "man who fell to Earth", an "orphan of the sky". At various periods, from the friendships and art I found, I felt like I was a Jew, a Scot, or a Bohemian. Maybe, at heart and in spirit, I'm all those, and others -- but I'm sure I'm at least a man.
Bitterness in Randland
At OWL, Sal Barbella -- in reply to Joe Duarte's call (13/10/02) for action, political or otherwise, and not only what Joe named as "docile intellectual and philosophical activity" -- Sal wrote (14/10/02):
"[...] I am especially hostile to any idea of political action, or running candidates. Fighting state power without the prerequisite intellectual base is a fruitless tactic...However, if you wish to pursue this course in your life, it is no concern of mine. The point is, I have no wish to even debate or listen to this type of world view, for I see it as terribly flawed. That is the reason I joined this list billed as The Objectivist Republic of Letters. Because I wanted to discuss the world from a Randian perspective. Apparently, this is point some people will do anything not to address."My response:
When I see a homeless man scavenging for empty bottles to make some cash, I don't focus on his lack of an "intellectual base". While I wouldn't want to do what he does, I have some admiration for his efforts to still make a living.
"When I see a garbage collector handling bags of back-breaking smelly waste, I don't criticize him for not working as a philosopher. While I wouldn't want his dirty-but-someone's-got-to-do-it job, I'm glad that someone like him does.
"When I see a soldier dodging bullets and blown-apart bodies of his buddies so as to win a victory for liberty, I don't condemn him for fighting force with force. While I'm not as gung-ho to be a soldier as I used to be, I'm glad people like him, are.
"When I see a libertarian candidate or activist making a case for limiting the government's power, I don't dismiss him even if he's up against parties with "thousands of years of experience. However little chance he has of getting support and elected, I'm glad he's another voice of dissent against slavery.
"When I see a gnarled and twisted tree clutching the side of a wind-swept cliff, or a robin with broken wings hobbling on the ground looking for food and shelter, I don't denounce them for being "terribly flawed".
"However, I might do so -- I might, if I were so soured by the cultural acids that leak into my soul, if I didn't neutralize the bitterness that grows with the discouragement I encounter, if I lack a sense of worth and accomplishment -- I might, if I didn't draw on the energy that emanates from the sight of any honest striving for life.
"Bitterness and condescension in Randland is contagious, but so is sweetness and light.