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Literature / If This Goes On—

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"If This Goes On—" is a science fiction novella by Robert A. Heinlein, in which 21st-century America is in the grip of a theocratic dictatorship led by First Prophet Nehemiah Scudder. The protagonist, John Lyle, begins as a loyal member of the regime and ends as a key player in the resistance movement that overthrows it.

The novella was first published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940; a revised and expanded version was published along with related material in the 1953 book Revolt in 2100. It is part of Heinlein's "Future History" 'verse.

This work contains examples of:

  • Better as Friends: Zeb and Maggie. John Lyle sort of wants to pursue a relationship with her but doesn't want to get in the way, at which point he's told laughingly that by now they're great friends but that their personalities are far too aggressive to ever be stable together.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: John Lyle is one of the guards at the HQ of the Corrupt Church that rules a dystopian future America.
  • Big Brother Is Watching You: There are hidden spy eye cameras all over the palace, but those monitoring them are more interested in treason and heresy than crimes like fornication outside marriage; they just put a note on the offender's dossier and only use it if they're involved in something more serious and the authorities need a pretext to hang them.
  • BFG: The land cruiser that Lyle is in for the final battle has a main gun apparently based on the Nazi V3 design, with multiple firing chambers along the length of the barrel to increase the velocity of the shell.
  • Brainwashing for the Greater Good: In the first published version of "If This Goes On—", the revolutionaries, after overthrowing the Corrupt Church, decide to use Subliminal Seduction to "condition" the people to accept the restoration of democracy. Heinlein later thought better of it, and revised the story to have them reject the psych experts' proposal after an old man who "looked like Mark Twain" makes an impassioned speech on how "free men aren't 'conditioned'."
  • Calling Me a Logarithm: Zeb does this deliberately, demonstrating that language can be weaponized. Unfortunately, the exact words aren't given, but John's reaction is:
    "You leave my mother out of this!"
    [after John calms down]
    "But what did I say? All I said, in fact, was that you were the legitimate offspring of a legal marriage. Right? What is insulting about that?"
    "But—" I stopped and ran over in my mind the infuriating, insulting, and degrading things he had said — and, do you know, that is absolutely all they added up to. I grinned sheepishly. "It was the
    way you said it."
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: John is captured and tortured by the authorities of the Corrupt Church. Later, when he is offered a position as assassin (to ensure he knows how serious his commitment must be), they point out that he has at least one useful qualification for it — they know that if the enemy catches him and puts him to the Question, he won't crack. Later in the novella, we learn that La Résistance has a ready source of suicide agents: men whose wives have been tortured by the secret police.
  • Covert Distress Code: John arranges one with a sweater left on a bed when he is arrested.
  • "Dear John" Letter: John Lyle gets one. It's briefly depressing before he realizes that he can't remember her that well anyway.
  • Divided States of America: An oppressive theocracy is one part of a divided U.S. The theocracy ruled pretty much the whole U.S., with the exception of Hawaii (mentioned as an independent republic).
  • The Dog Bites Back: The Prophet dies in the gap between when the women at his headquarters realize he will lose and the actual arrival of the rebel forces.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: John Lyle gets involved in the revolution against the Theocracy for the sake of a girl he barely knows.
  • Embarrassing Cover Up: Lyle is advised to conceal resistance secrets by using a code that makes them look like notes for an illicit gambling system. Thus, if the notes are discovered, there will be a credible explanation for why they were hidden and he will draw only minor punishment.
  • Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!:
    You can't conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: La Résistance take over the transmission station where the Miracle of Incarnation is being broadcast, a ceremony in which God gives his yearly approval of the First Prophet Scudder as his agent on Earth, and replace it with one where God urges the populace to overthrow him. This causes enough chaos that the Resistance is able to take the entire country except New Jerusalem.
  • Infraction Distraction: Zeb covers up Johnny's obviously guilty reaction to receiving a note from the Resistance by replacing it with one about gambling, because they won't believe innocence but will believe this.
  • Military Mashup Machine: The major land force of the USA is Land Cruisers.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: Maggie breaks down in tears when Lyle proposes to her, convinced he'd never accept a woman who's had so many partners as she has, having basically been passed down the line from the First Prophet.
  • Neuro-Vault: Lyle is told he has been given critical information that he has to get to La Résistance. When he gets there he is put under anesthesia to extract the information. He later asks one of the Resistance scientists what was the nature of the "really important" message. He is disappointed when he is told that it was just lots of routine information. The scientist realizes he made a mistake, the man did have very important information. He also had his resistance credentials: "If they hadn't checked out, you would never have woken up."
  • Nuclear Weapons Taboo: With the Prophet holed up in his palace, the Resistance can't use a fission bomb on it because few foreign governments have recognised them as a legitimate successor government, and no-one's going to lend someone a nuke to settle a Civil War.
  • One-Wheeled Wonder: Lyle (at that point on the run from the police) casually claims to have ridden "a unicycle" on a very steep mountain road. The person he tells this to clearly doesn't believe him, but from the context it's clear that the story is the equivalent to claiming to have ridden on a steep mountain road on a bicycle—it isn't the unicycle part that's unbelievable or even particularly unusual in the story's setting.
  • Oppressive States of America: The U.S. has become a theocratic police state.
  • President Evil: President Nehemiah Scudder proclaimed himself "First Prophet" and imposed a Christian theocratic dictatorship at some point between 2013 and 2016.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: John Lyle is captured by the evil government. He notices that the several torturers for the government show no pleasure in their job, they are strictly business. It is implied that anyone who likes to inflict pain is not permitted in that job, as they are supposed to get information, not necessarily hurt people (although that is always an option if they think it will help).
  • Royal Harem: The Virgins who attend the personal chamber of the Prophet are this in all but (literally) name. Sister Judith gets into trouble because she really is a devout virgin and freaks out on realising she's expected to have sex with a Dirty Old Man. Of course, there's a religious justification for this: as God commanded Man to be fruitful, it falls on the First Prophet to debase himself by being more fruitful than anyone else.
  • Saved by the Coffin: A member of La Résistance mentions to the protagonist that he was hypnotised into a comatose state, then smuggled across the country in a coffin.
  • Space Travel Veto: John Lyle refers to the First Prophet as having forbidden space travel as "a sin against the omnipotence of God" (although he notes the real reason space travel was abandoned was simply that it was losing money and the Prophet's government didn't want to subsidize it). It's also only the United States of America which has totally abandoned space travel; the "infidels" in other countries at least send out the occasional research ship, and John is thrilled to learn that there are even still human beings on Mars and Venus.
  • Storming the Castle: La Résistance succeed in taking the entire country except for the Palace at New Jerusalem. Realising there's nothing to stop the Prophet from using their own methods to launch a counter-revolution, they launch an all-out attack by land and air (there are no atomic weapons available to either side).
  • Tank Goodness: They are sort of "landships". To get an idea of the "landships", think of a WW2 battleship that goes overland like a tank.
  • Torn Apart by the Mob: The Prophet ruling theocratic America is torn to pieces by his own Sex Slaves just before the rebels breach his fortress.
  • Torture Technician: John Lyle is captured by the evil government. However, they aren't sadists, just doing their jobs, and it's said only people that don't take pleasure in torture will be hired, as sometimes inflicting pain is unnecessary, so they don't want it done otherwise.
  • Vibroweapon: Vibroblades appear.
  • Water Wake Up: When Lyle is taken before "The Question", he spares the reader the most gruesome details, but does note that "I must have passed out repeatedly, for my clearest memory is of catching a bucket of ice water in the face not once but over and over again".
  • We Will All Fly in the Future: While on the run from the authorities, Johnny steals someone's "Ford family skycar". He describes this vehicle as "a jalopy, old, not properly kept up, a bad valve knock in the engine, and a vibration in the rotor I didn't like at all. But she would run..."
  • What Would X Do?: Despite being religious Lyle doesn't ask What Would Jesus Do? but what would his more pragmatic friend Zeb do.
  • You Are in Command Now: John Lyle, a junior officer in the rebel forces attacking the Prophet's capital of New Jerusalem, is thrust into the position of commanding the whole force, when his commanding officer is wounded and his tank-analogue seems to be the only one in effective communication with all the others. Lyle isn't technically next in the chain of command (he's a staff officer/aide de camp for the commander, doubling up as tank commander). However, he doesn't trust the next in line to handle the situation (too cautious) so he continues to issue orders in the commander's name, even though the commander is out of contact. Once things reach a "safe" state, he tells the real next-in-line "you are in command now".