Solution Unsatisfactory

Solution Unsatisfactory

Solution Unsatisfactory is a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein. The story was first published in "Astounding Science Fiction" magazine in 1940, with illustrations by Frank Kramer. The time of writing (at least of the final draft) can be bracketed very precisely by the fact that the story contains a reference to the highly destructive bombing of Coventry by the Luftwaffe, which happened on November 14 1940.

The story made a later appearance in "The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein", a collection of short stories published in 1966 and his "Expanded Universe" in 1980.

The early part of Heinlein's career is especially notable for his originating in the early 1940s the concept of a future history - i.e. many stories and books laid in the same consistent future - which was later taken up by other writers such as Poul Anderson and Jerry Pournelle, who freely acknowledged that Heinlein had done it first.

Some accounts of his life and work omit to mention, or mention only very briefly, the story "Solution Unsatisfactory" written in the same period. It does not belong in the frame of the Future History, but does contain remarkable predictions of the development of nuclear arms and the post-war Nuclear Age, many of which were proved correct by the events of the following five years. Not only did Heinlein get many details right, but more importantly he accurately set out what were to become the main dilemmas involved in nuclear arms. Heinlein wrote it out in 1940, when most people were not even aware that there would be such an issue (see [] , [] ).

In late 1940 most people's attention, naturally enough, focused on the situation of a Nazi Germany embarked on a seemingly unstoppable career of conquest which already engulfed nearly the whole of Europe in an attempt to establish the New Order. At such a time Heinlein was able to see beyond to a time when Germany would be decisively defeated (he correctly placed that in 1945) but the post-war world would be dominated by the fear of a nuclear arms race.

True, Heinlein's prediction was wrong about the precise nature of the nuclear weapon which would emerge from the war: he thought of a radiological weapon that can be dispersed by aircraft to blanket a city as a dust, kill all inhabitants, and make the city uninhabitable for a time - rather than an atomic bomb which kills primarily via atmospheric blast. However, that made little difference to Heinlein's clear perception of the radical geopolitical effects of such a new and fiercely destructive weapon, how it would destabilize the status quo and with what unprecedented sharp dilemmas it would face decision-makers.

ummary and discussion

The story begins in early 1941, a few months in the future of the moment when it was written. John deFries, the narrator, does not expect to become involved in the ongoing war in Europe. He is the campaign manager of Clyde C. Manning, a freshman congressman from a Western state. He and his political associates had picked Manning because he was "a strong liberal" which is what they needed, but also had a past military career which might attract conservatives (he had been a prominent expert on chemical warfare, though that was not published).

The narrator deFries (and, evidently, Heinlein himself speaks through him) then adds that "what I liked about Manning was that, though he was liberal, he was tough-minded". A worthy caveat to the reader, since during the story Manning is going to take quite a few tough-minded decisions indeed, but hardly any which could be described as in any meaningful way as "liberal".

All this could be a reflection both of Heinlein's own quite recent involvement in liberal politics at California and the beginning of the major shift rightwards in his positions which was to become unmistakable some years later. Indeed, the story offers some interesting clues to those interested in charting that development.

In early 1941 things suddenly change for deFries and Manning (and eventually, for the entire world). Manning is recalled to active duty at the rank of Colonel and takes deFries as his adjutant. He is appointed to head a secret, top-priority, money-is-no-object project, drawing in the cream of American physicists plus some British and anti-Nazi exiles from Europe. Its aim is to develop a nuclear weapon, with a feeling of urgency due to apprehension that the Nazis might get there first.

In short, Heinlein quite accurately predicted the Manhattan Project, about a year before U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized it, and Colonel Manning gets the job which in real life was soon to be filled by Colonel Leslie Groves. (Groves was promoted to Brigadier General soon after his appointment; Heinlein's Manning gets no such official promotion, but manages quite well to promote himself in less formal ways).

In reality, by 1943 the Manhattan Project was well on its way to developing an Atom Bomb. In Heinlein's story, the scientists continue "fiddling around with it" through 1943 and well into 1944, getting nowhere. (Heinlein gives a series of reasons why nuclear bombs prove unfeasible, which were current among scientists in the time of writing though were soon to be disproved by the experiments of Enrico Fermi and others.)

Meanwhile the war itself is also far more static than was to happen in reality: the United States, Soviet Union and Japan all remain out of the fighting (though the US unofficially helps Britain, without declaring war on Germany or committing its own troops). In fact, the war remains frozen at the stage it was when Heinlein wrote the story - essentially a duel between Germany and Britain who continually bomb and devastate each other' s territory. Italy drops out of the war around 1943, in Heinlein's story as in reality - Heinlein, however, has the Italians folding even without having their own soil subjected to a ground invasion.

The turning point - in the research and the war both - comes when Manning gives up the futile research into a nuclear bomb, and takes up an alternative line of attack - putting all effort into the artificial radioactive materials discovered by Dr. Estelle Karst.

The story suggests that Karst was a laboratory assistant of the German Dr. Otto Hahn, who was in 1938 the first man to break open the uranium atom, and that she fled Germany "to escape a pogrom" and came to the US. The character seems inspired by Lise Meitner who was Hahn's co-worker and who had to escape from Germany in 1938 because of her Jewish origin.

The real-life Meitner refused to join the Manhattan Project, not wanting to have anything to do with producing a bomb. Karst in Heinlein's story is running a side project of producing artificial radioactive materials, which she intends to use for medical purposes - healing and not killing. She is angry when Manning mentions making a weapon of it, and calls him a warmonger.

In the first of a set of ruthless decisions, all of which he is convinced are unavoidable, Manning nevertheless takes up Karst's invention and sets other scientists to develop it into a deadly weapon: radioactive dust which can be sprayed from the air over a city and render it completely lifeless.

Here the pace picks up. From the moment that Manning hears of fish dying in Chesapeake Bay where the by-products of Karst's process are dumped and understands the military possibilities, it takes no more than a few months for the new team to develop the new weapon to perfection and overcome all hitches (which, considering the experience of the real Manhattan Project and other large-scale scientific projects, seems a bit quick - but it is needed for the later story line). A few more months suffice for large-scale production.

By Christmas 1944 the US is in possession of nearly ten thousand "units" of radioactive dust - a "unit" being defined as the quantity which "would take care of a thousand men, at normal dispersion" (euphemism in the original). In other words, enough to kill the entire population of a large city, such as Berlin - the capital of Germany.

Interestingly, the same monstrous possibilities were to be fully realized by Manning's real-life analogue, Brigadier General Leslie Groves. In a 1943 memo entitled "Use of Radioactive Materials as a Military Weapon," Groves wrote:

"Radioactive warfare can be used ... To make evacuated areas uninhabitable... against large cities, to promote panic, and create casualties among civilian populations... The amount necessary to cause death to a person inhaling the material is extremely small. It has been estimated that one millionth of a gram accumulating in a person's body would be fatal." (Full text in radiological weapon.) This is almost identical with the words which Heinlein, three years before, put in the mouth of the fictional Manning. However, since the real-life project did manage a breakthrough on the production of the bomb, the possibilities outlined in the Groves memo were never fully utilised.

To return to Heinlein's story line: Fully aware of the nature of the monster he is about to unleash upon the world, Manning seriously considers ordering that all people aware of the secret, including himself, be summarily put to death and all records destroyed. But he turns back from that course - not out of self-preservation, of course, but because somebody else is bound to re-discover it, and the somebody might be German or Russian.

Instead, Manning asks for a meeting with the President, soon after Inauguration Day in 1945, and convinces him to use the dust against Germany. The reader is told that the President meets Manning standing, which means that it is no longer Roosevelt. In Heinlein's vision, as was to be in reality, it is Roosevelt's successor who opens the Nuclear Age - though here FDR seems retired rather than dead. From several hints (the President being described as short of stature and fluent in German) Heinlein seems to be intimating that the President is New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. (Heinlein also took care to remove the other world leaders present at the time of writing and entrust the crucial deductions required by his story to their unnamed successors: Stalin dies in 1941 and Nazi Germany gets a new Führer by 1945 - no mention of what happened to Hitler).

Since the US is officially not in the war, the Americans place the dust at Britain's disposal - but at the price of the British accepting a total US ascendancy in the post-war world (an obligation which later causes the Prime Minister considerable trouble in Parliament).

Before the actual attack the Americans do try to warn the Germans: demonstrating to the German Ambassador what the dust could do to a herd of steers, dropping detailed leaflets over Germany, having the President talk on the phone to the Führer (in fluent German). In short, in Heinlein's story the US does what in real history it chose not to do ahead of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, the Germans are obstinate and the Führer defiantly places himself in Berlin after being informed that it is targeted. Heinlein offers no real explanation beyond "stupid Nazi arrogance" - all the more strange since afterwards it is revealed that the Germans were close to developing the dust for themselves, and so should have been well-aware of what it could do.

Eventually, the dust is scattered over Berlin by thirteen RAF bombers, killing all of its inhabitants and leaving no survivors. The Nazi regime collapses and is replaced by "a restored German monarchy", headed by the old Kaiser's cousin, which surrenders to the British and Americans. Upon hearing of it, Dr. Karst commits suicide by exposing herself to the same dust - an avenue of poetic self-punishment not available to the developers of nuclear bombs. (As is well-known, many of the scientists who worked in the real Manhattan Project, such as Robert Oppenheimer, did suffer from guilt and self-recrimination, though not to the extent of Heinlein's character.)

Manning next addresses the US cabinet, warning of the extreme dangers of the new situation, and introducing what was to be later enshrined in such concepts as Nuclear Arms Race, Mutual Assured Destruction and Second strike Capacity. His arguments in this part of the story seem trite and cliche from today's point of view, since they were to be countlessly repeated during the decades of the Cold War. However, Heinlein wrote in 1940, when very few people - either in the general public or among political and military decision-makers - were aware of such problems and dilemmas.

After a furious debate, Manning convinces the President and cabinet that the only solution is to use the American nuclear monopoly while it still exists. The need to make a decision is more urgent than in the equivalent situation at the real 1945, since the production of the radioactive dust is far quicker and easier to duplicate than that of a nuclear explosive: any modern radiation laboratory can do it from scratch in ninety days. Any other world power, such as the Soviet Union (here, as in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, renamed "The Eurasian Union") might already be in the process of creating such dust and be ready to bomb the US within weeks.

Using to the full this ultimate threat, Manning bludgeons the President and his cabinet into immediately issuing a document entitled "The Peace Proclamation" which (here again Heinlein anticipated Orwell) amounts to a declaration of total war against the rest of the world and demands the immediate and unconditional surrender of all other states. All of them are required to disarm and also to hand over all their aircraft, civil as well as military - since any airplane can in principle be used to spread radioactive dust. The prohibition on commercial airlines would even apply to the US itself, and any line vital for humanitarian purposes would be operated by the US Army. Still (at least in theory) a Congressman, Manning convinces the President that there is no time to get Congressional approval and that Congress (and the Constitution) must be bypassed.

Most of the world's other countries comply, Japan surrendering and putting the best face on it when the US dust-carrying fleet is half-way between Pearl Harbor (which in this history Japan never attacked) and Kobe. However, it turns out that the Soviets/Eurasians did invent the dust for themselves, exactly as Manning had warned might happen, and they launch a surprise attack on the US.

Despite the initial surprise, the US wins the "Four-Day War". (Nuclear wars of brief duration and extreme destruction were to become a staple in fiction and speculation from the 1950s on, but Heinlein conceived of such a war at a time when people thought of major wars as lasting years rather than days.) The victory seems to owe much to Manning's foresight, who had contrived to get Congress and President out of Washington in the crucial moment, as well as get New York half empty by false rumours of plague.

Even so, 800,000 are killed in Manhattan alone - but American losses are dwarfed by the destruction of Moscow, Vladivostok and Irkutsk. As in all later Heinlein books and stories featuring a nuclear war with the Soviet Union (for example The Door into Summer), the US comes out victorious, battered but still powerful. When Americans get access to Soviet/Eurasian classified documents, the unconstitutional policies urged by Manning are completely vindicated. The Russians, it turns out, had been in an advance stage of dust production when the President's proclamation disturbed their timetables; had the President waited to get Congressional approval, America would have lost the war.

With so much credit to his account, Manning gets the lion's share of power in the post-war set-up. He becomes Mr. Commissioner Manning, with a life appointment in control of the Peace Patrol which has a world-wide monopoly over the radioactive dust and the aircraft which can deliver it. In theory he is just the head of a large Commission, composed of many prominent Americans and three token foreigners, but in fact events soon prove him the only person who counts.

Manning's idea is to open schools for the indoctrination of cadet patrolmen which would be open to youths of any race, color or nationality. They would be assigned to patrolling the sky and "guarding the peace" of any country but their own, and would be forbidden to return to their original country for the entire duration of their service - "a deliberately expatriated band of Janizaries, with an obligation only to the Commission and the race, and welded together with a carefully nurtured esprit de corps."

Manning has, however, little time to finish training his Janizaries before facing the inevitable power struggle with the constituted authorities of the United States. On February 17, 1951, the president is killed in a plane crash and power is assumed by the Vice President, an isolationist who was taken up to "balance the ticket" in the hard-fought 1948 elections. The new president and his political cronies, clearly modeled on the politicians who scuttled Woodrow Wilson's program after the First World War, demand Manning's resignation and intend to dismantle the edifice he had created.

As Manning argues with the President, planes loaded with radioactive dust and piloted by non-Americans appear overhead. Manning, as "tough-minded" as ever, is willing to treat the capital of the United States as he would treat any other place from which he perceives a "threat to world peace" to emanate, even at the cost of his own life. He wins and becomes the undisputed military dictator of the world. (The historically-minded Heinlein might have been inspired also by Julius Caesar's confrontation with the Roman Senate which brought that Republic crashing down.)

At the end of the story Manning is the most universally hated man in the world, and the narrator (evidently speaking for Heinlein himself) doubts if he can succeed in perfecting the Patrol and making it self-perpetuating and trustworthy. Also, there is no way of knowing how long Manning would live - after all, back in the 1930s, he was invalided from the Army because of a weak heart.

No wonder that Heinlein called this story "Solution Unsatisfactory". However, he regarded the solution arrived at in reality - the United States letting the Soviets and others achieve nuclear arms and trying to keep a precarious balance - as at least equally unsatisfactory, as evidenced by articles on the subject of nuclear warfare which he published in the late 1940s such as The Last Days of the United States, How to be a Survivor and Pie from the Sky. In 1980, these were re-published in Expanded Universe, where Heinlein grouped them together with "Solution Unsatisfactory".

Development of the Patrol

Among other things, this story also marks the first appearance of The Patrol in Heinlein's works.

The concept of a quasi-religious Order of Pilots, constantly patrolling the skies of the world and totally dedicated to preserving the peace of the world, may have been influenced by H. G. Wells's "The Shape of Things to Come", published in 1933.

Now generally forgotten, Wells' book was quite well-known and influential in the late 1930s. A central feature in the story is a period of worldwide chaos following a destructive war - which dedicated pilots and technicians end by banding together to unify and rebuild the world. They create "The Dictatorship of the Air" - an authoritarian rule which deals harshly with its opponents, yet is ultimately benevolent and does eventually lead mankind to unity and prosperity.

The Patrol was to come back several times in Heinlein's later work, expanded to interplanetary dimensions and equipped with spaceships and nuclear-tipped missiles, rather than airplanes and radioactive dust.

In "The Long Watch" Heinlein took virtually a diametrically opposite position to that of "Solution Unsatisfactory". While Manning's use of the Patrol to carry out a coup d'état is condoned as unavoidable, in "The Long Watch" the Patrol officers who scheme to do the same are nasty villains, and the hero Johnny Dalquist sacrifices his life to thwart them.

"Space Cadet", which describes at book length the training and indoctrination of the Patrol cadets, seems a watered-down version of the program proposed by Manning. The austere creatures originally envisioned in "Solution Unsatisfactory" would hardly make for characters with which a reader could identify, especially not the juveniles for whom Heinlein primarily wrote the later book.

In the event, Patrol cadets are educated not to ask for each other's country or planet of origin, but there is certainly no prohibition on their going home on vacation (though they often feel out of tune with their families and non-Patrol friends). They are being taught to admire and seek to emulate Rivera, a legendary Patrolman who ordered the nuclear bombing of his own hometown and died himself in the blast. However, when the book's hero takes this too seriously, his Patrol mentor politely tells him to stop making an ass of himself.

Still, in the framework of this book the Patrol seems to have succeeded in establishing peace on Earth and throughout the entire Solar System, in a way which would have made Manning proud. At least in the later book, aimed at a younger audience, Heinlein appears to have found the solution to be quite satisfactory.

Echoes in later fiction

The 1984 novel The Peace War by Vernor Vinge features a "Peace Authority" created when military research scientists develop a device called a "bobbler" and use it to take over the world and enforce world peace in a very similar fashion.

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