Science Fiction to the Rescue in WWII

I reviewed the new Heinlein biography recently, which I quite enjoyed. It’s the first of a planned two-volume project, so I am also eagerly anticipating the second, particularly since by the end of part one, only Heinlein’s first couple of books had been mentioned (along with a few notable shorts).

This volume was surprisingly interesting given that the majority of it covered Heinlein’s life prior to his full-time writing career. After all, the reason anyone would want to read a bio of a famous author is because they’re interested in his work, but it turns out he was also an interesting man before he became an interesting author. Of course, he also lived in interesting times, and having now read several histories and biographies taking place in the first half of the twentieth century, I find I just can’t get enough of it. So much happened in the century of my birth.

One rather surprising tidbit came after the Pearl Harbor attack which precipitated US entry into World War Two. Heinlein, though he had been forced to give up his first career as a naval officer due to pulmonary tuberculosis, tried absolutely everything to get enlisted again for the war. It seems the Japanese attack had an incredible galvanizing effect on US citizenry such that patriotic, able-bodied men (and women) were volunteering left and right, to the point that officers in charge of enlistment couldn’t keep up.

Though still medically unfit to serve, Heinlein was able to use a former officer contact to get in as a civilian engineer at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. His navy contact also requested that Heinlein, working with pulp giant, editor John W. Campbell, try to recruit — no joke — more science fiction writers to come do war work. In fact, in those early days of the new genre of science fiction, many of the writers did indeed have scientific or engineering training. Heinlein ended up bringing in a young Isaac Asimov (a recently minted chemistry PhD), and L. Sprague de Camp to work in the same research facility out of the yard as he.

Heinlein also ended up doing some minor engineering work that, unbeknownst to him, was related to the still top-secret development of radar technology. Across the pond, English SF giant, Arthur C. Clarke, was also working more directly on radar applications.

Pretty cool. When the world was in jeopardy, the allies called on their best genre writers to save the day. SF enthusiasts often claim their favourite authors can see into the future. When the Allies needed help, however, these writers were brought in to help create the future. Along with the bomb, radar was the top-secret, brand-new Allied technology of WWII. Future Nobel-winning scientists gave their best for the war effort, alongside future Hugo-winning sci-fi writers. Who’d have thought?

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