“Keep ‘Em Rolling:” Portability & Evolving Media Ecologies in Robert Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll”
By Robin Chin (Graduate Student, UC Santa Barbara English Dept.)
“Who makes the roads roll?”
So posits the opening line of Robert Heinlein’s early short story “The Roads Must Roll,” first published in 1940 by “Astounding Science Fiction” magazine. The plot, loosely based on a concept from H.G Well’s story “WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES,” takes place in the relative future of the 1980s, twenty years, supposedly, after America’s resource-inefficient highway transportation system has been replaced by a new and complex network of moving conveyer strip sidewalks called “the roads.” Yet while the roads revolutionize society in the story and help to usher in “the Age of Transportation” (Heinlein 39), they are also revealed as a key weakness in that society’s stability; a secret social crisis, the outcome of which may or may not allow for pseudo-Marxist proletariat revolution.
Although it is tempting to delve immediately into the political issues at stake in articulating the threat of the working man, particularly given the story’s 1940 pre-Cold War, post-New Deal historical context, it is of more present and particular interest here instead to evaluate the socio-technological implications of Heinlein’s story, the various relationships between media and culture that appear in conflict and cooperation in the projected future of the Transportation era. While this idea is anything but new – science fiction as a genre examines by definition such interaction between technological environments and social change – Heinlein’s story makes notably explicit the importance of portability, or transportation, as the dynamic and primary filter through which such media ecologies may be read. Though the relations between certain (media) cultural factions of Heinlein’s society reorder and shift, portability remains constant as the larger objective, privileged even in its most seemingly antithetical moments of restraint and regulation.
To return then to the opening of the story, and that its all-important inaugurating question: “who makes the roads roll?” A significant query in many forms, this line introduces not only the story itself, but also two essential elements of the story’s socio-technological ecology: the roads, or primary medium of physical transport, and the road technicians, or the primary human component behind the functioning of the transport system. The technician population of the text represents, as per the blue-collar, proletariat stereotype, the outmoded, underrated, overlooked, but indispensable faction of mainstream society, whose collective labor powers the literal movement of the higher social classes. Indeed, also literally, the higher classes are physically “higher” than the proletariat class; Heinlein locates the technicians in the “down inside” (Heinlein 34) of his future society, in the underground realm of the roads’ cogs and gears – which their job is to maintain and monitor. One the surface, consequently, the roads appear as effortless entities, even natural technological apparitions of transportation culture; a false vision, certainly, but whose truth is difficult for most to access. Hence one returns again to the purpose of the first question of the story – at which point it appears as not only as a question, but a complaint and a demand for recognition of forgotten labor. This is essentially an adaptation of media scholar Adrian Johns’ argument on print culture, in that the technicians seek to illustrate that the very identity of the roads and of transportation culture has had to be made with hard work, work whose memory is sacrificed in order for the road system to “gain the air of intrinsic reliability on which its cultural and commercial success [can] be built” (Johns 2-3).That the technicians are able to articulate and self-answer the question in the text indicates their growing collective power to control their means of literary and social representation, and largely foreshadows the interruption of the smooth-running surface world of reified transportation culture, if momentarily.
While what follows – a single incident of road disruption, a few civilian deaths, an underground investigation, and a couple of hours inconvenience for surface commuters- fails overall to arrest the flow of the story’s futuristic society, the purgatory nature of the attempted rebellion yet reverberates through the text on the level of media and portability issues. In the shock of the sudden seizure of the Sacramento road sector, media and portability themselves are also hijacked; they are pushed backwards, de-mediated, and forced into temporary historical regression. As such, what are successfully exposed in the socio-technological crisis are (1) the older, forgotten media forms of the pre-Transportation age, from individual motor vehicles to oral culture and rhetoric, and (2) appreciation for the complexity and absolute necessity of maintaining constant portability, through space and time, in any large human network. For example, only minutes before the unexpected road stop occurs in the story, the protagonist, Chief Engineer Larry Gaines, sits in a restaurant explaining the history and functioning of the roads to Mr. Blekinsop, the visiting Minister of Transport from the yet” un-road-ed” country of Australia. During their conversation, Gaines admits to America’s economic dependency on the roads, casually observing how any “large, industrialized population must have large-scale transportation, not only for people, but also for trade” (43). Though this statement of Gaines’ seems to recognize the importance of spatial portability to society, his particular focus on only “large-scale transportation” – the roads – prevents him from achieving a more significant realization on portability and media in general. His fetishization of the roads as the singular transport medium of the Transportation age furthers commits the folly of reifying portability. As if to punctuate this error, Gaines conversation with Blekinsop about the importance of the roads is halted, most embarrassingly, by the very stoppage of the roads that his dependency argument depends upon. Furthermore, in a simultaneous disaster, the signal of the portable telephone that Gaines uses to communicate with his fellow road engineers (information transported through space and time) cuts out (46). Thus a single moment, Gaines loses two forms of modern media – one in which he placed too much value, and one in which he placed too little. In order to regain control of the situation, Gaines must escape to beneath the roadways, where he encounters other and older media forms, and must use them to regain the power of roads from the antagonist forces of the renegade technicians and their turncoat engineer ringleader, Shorty Van Kleeck.
Once this narrative algorithm of the value of anachronistic media is understood, it is hardly surprising that towards the end of the story, in the climactic confrontation that occurs between Gaines and Van Kleeck, oral and written media play the crucial roles in the former’s plan to overpower his unstable ex-subordinate. Having realized his mistake in “entrust[ing] so much authority to Van Kleeck without knowing more about him” (68), Gaines has his secretary Dolores investigate Van Kleeck’s employee “classification record.” As it happens, this written document provides the crucial “data” that verifies Gaines’ earlier hunch about Van Kleeck: that he suffers from an inferiority complex (68). That this significant written record was overlooked or forgotten when Van Kleeck was originally promoted to a position of power does not escape Gaines, who makes a note to eliminate such carelessness in future bouts of hiring through the better organization and observation of such records; unconsciously, Gaines recognizes here the value of both written media and the preservation of information through time (portability again). The plan that develops out of this information also recognizes the value of an old and basic media form: verbal language, and its rhetorical potential. Specifically Gaines uses language to “play on [Van Kleeck’s] weakness, to keep him so preoccupied that he would not remember the perilous push-button” which Van Kleeck threatens to use to obliterate the roads under his control (70). Interestingly, Gaines’ final use of oral skills to manipulate Van Kleeck at the end of the text closely mirror the persuasive orality that Van Kleeck himself employs at the text’s beginning to galvanize the road technician’s guild into rebellion. In any case, Gaines succeeds in his plan, overpowering Van Kleeck in a moment of passionate distraction and thereby regaining control of society’s precious roads – which, on the surface, have never really stopped rolling in the first place.
Despite the many conflicts and crises that appear in Heinlein’s story, transportation and portability remain always the central concerns of the text’s main character, who readily and repeatedly risks life and limb to, as they say, “keep ‘em rolling” (37). However, as the short-lived technician rebellion and subsequent road disaster illustrate, the roads themselves are only part of the portability concept. More important, rather, is the recognition of portable potential in the broad spectrum of existing media, including but not limited to less recent communication forms and objects. Indeed, by restricting the forms of transportation and portability in the story, Van Kleeck only refreshes Gaines appreciation for the roads – not to mention Gaines’ attention to means of improving their stability. As the story insists, “The Roads Must Roll,” and along with them roll new media and new portable potential.
Heinlein, Robert. The Best of Robert Heinlein. Edited by Angus Wells (New York: Amereon House, 1973) pp. 32-72.
Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 2-3.