"If This Goes On—"

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"If This Goes On—" is a science fiction short novel by Robert A. Heinlein, first serialized in 1940 in Astounding Science-Fiction and revised and expanded for inclusion in the 1953 collection Revolt in 2100. The novel shows what might happen to Christianity in the United States given mass communications, applied psychology, and a hysterical populace. The novel is part of Heinlein's Future History series.


The story is set in a future theocratic American society, ruled by the latest in a series of fundamentalist Christian “Prophets.” The First Prophet was Nehemiah Scudder, a backwoods preacher turned President (elected in 2012), then dictator (no elections were held in 2016 or later).

John Lyle, a junior army officer under the Prophet, is stationed at the Prophet's capital of New Jerusalem (previously called Kansas City, Missouri). Devout at this point, he finds himself questioning his faith when he falls for one of the Prophet's Virgins, Sister Judith. Judith, new to the vocation, faints when she is called upon to render sexual service to the Prophet and is confined to her quarters until she sees the light. John confides in his far more worldly roommate, Zeb Jones, who is not only not shocked, but who assists John. A clandestine meeting with Judith goes awry when they are forced to kill a spy, leaving them no choice but to seek aid from the Cabal, an underground revolutionary movement (Judith's friend, Sister Magdalene, is a member). The two men are inducted into the Cabal, while remaining on duty in their army posts. Judith is arrested and tortured as part of the investigation into the death of the spy, and John and Zeb rescue her, though leaving enough clues that John is soon arrested and tortured himself. He gives little away, and is himself rescued by the Cabal. Zeb and Magdalene have evaded arrest, thanks to a clandestine distress signal that John manages to leave for Zeb while being arrested.

Judith is spirited out of the country before John regains consciousness, and John is given a false identity in order to make his way to Cabal headquarters. He is detected en route, forced to flee, and arrives safely after several misadventures. He finds that Zeb and Magdalene, who he assumes are a couple, have made their way there before him. All take on significant roles in bringing to fruition the revolutionary plot, John as an aide to the commander, General Huxley.

While working there, John receives a literal "Dear John" Letter from Judith, informing him of her impending marriage to another man. He learns that Zeb and Magdalene have no marriage plans, and begins a romance with Magdalene.

The revolutionary plot is mostly successful, and the country, other than New Jerusalem, is seized. But the capital must also be conquered lest it serve as a rallying point for loyalists. Even as constitutional discussions go on, tempered to provide the greatest possible individual freedom (this is the origin of the 'Covenant' mentioned in other Heinlein works), the new regime's troops prepare to take New Jerusalem. John and Magdalene are married just before the assault.

During the fight, Huxley is wounded, and John must take over temporary command, though not entitled by rank to do so. He gives the orders that bring victory. He then turns over command to the senior unwounded general, and leads a squad invading the Prophet's private quarters. They find that he has been killed by his own Virgins.

Tropes used in "If This Goes On—" include:
  • Cold-Blooded Torture, Punch Clock Villain, and Torture Technician: The government torturers 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).
  • Divided States of America: Hawai'i is independent of the theocracy.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: John joins the revolution for Judith's sake, despite barely knowing her.
  • Embarrassing Cover Up: John 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 the protagonist will draw only minor punishment.
  • Military Mashup Machine and Tank Goodness: Land Battleships
  • Technology Marches On: John mentions a late-21st-century autopilot built out of discrete components and without printed circuits.