I've written very little in the way of SF reviews over the years, and almost no criticism,
but on two separate occasions I took a scalpel to one inexplicably (to me) venerated old
story. I recently rediscovered these and have edited them together.
Why Heinlein's 'The Roads Must Roll' is Terrible SFAs a teenager I was relatively unsophisticated, almost entirely apolitical and, like anyone who was even marginally sentient in the strike- ridden Britain of the 1970s, deeply ambivalent about labour unions. Even so, 'Roads' struck me immediately as little more than a crude and simple-minded piece of anti-union propaganda. I also thought it was very poorly written.
The books and short stories of Robert A. Heinlein were among those I devoured, for the most part uncritically, during my late teens. I was aware that he was highly regarded in the SF community but, though I mostly enjoyed his stuff, there were many SF authors I preferred and whom I considered better writers. I read 'Starship Troopers' as straightforward adventure, somehow managing not to noticing any particular political overtones (though I much preferred Harry Harrison's satire of the book, 'Bill The Galactic Hero', when I encountered it a few months later) and if pressed would probably say I enjoyed 'Double Star' most among his books. I first came across 'The Roads Must Roll' in a 'Best of...' collection of Heinlein's short fiction, and found it the worst story in the book. So you can imagine my surprise when it then turned up in 'Hall of Fame'. Still, it's been nearly twenty years since I last read 'Roads' so, knowing I'd be writing this mc, a couple of days ago I re-read it. And I *still* think it's crude, unsubtle, and simple-minded. I didn't believe a single character in the whole story, thought the dialogue was ludicrous, and was repelled by Heinlein's vision of labour relations. The story was published in 1940, written maybe as much as a year earlier, and is clearly a thinly-disguised commentary by Heinlein on the US labour troubles of 1937 when there were strikes by workers in the auto, steel, electrical, rubber, textile, and radio industries with auto workers adopting a new tactic: they occupied their plants. These strikes were ended by negotiation, with most of the workers' demands being met, but Heinlein seems to prefer the approach used during the US labour troubles of 1919 when armed federal and state troops were used against workers whose outrageous demands included an eight-hour working day and a living wage. The troopers killed 18 workers.
When I said elsewhere that rolling roads couldn't work in any sane society I wasn't claiming any engineering difficulty per se - we mostly have the technology to build them as described now, and there are even ways around the terminus problem - but that it would be insane to build them. They break the first rule of engineering I was taught on Day One of my training, which is that the correct solution to any engineering problem is the simplest one that does the job. This is because a) the more complex something is the more there is that can go wrong with it; and b) the more complex something is the more it costs. (The second rule is that if something looks wrong it probably is, but that's a whole 'nother thing....)
A side-by-side comparison of rolling roads and 'moving-vehicles-on-static-roads' system we have now shows why rolling roads are and always have been a completely bonkers idea. In building conventional roads you chose and survey your route, do whatever levelling is required, lay your base material, and top off with asphalt. You can use all manner of stuff in that base material and in recent years a lot of material we want to get rid of has gone into it. For example, the western world didn't used to know what to do with the mountains of old tyres we generate. Now we have machines capable of macerating them (quite impressive watching these at work) and this chopped-up material can then be disposed of in the 'underlay' of new roads. In the case of rolling roads you first have to dig long, deep, regular trenches. Because rolling roads can't follow undulations in the land as easily as regular roads lots more levelling, digging, and removal of whole hills would be required. Several parallel trenches would be required, of course, because you have several different speeds of roads running alongside each other. Once this had been done the trenches would need to be lined with reinforced concrete. At regular intervals large blocks would be required on which to mount the bearing for the tensioning rollers needed to keep the individual belts/roads from sagging too much. At longer but still regular intervals bigger blocks and whole engine rooms would be required for the the motorised rollers that drive the roads. Then there are the actual roads themselves. Hardcore topped with asphalt is relatively inexpensive. Steel belts are not. Not being an economist I'm not sure how much of a country's entire GDP it would take to build such a road, but I'm guessing a lot. I'm also guessing the sheer amount of steel required to make the belts/roads would create a global shortage and push up world prices.
OK, so your roads are built, but what if it it rains or snows? If you're in a car you're protected, but your rolling roads would need to be covered. So that's more steel for a structure to hold up glass or plastic panels. Probably glass because the amount of plastic required would almost certainly affect world oil prices.
You're travelling at speed. In a car this doesn't matter because you're in your own little cocoon. Being on the rolling road would be like standing in a wind tunnel. But wait, you say, if the rolling roads are under glass what we now have are really long tunnels. If we speed up the air to match the velocity of the belt wouldn't that do away with the problem? Indeed it would, but now we have to build giant fans to add to all the other big, expensive equipment. But wait. We're not dealing with a single belt/road but several running beside each other at different speeds that you're supposed to be easily able to step across. That means you'd need several airstreams running alongside each other at different speeds in the single tunnel. How could you accomplish that. Answer: you can't. (The tube trains on the London Underground fit in their tunnels relatively snugly but they still effectively act as large pistons. Managing the air they move has had its challenges.)
Then there's the problem of breakdowns. If your car breaks down on a conventional road you pull over to the side. You're now not going anywhere but everyone else still is, an inconvenience for you but not a major problem in the grand scheme of things. A breakdown on the rolling roads and you're still not going anywhere, but now neither is anyone else.
Military attack. If an enemy bombs your roads in order to disrupt communications you can still get around most obstructions other than downed bridges. If an enemy bombs your rolling roads your nation is paralysed.
I could go on, but I think that's enough to show why although they're possible to build from an engineering viewpoint, doing so would be utterly insane. So am I saying that rolling roads have no future in SF? Not necessarily. If you needed a bonkers but semi-feasible project for some reason, they might fit the bill quite nicely. They could be used to point up pork-barrel spending gone mad, a project nobody wanted but everyone seemed incapable of stopping. Or they could be the nutso vanity project of some dictator like that fruitbat who was running Turkmemistan a while back, something he imagines would put his nation on the map (the guy in Turkmenistan had the world's largest ever shoe made, which is a bit less sensawondery). What you can't any longer do is present rolling roads as any sort of sensible idea. I'm not really sure you ever could. H.G.Wells wasn't an engineer, but Heinlein was. There's nothing I've said above that he wouldn't have known when he wrote his story.
I remain puzzled as to just what SFWA members (and others, it must be said) see in 'The Roads Must Roll'. To them it's one of the best SF stories ever written but to me, even leaving aside the odious politics, it's a sorry piece of work.
- Rob Hansen, 1993/2014