The Roads Must Roll

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Plot Summary

Larry Gaines, Chief Engineer of the Diego-Reno roadtown, is dining in a moving restaurant on the road when one of the moving sidewalk strips unexpectedly stops, causing injuries to the thousands of commuters on it. Gaines learns that it was sabotage. The technicians who maintain the Stockton section of the road have been persuaded by a radical social theory, Functionalism, that their role in maintaining the nation's transport infrastructure is more important than that of any other workers and that they should therefore be in control. The roads are managed by the Transport Cadets, an elite paramilitary organization formed by the US Military to keep this crucial infrastructure running. The rebels have stopped the strip as a demonstration to encourage their fellow technicians around the country to rebel against the Cadets, and start the Functionalist Revolution.

Going into the machinery under the roadway that runs it, Gaines takes command of the response. He doesn't order the Road stopped, since that would leave millions of commuters stranded, but instead has the military evacuate the riders, a time-consuming procedure. In command of a hastily gathered corps of armed cadets, he proceeds up the underground access tunnel toward Stockton, on "tumblebugs," motorized and gyroscopically stabilized unicycles much like the later real-life Segway. As the military advance proceeds, they arrest rebel technicians and cross connect the wiring of the machinery, motor by motor, to take control away from the rebels in the Stockton office

Gaines calls the Stockton office and learns that the leader of the rebellion is "Shorty" Van Kleeck, the chief deputy engineer of the Sacramento sector. Over the videophone Shorty threatens to kill millions of people with a button that he has rigged to blow up the Road if Gaines doesn't capitulate. Gaines doesn't understand how Shorty has gotten so many technicians to side with him; psychological screening tests are supposed to guarantee that technicians don't have the temperament to revolt. Then Gaines realizes that Deputy Shorty was able move revolution-prone workers into his sector because, as deputy, Shorty had access to the psychological files on the technicians. Gaines accesses Shorty's psychological profile and studies the neurotic traits that have made him a demagogue.

Asking for a parley, Gaines is taken to the Stockton office and faces Shorty. There he uses his knowledge of Shorty's psychology to push him into a nervous breakdown, and overpowers him, gaining control of the 'suicide' button. The Cadets attack the office and the rebellion is ended.

Later, Gaines ponders the changes that will have to be made to make sure there is never a recurrence of these events; more psychological testing, more careful oversight, and more esprit de corps. He concludes that the price of high tech transportation like the Roadways is eternal vigilance.

The Roads Must Roll uses a technique known as “the false protagonist”. At first, the reader is introduced to the revolutionary Van Kleeck, and is easily drawn into his fervent speech, suggesting a revolutionary measure against the Transport Cadets. Furthermore, When Larry Gaines first appears, the reader is led to believe that Gaines is merely trying to subdue any attempts by Van Kleeck. The reader is seemingly cautioned against Gaines’ super devotion to the Cadets. However, the storyline stays with Gaines, versus switching back to the “revolutionary hero” Van Kleeck, and the reader witnesses the wounding of innocent passengers, subsequently winning the reader's sympathy for Gaines. Van Kleeck, who seemed the hero at first, is only seen once more at the very end, when he is clearly identified as the arch-villain who gets his just punishment.

Tropes and Trope Intersections Appearing in this Work

  • Proletariat - The technicians are shown as the low class in this society. They work constantly to keep the roads rolling so that the upper classes can have quick, easy transportation. They work behind the scenes, convenient because nobody else can see the conditions they work under. They must give 90 day notice before resigning and run the risk of going deaf. The workers here developed their own culture of sorts, being so separate from the rest of society. They clothe differently, transport themselves using tumblebugs, and use their own specialized form of sign language for communication. They treat their work dogmatically and are organized by the engineers almost militaristically - without this control, as Gaines said, the roads would either break down or the workers would realize the position of power they were in and exploit it.
  • Machine Labor - Machines have replaced cars in this society. The roads are literally lifelines for the society. This technology enables the people to live hundreds of miles away. However this would also mean that the people are chained to the roadway their whole entire life. However, this machine is imperfect and there is one huge problem: There is no alternative. If this machine fails the society will cease to function; the society is enslaved to the road. In order to ensure that this road way will always keep moving, constant monitoring is required. Additionally, the workers who maintain the roadway go under psychological analysis so that they will not have a tendency to strike or revolt. The society does not have the freedom of choosing another way of achieving the same thing. This lack of choice causes the urgency when the workers do revolt. Being the only few individuals who know how the road works, the road workers and engineers have a huge power over the society. The more machine takes over of labor of humans, the more vigilance is required to keep the machine working.

Quotes -

  1. "Every civilization above the peasant-and-village type is dependent on some key type of machinery...Had it not been for machinery large populations could never have grown up. That's not a fault of the machine; that's its virtue."(p. 63)
  • Women's Work - Gaines wife seems to be a housewife. "'That's a good girl...Kiss Junior good night for me.'" (p.55) She calls him rather often to inquire when he'll be home and to make sure he's safe when the road stops. His secretary, Dolores, is female. He says "good girl" to them both often, as if they're puppies. Also note that although Dolores is only a secretary, she is a secretary to a very important man and therefore does not show stereotypical woman-like qualities such as emotion. "'Dolores, don't you ever have any emotions?'" (p. 56) "'...her face was impassive.'" (p. 87) This suggests that for a woman to have a good job, she must act like the stereotypical male, cold and clear-minded. The phone operator on page 72 is female, which was a common job for American women in the early 20th century. Much like the Urrasti society in The Dispossessed, there are definite gender inequalities in this society. It can also be said that women are not allowed to be in the Transport Cadets since none seemed to be working on the roads. This could largely stem from the realist view of "solidarity" within military discipline, which suggests it is easier to have a solid force if everyone is a male ('soldiers' are more likely to risk life and limb if their buddies depend on it as well, and it is easier to relate to a buddy who they are more like). This explains why women (and homosexuals) are not allowed to fight in infantry divisions in the modern U.S. Military. This same strategy could be chauvinistically employed by the Transport Cadets, barring women from having a role in maintaining the roads. However, at least some women hold positions of power in the depicted society. Mrs. McCoy is the manageress of Jake's Steak House, and she is seen to be both competent at what she does and to possess an affable personality. This is in contrast to the stay at home wife and the emotionless secretary shown at other points in the story.
  • Human Labor In 'The Roads Must Roll', Robert Heinlen's society seems to be functioning on the surface through Machine Labor. He shows, however, that all machines in his society have to be operated by humans, and that the machines were simply a way of covering up the underlying Human Labor. The technicians working on the roads live in questionable conditions, and the upper classes would be much more comfortable exploiting the technology if they only saw the cold, mechanical part. The story also shows that humans in control can be good or bad. Gaines shows that he is responsible and an excellent leader, one who should be in charge of a large operation such as Chief Engineer. However, Van Kleeck shows that sometimes humans can't be trusted. Van Kleeck allows his emotions to overtake him and hurts innocent people while trying to make a name for himself.
  • Property Although the technicians work on the roads, they do not own them. It is actually unknown from the short story who officially own the roads (may it be the government or someone else in charge), but it can be safe to say that the individuals who use and interact with the roads are most benefited by their existence. Because the roads roll, people have jobs, can transport to their jobs, and continue on with their livelihoods getting to places they need to be very quickly.

Advantages: This unique aspect makes this story different from many other science fiction stories where once Machines are created, they need no more taking care of and can pretty much handle things on their own. Eagle Eye, I, Robot, etc. In the society that Heinlen created Machine Labor and Human labor co-exist, keeping humankind together as a community, as opposed to in The Machine Stops where Machine Labor completely takes over the society and human labor simply falls by the wayside, and as a result society breaks down and the individuals have minimal interaction.

Critiques: One side effect of this dependency on human labor is made obvious by The Roads Must Roll: If those who compose the human labor force choose to stop doing their work, the rest of society goes down with it. In this way, the power is in the hands of a few. "We are the bottle neck, the sine qua non, of all industry, all economic life. Other industries can go on strike, and only create temporary and partial dislocations. Crops can fail here and there, and the country takes up the slack. But if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop;..." (64)

In Comparison to The Dispossessed

  • Stereotypes - In both stories, societies have unwanted stereotypes. On Annares, a society based on not having but sharing possessions, it is against society and is hurtful to be called a "profiteer", a person who only looks out for his or her own gains. In The Roads Must Roll, a functionalist revolution is started and is not the normal philosophy in the society. A functionalist, a person having ideals that state that mental states can determined only by their functional role [1], is not wanted in this society. The Annaresti possess the stereotype of the Urrasti profiteer, and the Urrasti posses the stereotype of the Annaresti anarchist. However, in The Roads Must Roll, many stereotypes exist in the society. Women are portrayed in a number of stereotypical jobs such as wife, secretary, telephone operator, and manageress/waitress. Meanwhile, men are shown to be businessmen, politicians, engineers, mechanics, and military personnel. Other stereotypes that are shown are that the proletariat is pro-union while the bourgeois is anti-union.
  • Revolution - In The Dispossessed, the first revolution takes place before the story actually begins. The revolution is what forced the settlers off Urras in the first place and moved them to Anarres. At the end of the story some of the Urrasti are beginning another revolution quite like the first. The revolutions in The Road Must Roll, both the one before the story starts and the one around which the story is centered, are uprisings of the workers on the roads. They wanted a better life and position in their society so they started a revolution. The only difference between the two were the success rates. In The Dispossessed, the revolution was what most people would call a success because they got a whole planet to govern how they wanted, while in The Roads Must Roll, the revolution was mostly successful because the workers got what they wanted, but their internal hierarchy became more controlling. The second revolution on Urras failed worse, in terms of human lives, than the technician's second revolution. The technician's revolution managed to limit the killing to only individuals directly involved with the revolution while the Urrasti civilians were killed along with the revolutionaries.
  • Anarchy - The Revolution in the Dispossessed is more of an idea towards equality for all, whereas the revolution in The Roads Must Roll is a tyranny proposed and instituted by a single man (with minions) who has no future goals in mind, just current power. He uses acts of terrorism to force the current governmental system to bow to his whims in order to stop the killing of innocent people and restore order. This is typical dictatorship where the opposing party creates chaos so that when the citizens grow tired of the pain and destruction, they'll go to the ones causing it and give them what they want if they'll stop. The leader of the movement, Van Kleeck doesn't even have his follower's best interest in mind, as pointed out by Gaines when he says "If your buddies knew how near you are to throwing away what they've fought for, they'd shoot you in a second" (p. 85). The Roads Must Roll is a story about tyranny and dictatorship; anarchy is only used for a short period in order to reach that goal. The Dispossessed actually revolves around the idea of anarchy, even though the characters realize at the end it's not real. Anarchy is simply a means to a new governmental system, not one in itself.
  • Gender – In the Urrasti society, there are many gender inequalities, as seen in The Roads Must Roll. Women are reduced to simple jobs such as cooks and secretaries in both readings. Two examples of gender inequalities are Mr. Gaines’ secretary Dolores and also the restaurant manager. While both are active in the labor force, both work in simple jobs, such as in a restaurant and as a secretary. Based on the phone conversation of Mr. Gaines and his wife, in which Mr. Gaines is busy at work and tells his wife to “kiss Junior good night”, a woman’s place was usually in the household, taking care of the children.
  • Freedom - With reference to The Dispossessed, the beginning of the story expresses the anarchist emotion of wanting what the people believe they should receive. The engineer's wish to regain the credit for their work which the overpaid desk-workers get recognized for. This relates to the people of Anarres, of their desire to regain self control of their situations. But there is a very important difference in the means of getting to this goal of freedom. The people of Anarres wanted to make society fair and free through equality, while the road workers' idea of freedom was to gain a deserved power over others.
  • Rulag vs Van Kleeck - Both Rulag and Van Kleeck are the antagonists in their stories. Rulag cannot escape her past mistakes and seeks to control her son. Van Kleeck's greed pushes him to the Functionalist movement and desires complete power. Both are unhappy with their past history and seek to control those around them. A desire for personal gain over societal good mark both out from their respective societies.
  • Sabul vs Van Kleeck - In both novels, Sabul and Van Kleeck are shown to be despots in positions of power that they don't deserve. Sabul gained his social position through stealing physics ideas from the Urrans and his own students and publishing those works under his own name, but he lacks the individual motivation and understanding of physics to actually come up with his own ideas. Van Kleeck uses fear and psychological manipulation to gain control of the technicians and attempts seize further control, but he is weak psychologically and lacks the fundamental ability to lead while under extreme pressure. In The Dispossessed LeGuin suggests that all people in power are usurpers like Sabul. However, her novel never depicts an emergency situation that requires the immediate response of an adequate leader. In "The Roads Must Roll", on the other hand, Heinlein suggests that some individuals, like Van Kleeck, are unfit to lead and offers Gaines as a prototype of a capable leader who can handle devastating circumstances with ease. Both authors suggest that incompetent leaders should be removed; they just have different ideas of who, if anyone, should replace such leaders.
  • Social vs Hierarchy - In The Roads Must Roll, a hierarchy chain of command is used to "keep the roads rolling". For example, Mr. Gaines is on the top of the hierarchy chart, while Van Kleeck is closer to the bottom. Everything is organized and tends to roll smoothly. The roads themself can be a metaphore for this. The novel explains the caos that the road system use to be. "They contained the seeds of their own destruction. Seventy million steel juggernauts, operated by imperfect human beings at high speed, are more destructive than war. ... Pedestrians were sardonically divided into two classes, the quick and the dead." [2]. In The Dispossessed social values ran the show.

In Comparison to Our Current Society

  • The dependence on the road systems in the society in the The Roads Must Roll can be compared to our society's dependence of many commodities including energy, the automobile, internet, electricity, etc. In The Roads Must Roll, if the roads stop working, many people will be stranded and killed and the functions of the society such as politics and economy will temporarily cease until the roads are repaired. This reaction after the break down of the road, would not be unlike the reaction of the United States or in that matter, the world, if there was a shortage of gasoline. The whole world, which is very much dependent on this fuel, would have to forcibly stop until another way of powering their lives could be developed. As an example of such actions, look at what happens in the economies of less developed countries, whose economies are more often than not, based on a singular commodity. When the commodity is threatened by some sort of shortage- eg. non-fruitful mines, drought, famine- their entire economy collapses. While the United States pretends to be above such events, one can see it to a smaller degree in large price hikes during any sort of large strike or shortage.
  • The view of cars from the Roads Must Roll is grim - "They contained the seeds of their own destruction. Seventy million steel juggernauts, operated by imperfect human beings at high speed, are more destructive than war. ... Pedestrians were sardonically divided into two classes, the quick and the dead."(Heinlein __pg #__) [3] Our current society has a more optimistic view of cars, for now. For example, Heinlein's remark on "imperfect human operators"(Heinlein __pg #__) , we have the technology to limit the number of the human mistakes during driving. For example, the Lexus self parking system. However, while such safety features have caused a decline in the danger of cars, many people refuse to use safety features such as seat belts, and cars often remain as Gaines's described, a several ton cruise missile driven by a total stranger to you. Additionally, the observation that while cars enabled the creation of large cities, they also choke them, is visible in many of America's larger cities.
  • Labor unions are groups of lower class working individuals, ie the proletariat, that ban together to ensure the fairness of wages, working conditions, benefits, among other things. We have seen in history that labor unions can have a dramatic impact on a company's well-being if certain measures are not met. Whether it is in the airline business or a whole country, as we have seen lately with Europe's debt crises, union strikes can cause serious damage if not taken care of seriously and quickly. In The Roads Must Roll we see that the lower class has banned together to form a sort of union that wants to have a larger, more important role in society. While they did not hold a traditional "strike", they did use their capabilities of shutting down the roads to incentivize the upper class to quickly meet their demands. However, the quasi-military putdown of the strike is reminiscent of many strikes in the late 1800's and early 1900's.
  • Although the Functionalist idea was radical in the story, one can see some similarities of that idea in today's society. There are jobs today that are seemed to be viewed as more important than others despite the reality, such as doctors or political figures, and their importance is reflected in their salary.
  • The cadets are interestingly run almost exactly like a military organization. Even to the extent that they are trained with weaponry and sing traditionally military songs. Several excerpts from the novel also compare the cadet's training as on par or superior to that of the U.S.' military academies. From this it is plausible to see that the author envisions that positions of ultra-critical importance to society are best left to an institution that is more in time with the public sector, rather than that of the private sector.
  • Hierarchy of power- Mr. Gaines, chief engineer of Diego-Reno Roadtown, and Mr. Shorty Van Kleeck, deputy engineer both possess power over others. Gaines acts as a president would in our society, evaluating the situation and taking action-deciding that "if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop". The most power and responsibilities are given to those with the higher job titles, such as engineers. In contrast, women and secretaries are treated more as possessions and given a lower social status.
  • Women are barred from serving in the Transport Cadets; it is also uncertain whether or not homosexuals can serve in the organization, which parallels the standpoint of 'solidarity' employed in today's U.S. Military.


  • “The Road Song of the Transport Cadets” reference a song written in the 1908 titled “The Caisson Song”. This song has a long history of military use. It referred originally to the caisson as a mover of artillery pieces, and later adopted as the US army's official tune in a modified version (replacing "caisson" with "army")[4]. The inclusion of a modified version underscores the Transport Cadets’ militaristic begins.

Comparisons to Other Class Readings

  • Throughout The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx speaks about an eventual uprising of the Proletariat overtaking the Bourgeois. Marx believes that the only way to really address the grievances of the proletariat is through a restructuring of economic and social relations. While Marx's view of this revolutionary act has yet to take place, The Roads Must Roll represents an accurate example of what could happen if a lower class desired to ban together and fight for equal privileges.
  • As in The Machine Stops, this society relies heavily on the functionality of a machine. Without the roads, civilization ceases to perform smoothly. The roads facilitate the transportation of both goods and people. Without them, no one can work or obtain the necessary products for daily life. This dependence bears a striking resemblance, the dependence on the Machine in The Machine Stops to perform all physical work. This illustrates our societies' innate dread of technology becoming a crutch that may someday rule all aspects of human life. However, unlike the Machine in The Machine Stops, there are people behind the roads working to maintain them and keep society going. In Forster's story, the Machine worked on its own without any human oversight. For this reason, when the Machine started breaking down, so did society. In The Roads Must Roll, although the roads break down, people are able to fix the problems and get them rolling again, preventing the destruction of the society.
  • Both this novel and Frankenstein show what happens to one's personal life when they are consumed by their work. In both cases, the person in question becomes very distant from his family. "Don't marry an engineer, Dolores, marry an artist. They have more home life," Gaines tells his secretary after declining spending the evening with his wife (Heinlein ____)[citation needed]. Gaines' life, much like Frankenstein's, revolves entirely around his work, and like Frankenstein, Gaines loses contact with his personal life. Another similarity between this novel and Frankenstein is the unclear protagonist in the beginnings of each story. At first glance, it easy to feel sympathy with both Van Kleeck and Frankenstein's monster as they both have common and understandable problems with life. Van Kleeck is unhappy with his job situation and society while the monster has to deal with being a social outcast and depression. Both stories however eventually show the flaws in the character of both Van Kleeck and the monster and they are slowly transformed into the antagonists rather than the protagonists.
  • Both in this story and in Return to Pleasure Island the workforce is perceived differently by different levels of power. Here the upper power believes that there is nothing that could go wrong, as in Return to Pleasure Island, and they work quietly, but always with a thought of self advancement. Hierarchy of power- Mr. Gaines, chief engineer of Diego-Reno Roadtown, and Mr. Shorty Van Kleeck, deputy engineer both possess power over others. Gaines acts as a president would in our society, evaluating the situation and taking action-deciding that "if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop". The most power and responsibilities are given to those with the higher job titles, such as engineers. In contrast, women and secretaries are treated more as possessions and given a lower social status. Similarly...[give a specific example from Retrun to Pleasure Island for clarification]
    • It can also be noted within both stories a very strict and rigid system of hierarchy that exists among the workforces. [give a specific example for clarification].

In The Roads Must Roll the upper powers did believe that things could go wrong as they had many precautions in place. However, many of these precautions were put in place for machine malfunctions; but, in the story it is seen that it isn't the machines that malfunction but rather a human. In this case Human Labor is the cause of the problems; the engineers wanted more recognition for the human labor they were putting into the roads even though their compensation was already great.

Means of Revolution

  • One of the most striking parts of the short story is how the revolutionary fundamentalists go about bringing out the natural order that they believe society should follow. In this novel the revolution quickly turns out to be an act of economic terrorism, in which they revolutionaries are not above killing uninvolved by-standers in achieving their goal. This draws an interesting divide between many of the other class readings such as the anarchist FAQ. In this manner, the tactics of the revolutionaries most closely resemble that of a military coup d'état. As history shown, in almost 100% certainty, revolutions of this manner almost always result in despotic governmental regimes characterized by greed, brutality, and inequality.

Historical Influences


The revolution in The Roads Must Roll created by the Van the road worker a 'Functionalist revolution.' This could be connected to the actual 'Structural Functionalism' which is an theory or ideal that states a society is composed of various groups (or structures). Together, these structures, through their functions, relationships, and "the manner in which these structures constrain the actions of individuals" form the society as a whole.[5] This idea is also explained through the metaphor of a human body and its organs. The human body is built by independent, but integrated, organs with specialized functions; a society is built by smaller structures in a similar way.[6]

Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part. This doctrine is rooted in Aristotle's conception of the soul, and has antecedents in Hobbes's conception of the mind as a “calculating machine”, but it has become fully articulated (and popularly endorsed) only in the last third of the 20th century. Though the term ‘functionalism’ is used to designate a variety of positions in a variety of other disciplines, including psychology, sociology, economics, and architecture, this entry focuses exclusively on functionalism as a philosophical thesis about the nature of mental states.[7]

Conveyor Belt

The conveyor belt, was accredited to an inventor in 1902 which was a time where society was continually looking for ways to improve processes.[citation needed] It helped to increase production and efficiency in many industries.[citation needed] It seems natural that Heinlin would see the future as having large conveyor belt like objects that would transport Americans to and from places extremely fast.

Interpretation of the Transport Cadets' work beneath the road.


  1. Wikipedia: Functionalism
  2. Heinlein, Robert. The Roads Must Roll
  3. Heinlein, Robert. The Roads Must Roll
  4. Wikipedia: caisson(military)
  5. Keel, R. O. (2009). Structural Functionalism
  6. Urry, J. (2000). Sociology beyond societies: mobilities for the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Routledge.
  7. Stanford Encyclopedia.[1]
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