This is the first short novel of four that comprise the tales of Lazarus Long as he records his memoirs to placate his descendants while he undergoes rejuvenation—a process begun against his will by Ira Wetheral, the current Chairman Pro Tem of the Howard Families. “Chairman Pro Tem” because the rightful chairman of the Families—not a biological family, strictly, but an association of people bred for long life and named for Ira Howard, the philanthropist who funded, back in the 19th Century Gregorian, a project to lengthen the lifespan of humans simply by subsidizing the marriage and production of offspring of people with a genetic predisposition to long life. The Chairman of these families, by tradition, is the eldest member. When Howard’s experiment was not a century old, and Howard himself was already dead, it produced a mutant named Woodrow Wilson Smith. By 2012, Smith, under the pseudonym Lazarus Long, was the oldest man alive, Senior of the Families. It was a position he would hold for the next 23 centuries, and still counting as of Robert Heinlein’s last published work.
I should say I just finished it this time. This is probably my fifth re-reading of this, my favorite of the Grandmaster’s novels. The timing comes because I decided this year to treat myself to The Virginia Edition, a set of 40+ leather bound copies of everything Robert A. Heinlein ever published. That’s a lot of books, and it’s intimidating; so I decided to start with my favorite.
This is my desert island book. If I could only have one, this would be it. Short version if you don’t know it: Lazarus Long has lived over 2000 years and is the unwilling leader (and direct ancestor) of a society of people bred for longevity. Ready for death, he’s tempted back to life by descendants who collect his memoirs and provide him with ideas that might be interesting enough to keep living for. It’s time travel, it’s western adventure, it’s erotica, it’s space opera. Above all, it’s never boring.
I’ve waited many years to read this one. I began reading Heinlein (with The Star Beast) in 1981. I’ve read most of his work, and, indeed, broke down this year and treated myself to the Virginia Edition, leather-bound copies of all of Heinlein’s work, including non-fiction articles and screenplays.
But this, his first novel published in book form, and the first of his juvenile novels, was a book that I’d always heard was badly dated and not as entertaining as his others. Now that I’ve finally read it, I disagree. Rocketship Galileo is as captivating, speculative and amusing as any Heinlein adventure (although Starship Troopers was rarely, if ever amusing. That one came from a dark place within the Grandmaster.)
It’s called “dated” less because of the naiveté of the idea that the first expedition to the moon would be the result of a contest for inventors–and particularly teenaged inventors–and more because the villains are–wait for it–Nazis.
Yoji Kondo, scientist, science fiction author, mentor and friend to me for the past 36 years, has died. Like my father, who died in May, Yoji’s last years were spent amidst diminishing brain function as dementia claimed one of the greatest intellects I’ve ever known.
Yoji introduced me (indirectly) to the works of Robert Heinlein. I say indirectly because, in the beginning, I was just a punk kid who wanted to date his daughter Beatrice, and he was a respected scientist, an Aikido master, if I’m not mistaken the one of the two or three highest ranked practitioners of Aikido in the United States, and a friend to people like Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, the grandmasters of a field I desperately wanted to pursue. I didn’t speak much in his presence. I was intimidated.
I Will Fear No Evil was Robert A. Heinlein ‘s 26th novel, published in 1970. At this point, the Grandmaster was 62 years old that year, and had four Hugo Awards for best novel to his credit. IWFNE is widely regarded by science fiction fans (and there are no higher authorities on everything) as the worst thing he ever published.
I love this book. I’ve read it a half dozen times since high school (as I’ve read all of RAH’s later novels repeatedly) and will probably read it a half dozen more if I live long enough.
But, before I tell you why I love it, let me heap a little more evidence on the other side of the scales, because I love a challenge. Heinlein was a pantser, not a plotter. That is to say, he wrote by the seat of his pants, without an outline. He also did not like to rewrite–although he did substantial re-writing on his most problematic and best-known work, Stranger in a Strange Land. He preferred to write and write and write, and then cut out the chaff.
There’s nothing more disheartening for a writer than to read something published by a major house and think, “I can write better than this!” That’s especially true for a writer whose collection of rejection notices exceeds his collection of pay checks for work sold. (Isn’t that most of us, though?)
Oh, yeah, there is something more disheartening… having that work be authored by someone that one of your literary idols thought was a real talent.
I picked up a couple of books by Dan Galouye because he’s mentioned, in Robert A Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, as a writer whose work the Grandmaster really admired.
RAH must have read something by Galouye other than The Infinite Man.
So last week I gave a rundown of how four different SF stories used cannibalism in their plots. Most prominent were the first few episodes of this season of The Walking Dead, less obvious was an episode of the almost-forty-year old Space:1999 series called “Mission of the Darians.” Less well-known to those who think science fiction was invented in 1966 by Gene Roddenberry are two of Robert Heinlein’s works, Stranger in a Strange Land and Farnham’s Freehold.
All use cannibalism as a metaphor. In the two TV storylines, it’s a metaphor for denial of the importance of the individual. In Freehold, it’s a metaphor for oppression of one group by another. In Stranger, it’s a metaphor for strangeness, alien-ness, and acceptance of the universe. It’s also used as a gentle poke at Western Christians who consider themselves more civilized than the heathens who go around rubbing blue mud in their bellies.
As with most of my blog posts, this one has grown out of many intertwined roots. The first was the featuring of cannibalism as a theme in the opening episodes of The Walking Dead’s fifth season. The second was my reading, at the same time, of Robert Wood’s well-researched volume Destination: Moonbase Alpha, a re-visitation of the making of one of my all-time favorite SF series, Space: 1999. (A show which many in the SF community hold in utter contempt. 1999 fans long ago learned to stop caring in the slightest.) The final contributing factor was my participation at PhilCon, only days ago as I began writing this, in a panel discussion about William H. Patterson’s authorized biography of the Dean of American SF, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century. This was a well-attended discussion moderated by author Michael Swanwick.
PhilCon was before Thanksgiving, and The Walking Dead has already reached its mid-season finale for this year. As you can tell, this discussion has been brewing for a while.
Today I would like to explain the intended function and use of the double door. The double door, a system of two standard-width doors, placed side-by-side, is intended to allow two-way traffic to pass through an opening, avoiding bottlenecks. It dates back to ancient Egyptian times. There are paintings of double doors on the tombs of the Pharoahs. It works like this: no matter which side of the door you’re on, you use the door on your right. Double doors may swing in both directions, may slide out of the way for you automatically, or may only open in a single direction. Nevertheless you use the one on the right. Anyone passing through the same opening from the other side uses the door on their right. And guess what? That’s your left! Isn’t that amazing? You can both pass through the opening at the same time without having to stop for each other!!! Genius!
I received a copy of Heinlein’s Friday as a Christmas gift my senior year in high school. It had been out since the previous April, but I guess I wasn’t yet a rabid enough Heinlein fan to have picked it up the day it came out. Friday was, I believe, the book that changed me into that rabid fan.
It was hailed as Heinlein’s return to his former glory. On the book jacket of the hardcover edition, Harlan Ellison said “Friday is Heinlein back in control.” I’ve never polled readers to ask if they agree with this assessment, but the sentiment is understandable. Friday represents a marked change in tone from Heinlein’s previous “adult” novels. By “adult” I don’t mean Heinlein was writing porn, though there are some detractors who would make that claim. After establishing himself in the 1940s as the King of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine, amongst other short fiction venues, Heinlein spent the 1950s as the reigning champion of juvenile (what we now call Young Adult) science fiction novels for Scribner’s. He wrote fourteen of these, although two, Podkayne of Mars and Starship Troopers, were rejected by Scribner’s juvenile editor, Alice Dalgliesh, and published subsequently by G.P. Putnam.
It wasn’t until these two rejected juveniles were released that Heinlein really came to be considered an author of “adult” science fiction novels. (Tuck away in the box where you store your little ironies that Heinlein’s juveniles are perfectly respectable adult science fiction stories. They just don’t speak plainly about sex. Heinlein consider this the only difference between juvenile and adult literature. Sixty years later, his juveniles are all still in print, and, I believe, none has ever gone out of print. Not many juvenile authors can make such a claim.)
I would never call Heinlein’s work formulaic. His imagination was such that, even were he to have written every book to a strict formula (and he didn’t), each would still represent an astonishingly unique and refreshing work due to the ideas draped on the frame of the formula. That said, most of his dozen Scribner books share a similar theme, that of a young man finding success and his place in the universe by means of tenacity, intellect and a good understanding of technology; Horatio Alger in space, if you will. Starship Troopers also carries this theme, but is extremely dark and militaristic. I’ve read it once, and recognize it as a competent piece of writing and deserving of attention. I will not read it twice, however. It represents one of the few times that Heinlein created a world I would not wish to visit.
Podkayne of Mars took a sharp turn away from this pattern by featuring a (gasp!) young woman as its protagonist. Narrated by Podkayne herself, it does have quite a different feel than its predecessor novels. In addition, in the original draft, Podkayne dies at the end of the story.
From here, Heinlein essentially abandoned the “boy meets world(s)” theme. Puppet Masters depicts spies handling an alien invasion; Double Star tells of an actor who must impersonate a head of state; Stranger in a Strange Land turns the “boy in space” idea on its ear, by bringing a human boy raised as a Martian to Earth; Glory Road is couched as a fantasy story, its hero not anyone you would call “boy;” Farnham’s Freehold catapults some members of Country Club Suburbia into a post-nuclear dystopia; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the story of a war of independence waged by a lunar colony against Earth. Time Enough for Love is the memoir of a millennia-old man who first appeared in Methuselah’s Children, where he led the escape of his fellow long-lifers from Earth; In I Will Fear No Evil, an old man’s brain is place in the body of a young woman, and, finally, in Number of the Beast, four geniuses narrate the story of their flight from earth as agents unknown try to assassinate them, and their subsequent escape into a nigh-infinite multiverse.
These last two efforts were poorly received by critics and many readers. Number of the Beast, in particular, is held up even today as strong evidence that Heinlein eventually lost his talent and possibly his mind, and that his work became hopelessly self-indulgent. News flash: All writing is self-indulgent. Authors write either for themselves or their editors. While in the latter case, it helps to first have the ego surgically removed, one indulges one’s editor only to fill one’s wallet. The end result is still self-indulgent.
Personally, I loved Number of the Beast. It was the first of Heinlein’s “adult” novels that I read, and I found myself dropping into the company of the Carter-Burroughs clan as comfortably as one drops into one’s favorite bathrobe. True, the novel does not have a tight, coherent plot. What it does have is witty dialogue and memorable characters who at least made me want to spend more time in their presence. In addition, there were some character beats included which made this then-sixteen-year-old misfit realize that perhaps it was okay for him to be exactly who he was, with no apologies to anyone.
If tight plotting and an odyssey of self-discovery were what readers wanted, however, Friday did represent a “return” to the Heinlein they remembered from decades passed. Although it lacks a male protagonist – Friday is a genetically engineered female with enhanced reflexes, intellect and strength – it does tell the tale of a young person navigating a strange and wondrous, sometimes hostile future, eventually stumbling over her destiny among the stars. Like Thorby in Citizen of the Galaxy, Friday is an outcast. “Artificial Persons” (APs) are not considered human by the unwashed masses. “My mother was a test tube, my father was a knife,” is their shared phrase of self-identification. They have no citizenship, no heritage, no party loyalties. Indeed, it’s legal for them to be owned by “real” humans. Friday, a trained combat courier working for a mysterious tactician known only as “Boss,” must hide her true nature from nearly everyone she meets.
Like the heroes of Have Space Suit Will Travel and Between Planets, she covers a lot of geography and is introduced to the alien world that is a space ship, a small foreign culture unto itself. Like all of Heinlein’s travelers, she winds up frequently down on her luck, stranded with few resources, and aided by kind-hearted strangers who ask only that she pay their kindness forward by way of recompense. And of course she has a mentor, an older man who, while gruff and demanding, nonetheless has her best interests at heart. Mr. Miyagi-like, Boss sets her to baffling tasks, the relevance of which she learns only long after she has undertaken them. Ultimately, she succeeds by being clever and resourceful, by learning to look past the face value of things, and by making friends she can count on. In Heinlein’s world, this makes her firmly “one of the boys.”
And yet she is very female. Many critics have alleged that Heinlein’s women are all just wish-fulfillment constructs, representing what the author wished women were really like. Friday, however, is competent – more competent than any of the men she goes up against in the book. She has dalliances with several men (and a few women), but is not, despite the name, any man’s “gal Friday.” This is one of only four works of science fiction in which Heinlein used a female narrator to tell the story, the others being the aforementioned “Podkayne” and Number of the Beast, as well as his final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset. While I am not female, at no time during many readings of this novel have I ever felt pulled out of the story with a sense of “this is a dude writing the way he thinks a woman would write!” I should point out as well that Heinlein’s wife Ginny was, apparently, also his ideal of what a woman should be, and she was known to friends and acquaintances as supremely competent. Indeed, when the couple met, she was Heinlein’s superior officer in the Navy. A woman who fulfilled the wishes of Robert Heinlein would likely not be an empty-headed, big-chested chippie.
Unlike Heinlein’s boys, Friday is frankly sexual, and her story allows close examination of sexual customs and some possible future marriage scenarios. At the story’s opening, she is married into a group with seven husbands and co-wives. This New Zealand-based family is a business in which adult members buy shares. Its Chief Financial Officer, Anita, at first reminds a Heinlein reader of the no-nonsense Mum in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Both rule their roosts and have a silent, strong influence over their co-wives and their husbands. Both seem unflappable. Both do grandmotherly things like sitting by the fire knitting. But Anita has a dark side and an obsession with money that Mum, a colonist deportee, could not conceive. When Friday has a falling out and parts with Anita’s family, all semblance of moral rectitude vanishes. The event is ugly and painful. As much as he described marriages, Heinlein didn’t deal often with divorce. That may be a result of the fact that he’d been through divorces himself, and chose to wait for time and perspective before he addressed the issue in his work. When he does relate a story of divorce, however, he does so with tremendous emotional power.Friday is next welcomed into the home of a woman with two husbands. She bonds with this woman, Janet, as the mother she never had. Again, this is a departure from the young Odysseus theme. Though Odysseus was always seeking his home, he was not looking for anyone with whom to form an emotional attachment. The boys in the juveniles similarly were not. While many wound up in love or married, seeking companionship or family ties was not the primary business of any of them.
If you want to introduce readers of mainstream thrillers, be they readers of Dan Brown, John Grisham or Ian Fleming, to science fiction, Friday is an excellent jumping-off point. I know from my days in libraries that non-SF fans who “had” to read a science fiction book were extremely pleased when I placed this one in their hands, and would make a point of coming back to tell me so. One strong objection some have to the book – that being Friday’s treatment of a man who rapes her – I will not address. The theme is a complex one, and will serve to provide the topic for a future column.
Oh, lest I forget, this is another old favorite I listened to over the past couple of weeks. I’ve long had a two-cassette abridged reading by Samantha Eggar. She did quite a creditable job, but this is a book which deserves to be heard in its entirety. Hillary Huber’s unabridged reading for Blackstone Audio was very enjoyable. Ms. Huber has terrific range for character voices, and a vocal quality much like that of Peri Gilpin of Frasier. After hearing her reading, it did occur to me that Friday, being Baltimore-born and raised, would probably not have Ms. Eggar’s delightful accent. Still, if you have a chance to pick up that abridgement, by Listen For Pleasure from back in the eighties, it’s fun.