Sci-Fi Bobby, Bobby Heinlein, How Could You Treat Us So?
I AM CURRENTLY three-quarters of the way through Robert A. Heinlein's newest novel, I Will Fear No Evil, which is being serialized in Galaxy, and I feel somewhat as if I had sat at the feet of the blind Homer and heard him lean over to me and say, "Did you ever hear the one about the travelling salesman and the farmer's daughter?"
Which perhaps needs a moment of explanation. Heinlein, "the dean of space-age fiction," has been one of my favorite people since I was ten. Red Planet, Between Planets, Have Spacesuit- Will Travel, Pod kayne of Mars, Starman Jones, The Star Beast, The Puppet Masters, The Menace from Earth- I have read all of his books at least twice, and many of them ten or twelve times. And so have millions of sci-fi freaks around the country. I imagine that a lot of them right now are holding their heads and moaning, "Bobbie, Bobby Heinlein, how could you treat us so?"
About I Will Fear No Evil, I will say little. It concerns the richest man in the world, kept alive by a total life support machine, who arranges to have his brain transplanted into a young, healthy body- that of his secretary, who has been killed by a rapist. Transformed into a woman, he/she arranges to be impregnated by sperm from her/his first body, thus becoming the father and mother of a bouncing, baby thing (the sex will be revealed in the thrilling conclusion).
Now accomplished Heinlein readers do not usually take offense at those of his books which propound political philosophies contrary to everything the reader believes; for we know that, if we but wait long enough, he will write another book in which he will ardently defend exactly the opposite point of view. It is a measure of the man's incredible philosophical wishy-washiness that one of his novels, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, is one of the guiding tracts of the YAF, while Stranger In A Strange Land (his greatest, I might add) has helped inspire thousands of acid-freaks, beginning with Ken Kesey.
SO IT IS usually not annoying to find that a new Heinlein is wrong-headed and somewhat priggish. One simply reads around the didactic parts and soaks in the action and gets caught up in the suspense.
But the newest addition to his writings has no action, no suspense. Most of it is idiot didacticism; the rest is garbled muddle.
The theme of the book is Heinlein's version of how to be a woman. It would be presumptous of me to attempt to analyze this; perhaps, if it were worth it, a woman could deal with it. But the male chauvinism in it is so overt, so crude, and so disgusting that it is hard to imagine anyone being influenced by it. What is distressing is that this seems not to be merely the newest of his absurd philosophical stances. Judging by the construction of the rest of the work, it would seem, rather, that Heinlein's mind- one of the great story-telling minds of our times, my friends- has snapped, and is now like a computer with a faulty program, spinning furiously in circles.
It is interesting to note that Heinlein has dealt with the same theme: that of a man who fathers a child by himself. "All You Zombies," one of his very early tales, tells of a young woman (a foundling discovered on the steps of an orphanage) who joins the Time Patrol, a group which regulates the clandestine commerce between time periods. While on a mission, she becomes pregnant by a fast-talking man whom she never sees again. When she gives birth, the baby is kidnapped and never found. She then becomes disgusted with being a woman and undergoes radical surgery to become a man. Years later, while on a mission to the same time period, she/he seduces a young woman.
SUDDENLY- the shock of recognition. He/she has impregnated her/himself. He/she then hides for nine months, kidnaps the baby girl, rushes into a time machine, returns to the year and day of her/his birth, and leaves it on the steps of the orphanage. Full circle. The last sentence reads, "I know where I came from. But who are all you zombies?"
This all took about one tenth of the current length of I Will Fear No Evil, and was approximately ten times as interesting. It is obvious to most of you, from reading this capsule summation. But such is the force of Heinlein's narrative style that it takes the reader at least a week to realize that he has been sold a bill of goods.
With I Will Fear No Evil it takes about fifteen minutes.
Oh, come back to us, Robert A. Heinlein, amateur astronomer, former naval person, practical engineer, supreme cynic, ideological flibbertigibbet, magnificent story-teller. It will be too much to take if the bad madness of the nation has ruined you, too.