Wednesday, January 3, 2018

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein

I find I like being female.  But it's different.  Now what shall we wear?
My copy; purchased at a Goodwill in
Indianola, Iowa in 2014
For almost two months I have been occupied by the move of MPorcius HQ from a moldy basement in Ohio to a smelly second-story apartment in Maryland, by holiday travel, and with reading 1970s biographies of Samuel Johnson by John Wain and Christopher Hibbert.*  But today I am back in the science fiction ghetto, dealing with one of that ghetto's most prominent citizens, Robert A. Heinlein, one of the foremost practitioners of the hard SF that promotes science and engineering, the libertarian SF that argues for the primacy of the individual against the government and the collective, and the taboo-challenging SF that depicts new or unconventional sexual and marital relationships.  The topic at hand: 1970's I Will Fear No Evil, which I read over 30 years ago in my youth, and reread in fits and starts over the past few busy weeks of driving cross country, celebrating the holidays with my in-laws, waiting at government offices and lugging my belongings to a storage unit.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith (again with the "Smith!") is one of the world's most successful businessmen, the head of Smith Enterprises Ltd, a vast business empire which includes "sea ranches" where unlucky workers get eaten by sharks, a textbook publishing division and a machine tools division.  A self-made man and World War II veteran, Smith is over ninety and at death's door, monitored by nurses and computers 24-7!  But he is not ready to shuffle off this mortal coil just yet--his mind is still sharp as a tack, and he brags that he can remember yesterday's stock prices and "do logarithmic calculations without tables" (your humble blogger can't remember what he ate yesterday and doesn't know what a logarithmic calculation is!)  Smith's solution: becoming the world's first brain transplant beneficiary!  Smith orders his staff to find a young healthy body whose brain is legally dead and which shares his rare blood type, and through a tragic set of circumstances his brain ends up in the body of his beautiful twenty-something secretary, Eunice Barca!  A woman!  Even more incredibly, Eunice's consciousness has somehow survived death and the operation, and it shares Johann's brain with him!  (Heinlein leaves open the possibility that Eunice's presence is not "real," but a product of brain damage or mental illness, and Johann doesn't tell anyone that he is in constant communication with Eunice's "ghost" for fear he will be immediately diagnosed as insane.)

As you perhaps know from reading my blog posts about Leigh Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon, Edmond Hamilton's "The Avenger from Atlantis," Tanith Lee's Volkhavaar, and other works, I love any story in which people's brains or souls or consciousnesses are moved from one body to another, and/or in which different consciousnesses inhabit the same body and struggle for control or learn to live in harmony.  No doubt this fascination of mine springs from my fear of death and experience of loneliness and alienation from my fellow man.  But while the aforementioned Brackett, Hamilton and Lee stories are fast-paced adventure capers with horror elements, I Will Fear No Evil is a slow-paced philosophical novel about love and sex with very little dramatic tension.  The topic of a man unexpectedly finding himself in a woman's body could serve as fertile ground for a story of body horror, or a tale of identity crisis, or a feminist satire, but Heinlein does not take any of these tacks.

Instead of finding his new new body repulsive or even disconcerting, Johann embraces womanhood, taking the name "Joan" and immediately demanding cosmetics and nightgowns and an appointment with a hairdresser!  Within days Joan is going on extravagant shopping trips and enthusiastically throwing herself at every man who crosses her path!  In the second half of the novel Joan has sex with Johann's best friend, septuagenarian lawyer Jacob Salomon, her doctor, and various other of her employees, both male and female.  (Like Tiresias, star of Greek mythology and English art rock, Johann/Joan finds that sex is far more enjoyable as a woman than a man.)  With equal gusto Joan makes a beeline to the sperm bank and has herself impregnated with Johann's sperm, so that she becomes, more or less, both father and mother of the child she carries.

The novel briefly touches on legal issues surrounding the need of the courts to figure out if the person with Johann's brain and Eunice's body is legally Johann, Eunice, neither or both, because some of Johann's legal (though not biological) descendants hope to get their hands on his fortune through legal maneuvers, but these ineffectual antagonists never have a chance.  Heinlein devotes far more energy to following Joan's efforts to seduce and then wed Jacob, and to comfort Eunice's many friends and lovers who miss her and might find the presence of her body still walking around (with a ninety-year old dude's brain in it!) unnerving.

The lion's share of the novel's text, which weighs in at 500 pages, consists of conversations between the witty, impeccably decent and supercompetent characters (Johann is the world's greatest businessman, Eunice is the best possible secretary and kindest and most giving of individuals, Jacob is the world's greatest lawyer and great in the sack, the guy who performs the brain transplant is the world's finest surgeon, Eunice's husband Joe is a genius artist and a noble soul who doesn't care about money, etc.) and these conversations consist mostly of these paragons expressing their love for each other but sometimes expressing their (and presumably the author's) opinions.  There are also lots of descriptions of people's, especially women's, attire.  Conflicts or setbacks are few and far between.

One of the ecstatic blurbs on the back cover of my edition of the novel refers to the book's "frightening vision of the future" and the likelihood that it might be come true.  We learn about this "future world" of the early 21st-century in dribs and drabs, in characters' dialogue and in brief satirical segments that describe current events.  The world is overpopulated (overpopulation, Johann asserts, is the wellspring of all the other problems) and polluted, and the government is corrupt and incompetent, a welfare state that hands out generous benefits to the poor but whose efforts to control population (through a eugenics system of licenses that tries to limit who can reproduce) and crime (large swathes of urban landscape are no-go zones called "Abandoned Areas" which the police refuse to enter) and even educate children (many adults are illiterate) are an absolute failure.  Rich people like Johann and Jacob are driven around by thuggish guards in over-sized armored limos equipped with gun turrets, and Eunice's untimely (but opportune!) death is at the hands of a mugger in an elevator.

Sexy!  And patriotic?
Obviously Heinlein is vehemently opposed to all this socialism and laments the mass crime and pollution, but the novel's setting also features developments Heinlein (I presume) would have welcomed, like acceptance of public nudity and a looser attitude about sex--Eunice's marriage was an open one, and I think all the main characters have homosexual affairs.  Johann and Eunice describe to each other their early sex lives, and Heinlein uses Johann's reminiscences to suggest that the Victorians and the people of the early 20th-century were just about as sex-crazed as the college kids of the swinging Sixties, but were less open and more hypocritical about it.  Some readers may look askance at some of the sexual relationships described; for example, Johann was seduced by a thirty-five-year-old married woman when he was fourteen, and when he was twenty he had sex with a sixteen-year-old who would become his first wife.  (If there is any tension in this novel it is the tension between the author's and the reader's beliefs.)

I Will Fear No Evil presents a less than rosy image of what people in 1970 would have considered a traditional marriage: all the marriages in the story are either "open" or failed--all feature enthusiastic "swinging" or surreptitious adultery.  Johann was married four times, and all four of his wives cheated on him and gave birth to children fathered by other men.  Johann has no biological children, and his legal heirs--four granddaughters--are the story's rarely invoked and totally ineffectual villains.  One way of looking at the novel is to see the union of Johann's brain and Eunice's body, which unexpectedly renders their consciousnesses inseparable, as a sort of allegory of a perfect marriage--they are a til-death-do-us-part corporate entity who share their lives in the most direct and intimate way possible, help each other learn and grow and need never again fear loneliness.

I'm scratching my head over the
cover to this British edition
Another way of looking at I Will Fear No Evil is as a novel celebrating self-creation, the fact that you can be who you want to be, you fashion your own identity and need not accept what your parents and society have made you via genetics and culture.  Johann changed his name from Schmidt to Smith when he enlisted in the army in 1941, and the book includes multiple conversations with lawyers about how your legal name in the USA is whatever you say it is.  Johann wasn't born rich, but turned himself into the world's preeminent businessman, while Eunice's husband Joe, the sensitive and honorable artist, came from a family of worthless, dishonest, grasping scum.  The happening young people of the novel's early 21st-century believe there are six sexes, and people in the book decide what "sex" (the word incorporates what we today call "sexual orientation") they are; while today's conventional wisdom is that homosexuals are "born that way," Heinlein in the novel seems to suggest gay sex is a practice any open-minded person might simply opt to indulge in.  Late in the novel, discussing the parentage of the child she bears,  Johann/Joan brags "I did this on my own.  I alone am parent to this child."  It is also perhaps significant that Johann dismisses out of hand behaviorist psychological theories.

While I Will Fear No Evil is a celebration of individualism and tells you that you don't have to respect old taboos or follow in your parents' footsteps or take the authority of the government seriously, it is not a book that advocates being a hermit and ignoring everybody else.  Everybody in the novel is constantly complimenting and hugging and kissing each other, so you never forget that the main point of the book is that we should all love each other and that sex is an expression of love that should not inspire jealousy or be subject to restrictive rules.  The book also shows the deference to the cognitive elite (and contempt for the common masses) that we often see in classic SF; obvious examples are Asimov's Foundation stories and Sturgeon's award-winning "Slow Sculpture," fiction in which the authors advocate that shadowy unaccountable geniuses manipulate human civilization for its own good.  Public-spirited Johann tries to use his wealth to help humanity; most prominent in the novel is his subtle attempt to mold the gene pool by financing a eugenics foundation that collects the sperm of above-average men and uses it impregnate above-average female volunteers.  On the flip side we see the other end of the cognitive and moral spectra in action, as Heinlein depicts how the venal news media whips up riotous mobs with ease with misleading and salacious news reports.

Jack Gaughan goes literal for the magazine edition,
showing ancient Johann's withered mug
and Eunice in one of her boob-baring outfits
(A related theme we see in much of former naval officer Heinlein's work is the need for the crew of a ship to obey their captain without question, and this shows up in I Will Fear No Evil, with Johann demanding similar obedience from his employees.)

Heinlein's novels often include anti-bigotry messages, messages both explicit (characters deliver speeches denouncing racism, for example) and implicit (such as the inclusion of admirable characters who are not white, not male, and/or not human) and I Will Fear No Evil does the same.  Johann, whose grandparents were immigrants from Catholic southern Germany, grew up in what he calls variously "the Bible Belt" and "the Middle West" is best friends with the Jewish Jacob, and offhand I can recall admirable minor characters who are black, Polish and gay.  Probably most significantly, Heinlein leaves Eunice's ethnicity a mystery; we learn she was born an Iowa farm girl (like my mother-in-law!) but there is never a direct declaration of her racial background and I didn't notice any details about her skin or hair or whatever that might provide a clue to her ethnicity.  Heinlein seems to be telling us that what mattered about Eunice was not her ethnic identity, but that she loved everyone (as one minor character puts it, she treated everyone "like a human being.")

(If we want to nitpick, it is true that these "diverse" characters are perhaps stereotypes: the Jewish lawyer, the religious black man, and the sexy female secretary.)

I think it may also be worth considering what relationship I Will Fear No Evil might have to the famous "New Wave" movement in SF; some of the gushing blurbs on the back of my copy seem to be raising the issue by claiming "Those who have thought of science fiction as only child's play will see how wrong they are" and that the novel is "a sign of the changing nature of science fiction."  Most important in this context is I Will Fear No Evil's subject matter, which includes a minimum of high technology and adventure and instead focuses on gender roles and sex, and to a lesser extent psychology and the aforementioned dystopic society.  Perhaps more remarkable, however, is a passage early in the book, a page-long stream-of-consciousness section full of homophonic wordplay that depicts Johann Smith's state of mind just after his operation; this struck me as "New Wavey" in its technique.  And maybe the prominent role of yoga and meditation in the novel is New Wavey? 

I am in broad sympathy with Heinlein's beliefs and admire much of his work, but I know he has many detractors, and it is easy to see how a hostile reviewer could make hay out of this novel.  Through a feminist lens, Johann is a man exploiting a woman's body, and one might see the process of a man putting one of his organs into a woman's body and thereby gaining control of her as a sort of allegory of rape or symbolic depiction of marriage as a patriarchal institution.  And of course the book suggests that the characteristic role of the woman is to comfort people, give birth to children, and look good, not run businesses or wage wars or create art, as the men in the book do.  Through a Marxist lens, Johann is a member of the upper-middle class, exploiting one of his proletarian employees.  Eunice never expresses any resentment or envy about the treatment of women or the lower classes in the society that Jacob and Johann have fought their way to the top of.  Conservatives might argue that Heinlein's advocacy of free love fails to adequately address the risks and responsibilities of sexual activity--you can perhaps dismiss pregnancy and disease by referring to high tech medicine, but what about the jealousy and possessiveness that characterize most people's sexual feelings?     

To return to the plot, after Joan has comforted all of Eunice's old friends and straightened out Johann's legal affairs, Heinlein wraps up the book with a pair of deaths.  Jacob dies (he's an elderly gent, after all) and somehow his consciousness ends up in Johann's brain along with Eunice's, so their ideal marriage is now a threesome.  This appears, to me, to be conclusive proof that Eunice's presence in Johann's brain is the product of mental illness and not some kind of biological phenomenon resulting from his brain being connected to her body.  With her elderly husband dead, Joan volunteers for the Moon colony--one of the recurring themes of Heinlein's work is that you can leave the oppression and corruption of a decadent civilization by moving to the frontier (we see this in Between Planets, The Rolling Stones, Friday, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, etc.)  Joan dies while giving birth to her child, just after arriving on Luna.

Karel Thole delivers a pleasant and
appropriate cover for this German edition
Heinlein is an important author in the field so if you are interested in the history of SF or the depiction of gender roles or sex changes or brain transplants in SF you should probably read I Will Fear No Evil.  But can I recommend it is a piece of entertainment or literature?  That is a little trickier.  The novel presents many opportunities for thought on various issues, and Heinlein's style is smooth, but these 500 pages can feel long and repetitious, even tedious, and there is almost no conflict--it really can feel like page after page of people saying they love each other and describing their clothes and make up.  As a story about love and sex instead of a story about a dangerous journey, or an episode in a war, or people trying to solve a mystery, we can't expect a bunch of action scenes, but I Will Fear No Evil has none of the tension you find in a compelling love story--there's no fear of rejection, no unrequited desire, no jealousy, no star-crossed lovers kept apart by social mores or family feuds; everybody adores each other and is attracted to each other from the word "go," and they are all libertarians or libertines living in a libidinous society so there are no inhibitions to be overcome.  (Maybe I should also point out that there are no actual sex scenes; this book is by no means titillating or pornographic in the way a Piers Anthony novel might be.)  It is easy to see why fans of Heinlein's earlier work like adventure writer E. C. Tubb, who said in his 1979 interview with Charles Platt that he used to like Heinlein but that Stranger in a Strange Land and Heinlein's later work were no good and even hinted that any positive critical attention they received was somehow dishonest, would be disappointed in this long, slow, rambling testimonial in favor of free love.  I'll say that I Will Fear No Evil is acceptable for the initiated, but it is not the kind of thrill ride or barrel of laughs I can recommend to a wide audience.

*In his introduction to his 1974 biography of the Great Cham of Literature, novelist and poet John Wain tells us that part of his project in writing the book is to make Johnson, famous as a Tory and an essentially Christian and conservative character, palatable to lefties, and Wain does throw around such verbiage as "eternal tug of war between labor and capital" and "plutocracy" that, I guess, will appeal to Marxists.  Wain, however, expends a lot more ink comparing the physically and culturally beautiful England of the 18th century with the industrial and technological England of the late 20th century, which Wain bemoans has become a cultural "ruin" in which every material thing is "hideous."  Wain is also the kind of biographer who makes wild guesses about long dead people's states of mind and reconstructs relationships and conversations based on no evidence whatsoever.  (There are no footnotes in the book, which is based entirely on published sources.)  Wain's book is entertaining, but a veteran reader of Johnsoniana and Boswelliana will probably learn more about the writer of this biography than the subject--Wain fills its 380 pages not only with his emphatic opinions about Johnson's century and his (and my) own, but with extracts from the poetry and criticism of 20th-century figures like T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Seymour Krim, extracts that have nothing to do with Johnson, and anecdotes from his own (Wain's own) life as an academic and a public intellectual.  One assumes Wain feels comfortable including all these digressions because Johnson himself used such scholarly work as the Dictionary and The Lives of the Poets as vehicles for expressing his own opinions and relating little personal anecdotes.

Popular historian Hibbert, in his 1971 biography of Johnson, which is also based on [now] published material and not original research, refrains from making himself and his opinions a central part of his book.  While Wain extols Johnson as a singular hero, denounces the 20th century, and addresses such scholarly topics as Johnson's adherence to the panEuropean culture of neoLatin scholars and resistance to Romanticism, Hibbert serves up the kind of stuff that actually arouses the interest of ordinary people in Johnson.  With a minimum of analysis or editorializing Hibbert showcases Johnson as a big-hearted guy and a pretty good comedian, the oddest and most interesting member of a large circle of odd and interesting characters.  Hibbert's book consists primarily of quoted and paraphrased anecdotes drawn from Boswell, Thrale-Piozzi and other sources, over 300 pages of amusing stories about Johnson's bon mots, idiosyncrasies and interactions with his many memorable friends and acquaintances and moving episodes in which Johnson expresses his love for others, his unhappiness, and his fear of death. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks! I'm listening to this now. I am a Heinlein admirer, particularly of his early work, and was having a hard time with this. You nailed it with, "If there is any tension in this novel it is the tension between the author's and the reader's beliefs."
    Whenever Heinlein trespasses into non-Joan/Eunice sf, I found the writing delightful!