Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Problem of Belonging in Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday

By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in FOUNDATION: THE INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION, Summer 2006, pp. 34-46.

While Robert Heinlein's work has received a great deal of critical attention over the years, Friday, one of his last works, has been little commented upon, least of all as a work of cultural criticism.1 A number of reasons for this exist, the most important of which may be the widespread view that Heinlein's later works merely repeated earlier ideas, preoccupations and themes that he had better explored on previous occasions. Another is that the novel is frequently attacked as sexist. While that charge is leveled against Heinlein's work time and again, the outcry is never so loud as when Heinlein tells the story from the standpoint of a female character, as in the oft-maligned I Will Fear No Evil, and the book presently at hand.2 However, while Friday echoes earlier works in its approach to questions of cultural and societal decay, freedom, community and the frontier, Heinlein's title character grapples with them in the fundamentally different context created by post-industrial society-placing a Heinlein heroine in (and confronting the Heinlein ethos with) a quasi-cyberpunk milieu.3 Belonging, explicitly and repeatedly declared by Friday to be her greatest desire and the quest unifying her various misadventures is problematic not because of anything so coherent or discrete as a repressive world government, but the diffuseness of contemporary life, and its recklessly accelerating pace. In Friday's America, the pressures of the present erode a sense of the future-and therefore the common future implicit in the notion of belonging-while driving unanswerable questions of identity-which concern who one was in the past-to the center of experience.4

Since it is a result of a different problem, the inability to fit in and the escape to the frontier take on new shades of meaning, while remaining consistent with ideas Heinlein had developed earlier. Consequently, while the novel covers new ground it is well worth touching on these ideas before continuing.5 Like so many of Heinlein's earlier works, Friday is partly an exploration of two contradictory ideas that H. Bruce Franklin has observed "branching" throughout his work.6 The first is a monadic individualism which critics like George E. Slusser see as rooted in Calvinistic-Emersonian ideas of "self-reliance" and individual salvation, which has frequently been termed "libertarian."7 The other, less commonly discussed, is Heinlein's understanding of morality as founded on the principle of group survival, a "sense of the individual as part of a human collective, organically joined to a death-defying timeless racial identity"8, a sensibility that other readers have sometimes termed "fascistic"9. Franklin observes quite correctly that this contradiction is never resolved, but the conradiction is dynamic nonetheless, the two ideas intertwined in a dialectical interplay branching throughout the author's career. That process drives Heinlein's characters to the outer limits of human possibility, from the communalism of Smith's water brothers to the solipsism of Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love, impregnating female clones of himself, making love to a mother who is a mirror image of himself and at the end of it all learning that there was never anyone or anything in his universe but himself.10

For the most part the extremes do not work well in his fiction. Heinlein is ever alert to the danger of the community trampling on the rights of the individual, an idea reflected in his succession of works from the 1940s on depicting heroic rebels against repressive governments. He is equally alert to the sterility as well as the temptations of solipsism. Bob Wilson in "By His Bootstraps" believes at the end that his had been a "good life, a grand life . . . [which] beat anything the ancient past had to offer," but is nonetheless cosmically lonely.11 While the lone, self-created "Heinlein Individual" is one who can pull themselves up "by their bootstraps," so to speak, alternatives to participation in society, like withdrawing from it or taking it over and bending it to one's own will, are usually characterised in Heinlein's work as unethical, unrealistic or untenable.12

Solipsism thus has the quality of a cosmic joke, as with Wilson's time loop, or the "Solipsistic Tournaments" that are a favorite pastime in heaven as described in Stranger, an approach to life possible for angels but not human beings. The same goes for communalism, attainable for Michael Valentine Smith's water brothers, but equally impractical as a societal-level solution. In what Slusser has characterised as this "fallen" world, ethical engagement with other human beings is necessary for fulfillment, but humans within it must be free to realise themselves in order for that community to have meaning.13

A synthesis of these antitheses is consequently a necessity, and Heinlein typically finds this in a community comprised of free individuals coming together to create a society where authentic human development is possible.14 Starship Troopers, in which the people of an "Earth that works" embrace collective survival as the foundation of their morality, yet provide for their defense through a radically volitional military force in the Terran Mobile Infantry, is one attempt by Heinlein to imagine such a community. Friday likewise concerns the quest for such a synthesis, one which is unattainable on Earth.

The state of Western civilization in Friday is characterised by Heinlein as fundamentally unhealthy and less a new phase or type of civilization than civilization's collapse. Moreover the novel's response is not acceptance but resistance, the question how to "restore health to the sickness devitalising this sweet land of liberty."15 In Starship Troopers, the establishment of a quasi-military government was adequate to arrest this process, but he appeared to conclude by the late 1960s that America's "moral, political, environmental, social, and economic" sickness was a "terminal" case16, which "not even special organizations"-or the heroine's actions-"can reverse."17 Nevertheless, the spirit of resistance to civilization's decline is never broken, and when collapse is recognised as inevitable there is a looking-ahead to a future rebirth. Recognising that Western civilization is beyond salvage, Boss in Friday decides that "we must now prepare the monasteries for the coming Dark Age. Electronic records are too fragile; we must again have books, of stable inks and resistant paper" (235). Equally important, Friday is not reconciled to her lot until she finds a lot with which she can genuinely be content-and this is found only on the frontier planet of Botany Bay, where she is at last able to build a life for herself with other people, in her own word, "belonging."

As is commonly the case with works of cultural criticism, the title character and narrator claims the advantage of an outsider's viewpoint. Nonetheless, this claim has to be taken with a grain of salt. Her claim to being an outsider lies specifically in her lacking "the human viewpoint" (203) on the grounds that she is an Artificial Person. However, this begs questions about what exactly constitutes a human, and why such a definition should exclude Artificial Persons.

Heinlein has dealt with the issue of Artificial Persons before, as with the twinned female clones of Lazarus Long and the flesh and blood avatar of the computer Minerva in Time Enough for Love, all of whom represent even more exotic creations than Friday. The humanity of all of these was never in question, and the same goes for Friday no such definition of humanity forthcoming, though it is clear that some "posthuman" entities are not human, like self-aware computers and the humanoid robots that these computers make possible (96). These being baldly non-human are wracked by a "psychological crisis" which cripples and destroys them. While Friday's agonising over the question of her humanity might be said to be similar, it does not affect her in the same way as a crashed supercomputer. Indeed, Boss regards her preoccupation as being more along the lines of "neurotic weakness" than anything comparable to a computer's psychological crisis. In the eyes of George's Perreault, a designer of living artifacts, Friday's "human essence" is undiluted by the manner in which her human genetic material was assembled (129), and the same goes for Boss, who declares her to be "as human as mother Eve."

Those who would disagree can scarcely articulate a position, the line typically drawn by "ignorant laymen" rather than on the basis of a provable fact. The mere identification of artificial persons is close to impossible, not only for the average person, but for those who would presumably know better. This includes not only the geneticist Georges, but Friday herself, who has a difficult time making those she wishes to know believe her when she chooses to reveal the fact (69), and fails to recognise Trevor as another AP (201-202). Even if Friday's DNA features an array of modifications ranging from an immunity to cancer to the manual dexterity necessary to pick a fly out of the air with thumb and forefinger, these are not characteristics that are immediately obvious (44).

Biology aside, no mental or psychological difference between Artificial People and "woman-born" humans is suggested, either; no basis is ever even suggested for an equivalent of the Voight-Kampf empathy test from Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The lack of a soul alleged by the churches is an unprovable theological point rather than a scientific one. The commodification of Artificial Persons and their corresponding lack of citizenship (which results in Friday's marriage contract being declared null and void in New Zealand) is not a demonstration of their lack of humanity, but rather a refusal to recognise their humanity.

Indeed, for all of her anxiety over whether or not she actually is human Friday's own words give away the reality of the situation, that the distinction between human and non-human in the case of Artificial Persons is arbitrary: humans just "decided" that her "sort are not human and therefore not entitled to equal treatment and equal justice" (70). Friday's position in this regard is compared to that of a member of a human ethnic group being prejudiced against, a point emphasised when she blows her cover, so to speak, in an argument over a family member's marriage to a Tongan.

While that may suggest an alternative source of belonging for her there are difficulties. Artificial people are custom-tailored for their functions, so that they do not necessarily share much in the way of common genetics or common experiences. While many artificial people are indistinguishable from human beings, others are plainly visible as artificial creations, as with a "man creature with four arms or a kobold dwarf" (44). Friday is able to choose to "pass." The lack of group loyalty makes that choice more probable, and that lack has been constructed. Friday explains, that while she's "heard that Frenchmen will die for La Belle France . . . can you imagine anyone fighting and dying for Homunculi Unlimited, Pty., South Jersey Section?" (58).

Nevertheless, despite the practical impossibility of providing a rigorous definition of humanity that excludes Friday, making her claim to outsider status ambiguous, real anxieties over belonging do exist for her that may appear to be less an issue for ordinary human beings. The fact that she is a biological artifact deprives her of many of the ways in which human beings not necessarily know themselves to be human, but by which they identify themselves within the human community. While others may come from families that are non-traditional to say the least, she can only say that "'My mother was a test tube, my father a knife'" (34). She was not conceived and born but was rather "designed in Tri-University Life Engineering Laboratory, Detroit" and her "inception formulated" by Mendelian Associates, Zurich (32). Friday, moreover, is quite conscious of the fact: "Wonderful small talk, that!" she quips. "You'll never hear it; it doesn't stand up well against ancestors on the Mayflower or in the Domesday Book" (32).

Even where the contributor of the genes used to manufacture her are concerned, her strongest link is to a deceased "Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Green" to whom she is "something between a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter." She cannot claim to be a member of a racial or ethnic group on the basis of her genes any more than she can claim a national or religious one since these were derived from persons of virtually every conceivable background, from Finnish to Korean to Hindu to Swazi (243). Boss may have been her adoptive father, but because of his secretiveness about his own background he can scarcely give her one, and she is apprised of these facts only after his death. Friday's occupation, that of an intelligence operative whose commander is also her father, invites a parallel between Friday and The Puppet Masters, though the comparison only reflects the fundamental differences between the two works. Boss's paternity is a highly qualified one, the validity of which in the story only demonstrates just how much more complex human relationships had become in Friday's world than in Sam/Elihu Niven's, where fatherhood can more or less be taken for granted. That the Old Man is Sam's father comes only as a surprise to the reader, not to Sam, who had apparently always taken this fact for granted.18 Certainly calling the Old Man "dad" twice in one month is a bit much for him, but even the fact of estrangement is a reminder that the character of their relationship was never in doubt.19

The choice of nickname is no less telling. Old Man can be a term of affection, one commonly synonymous with paternity, unlike "Boss", which has a more functional, work-related connotation; as the Old Man observes in The Puppet Masters, "a boss is the man who does the bossing."20 Anybody can be the "Boss," but not anybody can be the "Old Man." Perhaps more important is the meaning of this relationship for the protagonist. Sam never finds his sense of who he is questioned; the danger to him is that he will lose his well-established sense of self to a puppet master. Friday, on the other hand, has yet to find herself, to have something that she can lose in a sense.

There are striking parallels between the two characters in that neither of them ever knew their mother, though Sam (whose given name "Elihu" was his maternal grandfather's, giving him at least that connection) seems to have had an otherwise normal upbringing. However, Friday was raised "in a creche," so that aside from not knowing her parents, everyday matters of human experience, "a million little things that are the difference between being reared as a human child and being raised as an animal" (36) are alien to her. As Friday reports, she was an adult before she ever saw a pregnant woman (45) or used a fork (64), finds herself at sea when she lands in situations where there are "no established protocols" (31) and claims to be befuddled by human sexual taboos. Rather than having acquired such cultural idiosyncracies organically-which she sometimes confuses with being human rather than a member of a specific human culture (206)-she finds that she must take pains to memorise them (205).21 Because she lacks the connections with blood or soil implied in nativity, she can not consider herself a "native" of any place. Consequently, she can not claim an affiliation with any group on the basis of culture.

Even so, what is for Friday a personal crisis is a universal problem in her milieu. Were she a traditional womb-born human she would still lack the sense of belonging she desires so strongly, this being imperiled in general in a world where human relationships are so short-lived.22 Urbanization had already changed the experience of intimate contact with a small number of persons to one of contacts with a far larger number of individuals, contacts which are necessarily briefer and more superficial because of their greater number.23 The number and superficiality of such contacts is accelerated still further by the compression of time and space.24 Can anyone be truly said to belong to a group when they are continually shifting from one group to another? In a world where the rate of change is overwhelming, belonging may be the last thing that a human being can do, since nothing lasts long enough for anyone to belong to it properly speaking.

While Artificial Persons like Friday may be unique in having no mother or father to speak of, traditional notions about sex, heredity and family had fundamentally changed so that Friday's ignorance of or disconnection from them would appear to matter much less. The earlier medical advances that delinked sex and reproduction, like contraceptives, have been surpassed by developments like in vitro fertilization, allowing a woman to carry a fetus to which she has not contributed anything genetically to term (which became a reality shortly after the book's publication). To Friday, natural birth means having babies "like a cat", rather than going through an essentially human experience. It is also inconceivable to her that sex could be a motivation for marriage, since, for all the troublesome taboos, "sex is readily available everywhere" (40), and the implicit divorce between sex and reproduction, genetics and parentage has acquired explicit legal and social recognition. The nuclear and extended families have been replaced by the "S-family" and the "group marriage" underpinning it, children in such arrangements typically having some parents with whom they have no biological connection.

At first glance, something like the S-family may appear to be a common enough feature of Heinlein's writing. However, the context of the novel makes them something more. In The Puppet Masters for instance, Sam and Mary have their choice of marital arrangements: "Term, renewable, or lifetime . . . either party, mutual consent, or binding."25 In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, group marriages represent an adaptation to demographic realities, men outnumbering women two-to-one in Luna City.26 To the extent that the relations of Valentine Michael Smith with his "water brothers" can be considered a group marriage, the sexual relations in Stranger in a Strange Land are simply an extension of communalism to that sphere.

In any of these cases, the sense is not that the function of marriage has changed, only that it has been somewhat modified for the convenience or desires of those who choose to wed, or adapted to the circumstances posited in his stories. Such a position is made explicit by Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love, in which he openly and forcefully espouses the position that the specific marital arrangement is far less important than the institution of marriage itself. Regardless of whether it is "monogamy, polyandry, polygyny, plural and extended marriages with various frills," what makes it marriage is that "the arrangement both provides for children and compensates the adults [with] companionship, partnership, mutual reassurance, someone to laugh with and grieve with, loyalty that accepts foibles, someone to touch, someone to hold your hand."27

In Friday, group marriages have a fundamentally different character. The artificial quality is emphasised: "S" actually stands not for security, siblings, sociability, sanctuary, succor, safety or sex as is widely supposed to be the case, but "synthetic" (40), a term which would not seem applicable to an institution which, driven by "the blind forces of evolution", came to exist "among human beings everywhere . . . long before it was codified by church or state."28 Indeed, marriages have taken on a nakedly contractual character, with S-families acquiring and spinning off members the way conglomerates do subsidiaries, consistent with a world where the "irresponsible, antisocial brand of self-interest" Heinlein condemned seems to prevail above all other values.29 While it can be argued that marriage has always had a financial or economic aspect, an S-family is explicitly defined as as something that one "buys into" (39). Purchasing a share in a family as a stockholder purchases a share in a public corporation, and the contract is negotiated much like any other business deal (46-48).30

In the case of Friday's first marriage, she had made her rather disproportionate financial contribution in order to experience belonging, an experience which is shattered when she is let go upon being found out as an Artificial Person (73). Anita, the S-family's matriarch and herself a prime example of antisocial self-interest, used the breach of contract represented by the truth of Friday's origins as an excuse to strip her of her share, and that is the last she ever sees of her former "family," the children she had helped to raise no longer hers; legal loopholes trumped emotional connections. Some families appear more hospitable and caring than others, but the fundamentals of the S-family arrangement are the same. By contrast, money was never even mentioned when the O'Kellys of Luna City voted new members into their family, and familial bonds were almost unbreakable, virtually every spouse having to vote in favor of a divorce.31

Occupational groups are similarly problematic as a basis for belonging. Friday is, again, a special case. Her profession was that of undercover courier, one which by definition requires her to keep her work a secret (in short, to conceal her true affiliations, whatever they may be). Moreover, because of the arcane character of her skills, she does not have marketable skills that will allow her to earn a living in civil society; there is, as she observes, little demand for supermen. Nevertheless, her problem reflects a larger problem in the information age: work had become so abstract and specialised that people had jobs instead of trades, so that they were identified with their position rather than by their activity.32

The same economic dynamics mean that jobs will be changed frequently enough, with still more corrosive effects on belonging. Occupations arise and pass quickly out of existence, sometimes before they can be properly named, and Friday has this problem at one point when she becomes what is later termed a "staff intuitive analyst." It is Friday, incidentally, who asks that her occupation be named, rather than receiving the label with the job, which causes Boss to quip that she is developing a bureaucratic mind (223). The explosion of temporary employment, the higher rate of job change and consequent relocation, increase the difficulty of maintaining human contacts, and for all practical purposes, render it impossible in a great many cases.

Insofar as citizenship is concerned, one school of thought in political science holds that states per se are in decline. Present-day nation-states, proponents of this idea believe, are divesting themselves of responsibilities, fragmenting and combining to create new political arrangements, perhaps akin to the Christendom of the Middle Ages. Such predictions appear to have materialised in Friday. At least three-quarters of the four hundred nation-states represented in the United Nations are "ciphers, aboard only for quarters and rations" (160), entities with more past than future, Germany and the Soviet Union long since reverted to being a mutually hostile Prussia and Russia (37).

As such developments suggest both nation-states and the national cultures that they were supposed to shelter and develop were both in decline. States had lost both their capacity to manage their own affairs, and the loyalty of their citizens. The "income and outgo [of national governments] get out of balance and stay that way" (249) in far too much of the world, and legislation has long passed a point of diminishing returns, weighting down the law books while only creating unenforceable, counterproductive regulations.” (249-250)

Even as states grow more oppressive, turning to "conscription and slavery and arbitrary compulsion of all sorts" (250), they lose the capacity even to maintain simple law and order, "little incidents of violence" like mugging, sniping, arson, riots, bombing and other sorts of terrorism "pecking away at people day after day" (250). Moreover, "particularism", which is defined by Friday as the cessation of identification with the country and instead with "A racial group . . . a religion . . . a language. Anything, so long as it isn't the whole population" (249) is rampant. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that these groups acquiring their own states will produce political entities more viable than those they left behind, that it is a relatively simple matter of redrawing borders. State failure aside the hold of local or "particularist" cultures-implicitly a negative phenomenon – was itself weakening in the face of a "worldwide culture" (251) that transcends such lines, and the broader decline of "gentle manners" (251).

Consequently, the diversity of the world's cultures may make Friday's sex life more complicated, but they scarcely seem sufficient to confer a sense of belonging and the nation-state, as a place where people can strive to belong allows nothing of the kind. Not surprisingly in such an environment, multinational corporations like "Interworld" having equal weight with nations, fighting wars and nuking cities. If anything, they may be even more powerful, given that the dispersion of their assets through the territory of hundreds of states makes them virtually invulnerable to counter-attack (40-1). Friday herself is employed by a private intelligence outfit, rather than a country's secret service, and when Boss, a professional above all else who had recently become dedicated to the salvation of civilization seeks a new basis for world order, he looks not to any Great Power, or any other sort of human community, but to the Shipstone corporate empire. The Old Man in The Puppet Masters, by comparison, is a government official who wears his patriotism on his sleeve.

This may suggest that "corporate loyalty" is newly endowed with meaning, but short of the Shipstone corporation bringing the world together, something which never does happen, this would appear to be merely another unstable particularism, especially given the transience of employment in general. Moreover, the structure of a corporation like the Shipstone company is by no means transparent, making it difficult to tell exactly who owns what or works for whom and thus to know where the loyalties lie. Shipstone may be a single company, but it looks on paper like twenty-eight separate companies (230).

Implicit in the decline of citizenship and states more generally is the death of politics. The Balkanised America through which Friday must make her way includes a myriad of political forms democratic and undemocratic, with many places reverting to monarchy even when they had never had it before, such as the Chicago Imperium. Political ideology, which assumes a coherent vision of the world and a basis for acting correctly in it (something necessarily contrary to the fragmentation of time into blips), has become the purview of cranks and fanatics like those who claim responsibility for the terrorism of Red Thursday: theocratic "witchburners,"
"retarded schoolboys" pushing "fascist socialism," "hard-boiled pragmatists who favor shooting the horse that misses the hurdle" (102). Ultra-democratic California, where politics is the "favorite sport" of the citizenry (136), is a "freak show" where the disease is, if anything, most advanced (235).
For the rest survivalism, its sanctification of emergency and implicit withdrawal from political life is the order of the day, with homes fortified (77) and bunkers proliferating underneath houses in wait for falling H-bombs (101-107), as they had been in Farnham's Freehold. Old-fashioned Plague is again a world-threatening problem (218-221), the spread of which had required outright alien invasion in The Puppet Masters. In the end, Friday too must look to her own survival, and Boss counsels her to do so by literally leaving the world behind, advice which she takes. Ironically, Friday only manages to do so through a process that itself involved no small amount of emergency and accident, an escape from still more assassins out to keep her from finishing her last mission-for-hire. While the coincidence that led to her arrival on Botany Bay into the arms of a loving family she had encountered back on Earth is implausible, the details are consistent with the pattern of events in the novel thus far, the sense of racing from one crisis to another, until, fortuitously, she arrives in a place beyond crisis.

Certainly, many of Friday's personal obstacles to the attainment of an identity do not disappear. She remains, as ever, an artificial person without a lineage, a past to speak of. Nor does she find a new occupational niche: she is a housewife, something that she had tried before. Nevertheless, the principal problem, the transience which has had such a savaging effect on belonging, disappears. Botany Bay is about as far from Earth as a human being can get in Friday's future, a staggering one hundred and forty light years, and just as disconnected from Earth's relentless pace of change (343-344). Where communication between any two points on Earth was virtually instant, it takes four to eight months for mail to make the round trip between Botany Bay and Earth. Additionally, Botany Bay is very much a frontier planet, thinly populated and lawless, and Earth's decrepit institutions conspicuously absent so that much of what had earlier distressed her has ceased to matter.

Out on this frontier, Friday begins to build a life for herself. The distance from Earth and its problems aside, no reference is made to the flight to the frontier as a culling process which weeds out the baser human stock and leaves an improved product behind, a major point in many of his works, like Time Enough for Love. In keeping with the role played by corporations in this novel, for instance, the pioneers do little more on a planet like Eden than prepare it for old, wealthy retirees from Earth (293). What gives the experience value is something different, if not entirely separable. Where one came from does not matter out on the frontier, and Friday no longer thinks about her "odd and sometime shameful origin", the past no longer privileged at the expense of the present and future.

As it was for Lazarus Long when he was trying to make his longevity a non-issue, the frontier is a place where Friday and her companions "could quit pretending . . . ignore the difference, forget it and be happy."33 "Neighbors have never asked snoopy questions about parentage" (341), the frontier is a place as free from sexual taboos as governmental restrictions.34 "Nobody cares here, babies are welcome on Botany Bay; it will be many centuries before anyone speaks of 'population pressure' or 'ZeePeeGee'" (341). She lives in an 8-group family, but informally; there are few laws regarding marriage on Botany Bay, and unlike with her family back on Christchurch, she never signs a contract or sees family members acquired and spun off like subsidiaries. Where Friday's continuous movement and suspect origins had barred her from participating in so many different types of community, political, familial and religious, Friday finds herself at the center of numerous associations:
Last week I was trying to figure out why I was so short on time. I'm secretary of the Town Council. I'm program chairman of the Parents-Teachers Association. I'm troop mistress of the New Toowoomba Girl Scouts. I'm a past president of the Garden Club, and I'm on the planning committee of the community college we're starting (344).
Removed from the pressures of transience, with space and time "decompressed", human relationships, while more limited in variety on Friday's frontier planet, are not only more durable, but reacquire meaning because people are together in one place long enough to be connected. It is notable, moreover, that membership in voluntary associations appears so prominently in her claim to have found a place where she can belong. Civil society, associated with the frontier since Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America, was conspicuously lacking back on Earth, where it would appear, as Benjamin Barber has suggested of present-day civil society, to have been squeezed out of existence by a decrepit, oppressive public sector and the "rude, wolfish pursuit of self-interest" that was a "mark of a sick and dying culture."35

Invested in a "healthier" society providing actual opportunities for community, Friday's problems with her own identity vanish not only because it has ceased to be a practical liability, but because she can look ahead rather than back. Where Friday's concerns had previously centered on the past, or on the emergency right in front of her, whether an assassination attempt or a recurrence of Black Death, she now looks to the expansion and improvement of her community, as her participation in the planning committee of Botany Bay's community college demonstrates. This restoration of scope for a healthy, "ethical" individualism, and for durable human relationships and associations, makes possible the eventual rebuilding of the civility and civilization lost back on Earth. At last, Friday can know the "warm and happy feeling" (344) of belonging because not only is she in a place where she is allowed to belong, but because that scope for activity allows human beings to build something that is actually worth belonging to.

1. Leon Stover, Robert A. Heinlein (Boston: Twayne, 1987), p. 67.
2. Diane Parker-Speer "Almost a Feminist," Extrapolations (Summer 1995), pp. 113-125.
3 The characterization of this novel as quasi-cyberpunk or "proto-cyberpunk" may seem problematic, given that while the depiction of corporations and the exploration of biotechnology are there, information technology has a relatively low profile. Nevertheless, in contrast with earlier Heinlein novels, such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (in which computers perform select functions for large organizations while Chinese shopkeepers still use an abacus to keep the books), computers are absolutely ubiquitous in Friday. Moreover, while they do not come together to create the "consensual hallucination of cyberspace" (51) epitomised by the Matrix in William Gibson's Neuromancer (New York: Ace, 1984), they nonetheless form a global network that effectively keeps the world's population under constant surveillance. A computer net indistinguishable from today's Internet is a part of daily life in Friday (227-28) and as the title character observes, "a credit card is a leash around your beck. In the world of credit cards a person has no privacy" (203). Indeed, the situation is such that "there is a moral obligation on each free person to fight back wherever possible-keep underground railways open, keep shades drawn, give misinformation to computers" (5).
4 See Zaki Laidi, A World Without Meaning, trans. June Burnham and Jenny Coulon (London: Routledge, 1998).
5 David Samuelson, "The Frontier Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein," in Joseph D. Olander and Martin H. Greenberg eds., Robert A. Heinlein (New York: Taplinger, 1978) p. 23.
6 H. Bruce Franklin, Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction (New York: Oxford UP, 1980), p. 19.
7 Slusser, of course, does not call Heinlein a Calvinist, but rather suggests that his works manifest its broad cultural influence in a secular parallel to Calvinist theology. George Edgar Slusser, "Heinlein's Fallen Futures," Extrapolations (Summer 1995), pp. 96-112.
8 Franklin, p. 19.
9 Barton Paul Levinson, "The Ideology of Robert A. Heinlein," New York Review of Science Fiction April (1998), pp. 1, 8-10.
10 As he lays dying what the Gray Voice says to him is that "You are you, playing chess with yourself. You are the referee. Morals are your own agreement with yourself to abide by your own rules", and the face of the Gray Voice, of course, can be glimpsed in "a mirror." Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1973), pp. 602.
11 Robert Heinlein, "By His Bootstraps," in The Menace From Earth (London: Dobson, 1966), p. 110.
12 Alexei Panshin, Heinlein in Dimension (Chicago: Advent Publishers, Inc., 1968), pp. 164-169.
13 Franklin, p. 189.
14 Franklin, p. 87.
15 Stover, p. 71.
16 Franklin, pp. 172-173.
17 Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree (New York: Atheneum, 1986), p. 387.
18 Robert Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, p. 67.
19 Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, p. 132.
20 Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, p. 158.
21 Of course, it should be noted that the codes seem less controlling than such statements suggest. Friday says that an AP can not look at sex the way a human does (205), which is supposed to be an explanation of her polymorphous sexuality, but humans commonly look it just as she does, being freely available "everywhere" (51), with few objecting save for groups like the Angels of the Lord. As Boss tells Friday, geniuses "always make their own rules on sex as on everything else" (223). For more on this theme, see Warren G. Rochelle, "Dual Attractions: The Rhetoric of Bisexuality in Robert A. Heinlein's Fiction," Foundation (Summer 1999).
22 Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 89.
23 Toffler, p. 84.
24 Again unlike The Puppet Masters, or for that matter Stranger in a Strange Land, there are no "tempus" pills or time sense-stretching techniques to give human beings some respite from such pressures by allowing them to speed up their time perception and effectively squeeze more than twenty-four hours into a day. The only way to beat the strictures of time and space in Friday's world, in fact, is to journey through hyperspace, in a word, through the space travel that offers the sole escape from her crumbling civilization.
25 Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, p. 111.
26 Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1966), p. 166-167.
27 Heinlein, Time Enough, p. 211.
28 Heinlein, Time Enough, p. 210.
29 "The Heinlein individualist always acts the gentleman" rather than embodying "'rugged individualism' as the critics habitually see it." Stover, pp. 28-29.
30 Elsewhere, Lazarus Long observes that there is "'no use in written marriage contracts; they can't be enforced . . whereas if the partners want to make it work, no written instrument is necessary . . . a nod of your head is enough." Heinlein, Time Enough, p. 435.
31 Heinlein, Moon, pp. 216-219.
32 Laidi, p. 100.
33 Heinlein, Time Enough, p. 315.
34 Heinlein, Time Enough, pp. 355-57.
35 Stover, p. 75.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Metatemporal Detective, by Michael Moorcock

New York: Prometheus Books, 2007, pp. 370.

Michael Moorcock’s recent collection, The Metatemporal Detective, contains eleven stories centering on the adventures of Sir Seaton Begg, a crisp, clever, Sherlock Holmes-like English detective with a classic stiff upper lip who travels the moonbeam roads of the multiverse solving crimes, carrying on a long-running duel with his nemesis, the enigmatic Monsieur Zenith.

As readers familiar with Moorcock might guess, there is a lot more to these stories than this simple premise suggests. Once again Moorcock is writing in his Edwardian adventure story mode, with both Begg and his antagonist homages not to Holmes, but the stories of Sexton Blake, and his sometime opponent, the original Monsieur Zenith. (The Sexton Blake tales are relatively obscure today, the books no longer even in print, but those interested can learn more about them at "Blakiana," a web site devoted to the phenomenon which Moorcock himself recommends on his acknowledgements page and which includes, among other things, Moorcock's own thoughts on the character in his article "The Odyssey of Sexton Blake.")

Moreover, this is a story deeply rooted in Moorcock's multiverse, where the primal forces of Law and Chaos struggle against one another, and the precarious balance between the two is maintained only by the Knights of the Balance, like the various incarnations of the "Eternal Champion," the most famous of whom is very much present. The black sword-wielding Zenith, as the image of the pale, crimson-eyed gentleman on the book's cover hints, is none other than Elric of Melnibone.

As one might expect given Moorcock's rejection of simplistic notions of good and evil, and his insistence that Elric is not an anti-hero, but a hero, period, Elric does not precisely take a villainous turn here. While often on the wrong side of the Law that Begg is sworn to uphold--and certainly as capable of cold-blooded acts as ever--his adventures nonetheless have him acting not out of selfish personal gain, but his familiar role as rescuer, righteous avenger and servant of the balance. Additionally, his contest with Begg is an honorable one, played by rules they both recognize.

As a consequence, the tone in these pieces is rather lighter than in most of Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories, which so often tended toward the brooding and the tragic, and they are quite effective in this mode. The individual stories in the collection are witty, intricately plotted without being confusing, and at the same time Moorcock never shies away from going over the top, the outstanding example of which is the "The Mystery of the Texas Twister," with its caricatures of well-known figures and wild climax. Additionally, even working within the Edwardian adventure mode they also manage to reflect Moorcock's trademark versatility, from the hard-boiled crime story "The Girl Who Killed Sylvia Blade" to the Western "The Ghost Warriors," the satirical spy caper in "Twister" to the Parisian-set police procedural of "The Affair of the Bassin Les Hivers," which helps to keep them from being repetitive, and the worlds across which Begg pursues Zenith have an interest of their own.

As is commonly the case, particularly in the Pyat Quartet, Moorcock's settings come alive, urban ones especially, and the element of alternate history, which Moorcock earlier used to good effect in the Oswald Bastable tales, is compelling because of the uniqueness of his approach. Instead of fictionalizing plausible counterfactuals, or nightmares which make history as it turned out seem like a relief for all of its horrors, his main use of it is the visualization of alternative paths that may have had more rather than less attractive outcomes--which as he demonstrates is not a barrier to interesting and at times extravagant world-building. In most of the worlds Begg visits it is not a dwindling supply of oil but electricity which powers cars, as we can only wish was the case today; and instead of squeezing aboard crowded, paranoid passenger planes, long-distance travelers enjoy the amenities of a more gracious age on airships. The neoconservatives are not only confined to the rogue state of Texas, but find their war-making schemes thwarted and their reign cut short. (Moorcock's political sympathies are not one of the book's mysteries.) Adolf Hitler, who so often triumphs in genre stories that Gavriel D. Rosenfeld recently devoted a book-length study to them, 2005's The World Hitler Never Made, is here checked long before his regime wreaks anything like the damage it did in our world. While this sometimes has Moorcock going over ground familiar from his other works, sometimes later ones which treated the subject in greater depth (as in "The Case of the Nazi Canary," which deals with some of the same history as the Pyat novel The Vengeance of Rome), the distinctiveness of this series keeps his handling of them fresh.

The collection was also put together with an eye to making it more than the sum of its parts. As with the fifteen-volume reissue of much of Moorcock's earlier writing under the Eternal Champion heading in the 1990s, Detective retroactively puts these disparate series into a more or less linear sequence, and there is some unevenness. A few are only tenuously connected to the Begg-Zenith duel, particularly the oldest pieces, 1966’s "Sylvia Blade" and "The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius" (one reason why in some editions the stories have been revised retroactively to make them a closer fit). The same goes for "Sir Milk-and-Blood," which is basically a piece of supernatural horror in which Bad People get their comeuppance from something far scarier than themselves. Nonetheless the first story in the set, "The Affair of the Seven Virgins," is a fitting start to the saga, which develops through most of the stories that follow, particularly the last two pieces, "Les Hivers" and "The Flaneur des Arcades de l'Opera." While "Les Hivers" vaults over quite a bit of narrative territory I would have preferred to see more thoroughly fleshed out here, it succeeds in advancing the relationship between Begg and Zenith, and in deepening the world they both inhabit. "Flaneur," which here appears for the very first time, is ambitious and grandly imagined, bringing together other threads from the Elric and Von Bek sequences, and makes for a very satisfying close to the volume.

Moorcock's polished, lucid storytelling makes these pieces accessible and enjoyable for newcomers, but as the elaborate background to them suggests, they will not get quite all of the layers and nuances to them. It is mainly longtime readers of the author's works who will appreciate the dizzying interconnections, the crossovers and the in-jokes that form a significant part of this series' full entertainment value, here even more so than in most of Moorcock's fiction. (The Von Bek family mythos Moorcock established in The War Hound and the World's Pain is not much less important than Elric's own sprawling saga to the stories in Detective, which is as good an argument as any for a comprehensive, thorough and up-to-date encyclopedia of Michael Moorcock's writing.) Old fans will likely find themselves going back to earlier works, while new readers may find their curiosity sufficiently piqued to look up his earlier books-and lose themselves on the moonbeam roads of the multiverse.

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