Friday by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 14)

Friday Baldwin is genetically engineered ‘artificial person.’ Indistinguishable from a conventional human, she nonetheless is psychologically constrained by the way her society discriminates against her type.

That’s pretty much her only constraint, though. Her engineered nature also gives her enhanced strength, reflexes, sight, hearing, and smell, as well as genius-level intelligence. She starts out as a courier and soon becomes a fugitive.

This stands up pretty well, all these years since I first read it. The fragmented, Balkanised future North America is interesting. Easy travel everywhere by ‘tubes,’ which are presumably underground trains, and suborbital rockets. Corruption so pervasive that the characters don’t even notice it. You hand over your passport with ‘the appropriate squeeze’ folded inside it, and are waved through.


Assignment in Eternity vols 1 & 2 by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 12 & 13)

I should probably start a special tag for all this Heinlein rereading I’m doing (I have another one in progress). These books are so short that they hardly count as one novel between them, never mind each, but I’m counting them as two because I have two physically separate books.

Plus they’re not only not one novel, they’re not even two. They are, in fact, four stories – the longest no more than a novella – loosely connected by the idea that humans don’t use all of their brain power, and we could do incredible things if we did.

Oh, and an early analysis of what it is to be human, and whether human rights should be accorded to uplifted intelligent animals.

All in all, a good enough, if slight, set of stories.


The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 11)

A set of linked short stories, this, all part of Heinlein’s Future History. In these days of companies launching rockets to the International Space Station, the title story seems slightly relevant. In it, businessman DD Harriman attempts to launch the first mission to the moon – it was written in the 40s, long before Apollo.

They’re all decent enough stories. But we are in a very masculine world. The dodgy sexual politics of the last one are largely ignored by the almost complete absence of women. Except in ‘Let There Be Light,’ in which a women is effectively co-inventor of solar power panels.

Heinlein’s writing of women characters is generally considered to be poor, and I’m sure that’s true. But it’s interesting to think how he developed from these early stories to the later novels, where at least there are women, and they are major characters.


Beyond This Horizon by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 10)

I like these short books you can read in a day.

A reread, of course. I read most or all of Heinlein from my early days of reading SF. But I read the blurb on the back of this and didn’t recognise it at all. Started reading, and it still wasn’t familiar.

Then as I got closer to the end, it did start to seem familiar. Did I read the last quarter of it recently? Or is there a short-story version of part of it that I read not long ago? I don’t know, but it’s often strange how memory works.

Anyway, the first point about this: the sexual politics are horrific. It’s a future society where men go armed routinely – and so it is a ‘polite’ society. It may be where the phrase ‘an armed society is a polite society’ comes from. I wonder what Heinlein (assuming that to be his actual view) would think of today’s armed society in America.

Women, on the other hand, do not go armed, or do much else apart from be decorative and have babies. Mostly. One woman character wears a sidearm, but the protagonist does not exactly treat her with the respect he gives to other men.

Men can choose not to go armed, in which case they have to wear the ‘Brassard of peace,’ and are treated as second-class citizens by the armed ‘braves.’

But it’s not mainly about any of that. It’s about eugenics, and how and whether it’s possible to improve the human race ethically.

In story terms it’s OK. It’s interesting enough that you want to know what happens, but it feels like its main purpose in existing is to examine the philosophical questions around eugenics. I note that it was published in 1942, so before the Nazis' experiments were known about.


Book Notes 24: Variable Star, by Robert A Heinlein and Spider Robinson

These are still the 2006 Book Notes. I'll finish them soon, honest.

Heinlein used to be my absolute favourite author. Indeed, he is in large part responsible for me developing a lifelong love of science fiction. And I’m also very fond of Spider Robinson. So when I found out that this existed, obviously I had to buy it.

It seems that, sometime after the death of Heinlein’s widow Virginia, his literary executor discovered an outline that Heinlein wrote in 1955, but never expanded into a novel. If remarks by Heinlein, that Spider refers to in his afterword, are true, then it was John W Campbell who talked him out of doing so. Which seems strange, and rather sad. Still, if Heinlein had written that novel, it’s possible that we wouldn’t have had one of his other ones; and of course, we wouldn’t have this one.

Would that be a good or bad thing, though? That is what we are here to decide.

I became intensely irritated by the story early on. The first-person narrator is supposed to be eighteen years old at the start, and he just doesn’t sound like an eighteen-year old. I don’t mean the narrative voice: that would not be a problem, as we can assume that the narrator is supposed to be telling his story in later years. I’m talking about his dialogue, and particularly his thought processes.

Tied to this is the fact that we are left largely in the dark about the society on Earth where the novel starts. The only thing we learn is that sexual mores have gone backwards by several hundred years, in North America, at least. Our narrator and his beloved can’t move in together, or even just spend the night together (despite living independently from any parents or guardians): they have to get married if they want to have sex. That his how Spider gets round the fifties expectations of Heinlein’s outline, of course, but it doesn’t sound like any eighteen-year olds I’ve ever heard of.

Except, perhaps, those who subscribe to one of the world’s many anti-sex religions, which these two don’t. In fact, the handling of religion in this work is quite interesting.

It is slotted into the timeline of Heinlein’s ‘Future History’ stories. In that timeline, the name of Nehemia Scudder appears, but I don’t think there is a story in which he ever appears directly as a character. Scudder is some kind of Christian fundamentalist leader, who becomes, I think, the World President. In this novel we are after the time of the Prophets – Scudder and his successors – and the world is still recovering from the restrictions that were placed on life, on scientific research, by them: “We could have had immortality by now,” one character complains.

It’s a good story, but not as good as it could be. Robinson has obviously worked hard at “channelling” RAH, but it seems to me that there are parts of the story where things just don’t quite fit together, or totally make sense. Though this may in part due to the speed with which I read it.

It is, of course, a good thing when a book makes you read it quickly: it usually means that the plot is compelling and you are keen to find out how it will play out. But if it causes you to skim, and miss – or at least, imperfectly absorb – important information, then that’s not so good. Though I don’t think that can really be considered a criticism of a book.

It’s worth a read, and I suppose I might read it again at some point, to see whether I did just miss some bits; but I’d probably prefer to re-read, say Have Space Suit, Will Travel.