Amongst the still free parts of the NY Times, rather than behind the TimesDelete wall, are the book reviews; a section which I peruse from time to time because, while I rarely agree with their reviews I do find them thought-provoking and a good way to weed out the utter dross. Anyway over at Baen's Bar someone posted a link to a review last weekend of the immortal RAH by one MG Lord and it is a classic of NY Times reviews in that I agree with much of it but then get annoyed by the rest.
Let me start with the agreement first of all. I think it fair to say that all connaisseurs of Heinlein agree that he suffered a rather serious decline of form in last years, but that at his best he wrote stories which gripped on multiple levels. He certainly inspired space research and predicted a whole host of ideas that make him, in my opinion, about as important as Arthur C Clark in terms of getting use out of space. Moreover, although as a male who has grown up in a world where the core tenets of feminism are basically taken for granted, I think it is fair to say that I haven't always noticed Heinlein's "feminism" as much as MG Lord did, since she is (obviously) female and, I guess, older than I am but certainly I found that Heinlein frequently had attractive heroines who did more than sit around and let the hero save them and I absorbed this as being basically what was to be expected.
However this is where I begin to start having my disagreements; in some places I have to say that I drew a slightly different moral than did MG Lord. For example she writes:
Heinlein's women were not invisible or grossly subservient to men. Nor were they less technologically competent. The hero of "Starship Troopers" follows a woman he admires into the military. But because she is sharper than he, she gains admission to the prestigious pilot corps, and he winds up stuck in the infantry.
While I agree that Rico does indeed enlist in large part to impress, or at least try to keep up with, a woman (girl) he admires and thus RAH is clearly implying that women have a place in combat/leadership roles, that is surely not the only lesson that should be taken from the book. The point I took out was rather more subtle - namely that men and women can and do excel at different things and that trying to be equally competant at everything is destined to failure. This is not intended by any means to say women should excel at cooking and making babies while men do all the rough stuff, but to state what should be obvious that their strengths are different. [BTW I don't know if RAH is correct that female reaction time is on average faster than the male one or that they can take higher Gs - both of which IIRC were reasons that RAH gave for primarily female pilots - but it wouldn't surprise me].
This leads us to where I really part company with MG Lord, namely in her view of Friday. Friday is, IMHO, one of Heinlein's best, not quite up there with Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Hard Mistress perhaps but right behind them and definitely better as a story than Stranger in a Strange Land. Utterly ignoring the fact that Friday the heroine is basically a superwoman, which you would think ought to please the feminists - but doesn't; the book Friday clearly, and in great detail, predicts both a whole chunk of the problems we are seeing in the world today with regards to corporate abuse of the law, CCTV surveillance, identity theft and genetic engineering, as well as coming up with the space elevator that numerous people hope to build to make space travel possible. Ignoring the technical advances Friday graphically illustrates the possible end result of two trends visible today. Pervasive surveillance, as seen in London, is clearly demonstrated to be bad at its supposed role of stopping crimes (it is good for helping to shape the response and tracking down the criminals but it doesn't prevent determined criminals). Also, although we have not yet seen giant corporations behave quite as loosely as RAH has them behave in Friday, the parallels with behaviour today by certain corporations are most certainly present and he is absolutely correct that if a corporation decides that it wishes to destroy a (smallish) nation it can do so whereas the converse is far harder. Finally, and the key underpinning of the entire work, is the question of how mankind will cope with genetic modification. Given the hysterical reaction of many to geneically modified food, and to attempts to clone humans, this seems to be both prescient and absolutely relevant as a thought experiment to see what a world would be like where genetic engineering of humanity has occured.
The problem I have with the review starts with this:
Heinlein has also been attacked for being a misogynist - in large part for his 1982 novel, "Friday," whose eponymous woman narrator enjoys being raped.
I'm sorry to say but I seem to have read a different book to these attackers. I don't have it with me but I've read it sufficiently often that I can recall it well enough to state definitively that Friday never ever states she enjoys being raped. She is however a professional who has been trained in SERE or its equivalent and therefore has internalized that when captured "what can't be cured must be endured". Hence she tries (with some success) to try and pretend she enjoys it in order to try and get some sort of leverage over her captors and to some extent this works because they stop using rape as a tactic and try both drugs and physical torture. She also notes that one of her rapists is comparatively gentle and would be acceptable "under other circumstances" while the others are not. This does not sound to me like a woman who enjoys being raped. Nor does her general pleasure when told that her rapists all died, nor does her reaction when she discovered that the "acceptable under other circumstances" rapist actually survived and is standing watch over her a second time. True she doesn't actually kill him, but she makes it utterly clear that she feels that she has the perfect right to and that his survival depends on his cooperation and providing a convincing explanation. The fact that this then changes is because she is able to perceive that his explanation was reasonable and that he is not normally a rapist. I don't understand how it is possible to mistake acceptance for enjoyment, nor how an understanding that many males are aroused by BDSM implies a willingness to be an unwilling subject of such sexual acts, but this seems to be what the feminists are proposing. I think that her upbringing as an AP, which includes training to be a prostitute, undoubtedly helps her cope with being raped but it absolutely does not mean that she enjoys the experience.
The reviewer makes much of Heinlein's exploration of alternative marriage structures, and I certainly sympathise although my engineering brain thinks this isn't going to work. The problem is that while group marriages have been popular in fiction in practise most men and women seem to not deal well with sharing so you end up with one or two happy bosses and a bunch of subdued miserable cospouses. This is in fact strongly hinted at in Friday's ultimately failed NZ group marriage. A successful group marriage will require a lot more trust for spouses than a standard pair marriage becuase you have to trust more people and you have to work with the strong likelihood that some partners will be loved more than others thus leading to internal jealousies/envies as well as external ones. Still I agree with the reviewer that when it comes to supporting children a successful group marriage has much to commend it.
MG Lord later writes:
By the 1980's, however, he felt licensed to reveal more - or, in the case of Friday, to describe sexual experiences from a woman's point of view. Friday is an "Artificial Person"; she was conceived in vitro and brought to term in an incubator, which in the book's fictive world is a terrible stigma. To today's AIDS-conscious reader, however, Friday bears a worse stigma: she is a brazen disease vector, recklessly promiscuous, with a bizarre weakness for male engineers. (Heinlein trained as an engineer.) This gives unintended meaning to the idea of Artificial Person; Friday exists only as a mouthpiece. Heinlein has so thoroughly objectified her that her subjectivity falls flat.
This is so wrong that I really think that the UK edition of the book must be completely rewritten compared to the US one. Firstly the book Friday was written in the era of free love and before the knowledge of AIDS had become widespread so it seems unfair to stigmatize the protagonist for being written about at the end of a period where sexually transmitted diseases were believed to be relatively minor and curable. Secondly Friday is anything but a promiscuous slut. Except for the rape and at most two encounters where she makes a decision to trust based on little more than instinct, she has sex solely with people that she personally knows and trusts or are well-known (as in married to or similar) to people she knows also knows well. In a world where sex is not a gamble with an incurable disease, as in 1960s or 1970s America this is nothing like promiscuity. Thirdly the bizarre weakness for male engineers is total BS; the people we know she has sex with are not engineers, where we know their occupations they are in fact other secret agents/mercenaries (i.e. military personnel), doctors and nurses and they are both male and female.
Furthermore Friday has severe hangups about being an AP, not considering herself fully human as a result, and this absolutely impacts her love life. One could speculate where Heinlein got the idea from, I'd guess he stole it from the Indian "untouchable" caste, but no matter; to trivialise this struggle towards self-belief and self-confidence is to completely miss the point. To others Friday is a total babe who happens to also be astoundingly smart, strong and talented, but she still feels that she is second class and that she should either hide or minimise her talents. I would have thought that a feminist would see this as a metaphor for an unliberated woman believing that she has to submit to her husband/father etc. as in the Muslim world today, 19th century England or even as in a couple of earlier Heinlein juveniles. The way that she does eventually come to see herself as just as human as anyone else is surely the sort of thing that anyone fighting the legacy of discrimination should welcome and given that feminists build their entire thesis around fighting discrimination against women I find it bizarre that they can fail to read the book and see precisely these points. Finally I'll note that I found this lack of self-confidence in an otherwise talented woman to be an excellent guide to the some of the odder behaviours I encountered as a young man living in Japan, where sexist behaviour was far more common than in Europe (or the US).
The problem Heinlein faces with many of a the liberal bent (and MG Lord appears to be such) is that he was willing to attack hypocrisy on all sides. While many liberals liked books like Stranger, where BTW Heinlein addresses rape in direct fashion by positing that women learn how to remove would-be assailents from the world, they have a problem with his critiques of big government, democracy and concepts such s personal responsibility. It seems to me that the complaints about Friday spell from this particular blind-spot because they end up nitpicking the details where RAH fails to toe the current politically correct line and miss the big picture which they ought to be praising to the heavens. The whole point about Friday is that she is not an object but a person, the problem she faces is that the world's laws consider her to be an object and she was brought up in an environment that taught her the same, so saying that she is just a mouthpiece for her author seems to be putting her right back into the mold that the book spends showing how she breaks.