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Friday by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by Michael Whelan

Published by Del Rey

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Friday is one of Heinlein's problematical later novels, the sort a particularly waggish critic once referred to as his "seniles." So much of the talent that made Heinlein a great writer in his early years can still be seen, but in a sadly decayed form, like the ruins of a once-great city. Part of it may simply be the diminishment of the great man's faculties -- by the time he wrote this novel, he was no longer in his prime physically, and there is evidence that some of the maladies with which he was struggling had negative effects upon his brain functioning. And part of it may be the simple fact that by this point in his life, society had moved forward such that what had previously been cutting edge social speculation now had come to seem tired, even regressive.

The eponymous first-person protagonist of the novel, Marjorie Friday Baldwin, is a secret agent. She is also an Artificial Person, genetically engineered to have enhanced strength, speed and reaction times. Because Artificial Persons are regarded as less than human and are discriminated against, both in large matters of economic opportunity and civil rights and in small things, daily hassles and rudenesses that must be accepted with a bowed head and a smile, she has had her documentation falsified to remove all references to her origins, such that she could pass as a naturally-born human being. However, she carries within her the memories of the creche where she spent her childhood, and the continual petty cruelties that were inflicted upon her during those years remain an open sore upon her soul.

It's interesting to read her comments on what it feels like to know how natural-born children have certain privileges just by being born, privileges that a person branded with the stigma of being an Artificial Person can never hope to gain, and see it as an early form of the current discussion of privilege in our present society. However, I think that Heinlein would probably be disturbed by the way in which discussion of privilege has been made entirely a matter of groups rather than individuals, and has thus been turned into a guilt stick with which to beat persons considered to belong to privileged groups, not on the basis of anything they have done, but solely upon ascribed identity group membership. And I think he'd probably be particularly disgusted by the use of it to play the nasty game of "I want something out of you but I'm not going to tell you what it is, and if you try to ask me, I'm going to accuse you of inappropriate exercise of privilege, of an almost unbelievable attitude of entitlement, and everything else I can think of to guilt you into shutting up and franticly trying to please me while I can keep moving the finish line and have you trapped running in perpetuity."

In fact, having had some bad experiences with such people, I'm starting to think that they're not interested in trying to solve the problems of discrimination and inequality, because that would mean that a time could come when the problem is solved and behind us. Instead, they seem to be using the discussion of privilege to create a new version of sin, now that the traditional theological idea of sin as a spiritual alienation from a supernatural creator is no longer acceptable in the civic discourse of a pluralistic, secular society. Especially when one gets into discussions of interlocking systems of privilege, one can create a system by which nobody is at the absolute bottom, and thus free of privilege and the secular sin it involves. And that would've appalled Heinlein, because especially in his later years he was all about breaking free of notions of sin and guilt, which he regarded as putting people in perpetual bondage and preventing them from enjoying life and love and the company of others to the fullest. And anyone who's read Heinlein's early juvenile Citizen of the Galaxy can see how deeply he detested slavery in all its myriad forms. Even his deeply flawed Farnham's Freehold is an attempt at a meditation on the corrosive effect of absolute power over other human beings, to show that just changing who's on top and who's getting walked on doesn't improve things, and the solution lies in getting rid of the power structures that create unrestrained power over others.

And we see that idea of the importance of liberation from mental bondage throughout Friday, which begins with the protagonist on a mission -- she's an undercover courier, a sort of spy -- and she gets captured by the opposition. And she discusses how rape is no longer a useful tool for breaking captured female agents, because nobody uses a female agent who's got the hangups that result in forcible sex being a shaming experience. Marjorie herself simply never had those hangups instilled in her, because upbringing in the creche involves a completely matter-of-fact attitude toward sex and sexuality. It's simply a part of being alive, and having sex forced upon one is no more shameful than being force-fed a distasteful food or being forced to listen to music that's not to one's tastes. But even natural-born women who become agents in Heinlein's future world have such things trained out of them.

I really don't know how believable it is that a person could ever be trained to not regard forcible sex as a fundamental violation, and still retain an intact, human psyche. We see some of it in Cally O'Neal at the beginning of Cally's War, but John Ringo strongly implies that her casual attitude toward such things is part of a generalized psychological problem resulting from her traumatic experiences as an agent, perhaps some kind of dissociative disorder, rather than a positive development that enables her to become a better agent.

As soon as Marjorie is rescued from her duress vile, she heads home for a vacation with family. However, unlike Callie O'Neal, she's not visiting an extended family of monogamous dyads and their children. Rather, she's bought into an S-family -- the "S" officially standing for "synthetic," but for her it also stands for "secure." It's a group marriage similar to the "complex marriage" practiced by John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Colony, but explicitly secular, with formal systems of financial contributions, almost like investing in a company.

However, her idyl is not for long, because several of the senior members are upset that one of their members wants to marry a Tongan, whom they consider to be the wrong race. With her background of discrimination and the humiliations that go with it, Marjorie becomes upset and remonstrates, revealing that she is in fact an Artificial Person, but they still love her because she's proven her worth as an individual. They respond with adamant disbelief -- it can't be true; she must be saying this just to get a rise out of them. She proves her assertion with a demonstration of her superhuman speed and preciseness, and everyone's attitudes change. She's OUT -- and they aren't even going to return the installments she's made on her membership. As far as they're concerned, she falsely represented herself, and thus will forfeit the money.

The rest of the novel is Marjorie's search for belonging, which involves a number of harrowing adventures and misadventures as she tries to find someone who will love her. Or rather several someones, as almost every relationship she becomes involved in is polyamorous to one degree or another. And unlike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which the various alternative marriage structures are presented as the Loonies making the best of a bad situation of major gender imbalance, this really does seem to be an attempt to "shock the squares," to shake up people's thinking about relationships by showing the possibility of happy relationships other than the standard monogamous heterosexual dyad.

Heinlein's Sexy Future gets a lot of ridicule nowadays, what with its Zeerusty Stripperific fashions (monokinis for everyday streetwear in Luna City? -- give me a nice, solid NASA-style coverall and sturdy footgear for wearing around the shirtsleeve-environment parts of a moonbase or lunar settlement) and its women who were simultaneously strong and lusty, falling into bed at the drop of a hat. But in 1982 when Friday was written, with the Pill to ward off pregnancy and antibiotics to cure STD's, and with AIDS barely a distant cloud on the horizon, it really did seem possible in a certain segment of the science fiction community that we were on the brink of a new era of sexual liberation in which we'd break down all the old psychological barriers and enjoy a sexual paradise of perfect love and perfect trust where we could make our own rules as it suited the individuals involved, without some nosy Mrs. Grundy nay-saying because it wasn't "normal" or "natural" or whatever the current buzzword might be for what was conventional and expected. Even today we can see a little of those dreams in the threesome that Kendra Pacelli enters in Michael Z. Williamson's Freehold, a novel which owes a great deal to Heinlein's libertarian writings.

However, much of that idealism was based upon the assumption that the human brain started out as pretty much a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which environmental influences, particularly our upbringing, could write whatever we wanted the next generation to have. In the three decades since, an entire series of discoveries about the brain have largely overturned that view, and as a result we have strong evidence that much of the brain's workings are in fact hard-wired by genetics, whether it be that flare of jealousy at the suspicion that our beloved may be getting involved with someone else, or the different strategies by which men and women approach sexuality and sexual relationships.

But part of the problem may also be nothing more than the author being the product of his time, and specifically the society of his formative years. In the period in which Heinlein grew up, there was a paucity of literary models for strong women with agency and agendas independent of a male. For that matter, even in the Primary World of that time agency and independence of action was by and large a male preserve -- so it may not be such a surprise that when Heinlein reached the point in his career that he could break free of the constraints of literary expectations and write female characters who were plot actors in their own right rather than adjuncts of one or another male (and one needs only read his collected letters to see how much of a battle he had in some of his early attempts, particularly Podkayne of Mars), he would project male ways of acting and of relating with the world, particularly as sexual beings, onto them. This unconscious assumption of certain male attitudes and habits of thought may well be why many of Heinlein's women read to a modern reader as either grossly unrealistic male-wish-fulfillment figures or as men with breasts, fundamentally male characters with superficially female characteristics pasted on.

And unfortunately it's not uncommon that a writer whose views were once progressive, even transgressive, in the context of his or her contemporary society, should later be seen as reactionary, even offensive, simply because society has left that writer behind.

One thing that I do wonder is whether the Luna City mentioned in this world might be the same one that is so important in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. There were Stripperific fashions in it -- the protagonist talks about how the usual male attire within the pressurized areas is slippers and tights with the torso left bare, perhaps oiled for effect on special occasions. However, the society we see in this novel don't quite seem to square with the ones you see in that one, and there is more evidence that it is instead connected with his short story "Gulf." which dealt with the development of human mental ability until the subjects of it became superhuman. Furthermore, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress takes place in the same universe as The Rolling Stones and Red Planet, and arguably Stranger in a Strange Land, but there are never any mentions of the Old Martians and their strange powers in Friday However, while Heinlein's early Future History was presented as an attempt to create a self-consistent Secondary World, it appears that in his later years he tended to use certain story elements in various stories without necessarily positing that they were in fact set in a common continuity, and that like Marion Zimmer Bradley with Darkover, he was ready and willing to sacrifice consistency between books in order to make each novel work on its own terms.

Review posted January 11, 2012.

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