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Volume 01, Number 02, Spring, 1983

Friday as Synthesis

By Robert A. Heinlein

Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, $14.95
Reviewed by Greg Costikyan

Robert Heinlein’s two foremost critics are Alexei Panshin (himself a formidable science fiction writer) and H. Bruce Franklin. What they have said about Heinlein’s past work and the trends they protect onto his career are interesting in the light—or lack thereof—which they cast on his latest novel, Friday.

Panshin maintains what might be called the “Crisis Theory”. In the l930’s, according to Panshin, Heinlein wrote mostly short adventure fiction of uneven quality. In the 40’s Heinlein went through some kind of personal crisis during which he wrote experimental stories as unusual as anything produced by the New Wave in the 60’s, the resolution of this crisis produced the seamless “Juvenile” fiction of the 50’s and early 60’s which many still believe to be Heinlein’s best work. Then, as he entered a new crisis in the late 60’s Heinlein began writing adult fiction with a healthy dose of social commentary. As the Crisis deepened, the o1d seamless plotting of the juveniles broke down. As a result, experimental novels like I Will Fear No Evil, Time Enough for Love, and Number of the Beast were far from critical successes.

In Science Fiction in Dimension Panshin states that he expects this last crisis to be eventually resolved in favor of a new and more mature fiction. His hope is expressed in almost messianic terms as if he dreams that Heinlein will lead science fiction from the wilderness to become the great fictional form of the 20th century.

Far more critical of Heinlein, H. Bruce Franklin, a Marxist, sees his work as a direct reflection of political and social trends in America

More critical H. Bruce Franklin, a Marxist, sees Heinlein’s work as a direct reflection of American political and social trends during his lifetime. In the 1930’s and 40’s, as Franklin sees it. Heinlein glorified capitalist industry and the American Way of Life; in the 50’s he wrote about Eagle Scouts and New Frontiers; in the 60’s his novels were sympathetic to both the counterculture (Stranger in a Strange Land) and the glorification of the American war in Vietnam (Starship Troopers). In the 1970’s his fiction reflected the confusion of an America which could no longer impose its imperialistic will on a black and yellow Third World.

As America’s views changed, so did Heinlein’s. His originally traditional attitudes toward women and his early racism, as evidenced by Sixth Column and Farnham’s Freehold gradually mellowed. But, says Franklin, Heinlein has consistently remained procapitalist (with a definite distrust of Big Business), and almost paranoid in his fear of socialism.

To what extent does Friday bear out these analyses? Franklin’s explanation is the least successful when applied to Friday. If Heinlein’s work is a reflection of American trends, presumably he should be reacting to America’s loss of power—as, in the Marxist analysis, Americans are—by hysterically reaffirming reactionary values like freedoms family, capitalism, and national strength. Heinlein, however, is more pessimistic then are most Americans. In Friday, life on earth is described as increasingly violent, totalitarian, regressive, and limited. As Heinlein sees it, free societies are ephemeral phenomena brought about by the presence of a frontier, and the only hope for liberty is the creation of a new frontier in space.

As for how Heinlein’s views have changed over the years, their development is easily illustrated because, to large part Friday is a re-write of his novelette, Gulf. In both stories a man named Kettle Belly Baldwin runs an underground spy network which employs the best and the brightest. In Gulf, however, the network hires only homo superior, a new species of humanity which has psionic powers and superior intelligence. They see themselves as the Chosen People, destined to manage humanity’s affairs for its own benefit. Thus Gulf is a story of Nietzschean supermen with a conscience, and is explicitly anti-libertarian—the poor, dumb species of Homo sap needs the guidance of their superiors to survive.

In Friday the underground network is force for freedom and fights tyranny throughout the world, implying that people can manage their own affairs of only they are left alone to do so. Friday, therefore seems to be a repudiation of the theme of Gulf and a reaffirmation of liberty. So, while Heinlein is embracing freedom in his latest novel, it is certainly not the reactionary brand that Franklin’s analysis would indicate.

Friday does, more plausibly, seem to be a solution to the crisis Panshin sees as represented by Heinlein’s recent work, a crisis best described by the word “uncertainty.” In contrast with earlier Heinlein, which was written from an almost omnipotent point of view, the “crisis” novels attempt to explore themes with which Heinlein is not entirely comfortable: sex in I Will Fear No Evil in Time Enough for Love, and decline in Number of the Beast. This uncertainty is reflected by the often foolish actions of the main characters. and the confused plots which trail off to hesitant endings.

If Heinlein’s juvenile fiction is thesis, and his more recent novels antithesis then Friday is synthesis. The main character is an archetypal Heinleinian Competent (Wo)man, but she is also the first of his heroes who has personal problems and grows as an individual in the course of the novel. Friday does not follow the traditional narrative form evident in all of Heinlein’s juveniles, nor does it trail off into confusion as the “crisis” novels do.

Which is not to say that the novel is without faults. Like The Number of the Beast, the major conflict presented is not resolved. In that novel, a race of aliens from an alternate reality is infiltrating Earth and alternate Earths in an attempt to destroy our species. A spectre is raised in the first few chapters, then ignored. In Friday a group of underground terrorists are assassinating world leaders, but the nature of the terrorists and their goals is not revealed and they are never confronted. Despite this, the ending to Friday somehow remains a satisfactory one, possibly because Friday and her friends follow the Heinleinian dream and move to a frontier world, leaving the decaying society of Earth behind.

Heinlein has become a more mature writer. His characters are less cardboard more three-dimensional. His prose remains slick, his narrative is more diverse and open-ended. Unfortunately, he has not, as Panshin seems to hope, become something so dramatically different that science fiction will crystallize about him the way Elizabethan drama did about Shakespeare.

Nevertheless, Friday is Heinlein’s first successful novel in years. It shows that he has continued to evolve as a writer and a social commentator. This is good news indeed since, Heinlein is, as Panshin says, one of the best we have.

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