SF Book Review: Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein

I’m sorry, but I’m going to give you yet another book review (and another Heinlein review, at that!) because I want to keep up the habit of writing every day even while there is no new on my own book just yet. Please bear with me, and feel free to skip if this is not why you visit Cat’s Liminal Space. I promise not to hold against you. Not too much, anyways…

Oh, and also, I’ve read a lot of books lately, and I made a promise to myself that I was going to review every book I read–good or bad–for GoodReads. Yes, you can find me there too, if you’re really into nerding out. And I have no friends, so I will desperately add anyone who sends me a request–even if you look like a creepy stalker and/or a homicidal maniac. But if you send me pictures of your penis, I will post them here and give you a critique that you might never get over. No, that is not an invitation; creepy stalker man, I’m looking at you.

Moving on.

Or perhaps not entirely, because we are talking about Heinlein. I haven’t really done my research; this is only the third of his books that I have read (the first two being Door into Summer and Starship Troopers). But he is often referred to as a pervert and a misogynist. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know him. I was four years old when he died, it’s not my fault. Or maybe I just tend to pic up his pervy, sexist books. I may never know. What I do know is that so far, his brand of pervy sexism doesn’t really bug me. And I’m here to tell you why.

People seem to have a love it or hate it kind of relationship with Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love. And I’ve gotta say I’m strapped firmly to the former bandwagon. I thought this book was epic in the truest sense of the word, it’s a great story that spans one man’s life from the beginning of WWI all the way to the the year 25-something-or -other. Granted, I can see why some of the Negative Nancy’s are getting their panties in a twist (okay, maybe the incest theme goes a little far, but he was using it to make a point), yet Heinlein’s weirdness just doesn’t give me the willies like some people. And I think some critics have missed the mark entirely, by focusing on the wrong stuff. Which is fully within their rights, of course, and an opinion is only an opinion. Blah blah blah. Here’s my two cents on why they’re wrong:

Time Enough for Love is set up as a series of tales told by the oldest living man in the universe, Lazarus Long. Lazarus is confined to a rejuvenation clinic, where he is being held against his will by a team of people dedicated to preserving his knowledge. You see, they’ve “rescued” Laz from attempted suicide, in order to record his life’s story and hopefully glean some of the wisdom he’s accumulated in over two-thousand years of life. And Lazarus has agreed not to try to take his own life again, until he’s told them about the most important lessons learned in his long life. Time Enough for Love is like Arabian Nights, but in reverse; Laz is telling his stories for his right to die. At least at first…

So the structure necessitates a kind of “bracketing” set up, wherein Lazarus’ tales are divided by his present experiences in the rejuvenation clinic. When you first get into the book, it’s kind of tough to wade through, and this bracketing doesn’t help the initial flow. I’ve got to admit, Lazarus’ voice is where Heinlein’s storytelling excels. I sometimes had to restrain myself from skipping forward until the next tale. Although, in the end I’m glad that I did (restrain myself, that is). Heinlein brings everything together nicely once Lazarus regains an interest in life and goes on to set up his free-lovin’ hippie commune on the planet Boondock, and all of a sudden his present becomes the next tale, “De Capo.”

I’m not going to summarize the book for you, there’s a whole bunch of that stuff floating around, and I really think that this is a must read for any SF fan. Instead, I’m going to address what I’ve perceived to be the main arguments against this text, and why they are not as bad or as relevant to Heinlein’s ability as they perhaps appear.

The number one complaint that I’ve noticed in other reviews is with Heinlein’s apparent preoccupation with incest. Love between brothers and sisters, close cousins, and once, even, a parent and child (except don’t set off those pedo-meters just yet, with everyone living for hundreds of years, and people physical ages hovering around mid-life, this was sex between consenting adults who weren’t too wrinkly. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.) are a prevailing theme. But I think that, unusual as the theme is in modern writing, it has a place in this story and is essential to Lazarus’ character. I don’t think it’s simply that Heinlein really wanted to write some soft core sibling porn and this book was his excuse (although that’s possible, in which case I’m almost more impressed that he came up with a storyline like this to justify his ulterior motives).

First of all, in the argument against Heinlein being a perv, is the fact that Lazarus Long is completely obsessed with genetic purity. And he has to be, and I think that, in a novel where people live for as long as they do, Heinlein is right to address the issue, rather than skirting by it and letting us wonder. Let’s just think of the logistics here: when everyone (or at least the majority of people, there are still some people with normal lifespans, but they’re suckers. Laz even falls in love with one, much to his sorrow.) lives for hundreds and hundreds of years A) People do not, obviously stay in a marriage for their whole lives, but rather for as long a it works for them. Sometimes that’s a couple of years, or long enough to raise a family, and sometimes it’s for decades, but it’s not “forever.” That would be a little crazy. There would be a lot more domestic violence going on if people had to stay together for five hundred years… That’s just my opinion.

Anyways, with people living so long, and being either serially monogamous, polygamous, or just generally free-lovin’ it’s a lot harder to keep track of people geneologies, especially if you consider an average lifespan many times longer than our own. As a result, everyone is very concerned with genetic compatibility, and none more so than Lazarus. As one of the first “long-lifers” on Earth, he was contractually obligated to reproduce only with other long-lifers in order to preserve the longevity they had acquired. Then, there is the fact that old Laz, being nearly three-thousand years old, is the great-to-the-nth-degree grandfather of nearly everyone in the universe, so the older he gets the harder it is for him to find partners with whom he is genetically compatible (not being related to them is virtually impossible).

Lazarus comes to view the appropriateness of sexual pairings solely through the lens of healthy reproduction—and then, only if reproduction is the goal (in the most extreme example SPOILER ALERT!!!Lazarus travels back in time and accidentally falls in love with his mother, an affair that is able to be consummated only because his mother is already pregnant and therefore won’t become pregnant by Laz END SPOILER ALERT!). And although the taboo of incest, in the traditional sense, once served a primitive purpose to people who didn’t really understand genetics—the over simplified concept is not applicable in Lazarus’ world. It sometimes seems like Lazarus is beating a dead horse with his reasoning for who is allowed to sleep with whom, but I wonder if Heinlein was worried about the reception of his book and felt the need to defend himself a little bit. Had he just breezed over the idea, perhaps the backlash would have been worse than it has been. I don’t know what his reasoning was, but in any case, I really didn’t find any of the questionable relationship in this novel to be creepy, even if I did raise an eyebrow at them initially.

Creepy incestuous relationships aside, the next biggest complaint of this novel that I’ve encountered has to do with Heinlein’s characterization. Really, everyone in the novel except for Lazarus himself, seems to fall into a stereotypical kind of mould. Every male character is interchangeable with every other male character, and the same goes for the female characters, even if they have slightly different physical characteristics. And strangely, they are all horny all the time. I imagined a cheesy ’70’s porn beat in the background for at least half of the book. I guess that’s how Heinlein imagined it would be if we lived in a world that wasn’t ashamed of human sexuality. Maybe he’s right! It was funny, for sure. But many people seem to think that this is just an example of Heinlein being a shitty writer.

Not so! I would argue that, perhaps this sameness has more to do with Lazarus’ memory than Heinlein’s skill as a writer. Heinlein is a man with a vast imagination, and he might not be the most technically skilled writer out there, but he’s not a hack. It seemed to me, that people kind of blend together for Lazarus; every character is a mixture of all of the people he has ever known, their personalities and their deeds are not necessarily attributed accurately (Lazarus is a textbook unreliable narrator, and is frequently caught in contradictions and fallacies throughout the book). The secondary characters in Lazarus’ tales are place-holders, used by Lazarus to get his point across to his audience, but not important in their individuality. They are anecdotal.

This sameness, I would also argue, serves to illustrate Heinlein’s vision of human kind. Ultimately, even thousands of years in the future, human beings can be reduced to their basic needs—the same needs that we have had since the beginning of time.  And first and foremost, is our need for love. Lazarus’ overarching lesson for humanity is that a person’s worth is measured not by the property and wealth that they accumulate, or by the fantastic deeds that they accomplish, but by the quantity and quality of the time that they spend with those they love—whether it is family, friends, or lovers.

And that’s a position that I can stand by.

But tell me what you think. Where do you stand in the Heinlein camp? Do you know some juicy secrets about his real life that might sway my opinion. C’mon, people. Dish!

SF Book Review: The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein

I picked this up at a used bookstore because I loved the cheesy ’70’s sci-fi cover art, and it didn’t disappoint. I didn’t intend to write a review for it at all, but I’ve been inspired!

It is not very often that I read a book that makes me smile the entire time I’m reading it; this is one of them. From the hilarious anachronisms of the 1950’s Futurist to the brilliant side-kick cat, Pete. (Cat lovers will appreciate this book on a completely different level than other readers). I was laughing out loud at least once every 20 pages or so.

It is only because I read some of the other reviews for this book that I felt the need to write a review myself. After seeing that a number of reviews that charge The Door into Summer (and sometimes Heinlein himself) as being both misogynistic and perverse, I felt the need to defend it (and him).

First of all, on the complaints that Heinlein’s vision of the future (from 1956, remember) is sexist, misogynistic, anti-woman, etc.:

There are not many women in this story, true enough, which may be a mark against it in and of itself. Because of this, the heinous Belle stands out as being a particularly unlikable femme-fatale. Though I would argue that, had Belle not been foiled by Dan’s foray into time travel, her plot would have succeeded and she would have made a respectable villain. She was well-equipped for it: calculating, edgy, violent, and un-emotional. But because the other women in the book (Jenny Sutton, the Girl-Scout Matron, and later Ricki) are fairly minor they do little to offset the influence of Belle and rather support the 1950’s housewife stereotype. And Dan Davis’ engineering vision of rescuing women from the drudgery of housework is a little dated, to be sure.

However, I consider these to be the faults of a novel written in the 1950’s. I always find it best to approach a book with the understanding that it is a product of the time in which it was written. If a novel breaks through the conventions of its time, great! But it would be unreasonable to expect it every time one picks up a new book. Our modern sensibilities might be offended by some archaic ideas, but out-dated notions don’t necessarily devalue an otherwise good yarn. (not to mention historically important works, which this isn’t, but the point stands)

It’s true that science fiction often pushes boundaries: of politics, religion, war, gender, sexuality, human nature, etc. But it is not necessary. And it is certainly not necessary to push all of them at once. The Door into Summer is not a book about gender roles. It reflects opinions common to the time in which it was written, but it does not address them specifically. It cannot be said to be particularly forward thinking on the subject, but at the same time it is a passive position. Heinlein is not actively or purposefully oppressing women in this novel, but he is describing a world very similar to the one in which he lived. Which, for me, is enough that I didn’t hate the novel for its faults.

Heinlein has shown in this and other novels that he is not rigid in his notions on the future of gender roles. In Starship Troopers women make the best fighter pilots because of their superior reflexes and mental dexterity. In this novel, there are suggestions that–outside of the narrative–women are fulfilling more diverse roles than we see them in. Dan Davis, when discussing the merits of his engineering robot ‘Drafting Dan’, admits that most women don’t care much for it unless they are engineers themselves! The offhand nature of this remark is indicative that it is not an alien idea to Dan. Perhaps his housekeeping robot is more liberal-minded than we initially supposed, if it has freed women from the role of housewives to pursue their dreams outside the home. Something to consider, anyways.

With that out of the way, I wanted to talk about the so-called perversion of Dan’s unconventional (temporally speaking) romance with Ricki. Many people have commented on the “disturbing” nature of the love story sub-plot. And maybe it’s because I’ve recently read Lolita, but I really didn’t feel too put out about it. I actually found Dan and Ricki’s relationship kind of cute, mostly because Dan falls in love with Ricki because she understands and appreciates his cat–which Dan feels is indicative of the kind of person she is (although she is only a child). It is important to note that there are no overtly pedophilic suggestions in this book, unless the reader supplies them (I’m sure there are those who will disagree)

When it comes down to it, Dan’s romantic feelings towards Ricki are not directed at her juvenile self but at the woman he imagines she will become. It is not unusual, I think, to idealize and idolize romantically (particularly after one has had ones heart broken). Ricki is the only female that Dan has ever felt any connection with, and he values her friendship. It is only after Belle betrays him that he begins to think “if only Ricki were older”. Not because he fantasizes about being with a child (obviously, he wouldn’t then wish she were older) but because he fantasizes about being with someone he loves and trusts.

He cannot even be said to be taking advantage of her childish crush on him. He tells Ricki to wait until she’s 20 to decide if she wants to be with him (he is, and will remain, 30). Ricki has 8 sobering years to decide if she still has feelings for Dan once she is an adult, during which he can supply no pressure. Thanks to the invention of suspended animation their love is possible without being creepy!

Ok, so that’s a longer rant than I intended. But there it is. Thanks for bearing with me if you got this far!