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Heinlein’s I WILL FEAR NO EVIL

January 16, 2015

“What have you got against ghosts, boss?”
“Nothing at all, some of my best friends are ghosts – but I wouldn’t want my sister to marry one.”

I Will Fear No Evil is another novel from the man who brought us Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), the Dean of Science Fiction, Robert A. Heinlein. It isn’t one of his more widely-beloved novels, though it should be included in any discussion of his best.

Set in the early 21st Century, I Will Fear No Evil is the story of Johann Sebastian Bach Smith, an obscenely wealthy old man on his death bed. The country is in a state of chaos, society lacking the sense of safety that comes with order and trust. It is a time when affluent areas are adjacent to violent slums. Gothamesque. Any semblance of police presence seems to have been replaced by private bodyguards for those who can afford them. Everyone else must fend for themselves.

Smith is not bed-ridden for long, as he takes out an ad for a recently-deceased body, with the promise of compensating the deceased’s family. Sure enough, Smith’s dream comes true and he hires a doctor, one excommunicated from academia, to perform a brain transplant, putting his brain into the fresh corpse. The operation is a success, but Smith is forced to grapple with the reality that his new body is that of a young female who once worked for him.

Image courtesy of GoodReads

Image courtesy of GoodReads

Originally published in 1970, it is plainly evident that I Will Fear No Evil was written during a time of sexual revolution and free love. Even by today’s standards, the novel questions and challenges gender roles. While the novel is not explicit, it is laced with the eroticism inherent in the idea of switching genders. It was fascinating reading Heinlein’s take on the female mind. Noting what a meticulous and disciplined writer he was, my gut reaction is to assume he was writing from a lifetime of observation and not just as a sensationalist gag. Either way, it would be interesting to discuss this novel with a female reader.

“I think a perfect arrangement would be to do exactly what a man tells me to do… but wangle it so that he tells me to do what I’ve already decided to do.”

“There are only two sorts of wives. Those who cheat and those who have their husband’s friendly cooperation.”

Heinlein may have been disciplined, but he sure could be playful and subversive. These and other like-minded epithets are liberally sprinkled throughout the text. The two above capture the speakers’ attitudes, and to an extent, the playful context. Strangely, they are not delivered in a sexist manner, but in good-natured banter between a man and woman on equal footing. It’s hard to tell if it’s the ranting of a curmudgeonly author, or the musings of a provocateur. Is it an outdated take on gender politics? Is it chauvinistic? I wrestled with this while reading and would love to hear more interpretations.

The themes of gender and sex permeate the novel, but in true Heinleinian fashion, there are a whole lot of other things going on. When Johann has his transplant, becoming Joan, he encounters the essence (soul?) of his body’s former owner. As a brain and a spirit inhabiting the same body, they converse regularly. This is helpful for Joan in learning to be a woman, but potentially problematic in proving that he is in fact still himself and the executor of his considerable estate. The balancing act between interior and exterior dialogue is expertly titillating. The legal and medical ramifications of Smith’s situation feel exhaustively well researched or at least very well thought out. I guess that’s what makes him Heinlein.

Heinlein weaves the most completely-told stories I’ve ever read. In I Will Fear No Evil, he manages this by starting certain chapters will huge block paragraphs of news headlines from the day. Some of them touch upon the central events of the story and the rest just help illustrate society for the reader. They are often satirical (i.e. a push to repeal the 31st Amendment to the US Constitution), or scientific (i.e. the progress of construction projects on the Moon), but they each add a new layer to the novel that immerses the reader one small bit at a time. The many layers are thoughtfully constructed even if the myriad small tangents do seem to carry you off slightly more often than you would like.

That leads me to my secondary research of I Will Fear No Evil. While reading, I felt the novel lacked the editorial polish I was expecting and that it may even have been a tad indulgent. Thanks to a little follow-up reading, I now know that Heinlein actually had not edited it before it was published. He was gravely ill, battling peritonitis at the time. He finished his complete first draft and then his estate proceeded to published it, as he was thought unlikely to survive his ailment. Two surgery-filled year later, Heinlein pulled through and went on to publish six more novels before passing in 1988. One has to wonder if the fatalistic elements of I Will Fear No Evil, and certainly the medical and legal adventures of Johann were inspired by his near-death experience.

Though published in rough form, I Will Fear No Evil is an exceptional novel. It blends provocative subject matter with classic Heinleinian whimsy. Forty-five years after its publish date, the answers to many of its questions remain beyond our grasp (not the least of which being the plausibility of brain transplants). This was my most profound reading experience of the past year and should be seen as an important feather in the late Heinlein’s legacy.

Special thanks to HeinleinSociety.org for being a wealth of knowledge about the late, great author.

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