Category Archives: bad

Books that make the world a worse place just for existing.

Review 117: I Will Fear No Evil

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

One of the things I enjoy about Heinlein is that he likes to play with Big Ideas. While he did dip into the well of action and adventure, especially for his juvenile stories, he treated his readers like they were only slightly intellectually inferior to him, and so explored concepts that required a lot of heavy thinking. The need for war, the inevitability of messiahs, revolution, life, death, immortality – he’s not afraid to look at some of the greatest philosophical topics that reside in the human heart, and this book is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is a very old, very sick, very rich man. He built himself up from nothing and rose to financial prominence in what is a little more than a regular human lifetime. Smith had it all – a rich and exciting life, complete financial security, good friends and good memories in a world that had, frankly, gone to hell. He had very nearly everything a person would want to have.

Photo by openDemocracy

What he didn’t have was time. He lived in daily pain, kept alive by only two things: an ever-increasing number of machines and a plan to release himself from the geriatric horror his life had become. He knew that this plan would probably fail. He knew that he was facing death no matter what happened. He knew that it was crazy, and not necessarily crazy enough to work. But it was all that stood between him and suicide.

That plan was, in theory, very simple: transplant his healthy brain into the body of a healthy young person. By doing so, he would gain a whole extra lifetime to enjoy the fruits of his first lifetime’s labor. Not being a monster, he was prepared to do this in a legal and ethical fashion. With his legal, medical, and judicial contacts, he made arrangements with a medical advocacy group to get the body of a healthy young person who died due to some massive brain trauma. And – and this is important – who consented to having their body used for medical experimentation. Everything would be above-board, legally sound and ethically certain. All Smith had to do was stay alive until a body became available.

Now just put the two of them together... IF YOU DARE!

When it did, however, he was in for a double surprise. Not only was the healthy, youthful body that of a female, it was that of his healthy, youthful, beautiful secretary, Eunice Branca. Eunice had been murdered, but her body was in excellent condition. She had the right blood type, and had consented to have her body used for Smith’s experiment. The one doctor in the world who could perform the surgery was brought in to perform it, and against all odds, it worked. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was reborn as Joan Eunice Smith, and her new life began.

But she was not alone.

By some means, Eunice’s mind survived to live with Joan, and tutor her in all the ways of being a woman. Joan dove happily into her new life, exploring her new femininity and sexuality as best she could.

In that sense, this whole book is an exploration of sexual identity. Here we have a man who is now a woman, even though that was never his intention. He soon finds himself thinking like a woman, though, bringing up the question of whether gender is determined by a person’s mind, or by the body it inhabits. If you put a male mind into a female body, with the vastly different hormones and sensory inputs, will that male mind start to act like a female? And even if it does, should it?

Smith makes a decision to, with Eunice’s help, be the best woman he can be, mostly because he feels that is what is expected of him. After a lifetime of conforming to male societal roles, Smith wholeheartedly embraces the female ones, up to and including seducing his best friend of many decades. Gender identity in this book is a tangled mess of biology and intention, and it looks at being female from a distinctly male point of view.

It was a different time....

Which brings me to my first problem with this book: the casual misogyny. I know it’s a pretty loaded word to throw around, and it’s not entirely accurate, but it was the one that kept coming to my mind. While Heinlein is certainly capable of creating strong and independent female characters, and emphasizes over and over again that both Eunice and Joan are actively choosing the lives they lead, those lives are almost entirely dependent on and revolve around men. One of Smith’s first actions when he goes from Johann to Joan is to latch on to a man – her old friend Jake Saloman. She views her identity as a woman as incomplete without a man to base it on, and spends most of the book trying to figure out who she is in relation to men – Jake, her security guards, Eunice’s widower, and more. She repeatedly mentions how helpless she is without a Big Strong Man in her life, and all of this culminates in what is possibly one of the most misogynist moments I have ever read in sci-fi: a spanking scene.

And not a sexy one, either. In a moment of adolescent pique that Jake won’t sleep with her when she wants him to, Joan throws a fit, disrupting their dinner plans. Jake proceeds to throw her over his knee and give her a spanking because, and I’m quoting here, “You were being difficult… and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs.” Joan accepts the spanking meekly, not only thanking Jake for his spanking, but also claiming that she had her first orgasm while he did it.

Wow. That’s nearly as bad as the other major female character, Winnie, who talks about a gang rape experience with what can almost be imagined as fondness.

Oddly enough, this is not my biggest problem with the book. I mean, it was written in the late ’60s, and it reflects the thinking of that era. For all his progressive beliefs, Heinlein was still a man of his time, and it really shows here. Legend [1] has it that he was really sick when he wrote this book, and that may have had something to do with the fact that no matter how many complex hot-button issues he touches (gender roles, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, overpopulation, government overreach), the fact remains that there is no story in this book.

This picture contains more conflict than this book

Let me explain. A story needs conflict. It needs not only a protagonist that is trying to achieve something, but obstacles that impede that achievement. There were so many potential goals and obstacles to be explored in this story – a man’s brain in a woman’s body – but Heinlein manages to artfully dodge all of them. The story of Smith’s inner struggle to resolve the gender he grew up with with the gender he now possesses would have been fascinating. But it didn’t happen. Smith pretty much accepts the change right away, with few if any reservations. Even so, he could have struggled with how to live as a woman – should he adopt the identity that a patriarchal society would confer upon him as a woman, or forge his own as a uniquely gendered person who has gone from the privileged to the unprivileged sex? Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t even occur to Joan. She decided to be the best woman she can be, constantly asking others what that entails, rather than asking herself.

Or how about the concept of Identity itself? Smith is an old brain in a new body, so is he legally the same person he was before the surgery? That would be an amazing story as he tries to prove that Johann has become Joan, and that even though Eunice’s body is still walking around, she’s actually dead. But no – Smith has some powerful legal friends with ironclad arguments, and the legal proceedings are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Or how about rejection by society? Regular transgendered people have a hard enough time getting society to accept the modification of the body they were born with – what about when someone takes on an entirely new body? Joan could have struggled to get her friends and family to accept who she has become, to stand before the world with her head held high. But no…. She has enough money that she doesn’t really need society’s approval, none of her friends have any trouble with what she’s become, and even Eunice’s widower has only a moment of uncontrollable emotion before accepting that his wife is dead, but still walking around. And he might get to sleep with her again.

Imagine this in your head ALL the TIME.

One last one – the soul. Joan hears Eunice’s voice in her head, but it’s unclear whether it is really Eunice or if it’s just Joan’s imagination. What’s more, they never fight. They never have a serious disagreement and have to resolve their differences so that they can continue to occupy the same skull. Eunice and Joan live together like wisecracking sisters and never have to deal with the problem of living with someone you can’t get rid of, even if you’re not sure if they’re real.

In other words, there’s no there there. It’s a long, talky, philosophical exploration of some fascinating topics, but as a novel, it’s incredibly dull. You keep waiting for the blow-up, for the accident, for the Big Problem that Joan and Jake have to struggle to overcome, and it never arrives. Everything works out either through money or force of will or Heinlein’s trademark Sheer Damn Reasonableness. Between that and the constant thought of, “He did not just say that,” I found this book rather stressful to plow through. It offers up a lot of big ideas to think on, raises some very important questions, and Heinlein’s gift for dialogue makes some fun conversations, but I think I would have liked it more if it had been completely different.

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“Sir, if you want to give me a fat lip, I’ll hold still, smile happily, and take it. Oh, Jake darling, it’s going to be such fun to be married to you!”
“I think so too, you dizzy bitch.”
– Joan and Jake, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
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[1] Wikipedia

Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Amazon.com
The Heinlein Society

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Filed under afterlife, bad, death, existentialism, friendship, gender, gender roles, ghosts, homosexuality, identity, Robert Heinlein, romance, science fiction, sexuality

Review 02: A Series of Unfortunate Events 1 – The Bad Beginning


A Series of Unfortunate Events 1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

I am not a violent man. In my lifetime, I have never been in a fight. I’ve never seriously threatened anyone with violence, never made anyone feel afraid by my physical presence, never even really seriously considered doing violence to another person.

Having said that, the feelings this book evoked in me were… violent.

Not because Lemony Snicket has written a book where terribly unfortunate things happen to small children – I have no problems with that and in fact encourage it; it builds character. I want to do violence towards Lemony Snicket because he’s a terrible writer who should never have been allowed to have his words put to paper. His pens should be broken, his notes burned, his hard drive wiped and, if possible, his writings should banned by an Act of Congress. The First Amendment can only go so far.

You may be wondering what has roused this level of bibliorage in me. By all accounts, this series is extremely popular, loved by many. On various book review websites, this book routinely gets at least four stars and high praise. It was even made into a movie starring Jim Carry, and if that’s not the Seal of Public Approval then I don’t know what is. It would seem that one of two things is true: Either I’m seriously overreacting to a tiny aspect of Snicket’s (AKA Daniel Handler’s) writing style or the rest of the world is full of blind ignoramuses who wouldn’t know decent writing if they woke up in bed with it after a bender in Vegas.

As a reviewer, I, of course, choose to believe the latter.

Snicket has taken what should be an entertaining story, filled with untimely death, physical violence, extortion, deception, and pedophilic overtones, and corrupted it by treating its audience like a bunch of drooling idiots.

I am, of course, referring to his habit of defining “difficult” words within the text, with no regard for the flow of the story or the necessity of the definition. For example:

Page 2: “…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley – the word ‘rickety,’ you probably know, here means ‘unsteady’ or ‘likely to collapse’ – alone to the seashore….”

Page 13: “…over a dull dinner of boiled chicken, boiled potatoes and blanched – the word ‘blanched’ here means ‘boiled’ – string beans.”

Page 18: “‘Please get out of bed and get dressed,’ he said briskly. The word ‘briskly’ here means ‘quickly, so as to get the Baudelaire children to leave the house.'”

Page 44: “…the kitchen grew cozy as the sauce simmered, a culinary term which means ‘cooked over a low heat.'”

And so on.

There are a few occasions where a word is defined well, in context and occasionally in character, and I don’t mind those. But the constant shoehorning in of definitions made me want to take a sharpened number two pencil and work it under Mr. Snicket’s fingernails until he apologized sufficiently for being a hack.

I’ve gotten feedback from people who like this style, especially parents, who say that it saves them from having to put down the book and explain to the child what “blanched” means. Full disclosure: I am not a parent, nor am I likely to ever be one, but I think that teaching a child to figure things out for him or herself – or, god forbid, learn to use a dictionary – is part of what will make her or him grow up to be an inquisitive, intelligent adult. In my real job, teaching English as a foreign language, I find that my students are more likely to remember a word if I make them work for it, rather than if I just tell them what it means.

Let’s face it – if this book is written for adults, then the author should treat his readers like adults. If the book is written for children, which this ostensibly is, then the author has to choose whether to talk up or down to them. In a book where the main characters’ parents die before the first page and where the eldest daughter nearly becomes a child bride to her blood uncle, one would think the author has judged his audience mature enough to deal with these themes. If that’s so, then overtly defining “difficult” words is an insult to his readers, and that is unacceptable to me.

I am reminded of a passage in Terry Pratchett’s book, Wee Free Men, where the main character, a nine year old girl named Tiffany, asks an itinerant teacher about zoology:

“Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it.”

“No, actually it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”

I think Mr. Pratchett may have read Mr. Snicket’s book as well.

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“If you enjoy books with happy endings than you are better off reading some other book.”
– Lemony Snicket
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Lemony Snicket homepage
Lemony Snicket on Wikipedia
The Bad Beginning on Amazon.com

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Filed under bad, children, death, fantasy, Lemony Snicket, made into movies, murder