Rereading: I WILL FEAR NO EVIL by Robert Heinlein

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Image © estate of Robert Heinlein.

I read this long novel twice, first as serialized in GALAXY magazine, later in this paperback version. I was drawn back to it after reading the second half of the new Heinlein biography by William H. Patterson Jr. I found it pretty odd when I first read it. Quite a good read, but different from other Heinlein books. I remember thinking it was the work of an old man, being the story of Johann Smith, a very old man with many health problems but lots of money to hire the best doctors to keep him alive. A man essentially a prisoner in his own home left to argue with his old friend and lawyer Jake Solomon, and fantasize about his very beautiful and sexy secretary Eunice Branca.

Things turn strange when Johann decides to try a risky operation transplanting his brain into a new young body. Johann has a rare blood type limiting the donor possibilities, but plenty of money is offered and a list of possible donors grows. Abruptly with chapter five, everything changes, as Johann finds himself waking up gradually from the transplant surgery, not remembering how it happened. He’s sedated and restrained, but as he grows stronger he discovers something he hadn’t expected: the donor body is female. More shocks follow when it turns out it’s that of his secretary, Eunice. Johann is devastated, as he cared deeply for Eunice, but something even stranger helps him: Eunice’s spirit or essence begins speaking to him inside his head. It seems they’re going to share her body and his mind with Eunice as an unseen partner, helping him learn to be female with all that entails, from social behavior to sex.

There are interesting twists, as his granddaughters sue, claiming he can’t prove he’s who he says he is. Eunice’s husband gets involved in the story and the life of the new combined person, as do her doctor, nurse, and her four bodyguards. But most of the remaining pages are filled with internal dialogue between Johann (now Joan) and Eunice on every possible topic from their two lives and divergent experiences, philosophies and desires. The book does get bogged down by the sheer amount of this, and it often slows the story to a crawl, though most of what Heinlein has to say is interesting. I did get tired of the back and forth sex talk, though, there’s too much of that.

I remember reading at the time the book came out that Heinlein was very ill, and I always thought that must have affected the writing. Certainly there’s lots of preoccupation with illness. But in the Patterson bio I learned it was only after he had turned this manuscript in to his editor that he fell ill, and remained so for long enough that he wasn’t able to do his usual copy editing of the galleys. Heinlein’s publishers always seemed to feel his books were too long, and he normally did a lot of cutting, but did not trust others to do it, so the final contract for this book stipulated it would be published as written, no cutting. That’s enlightening, and I can see where cutting might well have helped the story.

But there are plenty of details that must come from Heinlein’s own life and experiences that would have been cut, and for that reason I’m glad to have it all here. And this book was the beginning of Heinlein’s drift away from the usual tropes of science fiction to concentrate on what interested him most: people and the things they cared most about like sex, death, and money. There are still some fine ideas in the book, but the characters and their lives are the real focus.

I WILL FEAR NO EVIL is not a Heinlein book I would give someone to try if they hadn’t read much by him yet, but it’s well worth reading all the same.

And Then I Read: LITTLE NEMO, RETURN TO SLUMBERLAND 1

NemoReturn1Image © Eric Shanower, Gabriel Rodriguez & IDW.

Little Nemo is certainly in the air these days, with several Nemo-related projects in print or upcoming. This one is an original series based on the Winsor McCay original Sunday comic strip known for its brilliant surrealistic visuals. McCay’s strip usually had no continuity, it was something different every time, ending at the last panel with the sleeping Nemo falling out of bed and waking up from his strange dream journey. Writer Eric Shanower follows the same idea here, sort of. The issue begins in the throne room of King Morpheus of Slumberland as a new playmate is being chosen from the children of the waking world for the king’s daughter. The original Little Nemo filled that role, and this time the Princess is taken with another boy whose middle name is conveniently also Nemo. A series of dream emissaries are sent to bring the new Nemo to Slumberland, and each attempt gets a little farther, but fails with the falling-out-of-bed gag. But by issue’s end, Nemo reaches Slumberland, which is presented in a magnificent two-page spread by artist Gabriel Rodriguez. This book is an interesting choice for Rodriguez after his previous series, LOCKE & KEY, a chilling horror masterpiece written by Joe Hill. Rodriguez’s style here is an effective blend of McCay style and characters with his own style, most evident in the character’s faces and body language. There’s not much drama here, but plenty of wonder and enchantment. I’m looking forward to more.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: JUSTICE LEAGUE 33

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Image © DC Comics, Inc.

A young woman, Jessica Cruz, has put on a very evil version of Green Lantern’s power ring, and it now controls her mind, though she’s fighting that. The energy available to the ring makes it a powerful threat, and two super-groups are trying to contain the problem and capture the ring: the Justice League and the Doom Patrol. Naturally this leads to lots of in-fighting, as the two groups do not get along. (It’s comics, after all.) Lex Luthor shows up with a plan to help the Justice League, but he’s opposed by another brilliant mind, scientist Niles Caulder, head of the Doom Patrol. There are all kinds of struggles going on here beyond the main conflict, and one is a contest between Batman and Luthor over who’s in charge of the situation and who will save the day. When the struggle is resolved, an even more interesting conflict arises between Justice League mainstays Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman over what to do about Lex Luthor. Geoff Johns does a fine job with the script, making it about much more than fighting. The art by Doug Mahnke and Keith Champagne is excellent, as always. DC’s flagship team book continues to shine in my opinion.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: AQUAMAN AND THE OTHERS 5

AquamanOthers5Image © DC Comics, Inc.

This issue wraps up the initial storyline of this new title in a satisfactory if not spectacular way. We have “The Others,” a team introduced in Aquaman’s own title by Geoff Johns with an interesting mix of heroes and anti-heroes versus an ancient family wronged by equally ancient Atlanteans, who stole their sacred treasure. They fight a lot. I read this some weeks ago, and looking through it now there’s nothing that stands out about it other than an impressive double-page splash in the middle. The writing by Dan Jurgens is professional and competent, he handles the characters well, but it’s just not memorable. The art by Lan Medina is quite good, at times excellent. I can’t put my finger on any flaw in this book, I can only say it didn’t wow me. Not sure if I’ll keep reading or not.

Mildly recommended.

And Then I Read: ROBERT A HEINLEIN Volume 2

RAHVol2Image © William H. Patterson, Jr., art by Donato.

In many ways it’s impossible to review this 671-page biography, which is only the second half. But in one way, it’s easy: are you a fan of science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein? Are you interested in learning about his life? Then this two-volume tome is essential reading, and really the only accurate way to date to find out what the man and his life were all about. Heinlein is one of my favorite writers, and his writing is full of the personality, ideas and ideals of the man himself, so I found reading about him almost as fascinating has his work.

One thing that kept surprising me was how many health problems the man endured and struggled with, beginning before his writing career when he developed TB in the Navy, something that left him forever vulnerable to infections and viruses. After nearly every public appearance he got sick, but that didn’t stop him, particularly when he had a cause, like the series of blood drives he sponsored at conventions. The one time I saw Heinlein in person was at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City. That was the beginning of his blood drives that did much to raise awareness and increase donation.

This book could only have been written after the passing of both Heinlein and his wife Virginia. He never liked analyzing his own work, and was very suspicious of others who did. He had a long-running feud with writher Alexei Panshin over the latter’s book and articles about Heinlein’s work. Another surprisingly antagonistic relationship was with early SF fan and would-be agent Forrest J. Ackerman. Forry clearly loved Heinlein’s work, and thought it should be spread more widely, but his method of doing that was highly unethical: representing himself as Heinlein’s agent to foreign publishers and movie companies without any permission, and making sales that Heinlein knew nothing about!

I first discovered Heinlein when I was a teenager, and I devoured his books for young readers. Soon after I began reading his more adult material in books and magazines. He seemed so impressive and successful, it was surprising to me to learn that he wasn’t financially secure until his novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” became a surprise paperback best-seller in the late 1960s, and kept on selling well for years. I think it’s probably his best novel, and I remember feeling gratified when the world finally caught on.

There are many more things I could say, but the bottom line is, if you’re a fan, you’ll want to read these. Don’t miss out.