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.