Great Writer/Terrible Book

Great Writer/Terrible Book March 17, 2023

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I suppose it happens to every great writer at some point. Every Harper Lee cranks out a Go Set a Watchmen. Every Stephen King writes a Regulators. Every J.K. Rowling writes something that doesn’t begin with Harry Potter and the… And every Robert Heinlein writes an I Will Fear No Evil.

I Will Fear No Evil is an unfortunate book for many reasons, not least of which there are many ways it could have gone right. The basic plot is that Johann Sebastian Bach Smith, a super rich nonagenarian who grew up in the Great Depression and is now seeing a futuristic society crumble around him even as his body decays, has left orders for his brain to be transplanted via experimental surgery into a donor body. The hook of the novel is that 1) the donor body is a woman; 2) the woman is his former secretary Eunice; and 3) her mind is still in the body along with Smith.

There were many possibilities for this book. Heinlein could have explored the question of the soul: is there something beyond the organ of our brain left behind? He pretty clearly says ‘yes’ when Eunice shows up mentally and starts talking to Johann–only to give this zero further exploration. There are all sorts of opportunities for social reflection. Each chapter starts with a sort-of news feed that provides snippets of what’s going on around the world and on the moon (Heinlein regularly hints that this book fits in well with his far-superior-but-still-flawed work The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). And of course most obviously there were plenty of opportunities for reflections on gender, sexuality, and identity. All the groundwork was there, and if he had done so Heinlein would have (yet again) been far ahead of the historical curve given that this book came out in 1970. What does it mean to put a man’s brain in a woman’s body? Who is the person that results? Can there be two minds in one body? What does that imply for the body? For the soul? We don’t get any of that. What do we get instead?

Lots of sex.

Smith learns in his ‘new’ body and from his mental conversations with Eunice that the main motivating force for women is gettin’ some. Under guidance from Eunice, he learns the ropes as woman, ending [spoiler alert] in an open marriage that emigrates the whole love nest to the moon where presumably they all live happily ever after.

Which, as you can probably tell, means I Will Fear No Evil is a big steaming pile of garbage. Clearly Christian and non-Christian alike are going to be rightly outraged at the rampant objectification of women Heinlein engages in here. Science fiction fans are going to be outraged at the wasted opportunities and numerous false starts for a potentially good novel. And the more thoughtful crowd will be outraged at the sloppiness of reflection in this book. At best it’s lazy writing; at worst it’s actively awful.

So what are we to do with a book written by a Grand Master of Science Fiction, winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, that is basically utter rubbish. Unlike I Will Fear No Evil, I think that question is kind-of interesting. I don’t claim to have an answer to this (obviously it’s the kind of thing our culture is thinking through these days–so it’s not like anyone has a good answer yet), but it’s still interesting to think about. Presumably everyone wants to hold on to the good stuff Heinlein has written (and there is a lot of it), but we also want to be honest about the bad (which includes at least this book, and no doubt there are others that could be added to the list). As Christians of course we should be willing to acknowledge that people are mixtures of good and bad, and that the things we make are also mixtures of good and bad. Sometimes these things skew more in one direction than the other (though I’m hard pressed to find the good in this particular book). But having decided that, we’re still left with the question of what to do having discerned the good and the bad. Again, I just don’t know. I mean, I know about this book–it will be headed off to the ‘get rid of stack’ (which is a rare fate for a book on my shelves). The general question remains, and is a matter for ongoing reflection–ideally for smarter folks than me…

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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