Heinlein as Modern Mythmaker


Job: A Comedy of Justice, by Robert A. Heinlein, New York: Ballantine, 384 pp. $16.95

Robert Heinlein has been called a crossover success because he, as a writer in the genre of science fiction/fantasy, sells books to the general public. Heinlein consistently makes the New York Times bestseller list and has commanded six-figure advances for his recent novels.

But Heinlein is more and less than an adopted son of the New York literary establishment. To pigeonhole him as a crossover from the less-than-respectable science fiction/fantasy field is at once to accept the questionable preferences of the existing literary establishment and to overstate the literary quality of Heinlein the writer.

His work has become part of the culture in ways that other bestselling writers have never approached. Stranger in a Strange Land was nearly scripture to the counterculture movement of the '60s. His consistent support of individual rights and responsibility have influenced thousands of people in much the same way that Ayn Rand's novels affect her readers.

Heinlein is an important writer, but he is not a great writer. With that statement, I have incurred the wrath and permanent grudges of ardent Heinlein admirers. And I am addressing an audience that is probably more fanatic than most.

So I have to carefully explain why I say he is not a great writer. I do defend him as one of the masters, a standard-bearer of his genre with Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. But I think Heinlein would agree with my assessment of him—given my definition of the word "writer."

A great writer, not the same thing as a great storyteller, is a craftsman with words. A great writer exalts the palette of language itself and does not even necessarily tell a good story, using language as a great director uses film to present individual scenes that stand by themselves outside the context of the story being told.

Heinlein does not do that. He once wrote a caricature of himself as storyteller in Stranger in a Strange Land, when the autobiographical Jubal Harshaw dictates a story of an orphaned kitten lost on Christmas eve. Harshaw is cynically shameless as he tells the story, but the secretary who has taken his dictated story weeps and Harshaw has accomplished exactly what he meant to do. So does Heinlein.

Those uninitiated in the works of Heinlein should know what they are getting into though. For example, Heinlein does not really describe his characters. They are revealed through their actions and their speech. His characters are unpredictable, though they behave within the range of well-thought-out boundaries. Heinlein's novels work, but it is because of the sequence of events and the ideas alone. In short, it is the story.

And that should not deter anyone from reading Job: A Comedy of Justice, especially fans of Heinlein's who were put off by the utterly disappointing Number of the Beast. Job had my interest from the first page. And more, I appreciate its intellectual framework. Job is a bold novel that deserves praise for what it does, despite my reticence to give the whole-hearted endorsement that I would give another book that is similar in many ways—John Gardner's Grendel.

Gardner, who died recently, was a great science fiction/fantasy writer, though he was never proclaimed such. In Grendel, Gardner retold the epic myth of Beowulf from the point of view of the Danish monster, Grendel. Gardner worked within the ancient paradigm of the story completely, reinterpreting the established events, coming to different political and moral conclusions. Heinlein shares many of Gardner's critical views of authority, though, if anything, Gardner was even more anarchist.

I call Grendel science fiction/fantasy because it is in every respect part of the same genre as Heinlein's Job. But the important point is that Job and Grendel are part of the same literary tradition as Beowulf and the original book of Job. Science fiction/fantasy is simply the latest evolution in the oldest form of literary expression, the epic myth. It has prehistoric roots, with an oral tradition that predates the written word. Egyptians told and retold the stories of Set and Thoth. The Chinese had their dragons, and Indians had Krishna. The Greeks had a superhero who could turn into a swan if it helped him get what he wanted. They all meddled in the affairs of normal people, and there was always a moral to the story. Heinlein is an epic mythmaker. Forget that he does not care about prose.

Job: A Comedy of Justice, like Grendel, is set within a pre-existing scenario. The monsters, Lucifer and Grendel, are both reexamined in light of the actions of their adversaries, Jehovah and Beowulf. And in both books, the tables are turned. But Heinlein tackles the most important myth in modern history: the Judeo-Christian concept of God.

It's not necessary to deal with the veracity of that myth, the possibility that Jesus was in fact the "Godhead incarnate," as the scriptures say. Myths can be based in fact. We are talking about literature, not religion, and the Christian heaven is as fantastic as Valhalla, Nirvana, or Mount Olympus.

The original story of Job is the chronicle of a seemingly petty squabble between Jehovah and Lucifer, considered by many biblical scholars to be the oldest book in the Bible—predating Genesis in its oral form. God asks Lucifer what he has been up to and Lucifer says he's been here and there and noticed God's showcase servant, Job. But he points out that anybody with Job's good fortune, equal in modern terms to a healthy Howard Hughes, would find it easy to believe in God. So, quixotically, God begins methodically to remove everything that Job has, including his health, in a test of loyalty.

Heinlein updates the story to the time of the Second Coming of Christ. The role of the tested is Alexander Hergensheimer's, a successful fundraiser for a fundamentalist religious empire not unlike many in existence today. Hergensheimer is sincere in his very realistic faith. Heinlein has done his research well. Furthermore, Heinlein plays by the rules, accepting all the principles that fundamentalists insist on. Instead of explaining away the evidence of evolution, for example, he accepts the hardline creationist story, letting Lucifer explain that God planted fossils simply to confuse people.

This, too, is not a new theme. Literary critic Harold Bloom, who holds the prestigious Sterling Professorship at Yale, wrote The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, in which the hero undergoes the same type of tests that Hergensheimer faces when, as in Job, he finds out that Jehovah is a secondary god who is not the infinite final "God."

The largest part of Job is about that testing of Hergensheimer. It begins when he takes a dare to walk a bed of hot coals while touring a Polynesian island, egged on by companions who point out that small children are doing it. When he reaches the end of the walk, he enters an altered world and things get hard, though he does meet a Danish maid on a cruise ship who is a source of comfort and classic Heinlein sex scenes. In the process, Heinlein gets to dispense his usual grandfatherly wisdom.

Heinlein's wisdom curiously resembles classic Christian values. He holds the puritan work ethic dear, except that he is no puritan. The virtue of hard work is praised and the book is almost anti-materialistic in its message that the only really important thing for a man is a woman, and vice versa. Next to a mate, Heinlein lists a razor, because a cleanshaven man is more likely to find work in an emergency, even if that work is washing dishes. When reality becomes so unpredictable that the faces on dollar bills change without warning, Heinlein manages to put in a word for hard money.

Romantic love has become a central theme for Heinlein, and Job develops that theme further than any of his previous novels. In fact, the main character's devotion to his Danish lover Margrethe becomes the final and telling battleground for Hergensheimer's spiritual loyalty. The woman is the sort that a man would walk into Hell for, and Heinlein takes the cliché literally. His exaltation of romantic love does not keep his hero from an occasional, actually frequent, dalliance. But Heinlein sticks to the rules, bringing up scriptural precedent—and there is plenty—for nonmonogamous behavior.

Heinlein has played with biblical themes before. The titles I Will Fear No Evil and Stranger in a Strange Land come from the Bible. The recent title and plot of The Number of the Beast was based on the Book of Revelations. Atheists who "doth protest too much" tire me, but Heinlein does not fit in that category. I don't even know what he really believes, and Job is not just another attack on religion.

Heinlein, like Gardner in Grendel, accepts the premises of his myth and uses them to question the way people interpret them, transcending the belief to reveal the believer. Moreover, the Judeo-Christian paradigm in which he works is not only part of our culture, but has helped form it in a profound way. Heinlein's observations on that influence and his insights into life in general are amusing and enlightening.

Heinlein's primary accomplishment in Job is the entertainment of his readers, but he does much more. He may not be the best writer of those who have taken on the issues dealt with in Job, but he is widely read by people who will never read Gardner or Bloom. For that he deserves a great deal of credit.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer, a public-relations consultant, and REASON's Spotlight columnist.