Thursday, 7 August 2008

I WILL FEAR NO HEINLEIN

Heinlein day at the SF forum where I am an absentee space ranger much of the time. The usual encomia to his no doubt efficient, absorbing prose, exciting adventure plots and canny gadget speculation.

Also some amount of glorification of his philosophies in the later works, retreating back to the same old 'don't mix up the man and the ideas in his books' defense when his glowing depictions of incest, paedophilia (yes, people, it is paedophilia even if the kid is a teenager and the abuser is a parent or frendathefamily) and general sexual licence, to say nothing of a tacit promotion of private eugenics projects, overwhelm any other considerations much of the time.

Heinlein fans need to have their cake and eat it, it seems - praise him for the ideas they can get you to admit are rather interesting, and then dissociate him from the unsavoury ones calling them 'thought experiments'.

Hey, exploring the psyche of paedophilia was a thought experiment when Nabakov wrote about it. Once. If he'd spent the rest of his life writing novels in which, amongst everything else, a horny old academic lured an underage 'nymphet' (a ghastly concept to somehow normalise wanting to fuck a child, and one that I hope Nabakov himself never subscribed to) away to a life of sexual slavery, I think we'd be well justified in questioning his proclivities as a person.

The fact is, his later works are so full of questionable content (I'm not even going to get into his unique passive-aggressive sexism here) as to ovverhwelm any value they might serve as a 'masterly deconstruction of the absurdities of western culture and society'. Anyone can say what's wrong with a clearly flawed system (I live in a flawed system, too, so I know). But Heinlein doesn't stop at that, and it's hard to assume that such polemical books are not prescriptive in nature, just as, beyond a certain point of reader awareness, it's impossible to read Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries purely as detective stories and wish away or ignore the Catholic apologism, or to read Orwell's Animal Farm as a jolly anthropomorphic romp.

Towards the end of his career Heinlein was asking some really vital and penetrating questions. One of these, for instance, was: what can be done to get rid of the terrible consequences sexual prudery and repression have on human beings? His answers, consistently, are not as good. In this case: do away with all taboos and restrictions and let whoever do whoever as long as they all agree (and they will since all taboos have been done away with, and if they still feel a qualm, we'll seduce them into it) and, if consanguinous or non-eugenically optimum, we'll use the morning after pill. But don't worry, the rugged man of action won't need to bother about all that. Because birth control is a *girl's* job, boss.

Does that sound like a cruel caricature? Well,that last sentiment was actually uttered by a character in Heinlein's I WILL FEAR NO EVIL. Yikes.

The larger question here is, do we want to be oblivious readers, readers who let author take us by the hands and lead us, merrily skipping, into any morass or thicket, blithely whistling disclaimers when the path meanders through suspect areas, and praising our exceptional good fortune when occasionally it doesn't? I think we owe it to ourselves to keep things honest and read with open eyes, as it were.

Elsewhere I am arguing against claims that Arthur C Clarke somehow embraced religion towards the end of his life. Just because the man was suckered in by Buddhism's surface layer of common sense doesn't make him a flaming theist. He requested that there be no religious rites at his funeral, after all.

So all in all, it's pretty clear what I am. I'm a puritanical atheist. Who knew?