Berkley Medallion, 1970, 512 pages
As startling and provocative as his famous Stranger in a Strange Land, here is Heinlein’s grand masterpiece about a man supremely talented, immensely old, and obscenely wealthy who discovers that money can buy everything.
Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was immensely rich—and very old. Though his mind was still keen, his body was worn out. His solution was to have surgeons transplant his brain into a new body. The operation was a great success—but the patient was no longer Johann Sebastian Bach Smith. He was now fused with the very vocal personality of his gorgeous, recently deceased secretary, Eunice—with mind-blowing results! Together they must learn to share control of her body.
Once again, master storyteller Robert A. Heinlein delivers a wild and intriguing classic of science fiction. Written at the dawn of the 1970s, this novel is the brilliantly shocking story of the ultimate transplant.
About a third of the way into this novel, I couldn't stop hearing this musical number from Flower Drum Song:
Oh yeah, it's that bad.
The Heinleinian Woman
Previously, I thought Friday was the point Heinlein-the-author started to go seriously off the rails. But I Will Fear No Evil, a 1970 novel reeking of the same "free love" wankery as Stranger in a Strange Land, is just a complete and utter trainwreck. Even his fans generally consider it to be one of his worst books. In fairness, he apparently wrote it while literally dying (he got better) and it was a barely-edited first draft that got published. That might excuse the fact that the book essentially has no plot, but it's a revealing look at what the inside of Heinlein's brain looked like when it was baking with fever.
I've always accepted that Robert Heinlein was a creepy old man who had great big honkin' issues, but he could tell a damn good story. His books are guaranteed to be entertaining, if you can get past... well, his issues. You may occasionally hear his stalwart defenders waxing with neckbeardy enthusiasm about "Heinleinian women," who are generally strong (for a certain value of "strong"), independent (for a certain value of "independent"), super-competent female characters. They are also always, always, hyper-feminine and super-hot male fantasies. They may be super-competent — even super-human — but they'll always bite their lip and meekly submit to the authority of their lord and master, the male lead. Just about every adult Heinlein novel I've ever read has a scene where the li'l spitfire has had a good run, being all feisty and independent and shit, and then The Man needs to put the little lady in her place.
He stepped to the wall and squeezed down the intercom to zero, then said gently, “Get dressed, dear.”
“I won’t! If we leave now, you’ll have to stuff me into the car bare naked.”
He sighed and picked her up; she stopped crying and looked suddenly happy.
The expression did not last. He turned her in his arms as he sat down on a straight chair, got a firm grip on her, and walloped her right buttock. She yelped. And struggled.
He got her more firmly, placing his right leg over both of hers, and applied his hand smartly to her left cheek. Then he alternated sides, stopping with ten. He set her on her feet and said, “Get dressed, dear. Quickly.”
She stopped rubbing the punished area. “Yes, Jake.”
Neither said another word until he had handed her into the car, climbed in after her, and they had been locked in. Then she said timidly, “Jake? Will you hold me?”
“May I take my robe off, please? Will you take it off me?”
With the robe out of the way she sighed and snuggled in. After a bit she whispered, “Jake darling? Why did you spank me?”
It was his turn to sigh. “You were being difficult…and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs. And right then—I couldn’t.”
The important thing to know about this scene, from I Will Fear No Evil? The female character actually has the brain (literally) of a 90-year-old man.
He enjoys being a girl
The premise of I Will Fear No Evil is that Johann Sebastian Bach Smith, a nonagenarian billionaire, has devised a scheme to escape his doctors, who won't remove him from his intrusive life support and let him die. So he arranges to have his brain transplanted into the next available healthy body, by a surgeon who believes he can actually perform this feat but has been unable to test it on a human. Johann doesn't actually expect to survive the procedure, but he does — in the body of a super-hot young woman. That's only half the twist; the other half is that the young woman was previously his secretary, who was tragically murdered going home one evening. And once Johann takes over her body, he finds that she is still inhabiting it, so the two of them are constantly having a mental dialog while he learns how to get in touch with his feminine side.
This had the potential to be thought-provoking science fiction, problematic as it may have been. Johann himself does raise the possibility several times that he might just be imagining Eunice inside his head with him, but the narrative makes that increasingly hard to swallow, as does an additional twist at the end. So somehow, even though her brain is not just dead but cremated, Eunice is still hanging around giving her old boss tips on how to be a girl. And boy does he go all-in on the "girl" thing.
Is this an interesting, mind-bendy exploration of how a 90-something guy who grew up in the Great Depression might adjust to living as a 20-something woman in the early 21st century? No, it's about how being transplanted into a female body instantly turns you into a super-emotional hormonal nymphomaniac girly-girl.
Okay, as Johann repeatedly tells Eunice, he's been around the block a few times and all the hip sexin' she thinks her generation invented is nothing new to him. And probably an open-minded guy would, umm, explore the possibilities of being in a female body. But there is no hint that Johann was ever anything but a heterosexual before the transplant, so the fact that he shifts immediately into girl-mode, calls herself "Joan," and proceeds to jump on every dick in sight, is, umm, questionable. As is the notion that this guy who has been a rich and powerful corporate patriarch for the last few decades would let another man turn him over his knee and give him a spanking. And have an orgasm as a result.
All of this is with encouragement by Eunice, who was also a free lovin' wench who, as she tells him, "knew what my purpose in life was all the way back in Girl Scouts, when I was still a virgin and before I had tits." She lovingly instructs him in the art of being a woman, which means making sure she's made up and hot at all times (her biggest concern after coming out of a weeks-long coma following her death is that her butt has gotten a little saggy) and always agreeing with men. Eunice, of course, was another Heinleinian woman: very smart, very beautiful, a too-good-to-be-true angel who never met a man she didn't want to fuck.
Eunice was married to an artist named Joe, who's portrayed as one of the other really good and decent people in the book, but he's a great big man-child who only cares about art and sex. He literally lets himself and his girlfriend (who replaced Eunice) go hungry because dealing with tedious practical matters like making a living off his art (or in any other way) is not something his manly artistic mind can comprehend. Not to worry, though: Joan shows up and, while working out a sneaky way to subsidize Joe (who is too proud to accept any charity), tells Gigi, his girlfriend, that she has to always take care of Joe, including washing the dishes and cleaning the toilets, even if it means losing hours of sleep, so he's never distracted from his art by, you know, dirty dishes or a toilet.
Suggest that maybe Joe might take a moment from his painting and screwing to wash a dish himself? Heavens no, that's a Heinleinian woman's job!
Anything with a pulse
There is not. A. Single. Male. Character. In. The. Book. That Joan doesn't strip for, have sex with, or at the very least, kiss and offer to have sex with.
I mean that literally. I'm searching my memory after having just read it, and I can't think of one. The judges and lawyers involved in her competency hearing? (Johann's grasping granddaughters -- who it turns out are none of them actually biologically related to him because every one of his children by his multiple wives was by another man because WIMMIN R WHORES) all get to see Joan strip. Her bodyguards? Even the Magical Negro who's a Christian preacher when he's not driving shotgun in an armed SUV, she kisses and talks to everyone else about wanting to screw if he weren't so darn Christian. The doctor who performed her brain transplant? Turns out he's an asexual sadist so he turns her down, after she throws herself at him. Even the petty bureaucrat who obstructs her emigration to the moon gets a kiss with tongue.
No, seriously. Every. Male. Character.
Of course, she also gets it on with a female nurse (incidentally, no Heinleinian woman is a doctor, scientist, engineer, lawyer, you get the idea), but not in any way that would actually make either of them, you know, lesbians or bi. Because they're still totally hotting themselves up for every man in sight, even when they are together.
Too bad there wasn't any story to go with that sex
All of this skeeviness, I might have forgiven, at least with the, "Yeah, the poor guy was fevered and dying when he wrote this shit" excuse, if he had actually included a plot. But there isn't one. I've pretty much told you the entire plot, above. It's all about Johann becoming Joan and going Maximum Girl for the rest of the book. There's a bit of Heinlein's wanking on social issues, but not in a particularly deep, interesting, or original manner. It's set in the early 21st century and we see news snippets at the beginning of each chapter telling us about the ongoing deterioration of civil rights, the economy, and the environment.
In this falling-apart America of the early 21st century, incidentally, the fashion for women is... body paint. And not much else. That cover picture above is actually a pretty accurate representation of how Eunice/Joan walks around.
Lest this review scare you off Heinlein forever (and who could blame you?) it really is a crap book by an author who laid quite a few craps in his day, but also wrote some good stuff. Late Heinlein becomes increasingly unreadable even after the nadir of I Will Fear No Evil, but his earlier novels (especially his juveniles) are still highly entertaining SF with a lot less of the squicky stuff (though his gender politics were never, ever anything but regressive and reductive).
But don't read this book. It's got, really, nothing to recommend it unless you just like seeing what the first draft of an author who's on death's door might write.
Have you read I Will Fear No Evil?
Have you read anything else by Heinlein?
Verdict: I have read many of Robert Heinlein's novels, but I have not read all of them, so I cannot swear that I Will Fear No Evil is the worst book he ever wrote... but if it's not, may the Furies spare me from ever reading worse. When this book isn't gross and offensive, it's absurd and boring, a meandering wankfest with barely any plot and gender roles that make Piers Anthony look feminist. A trainwreck that should probably never have been published, but Heinlein had already reached the "Can publish anything" stage.
Also by Robert Heinlein: My reviews of Have Space Suit, Will Travel and Starman Jones.
My complete list of book reviews.