Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Friday's Child is Loving and Giving

Just a few days ago, I finished re-reading a favorite story, Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction novel, Friday. Although it was one of the first books by the grand master that I read, it was actually written quite late in his career. My sister read a paperback copy, while holding down a chair in a hospital waiting room, and passed it along to me.  It earned a spot on my keeper shelf. For a while I had an "annual read" list, and Friday was on it. Many years and many books ago, I abandoned my once-a-year reading list, but a while back, I found a rare hard cover copy at a used bookstore, and that is the one I carried around with me for a couple of weeks, relishing the story one more time.

Friday grabs the reader's attention in a way that was unusual in fiction then, although having a "hook" for the reader is almost mandatory for today's readers. The opening chapter is one of the most controversial in all of Heinlein's work, because Friday is captured by enemies of her boss and tortured, including rape. While that nasty crime occurs every day, many readers refuse to read any further. Too bad, because Friday is a darned good book. Fans of Heinlein tend to discuss his more famous works such as Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I really liked those books, but this story is unusual, even for Heinlein. The questions begin with the title. Why did he call his main character Friday? Was he alluding to Robinson Crusoe's friend, or was there some other reason?

The plot meanders like Voltaire's Candide, which was apparently one of Heinlein's inspirations for this work, and the ending is almost not an ending. Still, the characters are engaging, and the main character and narrator, Friday Jones a/k/a Marjorie Baldwin, is perhaps the most memorable Heinlein creation of all, because she is not "human" as defined by the laws and social customs of her time. Instead, she is a genetic creation, an "artificial person" and is therefore subject to both external prejudice and internal doubt. Yet, because she is a creation and not an accident of nature, as are real people, she is super smart and super human. Her many talents help her survive and even thrive on a future earth which has deteriorated so far that the only hope for humanity is migration off-planet.

Readers of vintage science fiction almost expect some sort of prescient predictions of the future, and Heinlein was at his best when he created Friday's world. Published in 1982, this novel includes some concepts which were novel then, but are now common place. Some of them include intricate camera based security measures, genetically engineered embryos, a computer network which seems quite a lot like our internet, computerized billing, use of credit cards for almost all business transactions, and instant visual communication, much like our web cams. Other interesting aspects which have not (yet) come to fruition are the Balkanization of the American continent, and domination of government by multinational corporations. At one point Friday travels to the California Confederacy, where citizens decided that having an advanced education was unfair to citizens who did not have one, so the citizenry voted for everyone to be awarded a diploma, at birth. While I do not want my political views to alienate readers of Pam's Pages, let me just say that I find it interesting that Heinlein's future citizens were apt to vote in anything to make things "fair" and leave it at that.

Politics are certainly a part of many Heinlein books, but Friday's themes are much more sophisticated and universal than mere politics. More than anything else, Friday is motivated to belong to a family. She takes all manner of risks and sometimes does enormously stupid things, for a super-genius, just because she has low self-esteem and needs a family to love her. After her divorce, Friday's employer (who is known as Boss, since this is a first person narrative) tells her to look up Franklin's parable of the whistle. Boss knows her, including her weaknesses, but instead of fruitlessly trying to "give" her self-esteem, which really can't be given, he prompts her to learn it for herself, which is the greatest gift of all.

Heinlein tired of writing coming of age yarns for youths, deliberately remaking his writing career halfway through, and although this novel clearly belongs in the "serious science fiction" latter half of his career, he did return to the core story line of growing up for Friday. As the story moves around the planet at a breakneck pace and into space at light speed, Friday tiptoes toward maturity and acceptance of who she really is.

Although Friday herself is far from perfect, she is so earnest and amusing that the reader goes along for the ride. Heinlein's plot may be nebulous, but his vision of the future and humanity is crystal clear.

Gosh, I love this book!

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Sunday, March 21, 2010


I've seen a couple of plays recently, and each one was humorous and well acted.

On the stage of the Colleen Williams Theatre in Winder, Georgia, I saw "Harvey" performed by the Winder Barrow Community Theatre. Although it was my idea, hubby, son, and friend all enjoyed the play. This was the first production I've seen by this group, but I hope it isn't my last. While the entire cast did a good job, Tery Overby as Elwood P. Dowd was the star of the show. For anyone who hasn't seen it, Harvey is imaginary, and Dowd is a pleasant nutcase. Or maybe he isn't so nutty after all. Regardless, this blend of fantasy and reality harkens back to the comedy of manners. Remember manners? I hope so!

I was also privileged to see Harvey Fierstein in the touring version of "Fiddler On the Roof," at a theatre which bears the name Cobb Energy Center. There was plenty of energy on stage, so maybe it isn't such a weird name after all. My sister was my hostess for this event, as a birthday gift, and it was a fine gift indeed.

"Fiddler on the Roof" is a musical, and while it has funny moments, it is also a touching story. It opens with the musical number "Tradition" and gives a fascinating portrait of the life of Jewish peasants in Russia just after the turn of the twentieth century. Tevye has five daughters, but no money for a dowry, and it is this problem which gets the story underway. However, this is not a comedy, because there are more significant matters going on in the Tsar's Russia, and in the world, and the small village of Anatevka will not escape the pograms and the oppression that culminates in revolution. There are wonderful songs, including "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," and "Sunrise, Sunset" and some great lines in "Fiddler on the Roof," so it is a play which has broad appeal. My favorite lines are those uttered by the local rabbi when he is asked for a blessing for the Tzar. His response is, "May the Lord bless and keep the T'sar... far away from us!" Amen. I've said that about a few other folks, if the truth be known.

As we chatted about the play on the way back to the car, sister focused on the pathos at the end, but I see it as also filled with hope. Yes, the inhabitants of the village were the victims of prejudice, forced to leave with only a three day notice, but it was that mistreatment by the Russians which caused them to come to America, a new version of the promised land.

One of the best ways to know a civilization is to study its literature, because historians always write with some bias, and drama is one of the best ways to experience being an American. Each of these plays, although far different, are examples of wholesome entertainment, which is so lacking these days.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

A Parable

As an English instructor, even an adjunct as I am nowadays, I have times when I am busy, and this is such a time. However, I am re-reading Robert A. Heinlein's Friday, which is one of my all time favorite novels, and is on my top-ten in science fiction. There are many gems of wisdom within the pages, since this novel was written when Mr. Heinlein was an older and wiser man. One of his characters, Friday's employer,  refers to Ben Franklin's "Parable of the Whistle," asking Friday if she now realizes that she has misused her time and her money. Although I had read Mr. Franklin, this reference was my introduction to the parable, and over the years, I've used it often as a teaching tool.  While I am grading my students' research papers, I will share this charming and instructional story with readers of Pam's Pages. Do enjoy it!
When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.
This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.
As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.
When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, this man gives too much for his whistle.
When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, "He pays, indeed," said I, "too much for his whistle."
If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, "Poor man," said I, "you pay too much for your whistle."
When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal sensations, and ruining his health in their pursuit, "Mistaken man," said I, "you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle."
If I see one fond of appearance, or fine clothes, fine houses, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, "Alas!" say I, "he has paid dear, very dear, for his whistle."
When I see a beautiful sweet-tempered girl married to an ill-natured brute of a husband, "What a pity," say I, "that she should pay so much for a whistle!"
In short, I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.
Yet I ought to have charity for these unhappy people, when I consider that, with all this wisdom of which I am boasting, there are certain things in the world so tempting, for example, the apples of King John, which happily are not to be bought; for if they were put to sale by auction, I might very easily be led to ruin myself in the purchase, and find that I had once more given too much for the whistle.

— Benjamin Franklin

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