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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