The Cranky Old Reader

I'm a Goodreads refugee, looking for a new home. Old books for children, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and humor are my main areas of interest. I've little interest in books that were written after 1975 or so, and prefer books that are older still. There are, however, a few still-living authors that I respect.

Assignment in Eternity

Assignment in Eternity - Robert A. Heinlein Assignment In Eternity is from the "golden" part of Heinlein's career before he went a bit mad with power and started writing books without allowing them to be edited (and, unfortunately, decided that sex and incest were irresistible themes). It was one of the first science fiction books I ever read. It's also still one of my very favorite books. As Heinlein books go, it's relatively obscure; undeservedly so, I think.There was a painting of a naked woman on the cover of my old paperback copy, so I made a book-jacket out of a brown paper bag for it. That's how much of a prude I was. Of course I was...let me see...probably twelve years old or so when I first read it.The book contains three novellas and one short story. They're among Heinlein's best, in my opinion: classic examples of his early peak period (all of the content of AiE was written in the 1940s). The novellas include "Gulf", which Heinlein used much later as the background for his novel Friday (which many think inspired the Jessica Alba TV show Dark Angel). It begins as a near-future spy story, and expands from there with some very interesting ideas about human potential, intelligence, and what it means to be a "superman". It includes quite a bit about the work of Samuel Renshaw, a topic which obviously interested Heinlein a lot (much as semantics did). In that regard, Heinlein was rather Campbellesque; he tended to get something of a bee in his bonnet about some new scientific "breakthrough" and include it in his works. Since there are no Renshawing or semantics centers on every street-corner, I think we can say that Heinlein's track record on these particular points was not great (although it was nowhere near as bad as John W. Campbell or Mark Twain, of course).In any case, "Gulf" is classic Heinlein; exciting, provocative (not in the sexual sense, as this is relatively early Heinlein), and gripping. The ending isn't necessarily happy, and comes with jarring suddenness. For some reason Heinlein didn't use so much as a paragraph break to indicate a discontinuity or passage of time; this was, I think, a mistake that he would not have made later in his career. But still, it's only a minor flaw. Another novella is "Lost Legacy", in which a doctor, a psychologist, and one of their students at a university discover a way to unlock psychic powers in the human brain, only to find that they're not the only ones with these powers. Because it's a novella, Heinlein gets to develop the characters of the protagonists more than he would in a short story; they're quite likable people. And because this is early Heinlein, the characters aren't constantly having sex and showing their utter moral superiority over anything non-Heinlein.The development of those powers is extremely well written. You can really place yourself in the story; for all that it's fantastic, it's very believable. Of course, the story is based on the idea that the majority of the human brain has no known function, and my understanding is that that theory has since been disproved. But that doesn't affect the story, which is just a great read. And the end is quite touching."Elsewhen" is much closer to pure fantasy, but has a lovely gentle quality. A professor teaches a seminar in which he shows students how to use their minds to move through time and probability to anywhere or anywhen. Inevitably, complications lead to more probability-hopping and transformations. The professor himself is a bit unusual for a Heinlein protagonist, in that he's actually rather gentle and academic; less, well, "Heinleinish" than most of Heinlein's later heroes, who tend to be virtual supermen in almost every sense of the word. It's worth noting that both "Elsewhen" and "Lost Legacy" feature strong-willed and competent heroines, which was somewhat unusual for that time. The end of "Elsewhen" always leaves me in a warm glow."Jerry Was A Man" is the short story at the end. It's about a rich, not-too-bright woman who is horrified when she learns that enhanced worker apes are being killed and made into dog food when they can no longer work. She brings Jerry, the ape that first caught her attention, home with her (she owns stock in the company that created him). To win basic civil rights for the enhanced apes she employs a legal firm and and a "shyster" (Heinlein's word, not mine). The shyster is rather reminiscent of Jubal Harshaw in Stranger In A Strange Land; in this future setting shysters are essentially smart fixers, beyond the legal pale but necessary to the system. In any case, Jerry is the test case they use to try to establish anthropoid rights. Along the way her even-more-stupid trophy husband makes difficulties, for a while. There's also some interesting and imaginative discussion of genetic manipulation in the earlier part of the story. I've never thought of Pegasus the same way since I first read it. Neither will you.Here's the thing that I missed about the story when I was younger, and the reason that I've thought for so long that I should write something about it. The shyster needs a hook, an angle to rouse the emotions of the public in favor of rights for Jerry (the case is, of course, being televised). He sees Jerry dressed in a kilt, and momentarily considers trying to get him to play the bagpipe; obviously he's thinking of trying to make some sort of Scottish connection. But he discards that, and - unfortunately this is a spoiler, but it can't be helped - instead puts Jerry in jeans and a shabby leather or denim jacket, I can't remember which. And then he gets Jerry to sing "Ol' Man River" in the courthouse, and that makes the case. The audience goes crazy, and "Jerry Was A Man".Now, I could be wrong, but the implication that I take from that is that the shyster was tying in to African-American culture, as Heinlein saw it at the time. I'm sure that Heinlein was far less racist than most of his contemporaries, but racism was a basic part of the culture back then. A character in "Elsewhen" says that she's "free, white, and twenty-one", if I remember correctly. And of course there is Heinlein's early novel Sixth Column, with its painful anti-Asian elements (yes, I know that John W. Campbell forced them on Heinlein, but Heinlein DID write them). "He was a yellow man, but he was white inside" still makes me cringe, which may be why it has apparently been removed from later editions of Sixth Column.The use of the word "shyster" in the Jerry story itself is also an interesting example of the casual racism that was, I believe, quite common throughout much of the United States in the 1940s.Anyway, I can't shake the thought that Heinlein was basically saying that African-Americans presumably responded because as a chimpanzee Jerry either looked more like them than any other racial group (in his, i.e. Heinlein's opinion), or was somehow closer to them. Perhaps that would be because Jerry's ancestors were presumably also from Africa. But given that the book was first published in 1947...well, I have to wonder. Was the whole hook of the story the idea that Africans look like monkeys, and vice-versa? I'm honestly not sure! But if not, what could it have been?Despite that, Assignment In Eternity is one of the most compulsively readable collections of stories by a single author in the field of science fiction. Heinlein was in many ways a modern Rudyard Kipling (just as Kurt Vonnegut was the modern analog of Mark Twain), with all of his gift for storytelling; he captures the reader's imagination from the first page and takes you with him on fantastic journeys. You'll want to make that trip again and again.

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