His Girl Friday

Friday — Robert A. Heinlein


For many fans of Robert A. Heinlein, 1982’s Friday was the book in which Heinlein recovered, at least to a degree, from the literary nadir of Number of the Beast1. For me it will always be the one with the Michael Whelan cover where the toggles on the zippers of the protagonist’s jumpsuit are little penises.

The book gets off to a thrilling start as Friday kills a man for shadowing her. Unfortunately, this isn’t sufficient to keep her from being betrayed, ambushed, and kidnapped by some amateurish thugs, who go on to rape and torture her before she is rescued. Friday, we are told, is a top courier, ace at her profession. It’s kind of a shame that the text doesn’t really support the contention that Friday is hyper-competent. What we actually get to see Friday do is flail her way from one crisis to another. I regard that as due (in equal parts) to her Bad Boss/father figure Baldwin and her author, Heinlein, who had more or less tossed the idea of coherent plots overboard by this point in his career.

The central fact of Friday’s life, one that shapes what happens to her and how she reacts to it, is that she is an Artificial Person (or AP) in a world where the one issue on which everyone agrees is that Artificial People are inherently inferior, lacking some essential element natural people have by virtue of not having been created in a lab. Society devotes a lot of effort to promoting this belief and Friday herself believes that she’s not quite a person.

Having retrieved Friday from her kidnapper, her Boss (Kettle Belly Baldwin, seen previously in Heinlein’s short story “Gulf”) is kind enough to give Friday time off. Sadly, this only gives her the chance to scuttle her group marriage when naked racism from her spouses provokes her into revealing to them that she is an AP. She’s still recovering from that when Red Thursday begins. As assassins begin to slaughter VIPs across the pocket nations and mega-corporations of this doleful world of tomorrow, Friday is cut off from her Boss. Her efforts to return to the one safe home she knows are energetic but ineffective.

She and her boss do eventually reconnect, but only long enough for the novel to establish that the Earth is Doomed! To a new round of Malthusian plagues! Because proof by assertion!

Friday’s world collapses again when Baldwin dies of natural causes and she is forced to do something, previously forbidden, for which she has not been in the least prepared. She has to look for a new job.

Friday’s name is, of course, a byword for a faithful and unquestioning servant. While readers of a certain age might associate the name Friday with the phrase “girl Friday,” and possibly with the movie His Girl Friday, the name of course goes back to Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe.

Here’s the reason I earlier called Baldwin a bad boss: not only is Friday emancipated after Baldwin dies, when he no longer needs her … but she is not in any way trained for a life after his organization implodes. This is not due to a lack of time or resources on his part; it is due to Baldwin’s selfishness in training Friday only in skills that benefit him. Friday adores her boss but I think it’s clear that her judgment is not reliable in this matter. He is not just a bad boss. He’s a selfish parent who expects someone who is essentially his child to devote her whole life to him, something he dresses with up with an affection that is either feigned or ineffectual.

Although Heinlein reuses the character of Kettle Belly Baldwin from “Gulf” and reveals that Friday is in a sense a descendent of Joe and Gail from that story, the backgrounds of Friday and of “Gulf” do not otherwise seem compatible; “Gulf” was set after a period during which commissars ran North America. There’s no hint of that background in Friday’s Balkanized America. The backstory for this novel does not add up to a coherent whole2.

In this late composition, the elderly and increasingly curmudgeonly Heinlein indulges himself in divers authorial digressions. He displays none of the self-discipline he would have shown a generation earlier. Much of this book consists of people lecturing each other or the reader about various aspects of Friday’s world. Lectures cover the sort of crankery one would expect from the Heinlein of this era: the perfidy of taxes, general impoliteness proving that the world is falling apart, and a rant justifying a monopoly on battery technology that made me feel as if I were listening to an old argument whose beginning I had missed. Heinlein also takes aim at a few geographic regions. He and his wife Ginny visited New Zealand in the 1950s and did not think much of it; the scenes set in New Zealand, scenes in which Friday’s seemingly pleasant spouses reveal themselves as bigots and worse, might be the Heinlein of 1982 getting in one last dig at NZ. Similarly, the scenes set in California allow him to poke fun at that state’s excesses.

The result isn’t as horrible as most late-period Heinlein, but I feel that this is less due to design and more due to sheer luck. While it is true the book ends on yet another babies forever resolution because basically that’s the only ending Heinlein could imagine for women, I do give him props for not repeating the error of Podkayne and keeping Friday the focus of her own novel.

There is one intriguing detail: the world of Friday features an internet of sorts. This is interesting because as late as the Expanded Universe collection it didn’t seem as if Heinlein had much grasp of the potential of computers and networks. I wonder what technological advances popped up in the Heinlein household between the late 1970s and the early 1980s?

Friday is dedicated to no less than thirty-one women: Ann, Anne, Barbie, Betsy, Bubbles, Carolyn, Catherine, Dian, Diane, Eleanor, Elinor, Gay, Jeanne, Joan, Judy-Lynn, Karen, Kathleen, Marilyn, Nichelle, Patricia, Pepper, Polly, Roberta, Tamea, Rebel, Ursula, Verna, Vivian, Vonda, Yumiko, and Ginny. Some of those will be obvious, but readers will have hours of harmless fun working out who the others were.

I may well be misled by memories of having once liked Heinlein’s fiction but I am going to interpret Friday’s rather casual reactions to the various abuses to which she is subjected (rape, torture, and incessant sexual harassment) not as proof that Heinlein shouldn’t try to write women, but rather as evidence of how thoroughly Friday and her fellow APs have been beaten down. Friday spends the whole book looking for someone who will love her, but her search is sabotaged by her conditioning. There’s a sad but illuminating little episode later in the book in which Friday and a fellow AP are attracted to each other, but fail to connect because both of them are secretly convinced that as APs they are essentially unlovable. For Friday to hold a grudge against her abusers, she’d have to believe it was wrong to abuse her, a cognitive leap that goes against everything she is taught.

1: You don’t have enough money. I’ve read that POS twice; there will not be a third time.

2: This didn’t fit into the review as a whole but … there’s a section of this book in which Heinlein wrestles with the issue of how to depict a 3D model within the limitations of 2D media. While I think this could have been cut out without impairing the story in any way, I do admit that I have wrestled with this issue myself. One of the nice things about the modern world is that computers make that kind of communication a lot easier to handle.

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