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I will speak in the bitterness of my soul

Job: A Comedy of Justice

By Robert A. Heinlein 

29 Jan, 2015

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I could tell, even before opening my mass market paperback of 1984’s Job: A Comedy of Justice, that it documented my increasing disenchantment with Heinlein, once one of my favourite authors. (You might not have guessed that from my recent reviews.) Rather than buying the book new, I had purchased a used copy from Mike’s Bookstore [1]. Whoever owned it before me had left it worn and dog-eared before selling it. That person must have liked it more than I did. I don’t think I have reread it once since that first time in the mid-1980s. It’s not that it’s the worst thing Heinlein ever wrote; it’s more of a funny once and by funny once I mean meh.” How the mighty are fallen. 

You’d think a fundamentalist minister like Alexander Hergensheimer would know better than to dabble in strange native occult practices like fire walking; you’d be wrong. At the end of the ritual, Alexander passes out; when he awakes he finds himself a stranger in a strange land, an Earth where history played out very differently than the history Alexander knows. 

Actually, it’s more disorienting than simply stepping into an unfamiliar world; while Alexander does not recognize the people around him, they know his body, if not the mind in it. In this world, he is called Alec Graham. Where Alexander is a moralizing prig, Alec seems to be something more along the lines of a career criminal. 

Alec also turns out to have been carrying on a torrid affair with stewardess Margrethe. You might think that pious Alexander’s marriage to the dreadful Abigail (now existing only in Alexander’s lost home world) would be an impediment to his taking up where Alec left off, but you’d be wrong. You might also think that Alexander’s belated explanation to Margrethe that Alexander isn’t the Alec whose place he took would be another impediment to the affair, but you’d be wrong there as well. Margrethe is surprisingly undisturbed by the revelation. 

Alexander is just getting oriented when he is surprised again: he finds himself in a third world, another Earth with a history unlike his home timeline. There is one familiar element; Margrethe seems to have been pulled along in his wake. 

This second transition is in no way the last. The love affair seems to have established some kind of metaphysical bond; Margrethe accompanies Alexander as he is dragged willy-nilly from timeline to timeline. In each new world, the pair make a new life together, only to be forced to begin again as they find themselves cast into unfamiliar territory. 

The pair are kept pretty busy but they do have time to speculate about that’s going on. One possibility is that the end of the world (an event Margrethe knows as Ragnarok and Alexander as the Apocalypse) is roiling the timelines. Which is, as it turns out, exactly what’s going on. This confronts Alexander with a new fear: what if he and his pagan lover aren’t destined for the same afterlife? What if he and his wife are? 

This book is, I believe, a homage to James Branch Cabell, specifically to Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (which these days may be best remembered for having been the subject of an obscenity trial). Thanks to the efforts of Lin Carter, I do own and have read Jurgen, but Cabell just doesn’t have the resonance for me that it did for Heinlein. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. 

In one passage, Alexander laments that the closer he gets to his destination, the slower his progress. That describes the sensation of re-reading this book. Around page 300, plot fatigue set in. Getting through the text became more a matter of will than of curiosity about how things would work out. The closer I got to the end, the farther away it seemed. I cannot see anything in this novel that really needed 439 pages to achieve; 239 would have been sufficient. Or fewer? A short story perhaps? 

One of the lingering scars left by the terrible, terrible Patterson biography of Heinlein is that now whenever I encounter an unhappy marriage in a Heinlein short story or novel, I have to stop and ask myself: is this yet another stab by Heinlein at his ex-wife Leslyn? Heinlein sure knew how to hold a grudge. 

(I do not say this from a position of lofty moral superiority; I have been known to complain of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE. Romanes eunt domus!) 

However, in this case, I don’t think Heinlein is indulging his one-sided feud with his former wife. Here, Heinlein is drawing on a particular trope about a certain sort of socially ambitious matron that can be seen in various works of the early 20 th century and also in some of Heinlein’s fiction. 

In Abigail’s defense, Alexander is every bit as unpleasant as she is, if not more. The only reason we sympathize with him is that the story is told from his point of view. Abigail might be spiteful and judgmental, but before he found himself slipping from world to world, Alexander had been an active participant in an ongoing effort to reshape America according to the beliefs of a certain sort of Evangelical Christian. 

The past year’ had seen the following positive accomplishments:

a) A federal law making abortion a capital offense;

b) A federal law making the manufacture, sale, possession, importation, transportation, and/or use of any contraceptive drug or device a felony carrying a mandatory prison sentence of not less than a year and a day but not more than twenty years for each offense — and eliminating the hypocritical subterfuge of For Prevention of Disease Only’;

c) A federal law that, while it did not abolish gambling, did make the control and licensing of it a federal jurisdiction. One step at a time — having built. this foundation we could tackle those twin pits, Nevada and New Jersey, piece by piece. Divide and conquer!

d) A Supreme Court decision in which we had appeared as amicus curiae under which community standards of the typical or median-population community applied to all cities of each state (Tomkins v. Allied News Distributors);

e) Real progress in our drive to get tobacco defined as a prescription drug through the tactical device of separating snuff and chewing tobacco from the problem by inaugurating the definition substances intended for burning and inhaling’;

f) Progress at our annual national prayer meeting on several subjects in which I was interested. One was the matter of how to remove the tax-free status of any private school not affiliated with a Christian sect. Policy on this was not yet complete because of the thorny matter of Roman Catholic schools. Should our umbrella cover them? Or was it time to strike? Whether the Catholics were allies or enemies was always a deep problem to those of us out on the firing line.

At least as difficult was the Jewish problem — was a humane solution possible? If not, then what? Should we grasp the nettle? This was debated only in camera. 

Heinlein reveals this jolly catalogue to the reader on page 149 of the paperback. I know I found it hard to care what happened to the genocidal little shit after I read that part. On re-reading the book, I am even less inclined to worry about his fate, with one proviso: God help us if Alexander ever has any power over others. 

As I commented on Facebook yesterday, I had completely forgotten the passage where a doting father calls his teenaged daughter swivel hips” or the bit where an observer exhorts father and daughter to just screw, already. And I had forgotten the passing white men just cannot get fair trials for murdering minorities” subplot. I complain all the time about my terrible memory but re-reading novels like this reminds me that sometimes memory lapses are a blessing and not a curse. If only I could remember that.… 

Other people liked this more than I did: it placed first in the Locus poll, and was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula. I loathed the protagonist but dislike turns out to be insufficient to hold my interest. Like Heinlein’s career, Job lasts too long. What should have been entertainment turns into a test of endurance. The kindest thing I can say about Job is that, as tepid a treat as it is, it’s not the worst thing Heinlein ever wrote.

Job is still available for purchase.

1: Whose owner wasn’t named Mike.