EAnotes

Adventures in Bookland: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert A. Heinlein

I grew up reading Heinlein’s juveniles and I’m grateful for that as both a reader and, now, a writer. As a reader, and a young reader at that, they were fast, convincing and did not condescend at all: I really thought that, under the right circumstances and with enough application and smarts on my part, I too should be able to:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Of course, the problem with that quote, which is the underlying philosophy of all the characters in his juveniles, is that it comes from his book Time Enough For Love, when, frankly, Heinlein had completely fallen off his typewriter and disappeared up his own verbiage as some sort of free-love guru who liked big guns and springy nipples. The later books, when Heinlein’s fame and an overly permissive editor allowed him to write for as long as he wanted, are, quite simply, embarrassingly bad. Imagine the bloat of the later Harry Potter novels but with bad sex and women who only ever say, ‘Yes.’ But then… there are the early novels, the juveniles such as Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starman Jones and Space Cadet, not to mention The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I remember just how good he was. If only, if only, if only Stranger in a Strange Land hadn’t been such a success. But with the sex and philosophising pulling in the punters, Heinlein could abandon the discipline of telling a story for a soapbox.

The stories in The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag are certainly not juveniles, but they belong to the most brilliantly productive and imaginative phase of his career, although All You Zombies does foreshadow Heinlein’s later bizarre mother fixation, even if you can argue that he’s here working through the logical possibilities of time travel and, in his marvellous phrase, paradoctoring a paradox. The titular story has remained with me for many many years: the final images of a world apparently real but actually simply fog, and of not knowing whether you are a creature of that fog, lodged themselve so deeply into my teenage brain that, rereading the book now, they still freeze me. Highly recommended.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply