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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Book Club of the Damned: I Will Fear No Evil, Part 1

posted by on May 14 at 11:00 AM


As I said last Friday, Brad bet me fifty bucks I couldn’t read I Will Fear No Evil, by Robert A. Heinlein. Brad and two of his former roommates couldn’t get their way through the book, and he called it unreadable.

Most of the dozens of commenters on Friday’s post say that Evil is a horrible, horrible book, but they claim that it is at least readable. A couple of readers even suggested that the book was their gateway to Samuel R. Delaney’s brilliant sci-fi novel Dhalgren.

I am now 122 pages into Evil, which was published in 1970. It has not been difficult, but it is very poorly written. I’ve read Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, so Heinlein’s not a new experience for me, but this reads like atrophied Heinlein, as though he’s trying to write like a young man and failing miserably. This almost works with the ideas that the novel is trying to encompass, but I have a feeling it’s not going to seem appropriate for that much longer.

The story thus far: sometime after the turn of the twenty-first century, bajillionaire Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is getting very, very old. Because he fears death and he’s inordinately wealthy, he’s going to have surgery to implant his brain in a much younger body.

The catch—and of course there’s a catch—is that Smith has a super-rare blood type, AB Negative. Only one in a million people have this blood type, but one of these people, it turns out, is Eunice, Smith’s gorgeous secretary. Eunice, in the fashion of the early twenty-first century, eschews clothing for the most part, instead choosing to wear body paint and maybe a g-string and/or a pair of ruffly panties. Her husband, a painter, takes great pleasure in painting her body for work—and they both seem to creepily enjoy the pleasure that creepy old Smith gets in looking at Eunice’s body. Smith puts out a call to bring any young, AB-negative corpses that are freshly deceased to him.

More, including study questions, after the jump.

Soon, he wakes up in a new body, feeling detached. For many pages, Smith communicates with people by grunting. Finally, he gets back the power of speech and he realizes that—gasp—his brain is now in Eunice’s body! The healthy young Eunice, you see, was killed in a mugging. And then…another shocker…Eunice’s thoughts are still somehow in her body! She and Smith communicate mentally via unattributed, flirtatious dueling parentheses a la this passage:

“(Well, Eunice?) (So you want to hear about my little bastard? Boss, you’re a dirty old man.) (Sweetheart, I don’t want to hear anything you don’t want to tell. You could have quintuplets by a Barbary ape and it wouldn’t affect how I feel about you.) (Mealymouthed old hypocrite. You’re dying of curiosity.)”

I believe that the rest of the book is written just like this, which is why this is the Book Club of the Damned and not just Book Club of the Bad Sci-Fi Novel. It’s only going to get rougher from here.

Book Club of the Damned Study Questions:

1. Is all the talk about menstruation and birth control that’s been going on for the last few pages indicative of a highly sexual bent in the pages to come?

2. On page 103, as they lie in a hospital bed, Eunice mentally communicates the following message to Smith: “…don’t you dare let gentlemen in here to eat with us until we’re made pretty! Not a speck of makeup and our hair must be a mess. Horrid!” Question: What the fuck?

3. Eunice’s husband talks in future-speak shorthand, like the following quote: “Third one. Visitor’s-right. Mama’s wrong. Don’t read all, Tits. Just read and tell.” Is this going to get really really annoying?

4. And does he really refer to his wife as “Tits?”

5. Because everybody else talks about Eunice’s breasts a lot, but they at least use her real name.

6. Was that last question even a question?

Things are quickly degenerating into awfulness, and there’s another 400 pages to go. Book Club of the Damned will continue next Wednesday.

RSS icon Comments


just stop. stop right now. seriously. it gets worse. much, much worse. "really annoying" is an extremely generous description.

Posted by brandon | May 14, 2008 11:06 AM

Bad news: Yep, it pretty much stays like that for the rest of the book. Except it gets worse the closer you get to the end, which feels like it's never going to arrive.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | May 14, 2008 11:07 AM

mmmmm...i haven't read this, but i really liked some of his later books, Friday and Job. I always liked that Heinlein wasn't afraid of sex and often had very sexually ambiguous characters.

Posted by michael strangeways | May 14, 2008 11:13 AM

Ugh. I enjoyed a lot of early Heinlein when I was a kid. I recently picked up a copy of The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. The first couple of pages intrigued me, the following 10 pages saddened me, and the rest of the novel enraged and disgusted me. I wasn't upset by the juvenile themes of pedophilia and incest, but by the terrible plotting and characterization. I only continued reading past the first 10 pages out of stubborn spite.

Posted by Ivan Cockrum | May 14, 2008 11:14 AM

I'm still trying to figure out which part of a woman's body the thoughts are in if it isn't the brain.

Job: A Comedy of Justice was this bad. Now I remember why I've read some of these. A book club had 4 free Heinlein books if you bought something. That's also why I've read 4 Stephen King books.

Posted by elenchos | May 14, 2008 11:14 AM

Samuel Delaney has really really bad breath.

Posted by Just Sayin' | May 14, 2008 11:19 AM

I liked Heinlein.

But then again, I haven't read any since I was fifteen.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | May 14, 2008 11:19 AM

Job was kind of a mess but I still liked it; Friday was a very sexy book and it's been ripped off for a lot of other book, comic, film and tv things, (Aeon Flux and Alias to name two off the top of my head).

Don't be so elitist, people. There's nothing wrong with a little potboiler fun... Early King kicks ass!

Posted by michael strangeways | May 14, 2008 11:21 AM

Heinlein said that the only book he ever fully plotted and outlined ahead of time was Stranger in a Strage Land. All of the others were written mostly on-the-fly. And it often shows.

Posted by Providence | May 14, 2008 11:31 AM

I really hate it when sex finds its way into sci-fi. Though I really enjoy Ursula K. LeGuin's exploration of alternative sexualities in her books.

Posted by Fonky | May 14, 2008 11:44 AM

Holy crap, I think I read (at least part of) this book. I've blocked it out until now...I really liked Stranger in a Strange Land in my early-teens sci-fi phase and went to this one at some point after that.

I don't remember finishing it, but that could also be blocked out too.

Posted by Abby | May 14, 2008 11:45 AM


It might be fun to read crap, but it is totally unfair to encourage reading 30 or 40 year old crap. What about all the crap being shat out today? There are young authors now whose sloppy, poorly-written, unhinged follies are just as much fun as old King or Heinlein. Talking about their crap as if it deserved special attention elevates it above the general level of entertaining swill in a way it does not deserve.

Just go to the check stand at Safeway and grab whatever has a good picture on the cover. It's just as good.

Posted by elenchos | May 14, 2008 11:51 AM

I've read pretty much everything Heinlein ever published. I have copies of nearly all his books. I more or less worshiped him when I was a teenager (which may explain a great deal). I still, to this day, maintain that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of the greatest science-fiction stories ever written, and Podkayne of Mars is one of the best juveniles of the genre.

That being said, later Heinlein creeps me the fuck out. He started working out some of his own emotional hangups in his writing, to rather skin-crawling effect. I Will Fear No Evil is the worst of the bunch, IMHO. The women became younger and younger, and more and more sultry with the creepy old men, and it really started seeming like one-handed wish-fulfillment reads.

Posted by Geni | May 14, 2008 11:53 AM

I think the conversations between Smith and Eunice is something you go with, at which point the book works as a guided tour of sex-change and exploration of body vs brain vs mind vs soul, and exploration of identity, and oh yeah sanity vs insanity ... or the Eunice-still-around becomes the reason you put the book down, because it broke the suspension of disbelief.

I also note that Smith is referred to in passing in a later Heinlein, as "Oh, I remember someone had their brain implanted in someone else's body and they went barking mad."

Posted by JenK | May 14, 2008 11:54 AM

I'm a huge Heinlein fan, and I have enjoyed all the books I have read, including this one. *shrug*

So I'm probably going to be the only one to take your study questions seriously, although I'm not reading along.

1. Yes, all the birth control/sex talk will continue; the book is heavily steeped in sexuality. Like most Heinlein novels, they are allegory for social commentary, and each book deals with at least one social issue. This is Heinlein's most focused book about gender, notably because a man's brain is in a woman's body. So there is lots of sex, and I can see a lot of people being uncomfortable with that, exponentially compounded by what appears to be a man having sex with other men in a woman's body. But the thing is that he is no longer a man. This is the most complete gender re-assignment thinkable, so Johann is trying to live as now, as a woman. A Heinlein woman at that, and very sexually charged.

2. People like to look good, usually. Especially people that look good already. The fact that you're shocked by Eunice's quote seems to me like you haven't a good grip on Eunice's character. She looks amazing, she knows it, and it's important to her, and she's trying to woo Jake. This is not an irrational thought.

3. Yes, the future short hand is a bit annoying, but it's also interesting and adds depth and immersion to the character. It's not in the book much.

4. Yes, he calls her a number of names like that, and they are playful terms of endearment. The key word there is playful; he's not demeaning nor does he take her for granted.

5. And how. Eunice is a stunner, and she enjoys stunning. *shrug* Not an uncommon trait of good looking females now-a-days, but Eunice is also fairly down to earth.

6. No, but it's worth noting.

Well, I can clearly see that you're already not enjoying the book and will most likely continue the trend. Others will probably flame me and such, but I don't intend to be bothered by it. I'm always down for talking about Heinlein though, so I will keep tabs on your study questions and discussion.

Have fun! :D

Posted by stealingzen | May 14, 2008 11:55 AM

damn, youve actually made me WANT to read the book :)

Posted by Wurm | May 14, 2008 12:00 PM

Well, we tried to warn you.

Posted by Greg | May 14, 2008 12:01 PM

wow, I'm glad I had an open mind when I read this book rather being determined not to like it the way the paul seems to be. I'd rather read this book again than have to read any of that dan brown crap people love so much.

Posted by freeheels | May 14, 2008 12:13 PM

@4 Really Ivan? As a Heinlein fan I'd never read _Cat Who Walks Through Walls_ either and have just picked it up as well. I'm only about 20ish pages into it but so far it's pretty standard Heinlein, right up to and and including the sudden marriage to a virtual unknown.

I understand that many of Heinlein's later books have critics. I'd still suggest reading _Job_, _Friday_, _Time Enough For Love_, and _The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress_. Groundbreaking books, all of them.

Posted by NaFun | May 14, 2008 12:22 PM

I wish that someone or anyone would bet me money to read books. I have the ability to read ANYTHING, and this book doesn't look THAT bad.

Posted by sir jorge | May 14, 2008 12:44 PM

The Cat That Walks Through Walls? That was the first Heinlein book I ever ready, and I loved it! The wit and humor, the mix of hard and soft Sci-Fi, interesting social commentary; yes please! And I didn't even fully understand the other characters in the last half because I hadn't read any of this other books, but it certainly made me eager to discover them. It was -years- later that I read Number of the Beast and met Zack, Deety, Jake, and Hilda. *chuckle* As far as Sci-Fi murder mysteries go, I think Cat is great and then it becomes a culminating work that pulls other books together in a wonderful way.

Posted by stealingzen | May 14, 2008 12:56 PM

I must be one of the few people on the planet who actually likes this book and voluntarily re-reads it from time to time. The things you find annoying I find hilarious. To me this is a shining example of how cultural morals and thoughts can change in a short amount of time. Keep in mind this was published in 1970 by a 63 year old conservative man. He probably thought he was being wild and visionary, while by today’s standards he’s just outdated and pathetic.

Take for example the no-makeup-hissy-fit you reference in question 2. It makes sense if you assume that women are genetically programmed to be ornamental and men are genetically programmed to be practical. And now – gasp! – an old man has to learn the basic functions of feminine wiles. How visionary! How exotic! How hilarious when read 35 years later!

Same thing goes for the future speak in question 3. I assume Heinlein’s trying to show how languages evolve, but his future speak is riddled with references only an old man in the 70’s would get. The older I get the funnier his future speak gets.

Here’s another thought to ponder. This book is chock full of sexual references, constant talk about boobies and nekkid women, adultery, ‘free love’, blah, blah, blah. So how come it never comes across as erotic or titillating? Or was Heinlein trying for erotic and it just seems clinical and bland by my standards?

Posted by winna | May 14, 2008 12:57 PM

I will say that those slutty women you find everywhere at sci fi conventions all act like Heinlein characters. "I enjoy being stunning! And you may grope my boobs. It says so right here." So he wasn't really making that up, just overgeneralizing.

Posted by elenchos | May 14, 2008 1:01 PM

I've had several female partners and friends who strongly identified with Heinlein's female characters, so he wasn't necessarily off the mark.

Posted by NaFun | May 14, 2008 1:19 PM

Agreed, NaFun.

Heinlein's female characters obviously mirror Heinlein himself somewhat. Not liberal, not conservative, but all together PRAGMATIC. And when not pragmatic, honest and unashamed about it. Not an unpleasant disposition, one I wish my girlfriend modeled after. :P

Posted by stealingzen | May 14, 2008 1:35 PM

Heinlein's stronger female characters are all based on his wife Virginia, in one way or another. I'm not sure about the less-likable or less-competent ones, but the ones like Star in Glory Road are all his (perhaps very idealized) view of his wife.

Posted by Geni | May 14, 2008 1:44 PM

Correct, Geni. A definite mark of Heinlein's work is a strong idealism. His sense of utopia is very distinct; that is why I like his work. His social commentary in each book (not as much the serials/juveniles, but still present in smaller, easier-to-swallow doses) reflects that in his characters views of the future setting around them the Heinlein extrapolates from then-current injustices, prejudices or taboos/mores.

That's why I like his work, and what he has to say about sexual roles and gender in this book. A couple people have already stated that they find Heinlein's topics creepy, etc. They are trapped in their conceptions of propriety and social conditioning. And just for clarification, I am -NOT- saying this is bad, and I am -NOT- condoning incest/pedophilia. Far from. But what Heinlein address is human base urges, those inherent (sexual interest), and those programmed for reasons both illogical and pragmatic. It's almost a compliment that some find it creepy; he's challenging social norms, pointing out practicalities and irrationality. It's those that can step outside themselves and their conditioning, see the world through the lens of hypothetical to ponder from other angles that get understand what Heinlein is pointing at. Stranger in a Strange Land is a perfect example of that, but focused on religion and sex. It deals a bit about gender, but not in the scope that Evil does.

And each book has a theme of social commentary that is central to the plot wherein Heinlein states his ideals. Friday has a strong undercurrent of civil rights, as an artificial human in a human world. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is about political revolution and combating injustice on a scale of the American Revolution. Job: A Comedy of Justice is entirely focused on fundamental Christianity, the main character being a member of the righteous himself.

And I love it.

Posted by stealingzen | May 14, 2008 2:05 PM

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