I read this book about 5-Sep-2003. I've read this book before. The book is copyright 1973. This note was last modified Sunday, 07-Sep-2003 18:11:10 PDT.
This note contains spoilers for the book.
The last possibly great Heinlein. Possibly not, too. Some people go on for ever about the—but mostly I don't think the things they mostly complain about are the important flaws, or even real flaws. This book marks the reappearance of Lazarus Long, the Senior of the Howard Families and the oldest human being. Unlike the other books where Lazarus appears, though, he isn't the inevitable signal of impending doom; in this book he's actually kinda interesting.
It's certainly a sentimental book. It's somewhat disjointed, jumping around. It has a level of in-your-face sexuality that bothers a lot of people, and sexual matchups that bother still more. It even has a happy ending. It has two first-rate stories embedded in it—"The Man Too Lazy To Fail" and "The Tale of the Adopted Daughter".
I, along with everybody else, am very suspicious that this one has a lot of autobiographical content. Heinlein did attend the Naval Academy, and he did fence competitively while there. And he did work in aeronautical engineering for the military during WWII.
There's no special reason to believe that he got married secretly while attending the academy; but recent research has shown that Leslyn was his second wife.
Heinlein clearly has a lot of fondness for the Navy and for the Academy (what he said about it lead Ginny to give them several million dollars for an endowed chair, for example). However, he also talks about the horrors and idiocies of hazing that went on there. I don't think that was something much talked about outside in 1973, though it has been some since.
This is the story of Lazarus Long's most-true love (not to devalue the others)—Dora, who was an ephemeral. She never broke his heart, but she did die fairly soon.
Also has a lot about pre-technological pioneering, which he seems to have been very interested in.
A lot of people find the incest theme in this book kind of squicky. Lazarus lets himself be talked into bedding his two identical-twin sisters that he's raised as his daughters (manipulated clone constructs), and he ends up falling in love with and bedding his mother on a time-travel trip. Is any of that reasonable?
Well, Freud sure thinks it is. And in both cases, both sides have very good reason to believe that no defective babies will result from it, now or in the future.
In the case with his mother, she doesn't know who he is, and he's been away from her for 4000 years or some such—long enough, anyway, that their power relationship isn't much of an issue any more. In the case of his sister-daughters, he resists pretty darned strongly, and they insist and finally talk him into it at a rather emotional juncture after they're fully adult by the standards of the time and place, and in their own eyes.
I don't believe either instance can be played as anybody taking advantage of or manipulating anybody else, and I don't believe either instance can be played as genetically irresponsible. Perhaps the most questionable actions are those of his sister-daughters in convincing him; one argument that comes up is that if he doesn't impregnate them the old-fashioned way, they'll have it done by the doctors instead.
Under those conditions, if you feel like it, why not? Which is, I think, the point—Lazarus is finally starting to overcome some of the conditioning of his upbringing. I think this is meant largely as an illustration of just how crazy current sexual mores are.
A lot of people make fun of one short scene in which some nipples go "spung". I've yet to hear a coherent explanation of the objection, and my current opinion is that it's something that people who aren't comfortable with aggressive sexual behavior have grabbed onto to try to criticize that scene. I may well be misunderstanding, though; certainly some of the people who think this scene is objectionable and silly will think so.
My experience is that, when properly stimulated in the proper situation, nipples can become erect very quickly and enjoyably. That one very randy character in a very randy moment even for her chooses to characterize this with a sound effect doesn't seem inherently wrong to me.
This is a page or two out of 600 page book, and gets IMHO a grossly disproportionate amount of attention.
Time travel is inherently silly. But, for his fourth outing in the sub-genre (I wonder what I'm forgetting), Heinlein once again avoids all those problems. Lazarus convinces himself that paradox is meaningless, and that while he has free will, the lack of bad results from his visit shows that he didn't do anything to cause trouble. I don't think he really means it, though.
The main purpose of the time travel is to extend the discussion on sexual ethics and on how crazy we were about the topic in the 20th century (and still today). He gets to juxtapose the WWI years in the American Bible Belt with Lazarus' Tertius family, thousands of years and two Howard migrations later.
He also uses it for a sentimental tour of some of the scenes of his youth, I believe; or at least areas close by. And because of that first-hand knowledge, this part of the book has a lot of interest for me as a tour of the weird alien culture, conducted by a native.
I think this was a very ambitious book; he was trying to do a lot. And I think he was reasonably successful with a lot of it. This is a better book than anything he wrote later. It's in a lot of ways a more ambitious book than anything he wrote earlier.
Nevertheless it isn't one of my really top favorites. It's just that, since it came out relatively late, I haven't read it as often as the older works. It's also the last book before a long gap; and the book after that gap is The Number of the Beast, which I despised for many reasons, and which set firmly in my head the idea that Heinlein had lost it. Friday did nothing to disabuse me of this notion. Job was a little better. And the less said about the two after that, the better.