The Sasquatch Deconstructions: Heinlein’s Women
“All you fuckers are going to die anyway, so you might as well write the truth.” *
So Sasquatch Bob and I were returning from an early morning constitutional in the Sierra foothills. We were discussing our favorite subject: Women …
“Heinlein’s fault, of course, exposing us to all those incredibly smart and self-sufficient women who were more intelligent and talented than the males they chose to attach themselves to. He ruined us.” His expression became thoughtful.
“In Stranger in a Strange Land, the section of the book after Gillian kidnaps Mike and takes him to Jubal Harshaw is probably the best part of the book for me, and perhaps his best sequence of writing in any of his books. This is where we get the real sense of Mike’s alien-ness, and where it lives in him, and how that alien perspective reacts to the new reality of his existence … and to the women who inhabit that reality, four incredible females of varying talent and abilities, smart, competent and opinionated.”
(And, yes, before we go any further, we are discussing characters using their first names, as one would speak of old friends, because in many ways, that’s just what they are: old friends.)
“Look at the juveniles,” Sasquatch continues. Heinlein wrote a number of what were termed ‘juvenile’ sci-fi novels in the 50s. “All were populated with strong females. There are three that particularly stand out: Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, and Time for the Stars. Tunnel in the Sky featured memorable female characters. Two in particular, Caroline and Jacqueline, are as competent – often moreso – than their male counterparts.” He looks at me. “Caroline is definitely cut from the same cloth as a couple of your girls.” Sasquatch has read my drafts. “A real warrior, fierce and loyal. And Jacqueline has her own brand of kick-ass, just softer, a little more of a … thoughtful … brawler.”
I nod. This is not a point of contention, but a statement of fact: Heinlein permanently marked both of us in the sense he nurtured the perception that females are the stronger, dominant gender. Kidding aside, (if you actually think I’m kidding) there was this subversive and pervasive view of gender roles woven into the stories he told, one where women are rendered as equals, capable of rising to the occasion with a competence and ferocity that rivaled and surpassed their male peers.
No one individual was necessarily dominant amongst his characters. All had strengths and flaws. When he wrote in the first person, as in the case of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the narrator, technically the ‘hero’, reluctantly so, operates more as a participating witness to events than as an initiator of action. Everyone could – and would – be wrong, mistaken, surprised. Everyone contributed; male, female, young, old, everyone acted as part of a team.
Seriously, this was a powerful message, with the added benefit of being threaded into a well-told adventure. Powerful Juju for a young adolescent male.
Slight aside: The hero’s reluctance was another element that peppered Heinlein’s plotting, the desire of the protagonist(s) to stay out of trouble and mind one’s own business, guided by a general philosophy that often the worst outcomes result from the best of intentions – and have a way of getting your ass shot off in the process. Put another way, he understood the principle that ‘Good deeds do not go unpunished’.
“Greatest female characters?” I ask.
He looks at me, then swerves to avoid slower moving traffic. Bigfeet (Bigfoots?) have depth perception issues. At least, that’s what Stu says. No profit in arguing with one imaginary critter about another.
“Wyoming Knott at the top.”
“Yeah, no question.” Lots of strong fems in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, like Hazel Meade, the girl-child who would grow to be the matriarch of the Stone Clan. (See The Rolling Stones)(Not the group; the book.)
But Wyoming is head and shoulders above the rest, probably top three all-time, if not number one. Smart, driven, a valiant woman of honor.
“Now you’re talking his ‘crazy period’.”
I drop back a book. “Maureen Smith?” He nods, but doesn’t say anything. Maureen is difficult, as is Time Enough For Love, the book where she appears. While there are varying arguments about when Heinlein decided to make his females as sexually self-assured as his earlier fems were in all other aspects of competency, it is fairly obvious Time Enough For Love takes this self-assuredness to a new level in a variety of characters and situations. It doesn’t help that Maureen ends up opting for a roll in the hay with an immortal time-traveler from 2000 years in the future who also happens to be her son. And that is not the only neo-incestual relationship in the book
We pull up to the house. The conversation ends and we go inside to prepare for the day.
An hour later I send a message to Sasquatch at his Real Estate office.
“We forgot about Star.”
“Some of them.”
Glory Road is a light-hearted, sexy swashbuckler of a Sci-Fi Fantasy if ever there was one. A satire laced with irony. As a character, Star is tough, weak, beautiful, sensual, sophisticated, a genius, a clotheshorse, sexpot and spoiled brat who could – and would – brawl alongside the boys … and who also happened to be the Empress of Twenty Universes. HELL of a character and, like all Heinlein women, in control even when she didn’t appear to be, always one step ahead of her leading man.
There is one particular irony that really stands out at the end of Glory Road – the Hero gets the girl and discovers … she has a career! And while she loves him and cares deeply for him, two things are very clear: career comes first, and he isn’t necessary to her success … at least, not any more – his job was completed once he insured Star could retain her title. As written, she’s not being a bitch, and she’s not ‘miming’ male behavior. She’s a creature of choice and duty, not a stereotype informed by some myth of hormones and traditional gender roles acting against her best interests (riding off into the sunset with the Hero), but instead someone – someone female – acting as an individual with priorities that don’t necessarily include the Love Of Her Life.
Eventually the Hero gets a clue, accepts what can’t be changed, lets go and gets on with his life.
Neat role reversal.
As I said: powerful juju … heap big medicine. Maybe not from the perspective of 2011, but in a 1963 world, this was a pretty out there concept, even for science fiction that wasn’t trying to be heavy or epic, but fun.
* = Overheard at a writers’ conference.
Next: Urgent Supers.
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