3. Sexual Relationships
was a story some
years ago by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Lincoln Boone about a particularly
unpleasant comedian named
had a trademark -- at the punchline of one of his jokes he would remove
a monocle he wore, breathe on it, and then polish it while the audience
laughed. One night, just to demonstrate the control he had over his
audience, and to justify his contempt for it, he removed the monocle without
saying anything, breathed on it, and polished it. He still got his
laugh. The comedian was given as thinking of this as a case of conditioned
response, but I don't think it was. It strikes me as a case of basic
Communication is a process of symbolization:
a person codes a message in such a way that his meaning can be understood
by someone else. I speak in a code called English, for instance,
and write English in a Latin alphabet. A request for a hamburger
in Swahili in the average American restaurant would do me little good,
and a message in Braille -- for all that it is written in English -- would
hardly be enough to persuade the milkman to leave me an extra bottle of
milk. Communication is an art. Some people are more adept at
coding and uncoding messages than others. However, the basis of
is always in terms of symbols held in common.
In the case of the comedian, Snyder, that removal
of the monocle was a common symbol signalling something funny. When
the monocle was removed with no joke, this was unexpected and funny --
the monocle changed from a signal to something funny in itself. If
the laughter had been a conditioned response, the people would have laughed
as often as Snyder yanked the monocle out of his eye, whereas I rather
think that if he had done it twice without a joke he would have lost his
Our culture is filled with symbols that are held
in common as part of our tradition, some of which are hidden so deeply
that they are not even widely understood, but merely felt, as for instance
the ritual cannibalism in our Christian churches. Some symbols are
dead, though still observed generally, like walking on the gutter side
of a lady or the ritual of hat-tipping. Some are still alive and
full of meaning.
These symbols, both alive and dead, appear in fiction.
Any good writer always deals in terms of symbols. The search for
word is no more than the search for a proper and effective
symbol. The difference between a good writer and a bad one can be
described, I think, in the respective percentages of live and dead symbols
they use. We can no longer accept "close-set criminal eyes" as a
live symbol of a man's character, for instance, and a writer who sticks
close-set criminal eyes into a story is likely to be a bad writer.
A good writer finds fresh ways of handling symbols, rather than presenting
us with old symbols preserved like ants in amber.
general, through his
career, Robert Heinlein has used and presented ideas freshly, but there
is one whole area of his fiction in which he has never used anything but
long-dead symbols. I'm speaking of his treatment of sex. In
more than seventy stories Heinlein has presented uncoy, unclichéd
inter-sexual relations no more than twice, the two cases being thoroughly
married couples in "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" and "It's
Great to Be Back." I suspect that Heinlein isn't comfortable with
At first glance, it would seem that Heinlein almost
completely ignored sex for years, mentioning it only when he had to and
then obliquely, and then in his third period became obsessed by it, making
a complete about-face. There is some truth in this, but in actual
fact the old Heinlein and the new one are not as separate as that first
glance makes them seem to be.
first Heinlein story with a major female character was
"If This Goes On--."
In the original
version, the hero, John Lyle, falls in love at first sight with a sweet,
young, innocent, professional Virgin. Damon Knight quite accurately
calls it a
-- a tag for the
sort of dead symbolism I'm trying to point to. With the romance
Heinlein (and apparently Lyle, too) forgets about the girl until the end
of the story when she and her marriage to Lyle are mentioned in passing.
In the expanded version of the novel, Heinlein tried
to make Lyle's relationships more likely. He replaced the story-book
romance with another involving Lyle and a different handmaiden of the
The odd thing is that the new romance is right out of a story-book, too.
In both versions, Lyle is naive, but his naiveté
is more obvious in the expanded story, partly because the added length
gives him more of an opportunity to display himself. Everybody else
knows that there are all sorts of backstairs assignations going on in the
Palace. Lyle doesn't. Zeb Jones, Lyle and two girls go on a
nude swimming party. Lyle objects when he finds out what he is involved
in. Zeb takes one of the two girls off to a private beach and until
he is restrained, Lyle wants to go join them . . .
heroine of the new version
is as much a stock character as the heroine of the original. This
new one is the Good Bad Girl. She is one of the Prophet's sexual
castoffs, is Zeb's ex-mistress, and has slept around. In a scene
rewritten and used again as recently as
she offers her
fair body to the hero on a sleep-in basis and then becomes flustered when
he insists on marriage first. In this case the last you see of Lyle
and his love together is in a story-book pose: "We had a twenty-minute
honeymoon, holding hands on the fire escape outside my office. . ."
This is typical of Heinlein's representations of inter-sexual relations.
His heroes are pure and never have sex without marriage even when women
offer themselves openly -- and Heinlein adds purity insurance by making
all his young heroes sexually naive.
typical of Heinlein
is the banter he assigns the central characters in " 'Let There Be
Light,' " the second of his stories to include a central female
character. The hero and his girl are represented as being scientists
at the very top
of their respective fields. However, they spend their time calling
each other "kid," "mama," "ape," "lug," "sister," "wench," "chum," and
"son." When the hero actually gets up the nerve to kiss the girl,
she pushes him away, saying, "Archie, you remind me of the Al G. Barnes
Circus; 'Every Act an Animal Act.' " The banter and shying around
covers acute discomfort, and I suspect the discomfort belongs to Heinlein
as much as to his characters.
are two romances in
Beyond This Horizon.
One is a case of mutual love at first sight (harking back to
"If This Goes On--"). In the other, the two
call each other "Filthy" and "Flutterbrain," and the boy has to get into
a physical fight with the girl as an excuse to touch and kiss her for the
the time of
The Puppet Masters,
there is some advance: neither the hero nor heroine
is naive. But the advance is limited. The girl invites the
hero to her apartment, mentioning her bed in the invitation, and then locks
her bedroom door. The hero sleeps on the living-room couch.
Before they sleep together, they get themselves so firmly, tightly married
that the marriage clerk finds their contract something to comment on.
In Heinlein's juvenile novels, there are a number
of sympathetically drawn marriages, but always between adults, always
always seen at a distance. The marriages are given as facts, not
as processes being established. In view of all the other processes
Heinlein has written about, this can only seem strange.
of the juvenile novels are always protected from the facts of life by their
naiveté. The hero of
Tunnel in the Sky,
is pure and ignorant. The people around him are all getting married
and having children but not the hero. He quite literally can't even
recognize a girl as a girl even when he meets one. His best friend
comes out of an extended period of delirium, and Rod, the hero (why Rod?
-- it doesn't seem appropriate somehow), introduces him to another person
approximately as follows:
"Meet my friend Jack with whom I've been in close
contact for, lo, these many moons. He's a good boy."
Delirious friend, raising head from pillow: "Boy?
You nut -- Jack is a girl."
Rod (wonderingly): "Gosh. Are you certain?"
This business is Heinlein's own choice. It
is not imposed by story requirements nor even by the fact that the book
is a juvenile. Heinlein simply raises sex as a subject and then has
his hero blind to it and uninvolved.
of the Galaxy
even more reason for wonder. The hero is an ex-slave, ex-beggar,
raised in a gutter environment, exactly the sort of person one would think
would be sexually knowledgeable if not sexually experienced. However,
on two separate occasions in the story he is pursued by attractive girls
so openly that everybody else realizes what is going on, and in neither
case can he see beyond the end of his nose.
Door Into Summer
from the end of Heinlein's middle period, after he had been writing for
more than fifteen years; it is not a juvenile. The romantic situation
in this story is a very interesting, very odd one: it is nothing
less than a mutual sexual interest between an engineer of thirty and a
girl of twelve ("adorable" is Heinlein's word for her), that culminates
in marriage after some hop-scotching around in time to adjust their ages
a bit. It puts me in mind of the popular singer, Jerry Lee Lewis,
who married an eleven-year-old girl, saying (if memory serves), "She may
be young, but she's all woman."
It seems to me that the sum of the examples I have
given so far, typical of Heinlein before his third period, is that all
are naive, sentimental, clichéd, uncritical, implausible, and
I would say they were the result of an internalization of romantic ideals
that we mouth but don't really observe.
The supreme popular example of the romantic idealist
in our culture is the Boy Scout. When I was a Boy Scout, we spent
a good deal of time on camping trips, and each night of each camping trip
we would lie awake in our tents and tell filthy stories. In the last
ten years I haven't heard one-tenth, or even one-fiftieth, of the filthy
stories that I heard and told in two years of Scout activity. Those
stories are a normal reaction. They are a way of saying that you're
really grown-up, that you're a
-- an analogue of the secret
cigaret. They are a way of saying that for all you are a Boy Scout
you really know what is going on. And they are daring.
These stories all seemed to rely on wild props:
watermelons, Chinese bells, sledgehammers, flashlights and motorcycles.
It was one of their two common elements, the other being impossible
exaggeration, otherwise known as plain unlikelihood.
In 1959, in
" 'All You
Zombies--,' " Heinlein wrote a story about sex. It amounts to a boy
seducing himself and getting himself pregnant, with a time machine for
a wild prop. And not only did Heinlein get the story printed, but
it has been reprinted, too. It's a dirty joke -- fun, daring, and
it shows the whole world that Heinlein really knows what is going on.
Stranger in a Strange Land, Glory Road, Farnham's Freehold,
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
have been offered as additional proof to an
unbelieving world that Heinlein really does know what is going on.
But a Boy Scout is no less the romantic idealist for his dirty jokes, and
neither is Heinlein.
Stranger in a Strange Land
is a particularly
difficult book to discuss because it is so long, so complicated, and about
so many different things. Sex is not treated as a single subject,
but as an adjunct to Heinlein's religion. So far as the way the story
is constructed goes, the sexual relations are beyond criticism,
Within the story, anyone incapable of accepting the religion along with
its sexual concomitants is not a
person; anybody capable of
accepting the religion (or, more properly, being accepted by the religion)
is automatically beyond damage. This sort of built-in self-protection
for the author is no more than a way of writing around a subject without
ever coming to grips with it.
I have added reason for this opinion. In none
of the four novels named above does Heinlein describe sexual relations
directly. There are no textures, no actions, no movements, no thoughts
and no feelings. Everything is given in terms of the particularly
noxious and limited "Yes,
school of dialogue. It seems a case of deliberately blinding oneself to avoid
what is being set on paper.
A more central criticism of
Stranger in a Strange Land
is that in the real world, as in the Oneida Community which lacked
the protection of a defined-as-right religion, what Heinlein has given
is an unstable way of living. Heinlein ignores completely the pain,
jealousy and uncertainty that are the ordinary stuff of human experience.
He describes a romantic ideal, unworkable in practice. A similar
state of affairs exists in
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
describes ideal mass marriages as being necessary on the Moon, the result
of a population imbalance that several generations have not righted.
(One wonders why.) The marriages are odd enough to arouse Kentucky
prejudices, but newcomers to the Moon find them instantly acceptable.
(One wonders how.) But Heinlein says it works and nobody seems to
be anxious, hurt or unhappy.
is much simpler. The hero, Evelyn Cyril Gordon, will go
to bed with anybody, or so he says. But then he finds excuses.
Not with those Vietnamese; they're too childlike (incredible after
The Door Into Summer;
incredible to anybody who has seen a Vietnamese girl).
Not with the old girl friend who sent him off to the wars in the traditional
way -- he assures us it isn't because she is married now; he just doesn't
feel like it, that's all. And the heroine, the Empress of the Twenty
Universes, she, too, will go to bed with anybody, but when the moment of
truth for her and for Heinlein comes she has this convenient wound in her
side and just isn't up to it.
Cyril is as naive
as any former Heinlein hero, any statement in the book to the contrary
notwithstanding. It might be claimed for him on other evidence than
his sexual oddities that he isn't even half-bright, but I am willing to
give him the benefit of the doubt and call him simply another Boy Scout.
Just as in
"If This Goes On--,"
when the hero's True Love indicates
her willingness and points to a clump of grass (I mean this literally),
the hero insists on marriage as his price for submitting.
is in some ways the Boy Scout's
dream. Imagine waking on a beach to find a beautiful naked girl standing
and pointing -- "You, you clod, you're the only man for me." But
the Boy Scout wouldn't know what to do with his dream if he had it, and
Evelyn Cyril's reaction is to stammer of marriage. The difference
between an old Heinlein hero and this new one is that Evelyn wears a badge
saying, "I'm really not so pure." Only he is.
does sleep with the heroine the first time he meets her, which
seems a departure, but Heinlein can only let him do it by having Farnham
reject both his wife and the pretty little bedwarmer he is assigned by
his owner when he becomes a slave. Beyond this, the conventions remain
as tired and unexamined as ever. Heinlein's married couples are not
notably fruitful, but in Farnham's Freehold, as in " 'All You Zombies--,' "
conception is the result of one isolated night of love; on that basis,
you would think Heinlein's juvenile heroes would have many more brothers
and sisters than they do.
point, of course, is
that once Heinlein gets even one inch away from a direct concern with men
and women together, his maturity, realism and ability to think re-assert
themselves. As an example, in
is a situation that L. Sprague de Camp describes as follows: "the
long-lived hero is confronted with the problem of whether to marry his
great-great-great-great-grand-daughter. Genetically their relationship
is negligible, but such a union still seems somehow incestuous and
De Camp is mistaken, however. The union seems incestuous and wrong
only to the hero, not to the other characters, and not to Heinlein:
" 'I know I'm old-fashioned,' he said uncomfortably, 'but I soaked up some
of my ideas a long time ago. Genetics or no genetics, I just wouldn't
feel right marrying one of my own grandchildren.' " In
Time for the Stars,
as though to demonstrate the exact limits of his ability
to look at men and women together (and to refute de Camp) Heinlein has
his hero come home from journeying among the stars to quite happily fall
in love, at first meeting, of course, with his great-grand-niece and marry
*"The Corpse in Your Bed Is Me,"
Venture Science Fiction,
May 1957. [back]
**In Search of Wonder,
2nd ed., p. 77. [
p. 225. [
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee