Review Job: A Comedy of Justice

24 May

I would not want to be a saint in Heaven if Margrethe was not with me; I wouldn’t fear going to Hell if she was there – not that I believe in Hell or ever stood a chance of being a saint in Heaven. Samuel Clemens put it: ‘Where she was, there was Eden. ‘Omar phrased it: ‘- thou beside me in the wilderness, ah wilderness were paradise enow.’ Browning termed it: ‘Summum Bonum’. All were asserting the same great truth, which is for me: Heaven is where Margrethe is.”

Job

It is a point of record that Heinlein suffered a major series of health problems dating from the 1970s, which adversely affected his writing. Many of his later works, particularly I Will Fear No Evil (which I found unreadable), tended to show signs of a mind in steady decline. The tightly-plotted works of Heinlein’s period of success gave way to meandering pieces of literature that were both oddly readable and yet, in many ways, failed works. Job (1984) manages to have elements of Heinlein’s cleverness, and a curious inversion of his normal trick of getting his readers to like a character before he reveals some salient fact about them, but it also wanders all over the place. And, after the reread, I am left with some curiously mixed feelings.

Job opens with Alex, a Christian preacher who has gone on a luxury cruise with the intention of getting away from his wife. When the ship makes a layover on a pacific island, Alex is manipulated into walking across burning coals … and, when he recovers, he finds himself in another world, replacing another version of himself. This Alex is more of a common criminal than a preacher, one who formed a relationship with a hostess called Margrethe. Alex picks up where his counterpart left off, falling deeply in love with Margrethe. But, when he tries to convince her of his story, they find themselves shifted into another world. Here, no one has heard of them at all.

They keep trying to make their way back to Alex’s home, even as they keep shifting from world to world. (A deeply frustrating process, as every time they earn money they find themselves in a world where their hard-earned cash is useless.) Alex, eventually, comes to identify himself with the Biblical Job and frets, endlessly, over what will happen to his lover when the Rapture comes. Eventually, it does come and Alex finds himself in Heaven … only to discover that Margrethe is not there. As a pagan, she’s gone to Valhalla.

Desperately, he sets out to find her. Passing through hell, where Satan offers him a Job, he finally discovers that his life has become a cosmic plaything between God (here a subordinate of a far greater entity) and Loki. He appeals to this entity, claiming that any place without his lover can never be good for him, and they are both returned to Earth, where they live happily ever after.

It’s interesting to realise just how many alternate history tropes may have started with Job. The fond belief that alternate worlds will have airships, instead of jumbo jets, is reflected right from the start (although SM Stirling is commonly credited with starting it in 1988), along with the difficulties in adapting to worlds that don’t appear that different to ours. Alex and his wife have immense difficulty with currency, alternatively discovering that they underestimate or overestimate the value of money or simply discovering that money from one world is no good in another. The culture shock too is quite immense, as they have to learn a new set of rules with each shift. At one point, Alex finds himself shocked by public nudity; at another, he is stunned by suggestions of socially-condoned incest. Heinlein may well have had a greater influence on the alternate history community than anyone realises.

There are also moments of humour that made me smile. Alex silently tags his fellow travellers on the cruise ship with pet names – the Professional Bore, the Authority, the Sceptic, the Well-Travelled Man – that makes it easy to follow them even as Alex meets their counterparts after the first dimensional shift.

The book’s real problem, however, lies in Alex himself. And I think, to some extent, that Heinlein did it deliberately.

Heinlein had a habit, as I noted above, of convincing us to like someone before telling us a pertinent detail about him. Here, we are convinced to like Alex – he’s warm and chatty and quite likable – before we realised that the pre-shift Alex was an utter bastard. On one hand, he sees his role in the church as organiser rather than preacher; he runs his church like a business, to the point where it’s clear he has few morals and fewer scruples. And, on the other, he is very much a religious fascist. Not content with his own domain, he is actively trying to expand religion into politics, plotting to stab his fellow travellers in the back and wondering if one should seek a ‘final solution’ to the Jewish Problem. I can’t help wondering if this is as close as Heinlein ever got to detailing the origins of the religious theocracy of Revolt in 2100. A man with powerful ambitions, combined with naked hypocrisy, could go a long way if he found the right sort of backing.

He is also the very worst kind of unfaithful husband. His wife is not a nice woman – that much is clear – but that doesn’t excuse Alex treating her with a peculiarly nasty form of passive-aggressive crap. As he puts it:

On her birthday after we had been married a year I gave Abigail a fancy edition of The Taming of the Shrew. She never suspected that I had been making a statement; her conviction of her own righteousness did not embrace the possibility that in my heart I equated her with Kate.”

To some extent, Alex’s problems are not wholly his fault. He grew up in an alternate world where the authorities were already cracking down on free speech and discussion. (Alex recounts how science-fiction was banned for children, among other horrors.) But it’s hard to look at his casual, off-the-cuff remarks about his ‘successes’ and not realise that Alex is a horror. Heinlein, who distrusted organised religion, was trying to make a point. The likable man you know might easily be a fascist in disguise. It’s easy to point and laugh at Left Behind’s jerk sues – Buck Williams and Rayford Steele – but they are so thoroughly unpleasant that it is hard to take them seriously. Someone a little nicer might be far more dangerous in the long run.

That said, Alex does have his good points. He’s a hard worker, even when it comes to washing dishes. He is quick to realise that, when they become refugees, that they have to work to live, rather than depend on handouts. (Heinlein also shows how easy it is for refugees to be exploited.) His work ethnic isn’t bad, which makes his religious activities all the more horrifying. He doesn’t show any signs of anger at working under a black boss. And, as the story develops, he does become a better person. Not everyone will agree, I suspect, that he really could improve. (God thinks so, but God in this story is a petulant jerk (something else that might have crept into Left Behind.)) His devotion to Margrethe is genuinely touching. But it’s also an illustration of why religious communities tend to frown on people who marry outside the faith. Alex also offers some good advice on everything from reading contracts carefully and studying tax law to the importance of witnesses:

No, I did not know that he was crooked. But I had learned long ago, in dealing with legislators, that anyone who tries to keep you from having a witness is bad news.”

Heinlein stated, back in Revolt in 2100’s afterword, that every religion will eventually start legislating its creed into law. Here, he shows what it looks like from Alex’s point of view: attacks on abortion, gambling, tobacco, non-faith private schools … all with the eventual end goal of securing ultimate power. If Alex wasn’t a Stalin, it is fairly certain that he would be replaced in short order by someone who was. The dangers of giving an inch to people like that is that they will eventually take a mile. And by then it is too late:

As Brother Draper pointed out, there are enough exciting and adventurous stories in the Good Book to satisfy the needs of every boy and girl in the world; there was simply no need for profane literature. He was not urging censorship of books for adults, just for the impressionable young. If persons of mature years wanted to read such fantastic trash, suffer them to do so – although he, for one, could not see why any grown man would want to.”

In some ways, Heinlein predicted the steady decline and fall of American universities; his only mistake was in assuming the bad guys would be religious fanatics (although SJWs have more than whiff of religious fanatic about them). There are odd echoes of his predictions in events on campuses today:

One of my English professors who was bluntly opposed to censorship once said that Mr Wells had invented every one of the basic fantastic themes, and he cited this story as the origin of the multiple-universes concept. I was intending to ask this [professor] if he knew where I could find a copy, but I put it off to the end of the term when I would be legally ‘of mature years’ – and waited too long; the academic senate committee on faith and morals voted against tenure for that professor, and he left abruptly without finishing the term.”

In his later years, Heinlein liked poking fun at our assumptions and forcing us to question our beliefs. Here, he showcases the hypocrisy of religion and, perhaps, some of the nastier implications of religious belief. Heaven, as Alex discovers, is a hugely-stratified society; the faithful believed in a hierarchy, so that was what they got. Others, such as the pagans, found themselves in more likable worlds. It’s interesting to think that here was where books like The Sandman or Lucifer got their start, although I could be wrong.

Job is not Heinlein’s best works, even of his later period. It has its flaws and weaknesses, moments where it is clear that Heinlein was losing his touch, but … it also has much to respect and admire. And, if nothing else, there are some useful lessons that one should learn.

One Response to “Review Job: A Comedy of Justice”

  1. Daniel May 24, 2018 at 11:21 pm #

    This is one of my favorite RAH stories because like the best of his works. It makes you Think! I will disagree that it’s not one of his best. To me it’s right there with Starship Troopers and The Moon is a harsh mistress

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