I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein: An Angry Fabulist’s Expression of “Rejection Syndrome”
by David M. Silver ©1998, 2002
The novel I Will Fear No Evil was almost fit for publication when in January 1970, peritonitis almost ended Robert Heinlein’s life. Just before hospitalization, he completed the first cut of his draft. The author gravely ill and unable to make business decisions, his wife and agent exercised their authority over his affairs and decided upon publication in unfinished form. The result is said by one commentator to be “a rather rambling and murky story line that almost certainly would have been shortened and tightened up considerably had Heinlein been able to edit the draft before publication.” Heinlein remained very ill and underwent other surgeries for the entire next two years. Because it lacks this supposed needed final polish and contains what many then and now consider bizarre subject matter, it has been one of his least appreciated works–a sad fate considering current social history and, also, what I believe is its true intent.
It is not a part of the “Future History Series” but seems to exist further down the time line of Stranger In A Strange Land, which Jubal Harshaw in his brief encore appearance in To Sail Beyond The Sunset tells us is our very own.
The story occurs a half-century or so into the future.
Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is perhaps the richest man on an increasingly crowded Earth, a self-made, cantankerous very old coot who has made the final error. He has let himself fall into the clutches of the medical profession, and they will not let him die. Mentally as acute as ever, but permanently harnessed into life support gear afforded only the very rich, he has found a way to outwit the medicos by committing an elaborate suicide. A brilliant, unorthodox surgeon, considered charlatan by most, claims he has successfully transplanted brains from one chimpanzee to another–and there are films of the operation and both simians now climbing trees and eating bananas. Doubting whether a first attempt with a human will succeed, even were the operation not a fraud, Smith does not care–he’s got no choice. The hopeless alternative is to accept increasingly mind-numbing narcotics to offset pain until a final vegetal state arrives.
He wagers not to wait and suffer mental or physical agony. All he needs is a body, recently dead; and, as it would make a wildly overoptimistic surgical team more willing to attempt this lunacy if the body has the same rare blood type as he–AB Negative, his solution is simple: advertise for a body!
Eunice Branca, a delightfully beautiful, young, nubile and intelligent woman, is Smith’s recently promoted private secretary. She supports her husband, a body-painting artist, whose favorite canvas is his wife. She likes old Johann, appreciates his gallant efforts to evade the inevitable fate tied to his automated bedpan, and delights in exhibiting herself to this very old man in his last few days: Are those tights she’s wearing, or just paint? Only Eunice, her husband, and the reader, know for sure.
Jake Salomon is Smith’s private attorney, long-time friend, and co-conspirator against the medicos. One other thing: he’s quite a “fixer.” Organ transplants have become big business. Relying on precedents that a dead body is ‘property’ of the dead person’s estate, Salomon has little difficulty in setting up a lawful offer to buy a recently dead one in ‘prime’ condition for his very rich client. It’s simply a matter of awaiting some accident to provide a proper host for Johann’s brain.
Joe Branca is the prototypical artist as a young man, seemingly a minor character, not very bright, but talented in an obscure area few would seriously believe is art: “body-painting?”! It’s doubtful whether he would be able to live, let alone pursue this “art” without the effort and strong, loving support of his talented wife. He is offspring of an indolent cranky ungrateful mother, who, vicious, bigoted and stupid, lives on the largess of the country–a welfare drone, paradoxically grinding out bastard children who grind out bastard children ad infinitum and, amazingly, thinks herself neglected by and “better” than almost all others of her indulgent, troubled, decaying society.
To his surprise, Johann awakens from surgery. Memories of strange dreams under anesthesia did perturb him a bit; but he’s delighted to find himself alive, without pain–for the first time in years. Numbness below the neck gradually wears off as his new body adjusts to the demands of its new brain. He’s not even particularly shocked to find the young new body is female–no one thought to specify the sex of the donor. He’s perfectly willing to try on his new life in that gender–it might be fascinating! A bit curious he has asked for a mirror, which they are bringing.
The tremendous shock caused by discovery that the face and body the mirror discloses are those of Eunice Branca would kill a lesser man. Then suddenly that which had been disturbing him during his time under anesthesia becomes manifest. Eunice is present in his consciousness. Since the operation she has always been there. She soothes his troubled mind. How can two “consciousnesses” exist in one brain, short of that conditions described in The Puppet Masters, i.e., parasitic enslavement and exploitation of one form by another, or what persons educated before the end of the 1970s then and the general public still calls “schizophrenia”?–for this is not an essay on the current labeling flavor of the day endorsed by an evolving profession. I leave that question for later.
The body and minds of this construct Johann-Eunice start a journey unlike any in the annuals of speculative fiction. First, there’s the little matter of recovering legal control over self. During unconsciousness following surgery, to keep Johann’s granddaughters from having him declared dead (and presumably inherit), Salome, er, Salomon did a legal dance to persuade the state to declare him guardian over Johann’s head and Eunice’s body. The granddaughters are offspring of his second and third wives, who each divorced Johann, but only after presenting him with children not biologically his; and, therefore, they are not granddaughters in any but the strict legal sense of being children of his presumed “daughters” who themselves also were born during wedlock.
And the only son this man ever had, an honorable man who died taking a worthless hill in a discredited war, was the result of yet another cuckolding whose mother, whom Johann truly loved, died giving him birth. But Johann, a gentleman, has and will never mention this knowledge (certain because of the blood types he knows his “children” possessed) to anyone except Eunice whom he finds now sharing his brain, even though control over the property and his corporate empires is at stake.
Salomon and Johann-Eunice will win the legal battles. A bewildering display of sub-plots intermixed with didactic social commentary occurs during this contest and following. Here I set most of the didacticism aside, since commentary on all the subjects raised by the author’s agenda would require an essay far beyond the scope of this paper: however, as a first decision, Johann-Eunice ordains she will henceforth be called Joan, but pronounced “Yo-an” Smith.
First among the subplots: Johann was a sperm donor; and frozen sperm exists. As all of Johann’s putative children from three wives were not biologically his (Johann was lucky in a “foolish fourth marriage,” hoping to bring back something that had died in him with the death of his ‘son’ whom he loved, as it brought forth no issue, but merely cost a “chunk of money” to get shut of it), Johann-Eunice decide early on there shall be one; and secretly one of Yo-an’s eggs is surgically implanted fertilized with his thawed genetic remnant, immediately before the next activities commence.
Next is this little matter of returning to an adult life–this time as a woman. First, to complicate things a bit, Yo-an seduces “Winnie.” She is another prototypical character, a bright vivacious redhead, familiar to all Heinlein’s readers, a type sometimes associated with Virginia (called by some “Ginny”) Heinlein, his final wife. She is Yo-an’s nurse, and now becomes female companion, that is, nursemaid. To complicate matters a bit more, Winnie has a boyfriend, the semi-mysterious Robert, or “Roberto,” whose detailed associations with Winnie and profession are kept private and off-stage from us by the author, until mid-novel when we find he was one of the specialists charged originally with Yo-an’s physical recovery. To complicate yet more, it turns out that Eunice, before her death, had an on-going affair with Jake Salomon, old Johann’s “fixer” and only real friend. So Yo-an seduces Jake to assuage his grief and reveals to him her secret: the two minds that exist in her cortex. Then Yo-an visits Joe Branca, still struggling to produce ‘art for art’s sake,’ and finds him in virtual poverty. He told the “fixer,” Jake, to “kark in his hat” when offered a staggering sum for Eunice’s body. Eunice was mugged and murdered while shortcutting through one of the many dangerous neighborhoods existing in this decaying world of walled and privately policed enclaves to save time getting to an emergency patient as an “Angel of Mercy,” a rare blood donor. One of Joe’s old models, “Gigi,” whom Eunice knew and loved, has moved in and is trying to support them by, unknown to Joe, prostituting herself. Yo-an loves them both and arranges personally with the model to subsidize Joe. Joe’s head is so far up in the clouds he does not ask about the source of money Gigi brings for food and shelter. Now the young struggling artist has an effective ‘keeper’ again! The plot is beginning to resemble one of Wagner’s Ring-cycles–less some of the murders–well under way, isn’t it?
Let’s skip the rest of the complications, including much more sleeping around, er, loving. Jake marries Yo-an; and they sail away onto the only safe and secure place now existing on Earth, the open seas of the Pacific itself. Joe and the model, now married, and many other people come along on a large trimaran. Other complications ensue, including more love triangles. These complications interfere with Joe’s art, so the couple decide to go ashore. During their helicopter departure, Jake, still strong and virile, tries to steady a swinging piece of heavy luggage being winched above, overtaxes his aged heart and immediately expires.
At that moment, Jake’s consciousness enters Johann-Eunice’s shared brain and body. Now they are a trinity. Curiouser and curiouser. Step aside Wagner-this author’s just surpassed you and taken the teacake at this party of the mad!
Now to the finale: Johann-Eunice-Jake decides to immigrate to the Moon to escape Earth’s soiled civilization entirely and ensure the soon-to-be-born child may be born in a world of hope. Reenter “Winnie” and boyfriend Dr. Roberto Garcia, who was responsible for the care of Johann-Eunice during her first convalescence. They accompany the emigrant Johann-Eunice-Jake as her personal servants (huge charitable donations would have gone elsewhere had the Lunar Authority not allowed that wild departure from its strict screening policies–the rich necessarily always play by ‘different’ rules) as that baby is very important and, by the way, there now appear some indications that the graft of nerve cells between brain and spinal cord is deteriorating–a situation called by the healers of this novel “rejection syndrome.”
A hiatus intervenes. We are in Luna; and Johann-Eunice-Jake is in labor. Yo-an repeatedly insists to ‘Winnie’ that she promise that, if anything “happens,” the baby will be named Eunice Jacob. And just as the expectant mother goes under, while an argument over NAMES occurs among the three in the brain, there is the following conversation between Yo-an and Winnie:
“I do promise you, Joan. Cross my heart.”
“My dear sweet Winsome. We’ve come a long way together, you and I and Roberto [The emphasis is not in the original].
“Yes, we have dear.”
“I’m ill. Am I not?”
* * * * *
And as she goes under, the “rejection syndrome” begins … and Johann-Eunice-Jake begins to die while giving birth to a new life.
But then something shocking intervenes:
Between surgeries a conversation occurs between Yo-an and “Roberto” the putative doctor. In very erotic detail, Yo-an, using the classic and infamous Anglo-Saxon verb, thanks him for graphic acts of sex in which they have engaged. “Now wait just a minute,” I said when I read this first edition hot off the presses, twenty-eight years ago, “This is the first time I’ve ever read anything like that in Heinlein. He doesn’t exactly put asterisks in as in expurgated copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover but his writing is never like this. When did she have a chance to get in the sack with ‘Roberto?’ He faded into the woodwork as soon as the paralysis following the original transplant surgery wore off.” Then I thought hard and remembered that among many beddings she and Winnie once swapped partners (Jake for “Roberto”) after a night on the town. There was nothing remarkable then described about the sex that evening; but I shrugged off the seeming lack of a point–other than a severely ill-timed but understandable expression of gratitude–to this and read on. After all this is a Heinlein lady, and all Heinlein ladies are unique–to put it kindly–and quite tricky. Perhaps they found other times? I then read on to the bitter end in which at the instant of giving birth to new Eunice Jacob, that overburdened treble mind expires, leaving these last words:
“An old world vanished and then there was none.”
I used to consider the salient point in I Will Fear No Evil to be that Eunice’s consciousness continues to exist in the donor body. I saw this novel, among other things, to be Heinlein’s conscious examination of the one form of self-identity some believe exists, an identity so strong as to defy death, that is, an inquiry into the question: is there a “soul?” I reasoned he reasoned if Eunice’s consciousness were present in the left-behind body after the death of her brain–and her brain was shattered beyond repair (declared “dead”) in a mugging–then T.H. Huxley’s scientifically unprovable and undisprovable enigma “how can a soul exist” necessarily needs re-examination. How this scientific-proof extrapolation to the “animus” occurred to the author is fairly easy to infer. He expressly writes here of the cellular memories of the flatworm, an inoffensive otherwise not very unusual early form of life we all recall from basic biology that has one unique property. Cut in two, each end grows the missing part. The tail grows a head (with a complete whatever passes for a brain in a flatworm), and the head grows a tail. Medicine considers “death” to occur when the brain is said to be “dead.” Ah, but what if a body can regenerate the brain? Not yet? Maybe not; but way back down in our evolutionary chain, our DNA could! What made that happen, then, but not now? “Could that be the soul?” Heinlein is asking.
If a soul truly exists, then indeed David the King, my namesake who wrote the Psalm, and Robert Heinlein may honestly recite:
Yea, Thou I Walk
In The Valley Of
The Shadow Of Death
I Will Fear No Evil
For Thou Art With Me
Thy Rod And Thy Staff
and the symbolic old man with a beard both Eunice and Johann say they saw in their troubled dreams during their original recovery will indeed appear. That neatly accounts for the title.
Maybe so. But then there are these matters of wives supporting artists and all this business about names, particularly hyphenated ones, including the screwy argument over names at the end and interdependence of threesomes and of “split personalities,” and “rejection syndrome.” And then the mysterious stranger “Roberto,” a one-night stand tucked in there with such significance to the lady with the hyphenated name that Heinlein (that ‘nice Naval Academy graduate’ even librarians named Mrs. Grundy used to love) actually writes purple prose to describe her gratitude. And we didn’t get an afterlife here, did we? We got a version of the bubble ending from Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain, favorite author of mother Maureen Johnson Smith of Thebes (I almost said Butler), Missouri and grandfather Ira Johnson. Oops, sorry wrong Smith. It’s Johann Sebastian Bach Smith here, not Woodrow Wilson Smith, isn’t it?
But then we are reading about artists such as Joe in this book, not successful naval officers, leaders or politicians, aren’t we?
One thing I learned a long time ago: Robert Anson Heinlein was a very tricky writer about many things, but most importantly about names. Look at Stranger In A Strange Land for example. Virtually every name in it has multiple resonances.
Take one here from the very beginning: Agnes, Johann’s first wife, whom he loved for the short period they had together (like Poe’s “Annabel Lee” as the author reminds us). She gave him the beloved ‘son’ who died in a discredited war. One meaning for Agnes is “Chaste.” (Another is lamb in Latin, usually a victim or an innocent sacrifice when referred to in religious writings.) David, later the King and poet who wrote the Psalm, was a sacrifice as well, when they sent him to face Goliath. And we recall another David Lamb, don’t we? “The Man Who Was Too Lazy To Fail,” from Time Enough For Love? The son’s blood type from the dog tags that were all that was left of him was “O+,” impossibility for an AB-negative father. What is wrong here? Why that name is deliberately upside-down! Nothing in this novel is what it seems! Because it is not primarily a novel, I believe. On a major level it is the allegorical autobiography of Robert Anson Heinlein, born July 7, 1907, in Butler, Missouri, graduated United States Naval Academy, class of 1929, married briefly to a lady concerning whom little is known almost immediately after graduation, then divorced and remarried to Leslyn MacDonald who supported him after he was rejected from Naval Service because of tuberculosis; and probably while he was rejected a few times by publishers concerning those mysterious first efforts at writing which are now turned up by conscientious research, rejected by the voters in an election for the California State Assembly in 1938 in which as Johann tells Eunice “he” was put up to run by the party in an election they were going to lose anyway, because he could afford to pay for his own campaign (RAH took out a mortgage), and whom he mysteriously divorced in 1947 concerning whom there have been recurrent rumors of hospitalization for alcoholism and, perhaps, of a family history of bipolar disorder, finally thereafter married to the vivacious red haired woman who everyone calls “Ginnie,” but he called “Ticky” until the day he died, who was and continues to be his “mouthpiece” to his adoring public and whose shared philosophies were the subject of heated rejections by 1969, in the midst of the draft-dodging, “Heigh, heigh, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” drop-out malaise then occurring. You remember, don’t you? It was about the time some critics began to say his publicly acclaimed Starship Troopers had been awarded the Hugo in mistake, because the novel described a “fascist utopia”–a libel we read deliberately resurrected when Verhoeven’s filmed abortion was released.
I can go on…. Three wives. Students at our service academies are still not permitted marriage until they graduate. In the 1920s, just as today, they were taught they already had Three Wives: Duty. Honor. Country. Above all else, these are the three precepts all of our service academies drum into the minds of their graduates. He did his Duty with Honor to his Country; and it rejected him when it discharged him despite the “cured” status of his tuberculosis, then rejected his persistent efforts to return when he “with a feeling of loss of personal honor such as I never expected myself to experience … found myself sitting on a hilltop, in civilian clothes, with no battle station, and unable to fight, when it happened” on December 7, 1941. He nevertheless did the duty that was offered him during that war by his beloved old commander, now Admiral Ernest King–a bastard job which could just as easily have been done by a Lieutenant or Lieutenant Commander rather than a Mr. Heinlein, that included “unofficial” work as mediator between naval officers who respected that Class of 1929 ring on his hand and civilian scientists who respected him as the eminent artist in a field they revered. He did it just as Johann did his duty to what was presented him by unchaste Agnes. She gave Johann a bastard but died in the attempt, and the fine boy died in a discredited war. Whether it was Oscar Gordon’s father’s UnWar I (Korea), or Evelyn Cyril’s own UnWar II (Vietnam), it does not matter; it was one of the rocks he found on Glory Road. Duty, Honor and Country. One died early, two divorced him, and three gave him bastards and, by 1969, some of their progeny was abusing and wasting needed resources and grasping greedily for more. The fourth wife that he divorced after he tried recommitment to a public service life for a year to revive his hopes. Politics? That cost him a heap of money to get shut of. He needed to sell that “first” short story, “Life-Line,” to pay off the mortgage he took out for the ill-fated attempt at the California Assembly.
Filling in the remaining allegorical blanks is left as an exercise to the student, if you will.
“Roberto,” you miserable sonofabitch suffering from “rejection syndrome,” you’ve done it to us again. And it took me twenty-eight years to figure it out. I am so embarrassed I am going to vanish in a bubble ending.
David M. Silver
April 19, 1998 (lightly revised June 5, 2002)