The worst book I love: Robert Heinlein’s Friday

On a miserably wet Saturday morning in 1982, when I was young and desolate, I went into the library, as I always did, without very much hope. As I reached the New Books section there, entirely unexpectedly, was Friday, a new Heinlein book. It was not just as if the sun had come out, it was as if the sun had come out and it was an F-type star and I was suddenly on a much nicer planet.

Friday is one of Heinlein’s “late period” novels. The general rule if you haven’t read any Heinlein is to start with anything less than an inch thick. But of his later books, I’ve always been fond of Friday. It’s the first person story of Friday Jones, courier and secret agent. She’s a clone (in the terms of her world an “artificial person”) who was brought up in a creche and who is passing as human. It’s a book about passing, about what makes you human. I think it was the first female out-and-out action hero that I read. It’s also a book about being good at some things but with a large hole in your confidence underneath. No wonder I lapped it up when I was seventeen!

What’s good about it now? The whole “passing” bit. The cloning, the attitudes to cloning, the worry about jobs. The economy. It has an interesting future world, with lots of colonized planets, but most of the action taking place on Earth—that’s surprisingly unusual. There’s a Balkanized US and a very Balkanized world come to that, but with huge multinational corporations who have assassination “wars” and civil wars. There’s a proto-net, with search paths, that doesn’t have any junk in it—that’s always the failure mode of imagining the net. It was easy enough to figure out you could sit at home and connect to the Library of Congress, but harder to imagine Wikipedia editing wars and all the baroque weirdness that is the web. Friday’s point of view works for me as someone with severely shaken confidence, and as always with Heinlein it’s immersive. Reading this now I can feel myself sinking right in to Friday without any problem. There’s a complex multi-adult family, not unusual in late Heinlein, but this one disintegrates in a messy divorce, which is unusual and well done as well. And it’s a fun read, even if it’s ultimately unsatisfying.

What’s wrong with it is that it doesn’t have a plot.

Even at seventeen I couldn’t love it uncritically. I can’t think of any book for which I have expended more energy trying to fix the end in my head. It’s practically a hobby. For years I would tell myself I’d re-read it and just stop when the good bit stops and skip the end—though I have to say I’ve never managed it. Heinlein’s ability to write a sentence that makes you want to read the next sentence remains unparalleled. But the book as a whole is almost like Dhalgren. Every sentence and every paragraph and page and chapter lead on to the next, but it’s just one thing after another, there’s no real connection going on. It has no plot, it’s a set of incidents that look as if they’re going somewhere and don’t ever resolve, just stop. It doesn’t work as an emotional plot about Friday growing up, though it’s closer to working as that than as anything else. (Even as that—well, I really have problems with the way she forgives the rapist, if that’s supposed to be maturity.)  It really doesn’t work on any of the other levels you can look at it on.

Heinlein wrote about how he wrote in several places—Expanded Universe and some letters in Grumbles From the Grave. From this it’s quite clear that he worked hard on the background and the characters but that he let his backbrain do the plotting. There are comments like “There were Martians in The Door Into Summer for a few pages until I realised they didn’t belong so I took them out.” (Paraphrased from memory.) As he got older, it’s clear that he lost some grip on that ability to tell what didn’t belong. Friday is an example where you can see this in action. It sets things up that it never invokes, most notably Olympia and the connections back to the novella “Gulf.” It starts hares both in the human plot and the wider plot, and loses track of them. You can see how he did it, and you can imagine how he would have pulled it together, and what he might have gone back and fixed.

Even as it is, I love it for its moments of clarity and beauty. I wouldn’t be without it. I taught myself almost all I know about how to plot by lying awake trying to fix the end of Friday in my head.


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