This post is part of a series on the Virginia Edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s works.
In general, people seem to choose one of two ways to handle Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil: detest it in all its casually (and sometimes not so casually) misogynistic odiousness, or love it like an uncouth grandfather who “grew up in a different time.” As is often a case, I don’t think either extreme is quite right. The novel has many problems which should not be overlooked; nor should those problems overshadow the interesting and insightful questions that it presents.
Written in 1969, the novel was serialized in four parts in Galaxy magazine between July and December 1970, appearing in book form after the third part was released. Typically, when Heinlein went into writing mode, he would decline speaking engagements and other public appearances, preferring to sequester himself so he could focus on his story. However, on July 16, 1969, about a month after he began outlining the story, the historic landing of Apollo 11 gave Heinlein a significant enough reason to interrupt his writing process, not once but twice.
The first interruption occurred when he traveled from his home in Santa Cruz to Downey (near L.A.) for a live interview with Walter Cronkite on the day of the moon landing. In August, he was interrupted again for an extended interview on the same topic by Frank Robinson for Playboy. (The interview was never published, but is included in Vol. 37 of the Virginia Edition, “The Nonfiction of Robert Heinlein: Volume 1,” pp. 541 – 602.) William H. Patterson, Jr., speculates that these interruptions added to the length of the novel as a whole – approximately 132,000 words in its first draft form. Heinlein cut that first draft down a bit (about 6%) and sent the story to be typed.
In early 1970, however, before he could work on more severe edits, Heinlein became deathly sick with fever, which turned out to be a symptom of peritonitis. He went untreated for more than two weeks, eventually developing sepsis and bacteremia. He was put on intravenous antibiotics, which subsequently led to kidney failure. Fortunately, he was able to pull through after surgery, and after two months in the hospital and losing more than forty pounds, he was able to return home.
However, Heinlein continued to have medical issues and required much bed rest. It took two years, and multiple additional surgeries, for him to fully recover from that episode. During that time, his wife Virginia took the reins of the family writing business and dealt with publisher correspondence. According to Patterson, the publishers offered Heinlein a double advance if they could trim I Will Fear No Evil down, and Virginia initially considered the lucrative offer. While Heinlein recognized the need for editing, he was unwilling to let others do it and unable to do it himself.
Ultimately Virginia decided to reject the double advance, preferring instead to have the story published as written. Whether the history of the writing and publishing is enough to excuse the story for any of its flaws remains to be seen.
Patterson writes in the Virginia Edition introduction that “Heinlein’s commercial judgment was validated when I Will Fear No Evil hit the New York Times’ best-seller list and was acclaimed by some very diverse groups of people.” He quotes Virginia Heinlein’s admiration of her husband’s accomplishment in becoming “the hero of the New Right, Women’s lib, and the hippie culture all in the same breath” (vii). However, this does not paint the full story.
In the second volume of his two-part biography on Heinlein, Patterson writes, “The reviews on I Will Fear No Evil were very mixed,” and goes on to cite one reviewer who was disappointed in the lack of graphic sex (despite all the sexual discussion) in the novel. There were certainly more disappointed reviewers than that. Dorothy Bishop, a reviewer for the Ottawa Journal, claimed the book’s “view of mankind is too unrelievedly cynical” and admitted that she couldn’t even finish it. Matthew Light writes that the book is “badly executed” and that its ideas “have simply been stretched into too long a book.” The poor impression of the book stuck around in at least some people’s minds: Rick Nelson, in reviewing the movie Soylent Green four years later, likens the film to “Robert Heinlein’s fascist nightmare, ‘I Will Fear No Evil.’”
On the other hand, there were some good reviews as well. Ronnie M. Lane considered I Will Fear No Evil to be “fast moving and entertaining” (if you overlook a couple slow spots) and, more importantly, a “transitional” novel between science fiction and some future form of literature. Patterson writes that “the book got glowing reviews in specialty publications for Women’s Lib (as the feminist movement was casually called at the time), flower children, and libertarians”; however, he does not cite any actual reviews or provide names of the publications where they occurred, and I could not find many favorable mainstream reviews.
In all, I’m not entirely convinced that “the reviews were a wash” in the way Patterson claims. Nonetheless, the book did ultimately make it onto The New York Times paperback best seller lists, and it’s still in print today with many of Heinlein’s other books, despite a fair amount of criticism against it. How much of that is due to Heinlein’s status as a grandmaster science fiction author versus the quality of the story perhaps can never be deciphered.
A Note on the Title
As so often happens, there were a number of working titles before Heinlein stuck on I Will Fear No Evil. The story was to be a 30,000-word novella for publication in Playboy, first titled “A Dirty Old Man” and then later “Now I Lay Me—.” The title eventually became I Will Fear No Evil when the novel grew and Heinlein decided he wanted an explicit biblical reference. While reading the book, I had trouble understanding what the title actually referred to. The words are taken from the famous 23rd Psalm, but I could not connect the phrase specifically to the situation, plot, or characters in any way. Patterson explains in his biography on Heinlein that it’s an oblique reference; the actual meaning is in the words that come next in Psalm: “for thou art with me.”
The scientific premise behind the story is actually pretty simple: A rich old man (Johann) dying of a terminal illness has his brain transplanted into a recently deceased young woman’s body (Eunice). The procedure is highly experimental and possibly illegal, but because of his money and influence, Johann manages it anyway. The rest of the novel extrapolates out the physiological, psychological, social and legal implications of the transplant.
The most prominent – side effect, let’s call it – of the transplant is that Eunice’s consciousness appears to still be retained in her body. As a result, Joan (pronounced with two syllables and a Spanish “J” like “Yo-an,” to sound similar to her former male name of “Johann”) speaks almost incessantly with Eunice’s consciousness, from everything about their former relationship (Eunice was Johann’s secretary) to Joan learning how to act like a woman. A very large portion of the book consists of this inner dialogue between Joan and Eunice, and it is the source of much that is wrong with the story.
For one thing, it’s very boring. Relatively speaking, there’s very little narration in the story. Most of it consists of either traditional dialogue, or the internal dialogue between Joan and Eunice. While it might be fun and interesting to eavesdrop on a person’s internal colloquy from time to time, hearing every little random thought gets tiresome. Although much of the interplay between Joan and Eunice is presented as good-natured ribbing between friends, the fact is that much of it is inane. Stylistically, it also looks strange, as the running conversation between Joan and Eunice is presented using parentheses. If Heinlein’s proposed 25,000 words to be cut could have been taken from that dialogue, it likely would have improved the story greatly without any substance being lost.
Besides the length and constancy of it, the dialogue between Joan and Eunice presents a more serious problem as well. The power dynamic between Johann (before the brain transplant) and Eunice (before she dies) is that of boss to employee. Once the transplant occurs, it is clear that the power dynamic remains the same: Eunice even continues calling Johann-cum-Joan “Boss” throughout their internal conversation. Physiologically, the male mind is always in control of the female body, with constant reminders that the brain is actually male whenever the reader or one of the characters might be liable to forget it, while Eunice’s consciousness is relegated to a place of offering advice and providing information when wanted or requested. When Eunice interrupts to give Joan some useful detail or opinion, Joan frequently tells her to be quiet and even threatens her with spanking (playfully, I think it’s meant to be, but it comes across as creepy manager in a leisure suit leering at his female underling).
The banter between Joan and Eunice always seems to be presented as good natured, but in a way that makes the misogynistic implications of their metaphysical relationship even worse, as though Eunice accepts and enjoys her backseat position in her own body. There are a few attempts to bring a semblance of equality between men and women in the story, mostly revolving around sex. There is much chatter, internally and otherwise, about how Eunice (and women generally) is a sexual creature as much as Johann (and men generally) was and Joan becomes. As with not a few of Heinlein’s books, each character engages sexually with most of the other characters by the end of the story, and Joan discovers that sex is actually better for women than for men.
Sexual freedom for women is of course an important issue, but women’s independence seems to stop there in I Will Fear No Evil. Joan is financially independent, which helps her decide to become pregnant (using Johann’s frozen sperm) without needing the support of a man — but that independence is undercut by the fact all of Joan’s money was earned and invested by Johann before the transplant. Before her death, Eunice supports her artist husband (who is too proud, apparently, to paint lesser quality works that would pay more money) through her job as a secretary, but assistant to a rich man seems to be the highest position a woman can attain in the story, since throughout the story we never see women in high-level or powerful roles: They are all secretaries, waitresses, or prostitutes.
In my analysis of I Will Fear No Evil, it might appear that I’ve turned around from my defense of apparent misogyny in one of Heinlein’s other late books, Friday (1983). My reasoning has not changed, but the situation in I Will Fear No Evil is very different, and in large part turns on how one interprets the presence of Eunice’s consciousness after Johann’s brain is transferred to her body. From the very start, one of Johann’s doctors expresses concern over the possibility of his developing a split personality after the transplant occurs. From the time Johann wakes up in Eunice’s body, he hears Eunice’s consciousness and believes it to be really her. Throughout the story, Eunice constantly reminds Johann that he cannot reveal her presence, or others will think he has developed a split personality.
All of this is well and good, and Heinlein does a superb job of keeping the reader guessing as to which is actually true: that some trick of physics or metaphysics has managed to preserve Eunice’s consciousness in her body even without her brain, or that Johann’s mind, having known Eunice as his secretary, developed a plausible secondary personality to cope with being in a new body. I tried to find clues to definitively determine which was actually happening, but I never came up with anything solid — until the very end. As the story progresses, Eunice never seems to reveal any factual information to Johann/Joan that is not first revealed in some other, external method. Most of what Eunice offers is opinion or can be attributed to knowledge Johann might have picked up on subconsciously. In fact, much of Eunice’s instruction to Joan could be explained by a nearly century’s worth of accumulated subconscious knowledge and forgotten skills (such as the revelation that a young Johann used to practice yoga). Even things that might seem like revelations to the reader could simply be the astute conclusions of mind that has spent many decades observing human behavior and building a business empire around those observations.
The ambiguity of Eunice’s presence, and the hope of stumbling on an explanation for it, is perhaps the biggest reason to keep reading this book. In the end, however, when Joan’s new husband Jake dies, his consciousness almost immediately appears inside Joan’s head alongside that of Eunice’s (and her own). At that point, the reader has a decision to make. Insofar as Eunice was the only additional presence hanging around, it’s possible to retain the idea that there might be some unexplained scientific reason for her consciousness to stay in her body. However, the addition of Jake’s consciousness dismisses that plausibility, as he has no physiological connection to Eunice’s body to explain his consciousness’s presence there. The story either suddenly turns disturbingly metaphysical, or there must be some other explanation.
The other explanation comes quickly, and it seems to me rather conclusively: Joan suffers rejection syndrome. Eunice’s body ultimately does not accept the presence of Johann’s brain, and one of the results is identified as a split personality. The other is death. In light of the misogynistic problems above, then, the fact that Joan is experiencing a split personality all along becomes even more problematic. In Friday, I criticized other reviewers because they did not allow Friday, as a person, to experience her own reactions to the things that happened to her, indicating that for some reason she should have had different reactions. In I Will Fear No Evil, however, except for the brief chapter or two where we meet Eunice before she dies, we never actually get to hear her mind on any particular issue. Everything “Eunice” says to Joan internally is actually an extrapolation of Johann’s mind (possibly a diseased mind). Even when other characters, like Joe (Eunice’s husband) or Jake (Eunice’s lover who becomes Joan’s husband), claim that Joan is acting just as Eunice would have acted, the advice that “Eunice” is offering is in truth nothing more than Johann’s guess as to how Eunice might have acted. All of the internal dialogue is Johann; none of it is Eunice. Therefore, this is nothing like Friday honestly disclosing her own feelings in a memoir, but a problematic explanation of a woman’s psyche by a man.
What would have made the story more interesting to me would have been, rather than focusing on Johann/Joan’s psychology and innerspeak, to explore more deeply the scientific implications of the physiological changes. For example, some hormones are produced in the brain, while others are produced in other areas of the body. A fuller exploration of how those changes affect Johann’s brain in Eunice’s body would have been more interesting (to me anyway). But that is not the story at hand.
If you can get past the format and implications of the innerspeak – which I acknowledge is a big “if” for many people, and I don’t blame anyone for not being able to get past it – I Will Fear No Evil still offers some interesting thoughts about law and society. I will next touch on each of these areas.
Death and Law
After the transplant, Johann/Joan has to spend a fair amount of time and money working through the legal implications. Part of that implication has to do with the legal definition of death. As Jake (Joan’s lawyer) explains:
For years, many centuries a man was dead when his heart quit beating. Then for about a century he was dead when a licensed M.D. examined him for heart condition action and respiration and certified that he was dead—and sometimes that turned out grisly, as doctors do make mistakes.
The legal device that Heinlein invents to deal with this problem is a fictive court case called Parsons v. Rhode Island, in which the court determined that death occurs when “the brain has quit and isn’t going to start up again.” Jake sums it up, “It’s the brain that counts. Plus a doctor’s opinion about the brain.”
Heinlein clearly spent a lot of time thinking and researching about the medical science behind behind transplants, as well as the legal implications for brain transplants, should they become relevant in the future. Today, we think of heart (and other organ) transplants as happening fairly routinely, and the concept of “brain death” is mainstream. However, the first heart transplant took place in December 1967, a year and a half before Heinlein started working on the story, and both the medical and legal fallout were still largely unknown. Heinlein’s legal extrapolation of the need to switch the long-standing legal definition of death is thus very timely.
In 1982, the Uniform Law Commission – a non-profit organization that provides guidance for handling various legal issues across states – drafted a proposed Uniform Declaration of Death Act (UDDA), citing a disparity between state and common law and recent(ish) knowledge gains in medical science. Its summary of how death was handled sounds very much like Jake’s explanation:
The common law standard for determining death is the cessation of all vital functions, traditionally demonstrated by an “absence of spontaneous respiratory and cardiac functions.” There is, then, a potential disparity between current and accepted biomedical practice and the common law.
Interestingly, the UDDA note that the first state statute applicable to its subject matter was passed by the Kansas legislature in 1970, the same year I Will Fear No Evil was published. Thus, in this story Heinlein is clearly working through the implications of events that were being discussed in scientific and legal circles at the time. (Since its proposal, the UDDA has been adopted by most states in the U.S.)
Law and Identity
The second legal complexity that Joan has to deal with is that of identity. Specifically, she must prove convincingly that she has the same persona, not merely the same brain, as Johann. After presenting the idea that life resides with the brain, rather than with the circulatory and pulmonary organs, Heinlein convincingly builds his legal extrapolation out to encompass the idea of identity also residing in the brain, suggesting a sort of emergent materialist model of consciousness a la Daniel Dennett.
While Heinlein certainly was not the first person to deal with transplanted identities in science fiction, he dives deeper into the legal, medical, and social implications than anyone did before him, throwing in the addition of a sex change just to make things more interesting. The primary legal aftereffects that Joan has to work through relate to probate: If she is in fact Johann, then there is no probate, since she would not be dead; however, if she is an imposter or if identity is retained somewhere other than the brain, then Johann is legally dead and all of his money gets passed on to his descendants. Johann’s grandaughters serve as the plaintiffs in a suit to declare Johann legally dead. Heinlein does a good job in presenting the legal issues, and I think convincingly shows how they would need to be navigated.
However, where he does a less convincing job is in showing how someone might positively show their identity in such a case. As anyone who has read or seen a switched-identity story knows, biometric identification in such instances is useless. No amount of fingerprinting, retinal scans, or similar checks will help, since the whole premise relies on the person’s physical presence changing. So it comes down, as always, to proving one’s identity through knowledge (or memory) and personality. This is where Heinlein’s credibility falls a bit, and it is the weakest part of the whole legal extrapolation.
Ultimately, the judge presiding over the case is convinced that Joan and Johann are the same person because they were members of the same college fraternity (though decades apart). Joan knows the secret handshake, literally, along with details about a loan the judge took from the fraternity’s distress fund at a time when Johann was a trustee of the fund. Despite providing enlightening as to the characters of both Joan and judge, this highly specific backstory does disservice to the otherwise very well constructed legal situation in the story. The most frustrating part about this is that the doctor who performs the surgery testifies in court that he cannot positively identify the body that received the brain transplant because she had various medical equipment hooked up to her. Instead, Heinlein opted for a more convoluted, and less convincing, solution.
I Will Fear No Evil is frequently discussed as a book that addresses various transgender issues. I’m a bit confused by this. It may be that given a lack of books on transgender issues in the early 1970s, it was initially viewed this way. However, the science of a brain transplant as described in this book versus the sex reassignment therapy that some transgender people undergo, is vastly different. In fact, Joan explicitly calls out the difference in responding to Jake’s interrogation about her sexuality:
I’m in the damnedest situation a man ever found himself in. I’m not the ordinary sex change of a homo who gets surgery and hormone shots to tailor his male body into fake female. I’m not even a mixed-up XXY or an XYY. This body is a normal female XX. But the brain in it has had a man’s canalization and many years of enthusiastic male sex experience. So tell me, Jake, which time am I being normal, and which time perverse?
Joan clearly sees her situation as something new, different from anything that has happened before, and this is a prompt for the reader to view it this way as well. Certainly it would be fine to draw similarities between Joan’s situation and those of people who undergo sex changes using primary world medical approaches, but to equate Joan’s story to that of transgender people in the real world seems a bit of a stretch.
(I also feel it necessary to point out that in the passage quoted above, Joan is being needfully blunt with Jake. Her ultimate argument in the conversation [as is the case in many of Heinlein’s stories] is that there is no such thing as being “perverse” when it comes to an individual’s sexuality.) As I mentioned above, I wish Heinlein would have further explored some of the physiological implications of the transplant, since in this passage he appears to at least be aware of them.
Patterson notes that Heinlein got the idea for I Will Fear No Evil after reading a story about the National Rare Blood Club (NRBC), a volunteer-based group that solicits blood donations from people with rare blood types. Heinlein himself had a rare blood type, and he gives several characters in I Will Fear No Evil rare blood types. He even includes references to the NRBC, which becomes a sort of recruiting ground for Johann when he is looking for potentially compatible bodies for his brain to be transferred to.
In the irony of life, Heinlein himself came to rely on the National Rare Blood Club when he became deathly sick in 1970 and required many blood transfusions for his various surgeries. After his recovery, Heinlein tried to donate blood to “replace” that which he used, but given his age and health condition, he was not allowed to do so.
Starkly aware of the need for more blood donors, the rejection of his own donation attempt made Heinlein even more passionate about encouraging other people to donate blood. He organized a massive blood drive at the 34th World Science Fiction Convention in 1976. Heinlein also encouraged donations in other ways: For example, at a 1977 lecture he delivered at Eastern Michigan University, the price of admission was proof of donating (or attempting to donate) blood within the last 60 days.
Since Heinlein’s death, the Heinlein Society has continued to promote the importance of blood donation through its various programs designed to “Pay It Forward” (a term that Heinlein helped to popularize in the 1950s, although many people today probably associate it more with the 2000 movie starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt). In particular, the Society has helped to organize blood drives at many different science fiction conventions since 2001, and it continues to promote awareness through its website and other means.
As I stated in my Introduction to the Virginia Edition reviews, I’m somewhat baffled by the placement of I Will Fear No Evil as the first volume. It certainly doesn’t make sense chronologically. Thematically, although Heinlein wrote a lot about sexuality and identity, yet this book is not “typical” insofar as he handles such issues elsewhere. As far as the “science” part of science fiction, after the initial brain transplant—which is handled in a somewhat hand-waving sort of way—there isn’t any real “hard” science in the book, and it focuses more on the psychological, social and legal after-effects of the operation. While such “soft” science is representative of Heinlein’s later work, he does it much better elsewhere.
Bishop, Dorothy. “A Novel of the Week.” The Ottawa Journal. May 1, 1971. Print. n.p.
Heinlein, Robert A. I Will Fear No Evil. Virginia Edition. Vol. 1. Quebec: Virginia Edition Publishing Company, 2008. Print.
Light, Matthew. “Science Tale Not Best of This Author.” Bridgeport Sunday Post. Dec. 6, 1970. Print. C-4.
Nelson, Rick. “High percentage of good films.” The Times-Standard. (Eureka, Calif.) March 31, 1974. Print. 22.
Patterson, William H., Jr. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century. Vol. 2. New York: Tor Books, 2014. Print.
“They’re Asking for Blood.” The Daily Courier (Connellsville, PA). Sept. 17, 1977. Print. 2.