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Article – “Heinlein’s Friday: a Trans Novel?” by Cheryl Morgan

Late period Heinlein is something few of us like to admit to enjoying. Mostly it is an embarrassment: the once great man turns to long, flabby novels full of drugs, group sex and nipples going Spung! The books exhibit a devotion to a vision of the gender binary as two islands of behavior and attitudes, separated by a vast gulf. That idea doesn’t go down well in these more Feminist times. But while Heinlein might have advocated extremes of gendered behavior, he did not believe that the divide couldn’t be crossed. I Will Fear No Evil bears many of the hallmarks of classic transvestite fiction. An older man is required, against his will, to live as a woman. A beautiful younger woman is on hand to teach him how to behave, and soon he begins to enjoy his new life. It is the sort of thing that has psychologists salivating about psychosexual dysfunction. But it isn’t the only book in which Heinlein plays with gender issues.

A while back I wrote a column about trans themes in science fiction for The Bilerico Project. Somewhat to my surprise, some of the commenters mentioned Friday as a book that had meant a lot to them as youngsters. I remembered Friday mainly for the hideous rape/torture scene at the beginning, that Heinlein treats almost as trivial (Friday herself describes it as “silly” at one point), and of course for the iconic Michael Whelan cover showing Marjorie Baldwin flashing cleavage in her blue jump suit . But I take note of what commenters say, and I re-read the book. I was rather surprised by what I found.

One of the main science-fictional ideas in the book is that Marjorie Baldwin, code-named “Friday”, is an Artificial Person. By this Heinlein does not mean some sort of android. That idea had been covered long before. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was published in 1968, and Blade Runner came out in 1982, the same year as Friday. Heinlein had no need to explore the same territory. Instead he was making a point about public attitudes to medical advances. Louise Brown, the first so-called “Test-Tube Baby”, was born in 1978 and artificial insemination was still a matter of pubic concern. Religious conservatives railed against it (and the Catholic Church still opposes it). In the world of the book, anyone born in a laboratory is deemed an Artificial Person, and not human. For Friday, and others like her, this leads to all sorts of social discrimination.

“The courts say I can’t be a citizen; the churches say I don’t have a soul. I’m not ‘man born of woman,’ at least not in the eyes of the law.”

The idea that some despised minority group is not “really” human, or not “really” what they claim to be, is a common put-down used in just about every area of discrimination. All the way from the Old Testament, where Adam is made in the image of God and Eve is not, people have been designating other people as somehow less than them because of some failing in the despised group’s biology or ancestry. But Friday is a very particular sort of “non-human” human, because she looks just like one of “us”. She can “pass”.

Of course, as anyone could guess from this account, I had passed years earlier. I no longer carried an ID with a big “LA” (or even “AP”) printed across it. I could walk into a washroom and not be told to use the end stall.

“Passing” is, of course, a primary goal for many transsexuals. Being able to use a public restroom without being challenged about your right to be there is a key element in trans people’s lives. But physical appearance alone is not always enough. History is another issue. Transsexuals often suffer embarrassment if asked about their childhood because their memories are of growing up in the wrong gender. They don’t have the right stories to tell, unless they make up a personal history. For Friday it is her ancestry that is at issue.

“You saved me. I was about to lose my nerve. Georges – Dear Georges! – I know that you have told me that I must not be uneasy about what I am – and I’m trying, I truly am! – but to be faced with a form that demands to know all about my parents and grandparents – it’s dismaying!”

Because of her job as a covert operative for a mysterious organization, Friday has all the fake ID she could want. Spies work with fake ID all of the time. But in her case she can never forget just what that fakery is covering.

… a phony ID and a fake family tree do not keep you warm; they just keep you from being hassled and discriminated against. You are still aware that there isn’t any nation anywhere that considers your sort fit for citizenship and there are lots of places that would deport or even kill you – or sell you – if your cover-up ever slipped.

Trans rights have come a long way since 1982, but there are still many places in the world where trans people are considered second class citizens and can be murdered with impunity if they are found out. Even in supposedly enlightened Western countries trans people are routinely mocked, insulted and pilloried in the media. The irony is that, like Friday, many trans people live normal lives in their local communities, despite the fact that their prejudiced neighbors swear blind that they’d “know one if they saw one.”

I’ve heard humans boast that they can spot an artificial person every time. Nonsense.

Friday, then, contains many passages that closely reflect the experience of trans people in society. The problems that Marjorie has, and the types of discrimination she faces, closely match the issues that trans people face. But is there any evidence that Heinlein was thinking about trans issues when he was writing the book?

Much of Friday is a classic Heinlein rant against the evils of Big Government. Particular venom is reserved for the State of California, which Heinlein portrays as full of the most bizarre nut jobs on the planet. They have all sorts of strange political ideas. California is the only place in the world of the book where Friday has difficulty using the restroom.

There was a person of indeterminate sex selling tickets to the rest room. I asked her(him) where the powder room was. She (I decided on “she” when closer observation showed that her T-shirt covered either falsies or small milk glands) – she answered scornfully, “You some kind of nut? Trying to discriminate, huh? I ought to send for a cop.”

Given his devotion to the gender binary, it is not surprising that Heinlein (through Friday) takes poorly to the idea of blurring gender boundaries, but this passage clearly illustrates that he was aware of the existence of people who were of indeterminate gender, and liked being that way.

A running theme through the book is a system something like Craigslist that Friday scans for clues because she thinks that the bad guys are using coded ads to pass messages to their operatives. One such ad is for sex changes. Like the California restroom scene, there was no particular plot-related reason for Heinlein to include this. The fact that he did so at least shows that he was aware of such things, and that he probably thought about them.

None of this, of course, proves that Heinlein was writing about trans people when he wrote Friday. Indeed, it is entirely likely that he had a whole range of different types of discrimination that he wanted to pillory when he came up with the idea of a world in which children whose DNA is indistinguishable from that of humans are regarded as non-human because of the circumstances of their birth. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, Heinlein is saying, then is must be a duck. It could be that he simply thought through all of the issues that Friday would face, and wrote the book accordingly. On the other hand, he could simply have known a transsexual or two and had talked to those people about their lives. We will, I suspect, never know.

What is true, however, is that once a book is published it is no longer simply the creation of its author. Each person who reads that book creates it anew by reading it through the filter of their own personal experience. Regardless of what Heinlein may or may not have intended Friday is a book that speaks very clearly to transsexuals about their personal experience. Other types of trans people may be less happy with it, but it is still relevant in several ways.


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About the Author

Cheryl Morgan is the co-editor of Science Fiction Awards Watch, non-fiction editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, and former editor of Emerald City. She blogs regularly on a variety of topics at Cheryl’s Mewsings.

When not tied to her computer she likes to travel the world, watch sport, buy clothes, listen to music, eat chocolate and cook. She has won two Hugo Awards.

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  1. [...] latest issue of Crossed Genres went live this evening. It is an LGBTQ special. It includes an article by me and an interview with Kate [...]

  2. This is an interesting article. I had not thought of Friday’s experience being analogous to trans experience, but clearly there are parallels.

    That execrable rape scene, though. Feh.

    I loved Heinlein’s writing when I was growing up, but I have a hard time with him now. There’s no doubt that he’s in the vanguard of the genetic essentialists among SF authors, which strikes me as odd considering some of his other opinions, such as the words he put in Lazarus Long’s mouth, if I recall correctly: “Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other “sins” are invented nonsense.”

    But here are some other words he put in Lazarus’ mouth, from _Time Enough for Love_:

    ===========
    [Minerva is suggesting novel life experiences for Lazarus.] “Lazarus, you could become female.”

    [Lazarus replies.] “Minerva, I’m not sure what you mean. Surgeons have been turning inadequate males into fake females for more than two thousand years-and females into fake males almost as long. I’m not attracted by such stunts. For good-or bad-I am male. I suppose that every human has wondered how it would feel to be the other sex. But all the plastic surgery and hormone treatments possible won’t do it-those monsters don’t reproduce.”
    ===========

    So, for Heinlein, “real” femaleness (and presumably maleness) lay in the ability to reproduce. Anyone who has examined trans issues more than superficially knows that that road leads to problems very quickly.

    Lest anyone accuse me of confusing Heinlein’s opinion with one of Heinlein’s character’s opinions, here’s how Minerva responds;

    ===========
    “I am not speaking of monsters, Lazarus. A true change in sex.”
    ===========

    In Heinlein’s writing, his characters quibble over small issues so routinely that it’s distracting. But Minerva, a super-intelligent super-computer, is quite willing to adopt the “monster” terminology without challenge or qualification, and then contrast surgical transition with “true change of sex”, which sets up the dichotomy that surgical transition is a false change of sex.

    The similarity of Friday’s experience and a generalized trans experience are striking, but they certainly weren’t intentional. Heinlein clearly drew the line at chromosomes or reproduction, and thus left out in the cold every trans person living in a setting where chromosomal intervention is impossible — which includes every trans person living in Heinlein’s day, and every trans person living now.

    Denying trans people their humanity ( “monsters”) because they live in an era where medical practice doesn’t meet Heinlein’s requirements would certainly qualify as “hurting others unnecessarily”. Heinlein often decried racism and some other forms of discrimination in his writing, but he never did work out his issues with gender.

    Grace

  3. Forget the cleavage in Whelan’s cover.

    Have you considered the zipper tabs?

    My biggest gripe with “Friday” is that it’s not really a novel – it’s a number of incidents that could, mostly be reshuffled into a different order without making it materially better or worse…

  4. [...] Article – “Heinlein’s Friday: a Trans Novel?” by Cheryl Morgan [...]

  5. We are so on the same page here. This would be an excellent movie.

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