Job: A Comedy of Justice, Robert A. Heinlein

Del Rey, 1984, 376 pages, C$23.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-31649-5

It’s generally acknowledged amongst Robert A. Heinlein fans and scholars that the science-fiction author started writing in 1939 with “Life-Line”, stopped in 1987 with Beyond the Sunset but “lost it” as a compelling novelist in 1973 upon publication of I Will Fear No Evil, a long and rambling message novel that left many unsatisfied. Certainly, Heinlein’s near-fatal health problems in early 1973 had something with the lack of editorial discretion exhibited in the final version, but the problem seemed to run deeper: While Heinlein remained a deft storyteller, it seemed as if he had no more stories to tell.

Most of his subsequent novels seemed more preoccupied with tying up together all the diverse universes of his fiction in a single incoherent metaverse where it seemed as if everyone was surprisingly related to everyone else. The stories… well, the stories never got any better. Material for a short story suddenly found itself blown over four hundred pages and scenes that should have been over in an instant suddenly took whole chapters.

But somehow, it all remained interesting. Heinlein’s writing style redefined “limpid” for generations of readers, always clearing the way for the story while polishing it up for memorable epigrams. It’s no accident if most of Heinlein’s work is narrated in the first person; it’s a natural device for allowing the storyteller full access to his repertoire of tricks, devices and character insights. (It also allowed every protagonist to sound exactly the same, but let’s not go there.)

In this context, Job stands as perhaps Heinlein’s second-best post-1973 book. (I still think that Friday isn’t all that bad despite a considerable mid-book lull and some rather strange psychodynamics.)

The plot is self-explanatory from the title (with an SF twist). Our protagonist, a church man from a radically fundamentalist culture, is arbitrarily yanked through alternate universes, reduced to abject poverty, forced to menial work and constant vigilance by the whims of two supreme entities on a bet. As I said; good material for a short story smeared over far too many pages. But at least it all builds up to something grand, which is considerably more than one can say about, oh, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

Fortunately, one thing that has only improved with age is the way Heinlein told his story. It’s a testament to his verve and overall skill that even at his worst, Heinlein remained a compulsively readable author, someone whose books could be loads of fun without necessarily leading somewhere. Even in Job‘s dullest moments -the first half of the book is a succession of adventures that might or might not have any meaning- there’s always a comforting, witty narration to help us through.

Alas, another trait that became more obvious through Heinlein’s latter year is his delight in didactism. Heinlein was, in many respect, an exceptional man who aimed at becoming even better. This credo of his, when practised properly, gave form to some of the best juvenile fiction out there (Hey, I got in SF solely because of Space Cadet), but at its worst gave rise to message-fiction so thinly disguised it was embarrassing (The Number of the Beast). Job is halfway between the two, poking fun at religion in a significant, yet respectful, fashion. The old man knew what he was doing.

The end result of Job’s travails is not quite as impressive as you might think. Some late-book developments will make you go “huh?” and some promising early leads are never followed, such as the “money case” that gives the impression that Heinlein started writing an action-adventure story, then got a better idea.

But it all leads somewhere somewhat satisfying. An embarrassment of rich epigrams is also available for the retelling. If I pity those who have read Job more than those who haven’t, it’s because they can now look forward to one less Heinlein book. That’s how good he remains, despite everything.

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