Heinlein and the Space Babes

Heinlein’s babes always struck me as at least having a sketchy personality (usually of a fiercely independent redhead eager to hop in bed) but not enough to take them out of the Playboy eye candy category.

Please note that this never happened in his juveniles — that editrix Alice Dalgliesh he seemed to carp about so much kept him on the straight and narrow, and built up the fame for him to allow him to write his clunkers like NUMBER OF THE BEAST and the books thereafter.

His female characters in most of his juveniles, even minor characters only briefly onstage, seemed no less realistic than his male characters. If the memory of my far vanished youth serves, PODKAYNE OF MARS may have been the first science fiction book I ever read with a female protagonist. She seemed to have at least as much personality as the guy from BETWEEN PLANETS or SPACE CADET, whose names I cannot recall, or even Juan Rico from STARSHIP TROOPERS.

But when Heinlein went from writing juveniles to writing seniles something happened.

The second most demeaning scene to women I think I have ever read in any science fiction book was in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.

Michael Valentine Smith, the Man from Mars, is living in the house of Bohemian writer and lawyer Jubal Hershaw, who happens to have three buxom and sexually liberated female secretaries. They are given names and hair colors. Mike the Martian loses his virginity to one of them one night, and the author coyly does not say to whom.

The next day the girls are quarreling — no doubt in jealousy from the two who were left out of the one night stand — but by the end of the week, all are zealously loyal to the Man from Mars — no doubt because he is so awesome at loveplay that all women would prefer to be a harem girl sharing him rather than have one man with one wife.

Now, the reason why this is absurdly demeaning even to the concept of womanhood is this: nothing comes of it. Nothing whatever.

None of the three girls has any change of heart or personality, no one gets pregnant, no one gets married, no one enters into any sort of relationship with the Man from Mars. This is because none of them has a trace of personality. One is a Fair Witness (a type of trained memory notary public) and one ends up with the token Mohammedan, but I cannot recall who was who or which was which.

In other words, the women are so sketchily portrayed that even when one of them surrenders the nuptial delights of her most intimate love to the boy from Mars and turned him into a man, there is no difference between the girl who so surrenders and the girls who do not.

And it really does not matter, because the other two or three girls in the house, and maybe Ben Caxton also, surrender to his amorous loveplay before the book is done.

Now, before you ask, there is a writer more demeaning to women, because he built his reputation as a writer on demeaning women, and that would be John Norman, in the Counter-Earth novels he wrote for Daw Books after Ballantine booksdropped him. (The first six, written for Ballantine books, are readable sword-and-planet stories). The fact that STRANGER comes in second, considering what is in the gold medalist spot for most demeaning, speaks volumes about the merit of the sexual philosophy peddled in both.

I also note that the slavers of Counter-Earth, to allow them to copulate freely in heedless abandon with all their lovely, eternally young, slave girls, have a contraceptive (a magical one, utterly without the side effects) liberally given to all harem girls at all times.

It is with some irony that I note that Harry Harrison’s MAKE ROOM, MAKE ROOM (later made into the dreary but excellent film SOYLENT GREEN) was little more than a long anti-Catholic advertisement for exactly that situation envisioned in John Norman’s sex fantasy: universal contraception.

Indeed, to this day, I wonder how much of the push for legalizing and normalizing contraception was sincerely meant as a counter to Malthusian fears of overpopulation, versus merely an excuse for an orgiastic sexual free for all, such as Heinlein’s ‘Church of Nine Worlds’ or John Norman’s Counter-Earth did their best to glamorize. Contraception was part and parcel, perhaps even the heart of, the Sexual Liberation movement, also known as Enslavement to Base Passions.

As I mentioned in my last column, I find it interesting that all this depiction of women as little more than harem girls springs out of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and from the pens of the selfsame writers preaching sexual liberation.

The Red Lensman and Jirel of Joiry and Patricia Savage and the incomparable Dejah Thoris other gun-toting adventure women found in 1930’s and 1940’s pulps were never so portrayed. When Tara Carter of Barsoom is kidnapped, she dirks to death a guard menacing her virginity without turning a lovely hair; when Richard Seaton’s girlfriend Dotty from SKYLARK OF SPACE is kidnapped, she kicks the brute abducting her into unconsciousness. Later she threatens him with his own pistol.