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Job: A Comedy of Justice

Robert A. Heinlein

Ballantine, New York; ISBN: 0-345-31650-9; Pages: 439

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

Heaven is where Margrethe is.

A delightful and irreverent romp into the turgid world of fundamentalist theology, Bible-thumping, unbridled sex, and cosmic comedy, all rolled into one, Heinlein's Job is among the most admired works of this popular author.

Why? Because it is guaranteed to piss a lot of people off. (And not, unfortunately, on its literary merits alone.) Don't get me wrong, I liked it, but then again I like almost everything that has playful dialogue, beautiful naked women who are strong when necessary and cry when required, and spicy fun poked at just about everything in the Good Book, even its most stupid fantasies that are usually beyond satire precisely because they are so stupid.

There really isn't much going on. The US has turned fundamentalist Christian, with a scary morality that would make Ashcroft weep with joy. Alexander Hergensheimer is a paper-pusher minister in one of the churches who accepts a wager to firewalk while on a jaunt in Polynesia and then finds himself in another world, where everyone addresses him as Mr. Graham, where there's lewd nakedness galore, and he's having a tempestuous love affair with his maid Margrethe.

Shedding his Christian uptightness as quickly as his clothes, Alex falls in love with this stunningly beautiful and uninhibited Danish woman even though he is legally married to some shrew back home. The two are then plucked from one world and thrown into another, with all these worlds slightly differing in their recent history. The couple takes a really long time before it realizes that it does have to make attempts to transport some belongings with them (everything on them goes through) although they still manage to stupidly do things that leave them in various states of undress in the new worlds.

Alex is convinced these are the final days before Rapture and the end of the world. Although definitely not in a state of grace himself (having broken a good number of the Ten Commandments), he is worried about his heathen Marga, who persists in her belief that Ragnarok is close and Loki is loose. Alex must ensure her salvation, but how? How?

He fails and when Rapture comes, he is taken alone to Heaven, where he becomes Saint Alex. What follows is a most delightful description of New Jerusalem, which is as boring as it is glittering. It has segregated buses, resentful angels, useless restaurants, a sprawling bureaucracy, and no gardens. The R.H.I.P. principle (rank has its privileges) is rampant. Despite his sainthood, Alex is unhappy and when he realizes that Marga must be in Hell, he goes down to there to look for her.

Hell turns out not be all that it is cracked up to be although it does smell faintly of sulphur. In fact, it is a positively nice place, quite refreshing after Heaven. After his ballistic arrival almost ending in the Lake of Fire, Alex is forced to write his autobiography to gain an audience with Satan. He is helped by a delectable secretary who shares his typewriter and his bed.

Satan tries one last time to bribe him into working for him but fails, and it turns out that the whole ordeal was a repeat of the Job deal except not nearly as bloody. Heinlein then goes into a complicated cosmogony, according to which there is an infinite hierarchy of superior creatures, all organized in a galactic bureaucracy of arts that oversees their artistic endeavors. Our Yahweh and Satan are two brothers, and fairly low-ranking ones at that. Yahweh gets charged with inconsistency toward his creation and is forced to help Alex get his Marga back. By the way, in Marga's world the God is Odin, and she has died fighting bravely at Ragnarok herself. It is not entirely clear whether she was snatched from her world and plugged into Yahweh's for the purposes of testing Alex with the series of hallucinations that he and she are forced to experience.

Oh well. All that is not important. What is important is that Alex realizes that religion is bull and "Heaven is where Margrethe is," perhaps the one lesson that the old Heinlein persisted in teaching everyone.

Despite its witty dialogue and masterful satire of religion, the book is slow at times, especially in the first half where Alex and Marga hop from world to world with no indication as to why this is happening to them. The suspense wears off quickly and even the brief descriptions of the different realities are not sufficient to keep it interesting. This should have been condensed by perhaps as much as 30%.

The visits to Heaven and Hell, on the other hand, are absolutely hilarious. In fact, all Heinlein's dealings with Christianity are sharp and no-nonsense stabs to the point. First, RAH outlines a pretty frightful reality where fundamentalist religion rules. Everything is indecent to that moral majority that upholds "community" norms with savage efficiency with the whole shebang of medieval inquisition, stocks, hangings, and all.

It is a world where abortion is a capital offense, contraception a felony, small community morals are forced on cities, where a "solution" is sought to the "Jewish problem", and there is always the "Alaska option for the Negro problem" (pp. 149-51). These guys would have science outlawed or, failing that, at least astronomy. RAH is not making this up, these guys are real and one can see them every day on CBN and hear them on brainwashing religious radio shows: "Homosexuals---what's the answer? Punishment? Surgery?"

Alex is a devoted Christian and therefore a hypocritical bigot to boot. Having flunked out of engineering into theology because "comparative religion, homiletics, higher criticism, apologetics, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, all require scholarship... but the slipstick subjects require brains" (p. 59), he is unhappily married to Abigail and works as a fund-raiser in his Churches United for Decency. Yet, Marga's charm quickly overpowers his meager defenses, and he sins with reckless abandon, just like any Christian would if he was not afraid of the sanctions of his community. I have always maintained that the community is the worst tyrant.

There are some inconsistencies in this book, however. Alex is not a sympathetic hero at all. He is optimistic, self-sufficient, and succeeds in the end, just like all Heinlein heroes do. But he is also hypocrite who almost manages to impose his system of beliefs (which he breaks all the time) on his dedicated "wife" Marga. I am not sure RAH intended it that way for in the end Alex learns the obvious lesson and forsakes Heaven for his love for her.

By the way, is this really an obvious lesson? This "love unto eternity" crap? Can anyone really believe this for a second? Can RAH himself actually believe it? I don't know. But I sure as hell think that Wyndham was onto something with Trouble with Lichen where he speculates on the effects of increased human longevity on society in general and the marriage institution in particular. For all his bravado, Heinlein is one old-fashioned sentimentalist who cannot bear the custom-imposed bonds of marriage broken.

Also, by the way, did anyone notice that Alex refused to work for Satan even if the contract included returning Marga to him? There are two possible explanations. One: he did not trust Satan, the Liar. Two: he believed he'd find her on his own. Both could work. Yet there's also a third, consistent with Alex and what Satan/Jerry says later on but inconsistent with everything else: he would not renounce his faith even if it meant life without Marga. Or, he'd be in Hell (especially after finding out what a lovely place it is), but work for its ruler? Never. Disgusting. I hope I am dead wrong on this one.

Whatever RAH's intention was, however, his satire is excellent, and even if one may disagree with the "lessons," one should still be thankful for being forced to think about them. Good job.

Choice Quotes

August 6, 2003