Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reading Time Enough for Love

Robert Heinlein sits among a handful of authors at the top of "classic" science fiction.  He ranks alongside the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.  Heinlein's greatest novel is undoubtedly Stranger in a Strange Land which I have read several times, but not recently.

I intended to revisit Time Enough for Love since Jennifer's uncle passed a few years ago.  During that time his wife placed some memorabilia from his life on display in their home.  One of the items was a handwritten notebook of a speech he gave decades ago to a group of graduating physicians. He was a respected man in his field of medicine. Anyway, flipping through the notebook I read a few pages that referenced one of the love affairs Lazarus Long, the hero of the novel, has during the course of the narrative.  This part of the speech dealt with the living experience of the passage of time and how love factors into that.  I no longer recall the specifics, just that this moment planted a seed that only sprouted more than a month ago as I read the novel for what I think was the second time in my life.

The novel is really a collection of short stories stitched together through a central narrative theme. Lazarus Long is the oldest human being to ever live.  He is close to 2300 years old when the book begins.  And he is ready to die.  In fact, he is in the process of committing suicide when circumstances change and he, reluctantly, decides to undergo the process of "rejuvenation", one of numerous times he has done this in the course of his life.  Lazarus is part of the Howard Family, a lineage with exceptionally good genetics that has benefited from leaps in bio-technology to prolong their lives almost indefinitely.

But 2300 years is a long time to live and Lazarus is tired of living.  Yet, his experiences are invaluable to the expansion of civilization in the universe and the powers that be need his knowledge.  This motivates him to recall his life over the course of the novel in often disconnected ways.  It is not Heinlein's best writing, but it is entertaining nevertheless.

Through the narrative the reader experiences some of the bizarre consequences of long life combined with an explosion of human galactic colonization that has led to a plethora of cultures throughout the galaxy.  Long himself has no fewer than 50 different careers during the course of his life.  Often these are simple homesteader type lifestyles so he can escape his growing fame as the longest living human by seeping into relative obscurity.  At other times he is a powerful force in the governing body.  He lives a rich and diverse life.  In fact, diverse might be an understatement.

There is a strong sensual (and some might contend sexist) tone throughout the novel.  The narrative, published in 1973, shows its age in little ways like heavily emphasizing the role of pregnancy in sex; the essential role of marriage (of some sort) in sex.  Lazarus and his lovers call each other "darling" and "dear" to a degree that seems quaint today.  Yet, there is still some racy stuff, conceptually speaking anyway.

Consider three situations in the course of the novel which spans many centuries, literally from World War One into the 43rd century.  The first involves Lazarus rescuing a little girl from a house fire that kills the girl's parents.  The girl is bright and cute and very matter-of-fact.  Lazarus takes a liking to her. Her name is Dora and she grows into a beautiful young woman that Lazarus falls in love with and marries.  Dora, however, is not genetically part of the Howard Family.  She lives a long life but dies an old woman which enables Lazarus to experience his most profound sadness in the novel.  Having the luxury of time, Lazarus is basically the same person when he saves the girl from the burning house as he is having sex with her as his young wife.  It isn't exactly incest, but it flirts around in that direction.

A second interesting "family" situation emerges in the portion of the narrative entitled "Boondocks". The culture on this particular world out of the many planets inhabited by humanity in the far future believes in, for lack of a better term, parental groupings without immediate regard as to who the biological father and mother of a child might be.  It is common for three men to live with three women, mixing and matching as they please, while all six adults raise the resulting children as if they are their own, which in many cases they are. Heinlein has one of his characters state that this is really best for "the welfare of the children."

"This is the only long-run purpose of a family.  Our setup insures that purpose more than a one-couple family can.  When you join you commit yourself to that purpose - that's all."  Which sounds very high and noble, but there is still a lot of sex going on between different partners.  I guess that "purpose" is obvious but not worth glamorizing.

Thirdly, consider the time-travel piece at the end of the novel. The technology of Lazarus' day allows certain spacecraft to travel through time as well as space.  Lazarus decides to visit his mother just before World Ear One begins.  Gradually, he falls in love with his mother.  Not progeny love, sexual attraction.  But when he has sex with his mother it is after she is already pregnant by his genetic father with the child that will become Lazarus Long.  A child having sex with a parent is always a twisted, culturally tabooed, narrative.  But having sex with your mother as your mother is pregnant with you is, well, radically different to say the least.

But the novel is not about sex.  For Heinlein sex is never the driving force of the narrative.  Sex is always a by-product of love.  As the title suggests, this is a novel about love, particularly human love through the expanse of time.  More specifically, Heinlein examines love in two manifestations: Agape and Eros.

Perhaps we can best see how Heinlein plays with these words and their very different expressions of love through Minerva, an artificially intelligent humanoid robotic entity that ends up being the "female" he has the longest relationship with, lasting more than a century.  She is technology. She will not die.  So she serves as companion to Lazarus in ways no other "woman" does in the novel.

Minerva is inquisitive and concerned.  She wants to express love as much as possible because it is obviously of such importance to Lazarus.  (Which is somewhat odd considering he, our main character, is cantankerous, short tempered, highly self-aggrandizing among other less-than-likable character traits.) But Minerva's commitment to Lazarus is as a non-human entity.  And when Lazarus reflects on his past experiences with love or when he is philosophizing about the nature of love, Minerva is quick to want to express these forms of love with Lazarus.  Only, being artificial, she struggles with Eros more than Agape.  She finds she cares for Lazarus more than for herself (Agape) but she cannot experience the sexual urge (Eros), though she understands Lazarus and understands sex and understands how to provide sexual fulfillment.   Minerva laments: "Eros alone I cannot know...and know at last that I am blind."

But this changes.  Heinlein returns to agape and Eros later in the novel.  By now Minerva has taken on a human form, the cloned form of Lazarus' long-dead beloved wife he raised as a little girl. Minerva comes to understand Eros now that she inhabits a the physical body of a (biotech-animal hybrid) woman.  She desires Lazarus in a special way, pleading with him to close his eyes as they make love outside under some trees.  She does not want him to see her as Dora, the past wife she is replicated from.  She wants him to close his eyes and feel how she desires him, as Minerva, as a different sexual entity.  It is the highlight of the novel in my opinion.

Just before the final agape section in the novel Lazarus expresses his appreciation for Minerva and reflects back across a vast expanse of time and to the beginning of the novel some 400 pages earlier. "Life is too long when one is not enjoying the now.  You recall when I was not and wished to terminate it.  Your skill - and trickery, my darling, and don't blush - changed that and again I savor now.  But perhaps I have never told you that I appreciated even my first rejuvenation with misgivings, afraid that it would make my body young without my spirit young again - and don't bother to tell me that 'spirit' is a null word; I know it is undefinable...but it means something to me. Although long-life can be a burden, mostly it is a blessing.  It gives time enough to learn, time enough to think, time enough not to hurry, time enough for love."

Time Enough For Love is worth a second reading. It is a disjointed effort and the story sometimes meanders so far from the central theme you wonder why what you are reading was not simply edited out entirely.  Probably 200 pages of the 600-page novel could be cut without sacrificing any major character development or diluting the primary thematic material.  So I can not call it a truly "great" book.  But parts of it are great and entertaining.  This is a weighty and worthy classic science fiction with a warm human touch that makes reading Heinlein such a joy to begin with.

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