Ah, Friday. It took me a long time to write about this book – mainly because, weeks after reading it, I’m still not sure what I want to say about it. I think my biggest issue with this novel is that I don’t know why it was written. I don’t mean to say that it’s awful – though it certainly has its flaws – but I can’t discern the point of its existence, as a novel. I’m not talking specifically about plot, here. This isn’t a postmodernist novel. But it’s not the rollicking action-adventure story that it tries to sell itself as, either.
There’s no central mission, no really well-defined conflict, no one event that’s weighted with any more importance than the rest. A bunch of stuff happens, the characters are tossed to and fro without experiencing any sort of personal growth – then the story ends with everything tied up in a neat, abrupt bow that comes across as incredibly banal.
Robert Heinlein sets Friday at an indeterminate point in the future, presumably a couple hundred years from now. The Americas have been split up into a number of smaller, separate nations and advances in transportation have made it possible to get pretty much all the way around the world in a couple of hours. In some ways, it almost reads as a technological precursor to Ringworld. For the most part, I found the world building really interesting, logical and believable as a whole. Space travel exists and a number of other planets are colonized but the story takes place by and large on Earth.
Friday is an artificial human – not a gynoid or a cyborg but a flesh-and-blood human that was conceived with frozen eggs and sperm, then grown in a tube. And she’s far from alone in her origins. These genetically perfect humans (and more bizarre composite organisms, known as living artifacts – but we never get to meet any of them) are made to seem relatively commonplace in Friday’s world. Knowledge of their existence seems widespread and the fact that they are being produced is apparently largely accepted.
Despite this, the artificials are met with such uninhibited, violent prejudice that they can never reveal themselves for fear of being lynched. Despite their physical perfection and ability to complete any task with a rate of error far below that of an average human, no legitimate employer will hire them.
This whole concept alone seems like a bit of a farce – it’s deployed as an allegory for racism, sexism, insert-your-ism-here, but with humanity already utterly in control of the creation and rearing of these artificial humans, it seems bizarre to have built up such a hatred of them. Why not just discontinue production? Why design and create organisms for the purpose of living among humans, then refuse to let them live among humans? If there was some sort of traumatic incident in human history that was the fault of the artificials, Heinlein certainly doesn’t let on. So it’s just… a bit nonsensical.
Friday, aka Marjorie Baldwin, admonishes the reader that artificial humans are just as “human” as the rest of us, and that unless the artificial is circumstantially forced to reveal his or herself, the layman is completely unable to distinguish a tube-grown human from a “natural” one. All the while, though, she reminds us how much better she is than the average person – smarter, faster, stronger and better looking. She’s better at fighting, strategy, sex, arguing, and drinking. If not happier, she’s certainly fitter and more productive than you.
This gets a little grating after a while. Plus, she consistently makes mistakes, and admits to her flaws in the same breath that she reminds us how much worse it would’ve been for a normie. To have the main character of your novel constantly negging herself is a choice that gets old really fast.
Speaking of better looking, Friday is always talking about how she’s not really that pretty, even though everyone in the world continuously tells her she’s gorgeous – if she wasn’t so apathetic the rest of the time I’d start to wonder if Bella Swan had been cryogenically frozen for a couple centuries. I wouldn’t exactly call it low self-esteem. At some points she seems genuinely uninterested in her own appearance, emphasizing instead her abilities and intelligence, while elsewhere in the novel it seems like her only real abilities are looking pretty and fucking.
She wants to be seen as a regular human, but when she’s always talking up her artificial upbringing it’s a little hard to believe. Friday goes on about how she doesn’t understand human customs, doesn’t quite grasp human sexual tension, doesn’t have tact. Does she really not understand, or does she just think she’s better than us?
There’s no actual evidence of humans being any more socially awkward than Friday, either. Sexuality has evolved somewhat predictably. Heinlein’s future Earth is less bogged down in relationship stigma – casual sex isn’t portrayed as particularly taboo, and 101 flavors of monogamy and non-monogamy coexist apparently without conflict. It’s humans that Friday is constantly in bed with, and none of them seem to have a problem with it.
A sex-positive heroine is fine, and her sex drive is not in and of itself an issue. But within the context of the book, it doesn’t really matter. If this had just been written as an erotic novel and Friday’s sexual escapades were the plot, hey, that would be dandy. But Friday works as a courier for sensitive items and information. She answers to a mysterious man who for most of the novel we know only as “Boss.” She has numerous bank accounts and credit cards and fake identities and a license to kill that she frequently takes advantage of. So sue me for reading this expecting a goddamned action adventure novel. I don’t really care who Friday is sleeping with unless she’s seducing someone to get information.
Perhaps it’s the certain intangible, male-gaze-iness to the whole ordeal that makes it seem like the author wanted to write a really sexy femme fatale and didn’t quite understand what that meant. All the artificials are given “doxy training” (the killer sex skills aren’t ingrained) before being unleashed on the general public. Which, again… why? If humans hate the artificials so much, why bother training them to be good at sex? Why isn’t humanity prejudiced against people who are good in bed, at this point? The more I wonder about this, the more confused I become.
Sure, yes, there’s action and there’s adventure. But not enough detail about it for me to really get invested. I said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no conflict in this novel aside from small, insignificant disagreements that are opened and closed by circumstance. Religious extremists or [other] decide to mess around with the government at the halfway mark and it causes problems but not… to any lasting detriment? Later, it’s expressed that a pandemic is set to sweep the Earth in a few years but… oh, no one really seems to care, and the problem is neatly solved? It seems like our hero spends most of the novel eating breakfast in bed or travelling. And I’m left exasperated because I can’t figure out why I didn’t care.
The one thing that I could identify as a genuine (if minor) flaw, was I guess a fault of Heinlein’s world building: human society has changed. Government, monetary systems and transportation are all drastically different, but the way that humans interact remains the same. This certainly isn’t a problem that’s limited to Heinlein, but it seems especially annoying here because all the tech is in place to let human social interaction evolve.
Decent analogues for laptops, iPhones and the actual internet are readily available in Friday’s world, and yet we’re treated to a scene in which Friday, in her unparalleled wisdom, just suddenly realizes that you can really spend a lot of time using them for entertainment. This book came out in 1982 and 20 years later we’re already dependent on screens for a good part of our social interactions. We talk to people less in real life. We don’t leave our doors unlocked or let kids go out without supervision. Why, in Heinlein’s distant future, do we have to assume that humans interact in the same way that they did in the early 80’s? Maybe this is the 20/20 vision of hindsight talking but, really, this didn’t occur to anyone?
Oh, and the ending – it’s something like that Harry Potter epilogue that everyone hated, where all the friends get married to each other and have a matched set of kids that are ready to start off on their own adventures. For a story that didn’t really have a point, the neatness of its ending verges on eerie. Friday gets her wish, seeing as her main purpose in life is apparently to get married and have children – which is fine but who is this character? Is she a cutthroat assassin, or a homemaker? Is she both? Because that’s possible, but Friday seems less well-rounded and more indecisive and scattered. I could probably write an entire dissertation on Friday’s character but I’ll leave you with that. This novel is kind of fun, and a relatively quick read, but it might leave you wondering just why you thought so.