February 27, 2010

Racism in Heinlein's Friday

I recently read the sci-fi classic Friday. Here's the story:

FridayFriday is a 1982 science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. It is the story of a female "artificial person," the titular character, genetically engineered to be stronger, faster, smarter, and generally better than normal humans. Artificial humans are widely resented, and much of the story deals with Friday's struggle both against prejudice and to conceal her enhanced attributes from other humans. The story is set in a Balkanized world, in which the nations of the North American continent have been split up into a number of smaller states.One scene in this novel is worth mentioning.

The story is set in the mid-21st century. Friday, going by the name Marjorie, has joined a free-love sort of family in New Zealand. Since they're uninhibited about sexuality, Friday doesn't expect them to have other hangups.

The family includes Anita, who's in charge; Vickie; and Anita's daughter Ellen. Ellen has done something disgraceful and Marj (Friday) asks Vickie what she did:"Vickie, what is this about Ellen's husband? Does he have two heads or what?"

"Uh, he's a Tongan. Or did you know?"

"Certainly I knew. But 'Tongan' is not a disease. And it's Ellen's business. Her problem, if it is one. I can't see that it is."

"Uh, Anita has handled it badly. Once it's done, the only thing to do is to put the best face on it possible. But a mixed marriage is always unfortunate, I think—especially if the girl is the one marrying below herself, as in Ellen's case."

"'Below herself!' All I've been told is that he's a Tongan. Tongans are tall, handsome, hospitable, and about as brown as I am. In appearance they can't be distinguished from Maori. What if this young man had been Maori . . . of good family, from an early canoe . . . and lots of land?"

"Truly, I don't think Anita would have liked it, Marj—but she would have gone to the wedding and given the reception. Intermarriage with Maori has long precedent behind it; one must accept it. But one need not like it. Mixing the races is always a bad idea."

(Vickie, Vickie, do you know of a better idea for getting the world out of the mess it is in?) "So? Vickie, this built-in suntan of mine—you know where I got it?"

"Certainly, you told us. Amerindian. Uh, Cherokee, you said. Marj! Did I hurt your feelings? Oh, dear! It's not like that at all! Everybody knows that Amerindians are— Well, just like white people. Every bit as good."

(Oh, sure, sure! And "some of my best friends are Jews." But I'm not Cherokee, so far as I know. Dear little Vickie, what would you think if I told you that I am an AP? I'm tempted to . . . but I must not shock you.)

"No, because I considered the source. You don't know any better. You've never been anywhere and you probably soaked up racism with your mother's milk."

Vickie turned red. "That's most unfair! Marj, when you were up for membership in the family I stuck up for you. I voted for you."

"I was under the impression that everyone had. Or I would not have joined. Do I understand that my Cherokee blood was an issue in that discussion?"

"Well . . . it was mentioned."

"By whom and to what effect?"

"Uh— Marjie, those are executive sessions, they have to be. I can't talk about them."
Without spoiling the story, let's say Friday doesn't agree with this irrational racism and pays for it.

It's not clear why Friday told the family she was Cherokee if she didn't think she was. But her boss later confirms that she is part Indian:"Before your records were destroyed, I once scratched my curiosity by listing the sources that went into creating you. As near as I can recall they are:

"Finnish, Polynesian, Amerindian, Inuit, Danish, red Irish, Swazi, Korean, German, Hindu, English--and bits and pieces from elsewhere since none of the above are pure."
Rob's reactions

A few thoughts on this:

  • Two of Friday's top four ethnic groups are Native and another one (Polynesian) is indigenous. I'd say she counts as an indigenous or Native person. As much as one can when one's cells were mixed and grown in a test tube, that is.

  • Did Heinlein really think the world's people would overcome their prejudice against promiscuity and homosexuality in a mere 50-75 years? If so, he must've been high on something. It'll take much longer than that.

  • Racial and sexual prejudices often go together. Really, the enlightened people of New Zealand have 22nd-century attitudes toward sex but 19th-century attitudes toward race? How did their racial attitudes lurch so far backward that they'd embarrass Archie Bunker?

    Alas, this subplot is interesting but unrealistic. It's like a textbook that gives you a case study of racism without any of the flesh-and-blood messiness.

  • The publisher who authorized the cover must not have read the book. Friday looks like a pure Aryan or Scandinavian type. The Finnish, Danish, red Irish, German, and English strains are evident, but not the Polynesian, Amerindian, Inuit, Swazi, Korean, or Hindu strains. I guess the publisher figured a blond beauty would sell better than a brown-skinned beauty.

  • As for the rest of the book, Heinlein has some interesting ideas about the future, but his view of women is misogynist. Moreover, as two Amazon.com critics put it, "the secret-agent intrigue peters out partway through" and "the main story meanders around pointlessly for over half the book." Rob's rating:  7.5 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see No Natives in Science Fiction? and The Best Indian Books.

    Below:  Friday the brown-skinned Cherokee...

    ...and the Tongans she supposedly resembles.


    dmarks said...

    I read this in hardcover when it first came out. I remember the cover art. I remember thinking that it was Pat Benetar.

    Green Gal said...

    This sounds like an interesting book! Great post.