One has to be in a peculiar frame of mind to enjoy a Heinlein novel. He has some odd fixations, and his politics are very prominent; indeed, he bludgeons the reader with all the subtlety of an inter-ballistic missile assault. Hunker down in your fallout shelter, but there's no escape.
That's how this novel begins, with a small cast of characters riding out a nuclear firestorm. The shelter is small and quickly gets very hot. If you know Heinlein, you fully expect the characters will get naked and have sex. Which they do. They also play a lot of bridge. And of course, there's a cat.
You don't own a cat, he is a free citizen. Take dogs; dogs are friendly and fun and loyal. But slaves. Not their fault, they've been bred for it. But slavery makes me queasy, even in animals.
That quotation sums up the ostensible theme of the book pretty well. It is about slavery and power relations. Heinlein is against slavery, so we gather, and goes out of his way to show that racial oppression is not exclusively the domain of the white man.
This was published in the early 60s in serial form in Worlds of If
magazine. Even touching on race in such a venue might have seemed progressive at the time. However, I can't help but wonder about the function of the future vision delivered here. Does it serve to absolve white guilt? Furthermore, the story ultimately pushes past any ambiguity into the realm of moral certainty, with the net effect that American slavery doesn't look so bad by comparison.
It's very hard, if not impossible, to avoid seeing the protagonist as a stand-in for the author. Hugh Farnham is a flag-waving patriotic libertarian, a patriarchal white male with a very stiff neck, a staunch proponent of "God, guns and guts," even though he seems to be an agnostic, an idealized rugged individualist. At one point his daughter offers herself to him sexually. It reads like pure id-driven wish-fulfillment. I'm relieved to learn Heinlein never had children.
As mentioned earlier, Heinlein's politics are front and center here. It's mostly rendered through highly unrealistic dialog. I wondered if it was the content or the delivery that seemed so obnoxious. As a thought experiment, I imagined dialog that reflected my own sense of politics, which are quite different from Heinlein's. It was even worse.
However, despite numerous flaws, there is a certain underlying vitality that propels this story forward. It may be obnoxious, even offensive, but it is never dull. I actually enjoyed reading this - once I learned to laugh at it.