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512 pages, Mass Market Paperback
First published December 1, 1970
Sexism (Misogyny?): Reading Heinlein's books today, any of his books, it's hard not to wince at the things that just aren't acceptable by today's standards. His sexism is probably the most difficult, so reading a book where the main character, Johann Sebastian Bach Smith has his brain transplanted into the gorgeous and perfect Eunice Branca -- effectively becoming a woman -- is bound to be off-putting. And it is.
The way that Heinlein saw women would make anyone taking a Women's Studies course angry, give a Professor of Women's Studies an aneurysm and make most of the rest of us cringe -- at least. Once Johann becomes Eunice, or Joanne Eunice as s/he has everyone call him/her, we enter Heinlein's vision of what it is to be a woman. His concepts of a woman's power and "utility" are inextricably bound to a woman's sexuality and ability to procreate. Through the lens of today it is undeniably sexist and would more than likely be considered a misogynist vision of femininity.
Conflict: There isn't any. I suppose one could imagine that an ancient man becoming a young, beautiful girl is conflict enough, but it turns out that's not the case. Sure there were a few minor impediments to Joanne Eunice's easy life, which occurred every chapter or so (and more than a few social complications due to his/her surgery), but they were so mundane and handled so perfectly by Joanne Eunice as to be non-starters. No problems in the book, made for a big problem in readability.
The Title: Kept waiting for the "evil" in the title that the characters wouldn't fear and it never came. One of Heinlein's worst titles.
You might think that the idea of a gender reassignment brain transplant from the seventies would be the "weird," but that really wasn't all that weird after all. What was weird was this:
The Juxtaposition: The bulk of I Will Fear No Evil takes place in the mind of Johann Smith, but along with Johann/Joanne, up in that grey matter, is Eunice Branca, so what we get is a constant back and forth between the two. A sort of half flirtation - half support group wherein the two voices navigate their world with one wanting to become the perfect woman and the other making sure he always gets it right so that they can cheer each other on and pat each other on their metaphorical backs. They never argue, so even the multiple voices fail to generate conflict. Joanne Eunice is all harmony. And when those two voices are eventually joined by a third voice and still nothing changes other than to add another harmonious voice to the mix, well, it is one of the weirdest bits of narrative I have ever read (and not terribly effective).
A Reminder:: Our western view of sex and sexuality has shifted so much in the decades since I Will Fear No Evil was written that I think many of us who lived through those times forget what the attitudes were, and those who didn't live through those times find it difficult to understand just how different the attitudes were from what they now are.
We take for granted today, for instance, that there are homophobes out there, and that there are people who are belligerent towards the transgendered, but we generally see them as kooks or bigots or flat out evil. Most of us are accepting (and increasingly so) of sexuality and gender fluidity and see that acceptance as a no brainer. We ask the question "Why wouldn't we be?" and expect that we all know the answer. As a bisexual man I am surely pleased with this cultural shift, but I have also been very sensitive to the situation over the years and often had it in the forefront of my mind when dealing with the world.
Similarly and in the other direction, we forget that child molestation/paedophilia was seen differently too. Today we accept it as a horrible evil, but as recently as the Seventies and Eighties our societies saw it as the gateway to the far worse and more disgusting crimes of ... wait for it ... homosexuality and sex change operations. In the city I grew up in, everyone I knew from every community in the city had a child molester living somewhere in their suburb. Everyone knew his or her name, everyone lived calmly with the molester there, and everyone was complicit in sweeping the molestation under the rug. We were trained to steer clear of the molester and if we didn't, it wasn't really a big deal. That's the attitude I grew up with. It came from home, it came from school, it came from friends, it came from television. It came from everyone. We don't feel that way anymore, but we did, and not just the kooks and bigots or those who were flat-out evil.
I Will Fear No Evil is a good reminder (or a primer), for anyone who needs one, of how society saw sexuality not so long ago. I am not entirely sure that this was anywhere in Heinlein's intentions, but there it is for all to see. His strange little novel of Joanne Eunice is a fascinating moment in sexual time, and it is worth a read just for that (of course, don't take Heinlein's sexual fantasies as part of that snapshot. Be careful not to confuse his extreme horniness and rejection of monogamy has part of the reminder, although ...).
Credit to Heinlein: All the sexism (misogyny) aside, who the hell else would write about gender reassignment (Marge Piercy, but only much later) in the seventies, but even more, have all those around the reassigned accept it without even the slightest hint of unease. Every man and woman who comes in contact with Joanne Eunice is instantly at ease with the gender and sexuality of the situation. If they have any problems at all they are about greed or memory, not about gender or sexuality. If nothing else is impressive, this, at least, is.