Robert A. Heinlein has been considered one of the (if not THE) most influential science fiction authors of the modern era. He wrote fiction for over fifty years, primarily in the field of science fiction, and became the first recipient of the Grand Master Nebula award, an award given for exemplary writing and contribution to the field over a lifetime of writing. There is a very good reason for him receiving this award: his ideas and writing style are both superb in both concept and implementation. He has been accused of being bigoted and sexist, and given some underlying themes within his writing, it is most likely true. This does not change the fact that the stories themselves are masterfully done, and well worth reading.
Friday was released roughly six years before Robert’s death, making it one of his last written works (The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset are two later books that come to mind), and his last work not involved in his massive Future History collection of stories. The book is written in the style of a memoir, following the life of Friday Jones, an Artificial Person (AP) who works as an extremely talented courier for a para-military organization (the name of the organization is never given). She is sent all over the world as well as off-planet, delivering and retrieving information for her employer, “Boss”. At the outset of the book, she is just completing a mission and is returning home. After completing her mission, she goes on vacation. While on vacation, a series of sabotages and assassinations occur, stranding her away from her organization. The story then follows her adventures getting through closed borders and trying to report in. Once she has finally reported in, things settle down until her Boss passes away. Her life is turned upside down, and she ends up taking a job as a courier heading off-planet. The job goes awry, however, when she discovers that she will likely be killed after making her delivery, so she ends up jumping ship during a planetary stop. The book ends with her happy on this colony planet.
That, of course, is very much a synopsis, and doesn’t really deal with any of the details that are discussed in the rest of the book. What really makes the book excellent is the combination of attention to detail and narrative voice. The universe of the book has a rich and robust history and society, and he really works it in beautifully to depict it (which, I will admit, was aided by Friday’s profession taking her globally, giving a perfect excuse to SHOW, rather than TELL). The world is believable, in a scary sort of way, taking place once we are in a space-faring era, with colonies on other worlds (including the moon and stations in space). In this world, we have the environment largely under control, it is well within reason to live in New Zealand and commute to Winnipeg for work, and nations as we know them have fragmented and/or congealed into new structures (ironically, I’ve seen the breakdown Heinlein uses before, with only slight variation, in a book called The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau). For instance, the nation that Friday normally lives in is the Chicago Imperium, which essentially governs the current U.S. “heartland”. Other countries include Alaska Free State, Quebec, California Confederacy, and others. There is a nominal world government, but it is largely ignored by the author, possibly intentionally. Considering the amount of autonomy there is between countries, this actually sort of makes sense — why mention something that has no impact on your life (or the story at hand)?
From a sociological aspect, there is a dichotomy between “tradition” and technology. The advent of new, safe, clean energy (Shipstones) does away with the need for power plants and wires strewn across the landscape, and most old cities have been completely wiped away. There is a strange combination of “proper behavior for a lady” and sexual freedom and autonomy that suggests (to me) that in the intervening years between “now” and then (200+ years in the future) there have been several more radical swings between liberal and ultra-conservative views in society. If I had been asked whether this seemed realistic, as late as the 1990s, I probably would have said no. However, given the current swing back towards conservatism and “propriety”, I’m inclined to say that Heinlein once again called it spot on. (He may have been trained as an engineer, but in my opinion his strength lay in social and technological observation/speculation.)
What really makes this a fantastic book for me, however, is the role of Artificial People and Living Artifacts in the story, including the primary character and narrator. The difference between an Artificial Person (AP) and a Living Artifact (LA) is their form. APs are Living Artifacts that have the additional caveat of looking human. They may be smarter, stronger, faster. They might have better memories, or innate spatial awareness, or any of the above… but they look human in every discernible way. Living Artifacts do not have this restriction, and can take the form of near-mythical creatures like Kobolds, or mermen, or even just talking dogs. Here, function takes precedence over form: kobolds were designed for mining for instance.
While the technology of this is interesting, that’s not the part that grabs me. The involving aspect this has is the psychological effect of being treated like a third-class citizen (read: slave) by the rest of the world — APs do not have rights, and despite the fact that due to her work she’s had all records of her being designed destroyed, SHE knows it, and lets it affect her behavior. The inherent loneliness of this situation is remarkably well done in the course of the story, and often manifests it in Friday’s desire to belong, whether it is with work, in a family, or with friends. I think this really strikes a chord in me, on a lot of levels, or with anyone who has wanted to be accepted.
I really enjoyed Friday, and would definitely recommend it to others. I think it is an excellent example of Heinlein’s writing, and an amusing, intelligent story in its own right. I also think this book, combined with others such as the movie Gattaca, could be used quite effectively in an academic setting to juxtapose possible scenarios created through genetic manipulation (Gattaca relegating “normal” people to second class citizens, Friday turning the genetically modified into slaves).
Heinlein, Robert A. Friday. New York: Del Ray, 1982.