August 03, 2002

authorial prejudice

In the middle of rereading Podkayne of Mars for the first time in years, I
keep noticing how dated it is. Partly it's small details, like Poddy taking along
two hats when she travels. (Did most people still wear hats that often in 1963?
That was after JFK's inauguration, which I had understood was their death-knell,
fashionwise.) Mostly, though, it's the ingrained sexism of the time, which
Heinlein seems to have thought would still be around a hundred years later, or
whenever the book was set. It's a good sign that Poddy even wants to be a
spaceship captain, but surprises me that she changes her plans because it's so
hard for a girl to be accepted for training, and even harder to get hired.

On the other hand, it's never entirely safe to surmise an author's own
opinions from his or her fiction. Dorohy L. Sayers is a prie example of this, in
the way that her own faith was not shared by her best character, Lord Peter
Wimsey, but there are pitfalls of that sort throughout Heinlein's work too. In the
contemporary Starship Troopers, women are actually preferred to men as
miltary spaceship captains; supposedly we are able to withstand greater
acceleration (this was probably based on the result of a real study; I don't know
whether it's still thought to be true). So it's possible RAH was just postulating
a specific future with the same attitudes toward the sexes that held in his own
milieu. Knowing him, it was probably specific decision. It's also possible that
the decision to do so was made for marketing reasons; perhaps a book in which
girls were fully equal to boys would have been too subversive for the youth market
in 1963.

I actually agree with the part in the end in which he says
that people who will not take the time to raise children properly should not have
any (one reason I don't). I will note, though, that I find infuriating the hint
that this is more a matter for the mother than the father: "...building bridges
and space stations and other useful gadgets is all very well, but a woman has more
important work to do." Humph. Phooey. Change "woman" to "human" and it doesn't
bother me. Again, I still wonder if that was Heinlein's own voice or just his
character's; it's very clear that the message about parenthood in general was not
only his own opinion (maybe that's why he also had no children?) but the raison
d'etre for the entire book. Seeing athors limited by the endemic prejudices of
their times doesn't generally bother me, or I wouldn't be able to read Sayers,
Conan Doyle, Alcott, Twain, or pretty much anyone who wrote before the 1970s. It
does bother me in RAH's case because he was able to think outside the limits of
his time in so many other ways.

Posted by dichroic at August 3, 2002 11:38 AM
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