Fantasy critics sometimes say that you cannot write fantasy after J. R. R. Tolkein without being influenced by him. The same is true of science fiction and Robert A. Heinlein, who re-invented the form at least three times over the course of a long and productive life. One of Heinlein’s best, and certainly one of his most bitterly satirical, is 1985’s Job: A Comedy of Justice.
Back in 1942 Heinlein had written an amazing short story, “The Unleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.” It was an astonishing story for its time and genre. It was out of print for a number of years, but is now available in The Fantasies of Robert Heinlein. WC mentions “Jonathan Hoag” because as he often did in the last decades of his life, Heinlein returned to some of the themes of earlier books. He returned to some of the ideas of “Jonathan Hoag” in his remarkable book, Job.
Read at one level, this novel is a updated biblical Book of Job. The main character is put through the wringer because of a wager made by his Creator. Read at another level, it is the story of transformation: religious bigot and all-around prig Alex Hergensheimer is transformed into a much better person, even if that may not have been anyone’s intent.
But at another, deeper level, Heinlein illustrates what is really important, what really matters, what really endures. Because Alex discovers, over the course of the story, what real love can be, and how real love is the most important thing in the universe. More important than the dubious Heaven he finds when, about to lose His wager, the Creator pulls the Last Trump and Alex ascends to sainthood and Heaven. Without his true love. Alec abandons Heaven and harrows Hell to find her. Heinlein couldn’t have put it much more plainly.
My favorite scene: when, risen into Heaven as a Saint, Alex asks Heaven’s help in finding his wife. And Heaven produces his wife. His first wife. From before he found real love. She’s a harridan, and the transformed Alex is appalled. Even the angels are embarrassed for Alex.
The denouement hearkens back to the denouement of “Jonathan Hoag.” For WC, it works wonderfully, but WC can sympathize with those who find the ending, quite literally, too deus machina.
Like “Jonathan Hoag,” you are never sure where this story is going to end, and WC won’t spoil it for you here. Except to say that the implied limits on human understanding are bittersweet. We can find true love, Heinlein seems to be saying, and we can live lives filled with love, but we cannot really understand the universe.
This is Heinlein at his best. No pontificating all-knowing protagonists, very little of the political polemics that started with his more famous Stranger in a Strange Land. Just an excellent story, well told, that invites deeper thought. Highly recommended.