Note: I didn’t mean to fall off the map – but I’ve done a conference, a keynote at a conference, an MA validation in Liverpool and a local validation, plus exam and essay marking. I’ve been reading and watching, but not as much as I’d have liked.
This is perhaps the first of Heinlein’s late novels, focusing in more and more on a pattern of patter and sex among a small cast across a page count of 400+ – this had been seen in Stranger in a Strange Land but now became the norm.
The billionaire and dirty old man Johann Sebastian Smith is aging and decides to try a brain transplant as soon as he can find a suitable body. He does – in the coincidental shape of his secretary Eunice Branca. Some of her soul or personality survives, as Johann has conversations with her as she teaches him to become a woman. At first his time is taken up with court cases proving he is Smith – although he keeps insisting he could start again – and then increasingly with sex: with his nurse, his doctor, his lawyer, his bodyguards, Eunice’s widower and his new wife. This runs a sexual spectrum, being by terms heterosexual, lesbian and gay – and everyone seems compatible and hardly weirded out at all. A fifty year age gap is no difference at all.
Written in the context of the explosion of women’s liberation – how well does Heinlein write women? It’s interesting that femininity is a performance – a masquerade to use Joan Riviere’s term from the thirties. Smith becomes a woman by putting on clothes and make up, she gets her way by letting others think they lead and plays endless games. Whilst Smith always stays in control – more or less – it always comes back to keeping men happy (even if that’s her being happy). Heinlein hardly plays fair, giving Smith the trump card more often than not. Far from giving women agency, the novel ends up with a sense of women having pleasure in men (apparently) having power.
The taboo-breaking incest of later novels is not here – although Smith gets Branca’s body impregnated with his own sperm, in a variation on “;All You Zombies'”. I don’t think this has aged well.