Sock Puppet, son of Sock Puppet

The eighth essai in a series, following ‘All hats are grey in the dark’. A slightly different version appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


Besides the villainous hero, there are several other ways to make a protagonist so unheroic that you rob him of his power to carry the plot. A frequent flaw is the so-called hero who has no character of his own, but exists as a mouth through which the author can make polemical speeches. John Galt’s 70-page speech in Atlas Shrugged is the most infamous example, but sadly, far from unique. The hero as mouthpiece is a recurring phenomenon in science fiction and fantasy; and this sad phenomenon goes back to the very point at which the earlier forms of satire and romance first contributed their genes to that newfangled form, the novel.

We can find that point in the works of Jonathan Swift. Swift began as an old-fashioned satirist, but he borrowed the form of the novel from Defoe, along with the motif of the shipwrecked sailor; and into this vessel he poured all the venom and vitriol he had stored up against the human race. Gulliver’s Travels began, perhaps, as a parody of Robinson Crusoe; but it is very much more than that. It is the first great work in English that is both a satire and a full-fledged novel; a case can be made that it is an early work of science fiction as well. The exploration of the New World and the Antipodes was on the cutting edge of science and discovery in Swift’s time, just as the exploration of space was in the twentieth century. The little men of Lilliput and the big men of Brobdingnag, though invented as caricatures of mankind, were just within the bounds of plausibility according to the science of the day, just as H. G. Wells’s Martians were in 1898.

Since the novel was a new art in Swift’s time, and the satire a very old one, we should not be surprised that the satire in Gulliver is more consistent than the novelistic qualities. I mean no disrespect to Swift or his creation when I nominate, as the patron anti-saint of the ‘mouthpiece’ hero, Lemuel Gulliver himself. Gulliver does not have this flaw in the beginning. Swift introduces him as a master mariner, shrewd, level-headed, and profusely competent, just the sort of fellow you would bet on to make a good thing out of being shipwrecked. This is good and appropriate characterization, since it points up the contrast with the cunning but fundamentally stupid and mean-spirited Lilliputians. It is also the kind of characterization appropriate to a novel, rather than the flat and limited kind usual in pure satire. The Crusoe blood-line runs strongly in him.

In Book II, however, the miniature shoe is on the other foot, and Gulliver obediently turns into a bawling jingo nincompoop, bragging to the hugely superior King of Brobdingnag about the latest European technological marvels, and the efficiency with which Europeans can now competitively slaughter one another. This is necessary, if you like, because the whole point is to provoke the King into his famous outburst: ‘I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.’ But it does not sort at all well with the character of Gulliver as previously established, and we begin to lose confidence in him and faith in Swift’s intentions.

Book IV sees Gulliver suddenly converted to a more extreme misanthropy even than the King’s. He becomes convinced that he and all his kind are no different from the loathsome Yahoos, and pines away for the superior goodness of the Houyhnhnms. In fact (and I believe this to be Swift’s point), he has gone utterly mad. But it is an arbitrary madness. There is no particular reason why it should have happened to Gulliver; one would think, after all his experience of super-, sub-, and non-human intelligences and societies, that he of all men would be inured to the kind of shock that the Yahoos gave him. But Gulliver is nothing if not complaisant; he is quite willing to throw away sanity itself in the interest of his creator’s polemic.

One might say that Gulliver’s adventures ought to have happened to three different men, not one, at least if plausible characterization took precedence over brand recognition. Lemuel Gulliver is one of the very few fictitious characters who are known and instantly recognized the world over, putting him in a class with Sherlock Holmes, Don Quixote, and a few names from Shakespeare. But he is nearly always recognized as the Gulliver of Book I, the plucky sailor stranded in Lilliput. This is partly because so many people have met him either in pretty-pretty expurgated editions issued as children’s books, which rarely extend beyond Book II and often stop after Book I, or through films which are still more drastically abridged. But it is still that first impression that persists, even among those who have read to the bitter end in the country of the Houyhnhnms. It is a testament to Swift’s skill as a caricaturist that our first impression of Gulliver should be so vivid and lasting, incapable of being overwritten by any of the manifold changes Swift imposes upon him as he kicks the hapless mariner through the obstacle course of his philosophy.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, we are not Jonathan Swift or even Charles Dickens, another author whose excellence at caricature did much to mask his incapacity for character. When we lesser mortals try to make mouthpieces of our characters, the public can see our lips move, and this destroys the illusion. Fortunately, this in itself is not always a fatal flaw; but it is certainly not something one seeks as a reader. I, for one, tend to lose patience when the author violates his characters’ integrity for the sake of his ‘message’.

In our own literary ghetto, the author most infamous for this kind of ventriloquist work is, as James Blish dubbed him, ‘Heinlein, son of Heinlein’. Blish, Alexei Panshin, and others have maintained that all Robert A. Heinlein’s male protagonists (and some of the females) are merely idealized versions of himself, convenient mouths from which his obiter dicta can issue forth, thinly disguised as dialogue. There is some truth in this accusation; but it is not much of an accusation, at that, for the same could be said about any of us who write fiction. It is only in us that our characters live and move and have their being, and the range of their thoughts is at best limited to a subset of our own. Still, some characters are much more definitely author-idenitification figures than others, and some are much more damaged by their creators’ experiments with brain-transplant surgery.

Why this should be so is, to me at least, an interesting question. I think the public image of Gulliver provides a useful clue. In Book I of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver’s character is perfectly integrated with his role in the story, and he can speak by his actions. In the other three books, his personality is deformed in various ways to serve as the author’s stooge; but he has been well enough established that certain kinds of actions are obviously unsuitable for him, and so he has to stooge in words and leave the actions alone. He is not, for instance, sufficiently one of the ‘little odious vermin’ to make real trouble in Brobdingnag, which would probably get him squashed under a gigantic heel; but he can, while remaining Gulliver, sound off with the most idiotic cant about the supposed virtues of his countrymen. When a character is reduced to preaching what he cannot plausibly practice, that is a sure sign that something has gone wrong. It betrays a short circuit in the author’s creative process.

Heinlein is universally acknowledged to be a preachy writer, but except in a few of his later and lazier books, he is nothing like the blathering egomaniac that his harsher critics make out. Most readers agree that his juveniles, and certain of his earlier adult novels, are his most successful works. There is plenty of preaching in, say, Tunnel in the Sky and The Star Beast, to take two of my own favourites; but it makes some difference who is doing it and why. Rod Walker is the unquestioned protagonist of Tunnel, but if any character in that book qualifies as ‘Heinlein son of Heinlein’, it is Deacon Matson. In most of Heinlein’s successful books, there is a character whose principal function is to lecture the hero, and the success of the book tends to be in inverse proportion to the lecturer’s actual importance to the plot. The ‘Wise Old Man’ is a staple of fiction, not, as Jung surmised, because he is a fixture of the racial unconscious, but because he is the handiest device on record for supplying needful exposition in medias res. Not even a maid and butler can outdo him.

On this hypothesis, where Heinlein went wrong in his later works was to let his heroes double as his mouthpieces, instead of separating the two roles. Time Enough for Love was the first important book in which the hero was the lecturer; consequently Lazarus Long was never given a forcible chance to shut up, and seldom had to do things instead of chattering. Other late Heinlein heroes and heroines had the same vice in varying degrees.

If all this is true, what about Friday?

Friday is the most interesting of Heinlein’s late works, because it was (and was acclaimed for being) a partly successful return to his earlier style, while being written with a freedom and frankness that would have been unprintable in Heinlein’s younger days. But it is only partly successful, and I blame that on the imperfect separation of roles. The lecturer in Friday is the Old Man, Kettle Belly Baldwin, who plays the part exactly as we would expect. But Friday herself goes in for a good deal of lecturing when Kettle Belly is not around, much to the detriment of the book. Consider —

At one point, Friday rockets off to New Zealand to be with her ‘S group’, the name Heinlein used in that book for the line marriages that were one of his many wet-dream alternatives to monogamy. Neither ‘S groups’ nor any other kind of large group marriage have ever been successful for any length of time, except when the dominant member of the group could physically or economically force the others to stay. I recall reading about an anthropologist who proposed to do his Ph.D. thesis on group marriages, and set out to study the long-term dynamics of a number of groups with an average of seven members each. Within a year, every last one of those groups had broken up in acrimony, and he abandoned his thesis.

But here we have Friday waxing lyrical about the benefits of a long-lasting eight-member group marriage, a subject quite beyond Heinlein’s (or indeed anyone’s) personal experience. She also goes on at some length about the suitability of such a marriage for child-rearing, another subject with which Heinlein had no experience. The difference is that many of his readers did have experience in bringing up children, and could see through him on that point, but hardly any could confute him on the other. Science fiction fans as a rule are a horny and antinomian lot, and inclined to buy into strange sexual arrangements for their fantasy value without investigating too closely into their plausibility. One ‘Mistress Matisse’ has published a Polyamory–English Dictionary, which contains gems like this:

Poly phrase: “The idea of line marriage has always appealed to me.”
English translation: “The idea of having sex with people younger than me has always appealed to me.”

The difficulty, of course, is that comparatively few of us want to have sex with people much older than we are. ‘Line marriage’, if it worked at all, would most often be a disguise for long-term prostitution, a newfangled way for rich older people to accumulate trophy spouses instead of rationing them out one at a time. It certainly would remain a rarity, if only because multiple marriages, like heavy atoms, are radioactive and tend to decay by emitting couples and alpha particles respectively. Above a certain size, they can hardly take on new members as fast as they lose the old ones, as our anthropologist friend found out. Definitely a specimen for the zoo of ‘alternative lifestyles’.

For all this, Heinlein can be forgiven. A considerable part of his appeal comes from the fact that he was such an unapologetically dirty old man. But he is not content to present Friday’s ménage as an ideal; he must kill two giants with one blow, not only Monogamy, but Racism as well. Friday’s S-partners, who are open-minded and free-living enough to glibly undertake an eight-party marriage contract, are simultaneously shown as hidebound bigots of the most dated and embarrassing kind. A society that accepts marriages of eight people seems an unlikely candidate to disapprove of marriages between white New Zealanders and Maoris, or between whites and Pacific Islanders, but Friday’s free-wheeling elder hippies do exactly that. In fact, the entire group breaks up over the shocking revelation that Friday is an Artificial Person, with exactly the kind of exaggerated revulsion that an over-macho heterosexual exhibits on finding that the girl he has just French-kissed is really a transvestite. We learn that Anita, the head of the ménage, has been a bully and an embezzler all along; this is meant to help explain the breakup — a thing that requires no explanation. What it does instead is make us further doubt Friday’s sanity for getting herself mixed up in such a racket, and doubly doubt her paeans of praise for the ‘S group’ as an institution.

At this point I lose all belief in these characters, and am considerably disgusted with their author as well. He has tried to pour Hugh Hefner and Archie Bunker into the same skin, and there is simply no way to make them fit. Each of his points could be made separately, and lifelike, integrated characters could easily be devised to exemplify them; but they cannot be combined, not in this way. It is just too blatantly obvious that they are not acting from their own motives, but merely to act out the psychodrama that Heinlein’s polemic requires. Friday is Heinlein’s mouthpiece for line marriages, and so she swears by her hyper-extended family; she is also his mouthpiece against racism, and so she swears at them. It is difficult to do both at once, and Heinlein’s attempt is thoroughly unconvincing.

And because all these contradictions are presented in a short space, no more than a quarter of a novel much shorter than Gulliver, the inconsistency is much more blatant than the slow and incremental vacillations of the unfortunate Lemuel. It nearly spoils what is otherwise the best of Heinlein’s late novels, and might have ranked with his greatest works if he had been content to slaughter one sacred cow the less.


  1. I get the impression that Terry Goodkind’s series exhibits this flaw in spades, but I don’t actually know, as I gave up after the first book.

    • For that very reason, I have described Goodkind’s stuff as ‘Ayn Rand meets Dick and Jane’. Here is a rough abstract of a Goodkind book — any Goodkind book:

      See Atlas.
      See Atlas shrug.
      Shrug, Atlas, shrug.

      [Insert 800 pages of gratuitous violence and kinky torture-porn.]

      • <snerk>

        BTW, comments appear to be closed on the next post. (They were open, and then they weren’t and half the post had vanished too; now the rest of the post is back, but comments are still closed. I don’t know what caused the changes.)

        • The post got fouled up because the WiFi network I was using abruptly kicked me off in mid-edit, and when I managed to log back in, 3,000 words of the post had disappeared from the edit window — and I clicked Update without noticing. So I had to re-import the 2006 version, and rewrite the ending from scratch.

          I have no idea why comments are closed. WordPress doesn’t tell me that they are, and I never told WordPress to close them.

          EDIT: Just went in and reopened comments manually. You should be able to go ahead and say your piece now. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  2. Hmm. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a Broad-Minded and Progressive soul being a racist. After it was the progressives who brought us segregation in the United States. In the Reconstruction and after, the feds slapped it down as soon as it appeared. It was the election of Woodrow Wilson that let them install it — Wilson being busy segregating the federal work force instead. (The Civil Rights Movement was, of course, reactionary.)

    What’s implausible is that this is a surprise to Friday.

  3. houseboatonstyx says

    Do you find much difference between Father Brown’s philosophy and style, and GKC’s own? Perhaps FB works because he, — and, importantly, his post — embodies that from the beginning.

    • Father Brown is an interesting case, because Chesterton was not yet a Catholic when he began writing those stories. His own philosophy gradually became more similar to Fr. Brown’s over time — almost as if his own invented character converted him.

      Then, too, Fr. Brown and Chesterton were very different in looks and personality — one quiet and unassuming, the other loud and willing to debate anybody for twopence. Because of this, while Fr. Brown often exemplifies Catholic teaching, or applies bits of it to his detective work, he does not very often preach for any length of time. When Chesterton wanted to preach, he did so in his own voice — which is eminently the correct way to do it.

  4. I read Friday as the story of a woman who’s searching for a family and a home, and having one after another yanked away from her until she finally is in a small group marriage away from Earth.

    Earth is a place where there isn’t enough loyalty to make much of anything work.

    When she’s praising the group marriage, she’s mistaken, though it’s my impression that what’s Heinlein sees as wrong isn’t so much the marriage structure as that the people in it don’t have enough courage and/or energy to challenge Anita’s dominance.

    I’m inclined to think that Friday’s eventual relative success in establishing a home is a side effect of her having the nerve to say she’s an Artificial Person.

  5. I may be particularly sensitive, but all the criticisms you level at Heinlein are compounded when you read from inside a socialist woman’s skin. And don’t even get me started on “Farnham’s Freehold”….

  6. I must say, I’m finding these essais marvelously cathartic! I never forgave Heinlein for _The Cat Who Walks Through Walls_. That book is the most systematic betrayal of a reader by an author it has ever been my misfortune to read. After he stabbed his own story in the back halfway through, I persevered to the end only by feverishly hoping that he would yet bring it back from the dead. He never did.

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