I confess, the main reason I decided to pick up this book was not the author; I’m not a huge Heinlein fan, though his books are “classic” sci-fi, and I agree he is definitely necessary to the evolution of the genre. I can admit to his worth as a writer without being an ardent lover of his writing style. I picked up this book on a whim, and because it had the subtitle of “A Comedy of Manners.” If there’s one thing I can almost always enjoy, its a narrative comedy of manners. Add in some science fiction and space travel, and how could I resist?
In my mind, I can break up this book into three distinctly separate books. The first third was filled with all the little details that really make “a comedy of manners” in my mind. We meet an ex-army man and his new (as of two hours ago) wife fleeing from the bureaucracy of space-station life after a complete stranger is awkwardly killed at their table in the finest restaurant after delivering a mysterious message. They pick up a companion in the form of a man from the slums who was paid to kill them, but joins their side after promising not to kill them and help carry their luggage. They teach him about the importance of always being polite, and give him the charge of protecting the little bonsai tree they (for some reason) are determined to save while escaping the space station known as “Golden Rule.” This third of the story is all about adventure, and travel, and about solving the mystery of why Richard and Gwen are being hunted down and who killed the stranger at their table.
The second third of this book is all about some free-loving. Heilein was well known for his very open views on sexuality, and they definitely make an appearance in this book too. Some of the mysteries resolve, as we find out that Gwen has a interesting history, across several time-lines and parallel universes. She takes Richard home several centuries in his future, to her large, complicated, and polygamous family who all happen to be members of the Time Corps who are trying to save various universes by rescuing the first intelligent computer from history.
The final third of the book is shorter in length than the first two, but dense in ideas. Its mostly a philosophical rambling about the possible nature of time and reality. Its rather heavy on the exposition and explanation, but nontheless contains some intereting ideas. In this book, Heinlein claims that all universes are real, everything that could possibly happen has happened, somewhere and somewhen. Even ficitonal universes and characters are real, what Heinlein called “The World as Myth.” Richard meets his the hero of his childhood tv series, and contemplates on the morality of creating fictional villians that will become a reality in some universe. Heinlein fans will enjoy this portion of the book more than those who haven’t read many of his works because a good number of his characters from his previous books make an appearance, furthering his ideas that fiction is just as real as “reality.”
The book ends abruptly, with Richard and Gwen in the middle of the mission to save Mike (the intelligent computer) probably at the cost of their lives. It is revealed that the whole of the story has been narrated by Richard, in this moment speaking into a recording devise. And he poignantly asks the reader, who is the author who is causing such pain and despair? Who is the author who wrote this universe and is forcing him to live, and die, in these circumstances?
While I loved the initial set-up of the story, I ended up rather disappointed with the end. So many of the mysteries that intrigued me were never answered, or even worse, were poorly answered in awkward exposition that left plot holes an elephant could fall through.
The development of the charming and witty relationship that evolved between Gwen and Richard was put aside in favor of annoying justifications for “free love” and polygamous marriages.
Had the story continued in the same vein as that first third of the book, I think this novel could have won five stars from me, but Heinlein lost the thread of the most important piece: the actual plot. His priorities were obviously more on describing his idea free-love society, and on his World as Myth philosophy. While I did find the latter interesting, I think there may have been better ways to incorporate it into the story than pure exposition and long non-plot centric conversations.