I was chatting with a friend earlier tonight and she asked me about the first tg-themed novel I ever read. Much to my surprise, I really had to think about that. Ultimately, I decided that Robert Heinlein's oft-maligned work of bodyswapping and sexual revolutions would have to have been my first. I distinctly remember picking up a copy early in highschool and not liking it. The concept was mind-blowing, and very exciting to a confused teenager, but I struggled with the style. I remember picking it up again in university and appreciating it, but still not liking it. It's only been over the last year that I've finally finished the darn thing, and you know what . . . I'm still not sure I like it.
(I have to be honest - I’ve never been much of a Heinlein fan. I've tried reading several of his books, but they were just too sixties-sci-fi for my taste. Obviously, there has to be a good reason they’re considered classics . . . but the style just didn’t appeal to me.)
As the years have passed, my tastes have changed, and there are several books I put down in the past (some more than once!) that have since become favourites of mine. This isn’t one of those favourites, but it is one that entertained me for a weekend.
Before we get into things, though, let’s deal with the most common complaint regarding the book. Yes, it is sexist, anachronistic, and often patently offensive in it’s portrayal of BOTH genders. It’s also a book that was first published in 1970, and is the work of a man who began writing science fiction as early as 1939. Critiquing Heinlein for not being properly progressive regarding women 40 years ago is like lambasting Mark Twain for not being politically correct regarding race 135 years ago.
Anyway, the book introduces us to Johann, an elderly, crippled, bitter old man who also happens to be exceedingly rich. He knows his body is dying, but his brain is just fine. So, he comes up with the idea of transferring his brain to a new body upon his death. He doesn’t actually expect it to work, but figures it’s better to waste his money on a sliver of hope than to let his children squabble over it.
Not only does he not expect it to work, but he certainly does not expect to wake up in the body of a woman – specifically, that of Eunice, his beautiful young secretary. Fortunately for Johann, something of Eunice has survived to share her body with him. It’s never made clear whether this is her spirit, her memory, or just his imagination, but it serves to jumpstart the plot past the awkwardness you’d expect of a man who is suddenly a woman.
Once the legal/ethical/philosophical issues are dispensed with, much of the book deals with Johann’s (now Joan Eunice’s) sexual exploits. Again, yes, they’re sexist and sometimes crude, but also thoroughly entertaining.
Ultimately, what I took away from the book was an appreciation for the dilemma of sex vs gender vs sexual orientation - what does it means for a man’s mind to desire other women (while in a woman’s body), or for a woman’s body to continue desiring men (while guided by a man’s mind).
As I said, it’s an interesting book, and one that makes you think. It’s not the greatest story every written, but certainly a great concept.