SF Book Review: The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein
It is not very often that I read a book that makes me smile the entire time I’m reading it; this is one of them. From the hilarious anachronisms of the 1950’s Futurist to the brilliant side-kick cat, Pete. (Cat lovers will appreciate this book on a completely different level than other readers). I was laughing out loud at least once every 20 pages or so.
It is only because I read some of the other reviews for this book that I felt the need to write a review myself. After seeing that a number of reviews that charge The Door into Summer (and sometimes Heinlein himself) as being both misogynistic and perverse, I felt the need to defend it (and him).
First of all, on the complaints that Heinlein’s vision of the future (from 1956, remember) is sexist, misogynistic, anti-woman, etc.:
There are not many women in this story, true enough, which may be a mark against it in and of itself. Because of this, the heinous Belle stands out as being a particularly unlikable femme-fatale. Though I would argue that, had Belle not been foiled by Dan’s foray into time travel, her plot would have succeeded and she would have made a respectable villain. She was well-equipped for it: calculating, edgy, violent, and un-emotional. But because the other women in the book (Jenny Sutton, the Girl-Scout Matron, and later Ricki) are fairly minor they do little to offset the influence of Belle and rather support the 1950’s housewife stereotype. And Dan Davis’ engineering vision of rescuing women from the drudgery of housework is a little dated, to be sure.
However, I consider these to be the faults of a novel written in the 1950’s. I always find it best to approach a book with the understanding that it is a product of the time in which it was written. If a novel breaks through the conventions of its time, great! But it would be unreasonable to expect it every time one picks up a new book. Our modern sensibilities might be offended by some archaic ideas, but out-dated notions don’t necessarily devalue an otherwise good yarn. (not to mention historically important works, which this isn’t, but the point stands)
It’s true that science fiction often pushes boundaries: of politics, religion, war, gender, sexuality, human nature, etc. But it is not necessary. And it is certainly not necessary to push all of them at once. The Door into Summer is not a book about gender roles. It reflects opinions common to the time in which it was written, but it does not address them specifically. It cannot be said to be particularly forward thinking on the subject, but at the same time it is a passive position. Heinlein is not actively or purposefully oppressing women in this novel, but he is describing a world very similar to the one in which he lived. Which, for me, is enough that I didn’t hate the novel for its faults.
Heinlein has shown in this and other novels that he is not rigid in his notions on the future of gender roles. In Starship Troopers women make the best fighter pilots because of their superior reflexes and mental dexterity. In this novel, there are suggestions that–outside of the narrative–women are fulfilling more diverse roles than we see them in. Dan Davis, when discussing the merits of his engineering robot ‘Drafting Dan’, admits that most women don’t care much for it unless they are engineers themselves! The offhand nature of this remark is indicative that it is not an alien idea to Dan. Perhaps his housekeeping robot is more liberal-minded than we initially supposed, if it has freed women from the role of housewives to pursue their dreams outside the home. Something to consider, anyways.
With that out of the way, I wanted to talk about the so-called perversion of Dan’s unconventional (temporally speaking) romance with Ricki. Many people have commented on the “disturbing” nature of the love story sub-plot. And maybe it’s because I’ve recently read Lolita, but I really didn’t feel too put out about it. I actually found Dan and Ricki’s relationship kind of cute, mostly because Dan falls in love with Ricki because she understands and appreciates his cat–which Dan feels is indicative of the kind of person she is (although she is only a child). It is important to note that there are no overtly pedophilic suggestions in this book, unless the reader supplies them (I’m sure there are those who will disagree)
When it comes down to it, Dan’s romantic feelings towards Ricki are not directed at her juvenile self but at the woman he imagines she will become. It is not unusual, I think, to idealize and idolize romantically (particularly after one has had ones heart broken). Ricki is the only female that Dan has ever felt any connection with, and he values her friendship. It is only after Belle betrays him that he begins to think “if only Ricki were older”. Not because he fantasizes about being with a child (obviously, he wouldn’t then wish she were older) but because he fantasizes about being with someone he loves and trusts.
He cannot even be said to be taking advantage of her childish crush on him. He tells Ricki to wait until she’s 20 to decide if she wants to be with him (he is, and will remain, 30). Ricki has 8 sobering years to decide if she still has feelings for Dan once she is an adult, during which he can supply no pressure. Thanks to the invention of suspended animation their love is possible without being creepy!
Ok, so that’s a longer rant than I intended. But there it is. Thanks for bearing with me if you got this far!