Adrienne Martini is a Locus reviewer and author of two non-fiction books, Hillbilly Gothic and Sweater Quest.
I’ve spent the last few years rereading all of the Heinlein titles I can get my hands on. I’ve also been shoving the idea around and trying to figure out why that book hit me in that way at that time. I might be getting closer.
Discovering Heinlein, for most who have, is like having sex or dropping acid: you don’t forget your first time. I found him in Pittsburgh’s Northland Library on the bottom floor, just around the corner from the kids’ section, which was segregated by a glass wall. The furniture was upholstered in 1970s colors like harvest gold, even though this was in the early 1980s. I was a glasses-wearing, braces-having 12-year old, who was easily 30 pounds overweight, mostly because I’d much rather read my way through the kids’ section than go outside.
There was nothing left that I wanted to read there, however. Young adult books weren’t the market force then that they are now. While there were some books for kids who were too old for juveniles but really too young for much of anything else, Sweet Valley High and The Babysitter’s Club wouldn’t hit the mainstream for a few years yet. Most advanced young readers simply moved up to the adult areas once they worked through everything Ellen Raskin and Paul Zindel had even written. The librarian pointed me around the corner to the science fiction section, saying that I might like some of Robert A. Heinlein’s stuff.
I can remember the heft of Friday when I pulled it off of the shelf and into my hand. There was a painting of the top-half of a woman on the cover. She’s wearing a denim jumpsuit that has been unzipped down to just above her navel and stands in from of a pale blue-gray background that suggests a spaceship. Her broad shoulders give way to a narrow waist, which ripens outward to Beyonce-esque hips. You can see the under-swell of one of her remarkably full, gravity-defying breasts.
If I’d been a 12-year old boy, that hint of breast would have been enough to suck me in. But for me it was the cover model’s short brown hair, which I had, too, and her eyes. While there was a certain come-hither to them, there was also a confidence behind them, one that made it clear that this was a woman who knew exactly what she was doing, no matter how turbulent her story might be. I didn’t want to possess her; I wanted to be her.
What I didn’t notice at the time was that the zipper pulls on Friday’s jumpsuit were phallus-shaped. One of them points directly to her crotch. For more than a dozen years, I failed to notice the five penises on the cover — and there’s no denying that that’s what they are — until I was in my late 20s and read an interview with Michael Whelan, the cover artist. Read into this what you will.
Cool as the cover was, I wouldn’t have become such a devotee of the book and the writer if the story didn’t pay off the cover. I was hooked from the first paragraph and can still recite it from memory: As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.
At 12, I had no idea that I picked up the work of a Grand Master, one of the old white men of science fiction who defined the genre. All I knew was that I had no idea what the “Kenya Beanstalk” was (nor, frankly, exactly where Kenya was) but I suddenly found it vital to know more. I have never looked back.