The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A Heinlein

6/10 The amorous adventures of the old grump

One wonderful thing about my lady, one of the many wonderful things, one of the facts about my lady who is herself wonderful, is that since we both have a love of speculative fiction we can exchange book recommendations.

Robert Heinlein is an author with whom I've had an odd relationship. I've only read four or five of his books, though my lady has read more, but I've run the gamut from being excited and fascinated by his "The Red Planet" at age eight, to being so appalled by "Fear No Evil" at the age of twenty two (I've avoided him entirely for the last ten years). However on my lady's recommendation I decided to tackle him again.

In some ways The Cat Who Walks Through Walls serves as a microcosm of Heinlein's work in general, both because it is a direct sequel to his exceptional earlier novel Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and because it brings in characters, themes and settings in from many other of his works.

Also, my impressions of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls as a book are much like a smaller version of my impressions of Heinlein's works and philosophy and character overall. Rarely have I read a book which, sometimes in the same scene has managed to be witty, sweet and utterly charming, but also appalling, gross and obnoxiously smug.

Taking place over 100 years since the Luna revolution detailed in Moon Is A Harsh Mistress The Cat Who Walks Through Walls follows the adventures of itinerant writer Richard Ames and his new wife Gwen Novak. “Adventures" here is not an idle term. Told in the first person by Richard, the majority of the book feels more like a rambling set of anecdotes than a plot, indeed for three quarters of its length it is basically a wandering tale of the tribulations and delights of Richard and Gwen's honeymoon on Luna. Told in the first person with a light, relaxed and conversational style, I often felt as if I were listening to an uncle's after dinner reminiscences rather than reading a science fiction novel.

Conversation however is something that Heinlein excels at, and since (as the subtitle "A Comedy Of Manners" shows), in Cat he was plainly thinking in a humorous bent. There is no denying that the narration itself, as well as much of the banter Richard has with various characters (particularly the feisty Gwen), is extremely funny and often believably romantic.
Dialogue indeed is one of the book's major strengths, and I can't deny that I laughed frequently while reading, since there are occasions when the plot such as it is pauses for a bit of verbal sparring, which in the hands of a less witty author would've dragged far too long, but Heinlein is able to make it quite delightful, at least for the most part.

Though the plot is meandering, it also is peppered with just enough incident (at least for the first three quarters of the book) to give the banter something to bounce off, especially when Gwen, Richard and other characters find rather amusing ways of getting themselves out of awkward situations, such as Gwen's inventive use of cheese to exact revenge on a pompous bureaucrat, or Richard's impersonation of an officious senator to terrify a dodgy spaceship salesman.
In terms of character as well, the book also feels very much like a holiday trip. There are the nice people you meet and make instant friends with, the wise older people who offer sage advice to you and your partner, the functionary (in this case a ground controller on Luna) who turns out to be a nice guy with a sense of humour, the family of locals who lend a spare room when you’re down on your luck. Equally there are the irritating bureaucrats, the sad little lawyers, and the nasty people bent on spoiling your good time when all you’re trying to do is have some fun. Apart from most of the book taking place as Richard's honeymoon, the action also feels rather safe. Even in life or death situations, such as being jumped by bandits, Richard and Gwen never lose their cool or really seem too bothered, indeed they treat such things more as interesting excursions. This could be extremely irritating as a similar state of safety was in some of Heinlein's other books, however Gwen and Richard's chemistry is so good that seeing them casually overcome obstacles complete with quips is actually entertaining, even if not particularly suspenseful.

Also, to be fair, there are one or two character conflicts and unexpected revelations, albeit none seemed to go far enough to create sufficient drama to puncture that happy cruise trip bubble. For example, though the book begins with a murder, you don't get any further information on the victim or why he died until literally the last scene, by which time it feels almost irrelevant, particularly because Richard's chief objection to said murder is that it spoils his dinner date with Gwen.

One character however I would really like to mention is Gwen herself. Heinlein was one of the first mid twentieth century science fiction authors to include fully fleshed out female characters, and with such a stubborn character as Richard a less skilled author would've turned her into his simpering cheerleader. Simper however Gwen certainly does not, and while she loves Richard, she's never overshadowed by him, indeed in many ways she's far more the active force which kicks the plot into action (as well as providing probably a larger share of the humour during the banter).

All this sounds like a superficial, if rather fun romp of a novel. The problem however is that, as my lady put it, Heinlein is "an old grump!” a description which could apply equally to Richard and at least three other characters. As a symptom of this grumpitude Richard and others are quite free with polemics on innumerable matters, but particularly the political, social and marital.

The first problem with this is that Heinlein rarely if ever considers counter arguments to the positions he's espousing, and does not so much argue his position as simply state it and vilify anyone who opposes it, even when there are blatant inconsistencies in what he is actually arguing. For example, in the same chapter he includes a right wing sermon on "everyone paying their way" and "the disease of socialism", while at the same time noting that everyone on Luna is charged a "public air tax" which pays for the collective maintenance of the atmosphere (a socialist idea if I ever heard one).
I also find it extremely odd that despite Richard's long hymns in praise of "paying your debts" and the Luna motto of "there's no such thing as a free lunch" Richard and Gwen run around living an amazingly opulent lifestyle with inexhaustible supplies of cash, particularly out of place given some of the descriptions of poverty in the book. Were Heinlein a less transparently opinionated writer I would've almost wondered if this was an ironic dig at the rich executives who frequently moralize on their own hard work and right to self indulgent lifestyles, even as they pay next to nothing to the people who make the actual goods they profit from.
The most thorny issue though, and the one I find gives me most trouble is that of relationships and sexuality. As explained in Moon Is A Harsh Mistress Luna is a colony where due to a scarcity of women, marriage with multiple partners (often polyandrous) is common. I can accept that when reading speculative fiction set in other worlds, different relationships and marital customs exist, however Heinlein's writing here seems far more prescriptive than imaginative, and if anything struck me as rather naive.

While Richard and Gwen's relationship is beautifully described, playful and fulfilling, I was a little more bothered by Richard's casual attitude to sharing, and the amount of women in the book who fawned over him, often women he'd just met, a little authorial fantasizing? In fairness to Heinlein it's pretty clear Gwen is allowed similar freedoms and that this casual extramarital sharing isn't reserved for men (albeit since Richard is our principal character we don't see quite as much of Gwen's exploits), however Heinlein's view on the universal wonderfulness of promiscuity I find again is an extremely simplistic view where he hasn't considered any alternative position to his own.
In particular, there are several rather gross implications where Heinlein clearly shows he is utterly ignorant of the sort of damage that can occur through inappropriate sexual contact, implications which to me were extremely disgusting. For example, in the same chapter where he has a sermon in praise of the fact that on Luna, since women are held in reverence there is no rape (an act which he only ever considered as perpetrated by men upon women), a twelve year old girl attempts to sleep with Richard, an offer Richard seems inclined to accept until Gwen intervenes. Also, bare in mind Gwen's intervention isn't for the girls' sake, but because she doesn't want to "share her marriage with a child bride".
In an even more worrying chapter later, when Richard considers men kissing, he intimates that he himself had relations with a scoutmaster while under age; something which Heinlein seems to suggest is common, natural and healthy even for usually heterosexual people. After this point, Heinlein then introduces the idea of incestuous family relationships as a good and wholesome thing.
When I read of similar customs in Stranger In A Strange Land at the age of thirteen, I was confused. Fear No Evil left me horrified. Now, however, it strikes me Heinlein, that old grump, for all his veneer of borrowed gravitas was simply naive - indeed if I didn't know this book and these ideas were written when Heinlein was in his late sixties, I'd have assumed them the unformed thoughts of a teenager with no real experience of the wider world, or indeed much of relationships.

Indeed from the playful, but somewhat idealized romantic moments with Gwen to the innuendo and diatribes on the rightness of multiple partners, there is something particularly adolescent about Heinlein's attitude here. This is one reason I do not feel quite as disgusted by Heinlein's insensitivities as I might have otherwise.
The ending to the book is again something I feel an extreme conflict about. In the last quarter, the action moves to the distant future via time travel. Among the decidedly off kilter relations and actually quite protracted family history, it's revealed Richard is required to rescue Mike, the lonely talking computer from Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. This section involved much sexual weirdness, a plot that had ground to a halt, the introduction of far too many characters to keep track of (many of whom were from previous Heinlein novels) and all in all a drop in quality and entertainment.

I was about to write the book off completely as a bad job when I got to the final half hour.
First, the conceit Heinlein uses to explain time travel and multiple universes is a completely fascinating idea, and one that caught me entirely by surprise. Indeed I am only sorry I had to wait that long for the revelation since it might have been better coming earlier and missing out some of the preceding dodginess. It is however a very unique way of looking at reality, and one which also neatly explains the few rather more random turns the plot had previously taken.

As I approached the end, I was wondering how exactly Heinlein would finish things, given that we were leaving for a dangerous mission with scarcely fifteen minutes left, and was again taken entirely by surprise. To some, the ending might seem inappropriate or wrong (my lady did not enjoy it), yet to me it was exactly what the book needed at that point, and a perfect counterweight to what had preceded it.

While it seemed abrupt at first glance (indeed I wondered if I was missing a paragraph or two when I read the last word) I then realized that a detail in the ending does answer the question posed by the final sentence, making the ending both a clever puzzle, and still an ambiguous and surprising twist. Indeed I added half a mark to my score for this ending alone.
I really don't know what to make of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. It's the story of a pair of smart, relaxed if rather boorish people and their various misadventures, with a background of Heinlein's one dimensional and in some places decidedly unpleasant views, yet with colourful characters, some of the best banter, both romantic and comic you will find, a unique explanation for the mechanics of the book's universe and a genuinely surprising ending.
Worth reading? I honestly can't say, since rarely have I come across a book which has such a high amount of both negative and positive qualities, often existing quite literally at the same time.

Hopefully this review will have given some idea of the cases for both approaches so you can make up your own mind. One thing I will say, it definitely gave my lady and I some interesting debates, something which I'm sure Heinlein, the old grump himself would have approved of.

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