Jerry Was a Man by Heinlein, Robert, 1947

Jerry Was a Man by Heinlein, Robert

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Jerry Was a Man (alternatively Jerry Is a Man), is a 1947 short story by Robert Heinlein. It is a courtroom drama about slavery, mistreatment and prejudice, and what it means to be a "man," though what Heinlein really meant by that term was "non-animal." It is a pretty well thought out story, but it is not really long enough to draw any heavy conclusions from. Take a look here to see the latest Law and Science Fiction Blawg entry on this story. In this article I shall discuss its literary merits only.

The plot of this story can be found in the link above. Suffice it to say that Jerry Was a Man is about a genetically engineered chimp who wants nothing more than to live and not be killed by his corporate owner. Jerry was a product that was designed and made by a big biological corporation, then leased to a farmer for use in the fields. He had reached the limit of his useful years and had developed cataracts and has been returned to the manufacturer to be killed and turned into dog food. Stuffed into a barbed wire compound, Jerry hung out by the fence and tried to get passers-by to give him candy or a smoke. One day a very rich woman walked by and was moved by Jerry's plight. She bullied the corporation to give her a lease over Jerry, and then hired a team of attorneys to enjoin the corporation from killing any of Jerry's kin, called "Joes."

In my opinion Heinlein had some fantastic ideas during his long career, and he did generally a pretty good job of putting them down onto paper. But he also, I think, was needlessly obtuse within his stories time and time again. I tend to take a modular approach to Heinlein's stories for this reason: How good was this part; how good was that part? How well does it all add up together? I think that there are many Heinlein stories that have confusing elements in them that could have been written much better. In this case Heinlein plays some seriously strange games with the structure of the legal system in order to, I think, push the action of the story to the place that he wants: A courtroom showdown. In the following section Mrs. van Vogel, the rich woman, has just been told that there is likely no chance that she will be able to prevail in court, not only because the law is not in her favor, but because the chattel (property) in question, Jerry, belongs to someone else. So she tried a different tack with her attorneys.

"See here Sidney, I didn't get you over here to tell me how this can't be done. If what I want isn't legal, then get a law passed."

Weinberg looked at Haskell, who looked embarrassed and answered, "Well, the fact of the matter is, Mrs. van Vogel, that we have agreed with the other members of the Commonwealth Association not to subsidize any legislation during the incumbency of the present administration.

"How ridiculous! Why?"

"The Legislative Guild has brought out a new fair-practices code which we consider quite unfair, a sliding scale which penalizes the well-to-do -- all very nice sounding, with special provisions for nominal fees for veterans' private bills and such things -- but in fact the code is confiscatory. Even the Briggs Foundation can hardly afford to make a proper interest in public affairs under the so-called code."

"Hummph! A fine day when legislators join unions -- they are professional men. Bribes should be competitive. Get an injunction."

"Mrs. van Vogel," protested Weinberg, "how can you expect me to get an injunction against an organization which has no legal existence? In a legal sense, there is no Legislative Guild, just as the practice of assisting legislation by subsidy has itself no legal existence."

I read this recently and just scratched my head. Itís pretty obvious that the old-boy's network has evolved to lofty heights in Heinlein's universe (I'm pretty sure that this was not one of the Future History stories, but I'm not certain). Legislators belong to trade unions that can dictate policy, in effect circumventing the public trust. In response to this a class of attorneys has developed called "shysters." van Vogel hires one in this story. He is kind of a super-attorney who operates under the radar, guerilla-style. Since his job requires that he remain out of sight he funnels strategy and tactics to van Vogel's attorney through her, and thus becomes the team's expert strategist without anyone but the client knowing that he is there. Interesting concepts, for sure, if I'm right about them. Heinlein completely failed to describe in any detail greater than what is above exactly what those concepts were, instead relying on the reader to extract all of this through context alone. In the shape of a short story that can be a bit off-putting, especially when concepts in question are legal; non attorneys feel funny enough about those to begin with.

So, how does all of this "add up?" Heinlein was a master story teller; there can be no doubting that. He is probably one of the best SF writers that has ever been, all things considered, and for the most part I enjoy his stories quite a bit. The only real problem that Heinlein ever had (and some would say that it really is not a problem, but a virtue) is that he infused so much of his work with his own brand of individualism that itís sometimes difficult to separate the man from the work. Like it or not though, many call that a unique aspect of art. This particular story was written at the beginning of Heinlein's really successful period, right after he returned from civilian duty in WWII, and most of the personal issues that I have with his work don't really crop up until his later periods, starting in the mid-1960's. Still, when I read his treatment of the legal system in this story, especially with the paucity of detail that he gave those passages, I am strongly reminded of everything about Heinlein that I dislike. Jerry Was a Man is about as available as the rest of Heinlein's short fiction, which means that it is not easy to find. I think the most recent printing is in Pohl's SFWA Grand Master Series, in Volume I.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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