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A few weeks back, I was browsing Wikipedia for literary anniversaries, and came across this page of fiction set in 2015:
2015in fiction

My eye was caught by the presence of Heinlein's notorious 1971 novel, I Will Fear No Evil, which I had read as a teenager. Its protagonist is the aged billionaire Johann Sebastian Bach Smith, whose brain is transplanted from his own aging body into that of his beautiful secretary; her soul remains in place, cohabitating with her former boss, and they go on to have sex with everyone in sight. Why not, I thought, do a blog post comparing Heinlein's view of the world in 2015 with two other stories on that list, Arthur C. Clarke's "Earthlight" (the original 1951 story, not the 1955 novel which is set several centuries later) and Isaac Asimov's 1941 "Runaround" (the story in which the Three Laws of Robotics were first stated)?

Well, there are a couple of good reasons why not. The first is that "Runaround" has almost no background colour for the year 2015, except that there are two blokes and a bunch of robots stuck together on Mercury harvesting liquid metal from the pools on the perpetually sunward-facing side of the planet (Mercury's rotation period was not discovered until 1965). Apart from that it's not really very interesting.

The second is that the Heinlein novel is not actually set in 2015 at all, despite what Wikipedia says.

The evidence for this is pretty clear. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is "nearly nintey-five" (up to p, 367) and then "ninety five years old" (from p. 398 onwards). If the book were set in 2015, that would mean that he had been born in 1920. But his grand-daughter - by his second marriage, no less - celebrated her eighth birthday in May 1960 (p. 188). Even by Heinlein's standards, that is improbably quick work. More concretely, Smith's elderly sidekick, Jake Solomon, finds that "Seventy-two is staring me in the face" (p.99) and also admits that "In nineteen-thirty-four I was barely out of diapers" (p. 363). By a process of simple addition, it seems likely that Heinlein thought of the book as being set in the first few years of this century rather than this year; someone who turns 72 in 2015 would have been born in 1943, with no memory of 1934.

Over on the Heinlein Society's site, David M. Silver has an essay on the book, pointing out the numerous resonances between the life of Johann Sebastian Bach Smith and that of his creator, who was born on 7 July 1907. I think that Silver is right and I hope I have added another resonance to his list: had Heinlein lived, he would have turned 95 in 2002. The intended setting of I Will Fear No Evil is not 2015, but thirteen years earlier. (This also fits Jake Solomon's statements, allowing for some poetic licence - he would have been born in 1930, and turned 4 in 1934.) I won't amend the Wikipedia page, because that would be Original Research, which is apparently Naughty. (Any Wikipedia user reading this should feel free to make the change, citing this blog post.)

I must add that I simply couldn't finish the book. It is too dreadfully bad. Just before the half-way point, I realised that I couldn't take any more, and used the Kindle search function to track down all the references to years and dates after page 250; and then I went on to read something else. (Clarke's "Earthlight" does have a bit more on the world of 2015, but you can't do a comparative article with only one point to compare.)

Comments

alaimacerc
Jan. 6th, 2015 10:58 pm (UTC)
Wikipedia is certainly not without its quirks. And by "quirks" I really mean "massive systemic dysfunctions". Not sure either of these qualify though -- unless I'm missing some sort of edit war on the "cyberpunk derivatives" page more recently than the 2008 edit in which this seems to have been removed (if admittedly for other than the reason mentioned here). In each case there was one bad edit by a passing contributor, not fixed when first noticed, then later without any apparent objection.

NOR is a rather quaint and oddly-named policy page that's really now better covered elsewhere. The fundamental issues are verifiability and avoiding conflicts of interest. Were someone to be deemed to be an acceptable (much less the definitive) direct source on themselves, all sorts of abuse would be possible -- nay, inevitable.

In the Heinlein case, nwhyte doesn't have any conflict of interest -- though neither, sadly, is this blog regarded as a "reliable source", so the suggestion "citing this post" isn't ideally phrased. But the original insertion wasn't sourced anyway (and given that it's wrong, is likely to be unsourceable), that's not much of an obstacle. Unless he were looking to insert his own detailed dating analysis, as opposed to just removing the wonky one.

For WHS's (or rather, someone else's!) "timepunk", while there was a COI and a putative source, there's an objectively documentable inaccuracy in that very citation, and a potential BLP issue too (aka WP's "let's not get sued for saying disobliging things about living people we can't definitely back up" policy). If you don't want to make the edit yourself, you can can certainly comment on the talk page to that effect, and someone will hopefully make the change for you. (Or if there's no response, that itself can be construed as cause to be more "bold" oneself.)

I do sympathise about unwanted "credit" for something one doesn't much care for, though. That's otherwise known as a mild dose of "blame". And it does seem somewhat category-errorish. I suppose "techpunk" or "anachropunk" were seemed insufficiently snappy.
whswhs
Jan. 6th, 2015 11:45 pm (UTC)
I have never seen Wikipedia's talk page; in fact I wasn't even aware that they had one. I have the impression that there's some sort of process one can go through to gain the ability to do edits on Wikipedia entries, but I've never puzzled out how to do it.
alaimacerc
Jan. 7th, 2015 04:08 pm (UTC)
None at all! (For the most part. Some pages are "semi-protected", meaning only registered users can edit them.) For example, the edit nw discourses about in the post was simply someone from an IP address (i.e., not logged in), clicking on "edit", typing two words, and then "save page". Seeing the current version may have a "Wikipedia has ordained...!" vibe to it, but it really is as Brownian and unpremeditated as that.

There's a "talk" page associated with each article, via another tab at the talk, for purposes of discussing possible changes (or more customarily, yelling forcefully at each other over past such).

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