BioSci Fi: "Jerry Was a Man", Robert A. Heinlein, 1947

“Don’t blame the Martians.  Humans would have developed plasto-biology in any case.”

Robert Heinlein’s 1947 short story, Jerry Was a Man, was an early, but tremendously creative, look at some of the possibilities of biotechnology – but also of the law.  I don’t think of Heinlein as a particularly biological science fiction writer.  Before his writing took its final turn towards fantasy, his hard science fiction focused on space ships, space suits, orbital dynamics, slide rules, and, in his last “hard sci fi” novel, computers.  But in 1947, he wrote a very bio short story, one that presaged several recent advances.

Jerry Was a Man is set in an America in the indeterminate future, a future detached from any of Heinlein’s other work.  It features personal jets, mobile phones, and 3D apparently flat screen television – at least for the rich. And our main character, Mrs. Bronson van Vogel, is very, very rich.  Her husband, who married into her money, sets the plot in motion when, after seeing someone at “the club” with a six-legged dachshund, he decides to trump him by flying into the club on a winged horse.  The couple goes to the laboratories of The Phoenix Breeding Ranch, where the husband, after a lesson in biology, has to settle for a non-flying, but rideable, winged horse and his wife buys a 20-inch tall elephant with enhanced intelligence.  During the trip, Mrs. van Vogel also sees Jerry, a cognitively enhanced, talking “neo-chimpanzee” who has been retired from his job picking crops to await euthanasia, followed by conversion into dog food. (Jerry loves to smoke cigarettes, but so does everyone in the story in a way that is startling today – one failure of Heinlein’s biology-related imagination.)

The story depends on three related biotechnologies.  The simpler ones are embryonic plastic surgery and, making the surgery easier, artificial wombs (“extra-uterine capsules”).  The more difficult is actual genetic manipulation, brought to earth by Martians, members of the self-named “Great Race.”  Heinlein incorrectly envisions genetic engineering as chromosomal surgery, but, as the story was published six years before Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA, it was not a bad guess – and I suspect owed something to his friend, biochemist turned author Isaac Asimov.  The cultural result of these technologies is widespread use of surgically and genetically engineered animals, not, apparently as food (for humans, at least), but as workers and as pets.

The legal world has also changed in this story, becoming somewhat English, only more so. It has barristers (the one in the story is named Augustus Pomfrey), solicitors (Sidney Weinberg), and licensed “shysters,” (R.J. “The Real” McCoy).  Barristers argue in togas and would be ashamed to be seen with a shyster. Oh, and lobbyists and their corporate employers are refusing to push any legislation currently because of a new “fair practices code” from “the Legislative Guild” that sets “confiscatory” rates for bribes to legislators.

The shyster (whose office is “the pool room of the notorious Three Planets Club”) comes up with a strategy for Mrs. van Vogel to protect the life of Jerry and the other modified anthropoids – to argue, in court, that they are persons, entitled to legal protection.  (Interestingly, no one seems to wonder about the status of the dwarf elephant, which can actually read and write.) The closing courtroom scene has several delicious aspects, ranging from one side’s reluctance to stipulate to the obvious, to the Martian geneticist’s comparison of humans and chimps, to a timely (in light of Citizens United) snipe at the “human” status of corporations.  And it ends with a decision on Jerry’s legal status (which, in light of the story’s title, doesn’t require any other spoilers).

Sixty-five years later, Jerry Was a Man is not real, but it may be getting close.  I have cited the story in writing about human/non-human brain chimeras, but recently I have been paying more attention to the idea of other kinds of genetically engineered animals, from revived woolly mammoths to specially crafted unicorns.  I can certainly see a billionaire wanting to give his daughter a real, live unicorn for her 12th birthday, can’t you?  We can already buy “glo-fish” tropical fish with inserted genes for green fluorescent protein, making them glow under an ultraviolet light.  And, as Heinlein himself noted in the story’s second paragraph:

“Look at the older registered Kennel Club breeds – glandular giants like the St. Bernard and the Great Dane, silly little atrocities like the Chihuahua and the Pekingese. Consider fancy goldfish.”

Though there are many wonderful things in the story’s 9000 or so words, it has, for me, a disconcerting conclusion.  Jerry’s court appearance ends with him, dressed in field worker’s clothes, winning over the court by singing

“Way down upon de Suwanee Ribber

Far, far away,

Dere’s where my heart is turning ebber”

I can’t help seeing an implied similarity between black farm workers and neo-chimpanzees that makes me more than cringe.  But what did Heinlein mean?

I doubt he meant to be racist.  A few years earlier he had been active in the non-communist left, working hard in Upton Sinclair’s California campaigns. Two of his juvenile books, written nearly a decade later, feature black heroes – overtly in the case of Henry Gladstone Kiku, the Kenyan Permanent Undersecretary of the Department of Spatial Affairs of the Federation in The Star Beast, and less obviously in Rod Walker, the teenaged protagonist of Tunnel in the Sky.  Later, after his shift to a more libertarian philosopher and his 1964 publication of Farnham’s Freehold, with its future of black owners of (and eaters of) white slaves, his racial views are less clear.

Jerry’s conclusion perhaps is better seen as a reminder of a bygone era of popular culture, where broad ethnic and racial stereotypes were commonly used in entertainment, comically and otherwise.  After all, Jerry came only eight years after the happy slaves of the enormously popular movie version of Gone with the Wind and just before the transition of the popular radio show, Amos and Andy, to television.  Times change, and with them changes our ability to enjoy some of the culture of the past.  I wonder what things that we take for granted in popular culture will make people cringe in 65 years? (Other than reality tv.)

Hank Greely

Jerry Was a Man, by Robert A. Heinlein, first published in Amazing Wonder Stories, October 1947 (65 years ago this month, but that’s not why I wrote about it), republished in the collection, Assignment in Eternity in 1953.  Versions are available (though I don’t know how legally) at story and pdf