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Literature / Job: A Comedy of Justice

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Job: A Comedy of Justice is a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, first published in 1984.

Alex Hergensheimer, pastor and manager of the 'Churches United for Decency', takes a relaxing vacation in the South Seas. But after he accepts a bet and walks across hot coals, he's astounded to realize that everybody thinks he's Alec Graham... and even more astounded to discover that 'Alec Graham' is a money-launderer working for The Mafia. And then things start to get weird.

A farcical and sometimes thoughtful re-interpretation of the Biblical Book of Job, which seems to be the misadventures of a dimension-skipping Cosmic Plaything - who would really rather be running an ice cream shop with his beautiful (but Asatru) One True Love. But all these trials turn out to be a Secret Test of Character with several twists at the end.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Alternate History: The protagonists go through several alternate worlds but start in one where William Jennings Bryan became president, leading to a fundamentalist Christian dominated United States.
  • Another Dimension: Played with. It turns out the forces tormenting Alex aren't bumping him into other worlds, they're just changing the immediate area to make it look that way. On the other hand, Valhalla really does seem to be 'another dimension,' inaccessible to Jehovah and Satan.
  • Beelzebub: S. Beelzebub is Satan's personal secretary, having sent a letter to Alex approving of his request to speak with the Devil.
  • Burn the Witch!: In an Alternate Universe where the dominant religion is Wicca, the young Wiccan convert rejects the flame her parents worship because "fire means the way they kill us."
  • Can't Tie His Tie: Part of the early indication that there was a relationship between "Alec" and Margrethe is her willingness to help Alex into his formalwear, including tying his tie.
    Tying a bow tie properly involves magic. She knew the spell.
  • Caught Up in the Rapture: The Evangelical Rapture is cited and explicitly occurs. It's subverted, however, when it's revealed that God (who is a Jerkass) deliberately invoked it as part of a petty scheme to screw with the protagonist's faith.
  • Cosmic Plaything: Poor Alex, just like the biblical Job he's modeled after.
  • Devil in Disguise: Played straight with one 'devil' and subverted by another. Satan first appears as a kindly Texan who encounters Alex by chance, while Loki assumes "eight or nine" guises in the course of making Alex's life miserable.
  • Digital Piracy Is Evil: Gerald (Jerry) Farnsworth makes it a point to ask his daughter if she legally paid for a pornographic hologram. After finding out that, yes, of course she did (because she is a "good girl"), he mentions that he happens to already own a copy which she could have borrowed from him.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: This happens to Alex after the first time his world changes; dress codes are considerably more relaxed than he is used to and women go topless in public. Eventually he gets used to it.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Alex compares the relations between the angels and saved souls in Heaven to being the relationship between native citizens and immigrants, much of the angel's snobbery and attitude based around both the superiority that Heaven's Fantastic Caste System gives them and the overwhelming number of problems that catering to a massive swath of being so fundamentally different from them is like. It doesn't make Alex dislike the angels any less, though.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After Alex and Satan win their case to the judge, Alex is reunited with Marge, have a kid and open up their own restaurant in New Eden, Alex having learned that faith is not a narrow road and now lives with all of the friends he had made along the way.
  • Fantastic Caste System: Heaven runs on a system like this, with various rights and privileges dictating just where on the ladder you are, ranging from what kind of ceremonial wings you get to what lines you wait in to even where you can sit on the bus in. God is the absolute ruler of Heaven, the Angels being first under him. Saints - humans who were chosen by God or were exceptionally holy in their lifetime - are just under them and are allowed special privileges that regular souls do not. Normal saved souls who made it into Heaven are the lowest in the system, bordering on second-class citizenship. There is also special mention of "eternal greats" who "make their own rules", Mary Magdalene being allowed to move between Heaven and Hell freely.
  • Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Subverted. Alex dies and goes to Fluffy Cloud Heaven, only to learn that it's deadly dull and overrun with Celestial Bureaucracy.
    • The scene is taken directly from Heinlein's favorite book, Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell. Except that it's run by the hero's grandmother, who lambasted the god-above-God into making it this way.
  • God Is Evil: Played with. Margarethe explains that she believes the Abrahamic God to be a tyrant who's cruelty is born not out of a greater good, but vindictiveness, this being what led her to renounce her faith and convert to Heathenism. It is later revealed that both God and Satan are revealed to be equal players in a much greater game, several ranks below the true Supreme Being, and God is the jerk of the two, who insists on worship and relies upon inconsistent and unkind rules to rein in his creations. About the kindest thing said of him is that he does follow through on his promises to those who follow those rules.
  • God-Karting with Beelzebub: God and Satan are actually brothers and part of an entire race of divine beings. Earth is something akin to a school project that Satan was helping his brother on. But God went on a power trip and rewrote all the rules, making his brother the evil force in his universe and demanding complete loyalty from creatures he had designed to be anything but obedient. He specifically wrote out the apocalyptic prophesy to make his brother look like a jerk and come out a hero for his own ego boost. Satan, quite flatly, tells the protagonist that he isn't going to attend the End of Days... to deprive his brother of the satisfaction.
  • Hell of a Heaven: Ignoring the various theological implications of what general Christianity thinks of Heaven and the parameters of what getting into it is like, Heaven is portrayed exactly as the Bible describes it, being a massive gem-encrusted walled city where all homes are palaces and it all centers around the massive throne of god and the river of life that encircles it. Hunger and fatigue are all optional and there is nothing noticeably bad about it, the novelty of its grandeur and perfection gets old really fast, something that is a massive problem when you have nothing but eternity to look forward to. Heaven also runs on a Fantastic Caste System where angels are second to God, saints are third and regular saved souls are almost second-class citizens, with privileges centered around this system and punishments to those who violate it (like when Alex sat with the regular souls in the back of the bus instead of the middle). The angels that run Heaven are all Obstructive Bureaucrats who enforce this hierarchy and all behave as snobs and disgruntled employees, seeing humans (or "creatures" as they call them) like one would see immigrants that lower the quality of what was once their world with their problems and needs.
  • A Hell of a Time: God created Hell to be a bad place, but then Satan took over and remodeled it into something fairly tolerable. It's notable that the story features a God Is Evil plot that is itself subverted by revealing that God and Satan "take turns" playing the Good and Evil deity role and they're merely junior members of a vast Celestial Bureaucracy.
  • I Fell for Hours: "Saint Alex" takes a long, long fall after voluntarily leaving Heaven for Hell. Since there's no sense of time in the afterlife, he can only guess that it's between 20 minutes and 20 years, and he actually falls asleep on the way.
  • Jerkass Gods: The central plot is Jehovah and Loki destroying a man's Reality on a bet.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: The story paints God as a jerkass, Satan as vaguely benevolent and both as mere peons before real deities, who run some sort of creation business. But Jesus and Saint Peter are both good, decent guys.
  • Kindly Vet: Alexander Hergensheimer's fate is to be decided by a being who is above God and Satan. Alex is rather scared to be brought before this being, so the being uses Alex's memories of bringing his dog to a Kindly Vet, with Alex as the dog.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To The Book Of Job.
  • Mind Screw: What all the world-switching is eventually revealed to be, and even the ending has strong elements of this. It's not even clear which (if any) version of "reality" is real.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: Katy Farnsworth offhandedly suggests that her family would be emotionally healthier if her husband 'discharged his incestuous yearnings' with her daughter. Of course, nothing is what it seems - "Father" is Satan in an assumed form, "Mother" is a former damned soul, and the "daughter" is an unrelated afreet, but the trope is still presented sympathetically.
  • Naughty Nuns: Patricia was originally a devout Catholic Nun who suffered from a heavily repressed libido. While she tried confessing her sinful thoughts, the priest found them dull to listen to and she would sometimes go without confession. Since such thoughts were considered a form of adultery (nuns being married to Christ) and she died without last rites during a Spanish Influenza Epidemic, she was damned to Hell. Fortunately for her, Hell wasn't the awful pit of unending suffering as was advertised and she was able to satisfy her libido free of the threat of eternal damnation hanging over her. She even took a thousand-year prostitution apprenticeship under Mary Magdalene.
  • Not Quite the Almighty: Neither God or Satan are the supreme being, but brothers in a vast Celestial Bureaucracy.
  • Pals with Jesus:
    • Alex finds out that the person who was the nicest to him on his journeys was actually Satan. He's the closest thing he has to a friend and ally.
    • Patricia, the escort at the Hotel that looks after Alex when he arrives in Hell, claims that she took a thousand year-long apprenticeship in The Oldest Profession under Mary Magdalene.
  • Parental Incest: Patricia claims that there are a lot of "motherhumpers" that wind up in Hell, many of her johns requesting to take on the form of their mothers (or at least some of their characteristics to act out whatever incestuous urges they were unable to act upon in life.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Alex is a Fundamentalist Christian, so when he sees something that contradicts his Conservative American values - be it seeing National Geographic Nudity in Polynesia or Margrethe being Asatru - makes him come across as insensitive in his attempts at comprehending it. It is made so much worse when it is later explained that the organization he managed, "Churches United for Decency", is an anti-secular organization that has successfully lobbied to have abortion, homosexuality, contraceptives and recreational tobacco entirely banned, fights to remove the tax-exempt status of all private schools that are non-Christian and is actively trying to suppress astronomical research under the assumption that it turns people into Straw Atheists. He also seems to think of the women's suffrage movement (or at least the equivalent of it in his world) as something to ignore.
  • Power Perversion Potential: Patricia is a damned soul in Hell who learned how to alter her appearance (presumably through her apprenticeship under Mary Magdalene) as a means of better servicing her clients. When Alex first meets her, he mistakes her for an Elfeminate Pretty Boy until he gets an unobstructed view of her naked form. She then starts adopting Marge's characteristics to seduce him and even claims that she has taken on the form of her john's mothers to help fulfill their hidden incestuous desires.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: When the second Mazatlán earthquake hits. And if it had been a fair test, Loki should have won hands-down at that point. But apparently Loki was having too much fun to declare Game Over, and God does not like to lose. Or Alex was thought to be protesting on behalf of the Mazatlenos, rather than protesting his own misfortune. So the Mind Screw continues until it attracts the attention of Satan.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Odin, in contrast to either of the Judeo-Christian figures.
    Odin: My warriors, male and female, dead in honorable combat, are my equals, not my slaves I am proud to be first among such equals.
  • Satan Is Good: Satan comes off as a Punch-Clock Villain, friendlier and more accessible than God, who's portrayed as kind of a dick, and neither of them is the true Supreme Being.
  • Secret Test of Character: Alex's journey and hardships are all the result of a bet between God and Loki, designed to mirror the test in The Book Of Job.
  • Self-Deprecation: An occupant of Hell mentions there being a lot of "motherhumpers" down there. Anybody who reads R.A.H works knows this is one of the author's tracts.
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: Whatever belief structure you believe in is the one you get to experience the afterlife for. So if you're Christian, you'll get heaven/hell/purgatory, if you're Hindu you'll get reincarnated. The Christian main character finds this out the hard way when he dies and goes to heaven but his wife is not there. So he assumes she's in Hell, and only when he's trapped in Hell does anyone explain this to him. She's in Valhalla, and since he didn't believe in Valhalla, he will never see her again.
  • Shout-Out: To James Branch Cabell, particularly Jurgen.
  • Straw Political: Some of the worlds were clearly meant to be abstract ideas of what a society would be like if certain political ideologies were dominant in American Society, Alex's world being ultra-conservative (bordering on a Christian theocracy), Marga's world being ultra-progressive (normalized public nudity, legalized marijuana, pornography in the minor's section of the library) and even one world where Neopaganism is the dominant religion and Christianity is treated like Islam is in the real world.
  • Tasty Gold: Alex and Marga are mysteriously shunted from one alternate world to another at random, which makes it impossible to build up a cash reserve as every America's money is different; Alex always has to go to work as a dishwasher. In one world they still use gold and silver coins. When Alex spends a gold dollar, the merchant takes out a bottle of acid and puts a drop on the coin to make sure it won't corrode — the "acid test." Silver coins are bounced on the counter to make sure they ring the right way — the "ring of truth."
  • Trauma Conga Line: Alex is subjected to a set of mind-twisting disasters and reality twists apparently being engineered by Satan. The twist comes after he's whisked away to Heaven in the Rapture, when it turns out that God was the one behind it all.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Alex, due to his believing what he sees (or reads in history books) and to having his memory explicitly edited at least twice.
  • Wins by Doing Absolutely Nothing: Having been sick of being the designated loser in the biblical narrative, Satan takes a moral stance against God tormenting Alex For the Lulz by sitting out The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Work Off the Debt: As they jump realities, Alex and Marga often find themselves in a situation where they are unable to pay for something, as their money has been rendered useless in the jump.
  • You Are Worth Hell: Alex is a devout Christian in love with a pagan. He vows to join her in Hell should they be separated after death. Heinlein wonderfully deconstructs this, as hell turns out not to be such a bad place at all. It just has bad PR. Not to mention the fact that it turns out she's not even there. Her own devotion to her gods pegged her for the paradise of Valhalla.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Alex is from a zeppelin-filled world, and slips into a world with no air traffic at all, and then into one with similar technology to our own. One especially well-done part is when he attempts to explain to the readers what an airplane looks like from the perspective of someone who's never seen one before. It's explained that in this alternate reality, heavier-than-air flight is proven to be mathematically impossible and The zeppelins travel at mach speeds!