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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.
  • 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."
  • 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 Jerk Ass) deliberately invoked it as part of a petty scheme to screw with the protagonist's faith.
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  • 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.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!


Example of: