The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land
On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.
Probably the coolest cover
When looking back at history, context is everything. It is foolish to apply modern morality to the past, and it denigrates the progress that has been made since. Similarly, the literature of yesterday can seem deeply problematic when read with today's eyes, even incredibly important works like Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice or anything from the influential but unfortunately racist pen of H.P. Lovecraft. This applies double when talking about Robert Heinlein, one of the most deliberately provocative writers of the Twentieth Century. It is easy to mistake his occasionally infuriating scribblings for his genuine opinions, but Heinlein himself admitted many times that his intention was not to preach but to upset.
Take, for instance, Stranger in a Strange Land, arguably one of the most influential works of social science-fiction ever written. A modern reader could easily dismiss the novel as deeply misogynistic and offensive, and even some of Heinlein's contemporary critics felt that way back in the early sixties when it was published. Paradoxically, though, the book is also considered one of the harbingers of the sexual revolution that followed, and Heinlein's radical ideas of free love and tossing aside puritanical sexuality were enormously influential on the counter-culture. I've read the book a few times now, and even I have a hard time deciding if it is the brilliant manifesto of a forward-thinking genius or the exhausting ramblings of a lecherous jerk. Perhaps it is both.
Superficially, it's a basic fish-out-of-water story about a human raised by outsiders and forced to integrate into civil society, only to be misunderstood and persecuted by the mob for daring to be different. It's the Wild Man archetype, essentially, as exemplified by the mythical tales of Enkidu, Romulus and Remus, Pecos Bill, and Tarzan. Setting aside the social commentary for the time being, Heinlein puts a cool sci-fi spin on things by making his Wild Man a Martian. Valentine Michael Smith may be physically human, but psychologically, he is assuredly alien. As a newborn, he was the sole survivor of a doomed mission to Mars, and he spent his formative years thinking he was one of the Martian beings among which he was raised. From this perspective, it's a neat little book that chronicles his whirlwind experiences getting to know how life works among humans on Earth that ends in bittersweet tragedy. It might seem a bit long-winded and full of weird digressions, but it's still a familiar and relatively harmless tale highlighted by the occasional, intriguing sci-fi concept.
"The most famous science-fiction novel ever written" is overselling it a bit
Readers sensitive to sexism, though, will find a lot of things in the book to get horrified by. The women are written as flighty, sexual objects; the sex that dominates the last third or so of the book is at times undeniably purile; even the most liberal characters offer opinions about the wrongness of homosexuality or that rape victims are usually culpable in the crimes against them; men are condescending, paternalistic, and chauvanistic about the women around them; and more. This is where it gets hard to tell if Heinlein is himself a partial chauvanist or if he's deliberately trying to inflame his readers, and though I lean toward the latter explanation, I won't deny I have serious doubts.
On the other hand, Stranger in a Strange Land at the very least reflected, if not helped create, a mindset that would radically advance culture from the white male dominance of the fifties to the pluralistic ideals of the late sixties. The cult Smith devises in the late chapters of the novel, the Church of All Worlds, is filled with heretical notions of sexual freedom, paganism, social libertarianism, an acceptance of all religions as legitimate expressions of spirituality, and more. Not only would a real Church of All Worlds pop up in 1968 (which still exists), but it's hard not to see how these ideas gained prominence around the same time.
Heinlein, as a science-fiction writer, doesn't get hung up on the scientific details the way Clarke does, nor does he get carried away with philosophical universe-building the way Asimov does. Instead, he's a social futurist, concerned with exploring how humanity can change sociologically rather than technologically. (He has more in common, then, with the likes of Ursula le Guin.) In that regard, Stranger in a Strange Land is one of his most prescient works, and one should not underappreciate its importance.
I'm not entirely sure what I'm looking at
Having said all of that, I must admit it's not my favorite Heinlein book (especially not the uncut version, which is excruciatingly long). I can't help but be bothered by the casual misogyny, but more importantly, I find the whole thing more boring than enlightening. The issues it raises are more anachronistic than relevant these days, and it's frustrating that Heinlein refuses to offer a compelling counterpoint to them. Related to this is the lack of a true antagonist, which would help the story immensely.
As a fan of more technical sci-fi--which I admit is a personal preference thing, not an objective critique--I get really annoyed that Heinlein glosses over what I think are the more interesting things in the story, like the fact that Heinlein never offers even the briefest of descriptions as to what the Martians look like or what technologies they employ in their daily life. Smith's telepathic powers also lack any logical explanation outside of some hand-waving new-age nonsense about humans being capable of all kinds of magical ability if they just have the right mindset, and that feels especially icky when it's even argued within the book's pages that cancer can be cured by spirituality. I also get deeply bothered by the casualness with which Smith openly commits mass murder near the end, no matter how emphatically he insists on the reality of pseudo-reincarnation.
The only thing I find consistently entertaining is the character of Jubal Harshaw, the impossibly witty but unfathomably cynical curmudgeon who is equal parts Hunter S. Thompson and Heinlein himself, and I would recommend giving the novel a read for him alone. I'd just warn you that you're getting into some murky water, and not everybody enjoys drinking deeply from it. Then again, I still laugh out loud every time I get to the line, "Women should be obscene but not heard." That's comedy gold.
-e. magill 8/1/2019
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: