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27 September 2009 @ 01:49 pm
Stranger in a Strange Land  
I stumbled across a copy of this while alphabetizing our bookshelves... err.. as you do (at least I wasn't doing it at midnight during an earthquake - so I feel there's a generational improvement there) and thought I should probably read it since I'd heard it widely mentioned as a seminal work.

I feel, in some ways, a little like I did after reading Neuromancer for the first time. Namely that the book is more interesting for what it subsequently inspired than it is, in and of itself.

Firstly I think there is some truth in the words of those who point out that the book is more a manifesto than a novel. Whole chapters are taken up by conversations in which one character or another makes a point (e.g. "cannibalism isn't necessarily a bad thing") repeatedly and at length while another character interjects every paragraph or so to say "but I don't understand." My mind boggles at the numerous people out there on the interweb lamenting that a film has never been made of the book. I think there might be an interesting stage play in there or possibly a TV series but it really is very, very talky and doesn't seem, at first glance, well suited to translation to the big screen nor compression into the time allowed by the movie format.

It also seems a little unsatisfactory to me as a manifesto. Heinlein appears unable to conceive his communal utopia working without, essentially, magic. He stresses several times that it isn't magic, but we're talking telepathy, telekenesis, teleportation, mental control of a person's appearance, vast intelligence, temporal manipulation and the ability to vanish things you perceive to be wrong - that's quite a shopping list in order to create a situation where you posit joint ownership of property and free love can be made the basis of a functioning community. Of course a utopia based on free love and communal ownership of property no longer appears that radical which makes the long conversations in which it is explained and justified appear more than a little laboured. I have to take the word of Wikipedia that this was radical and ground-breaking in 1961. The edition I have was published in 1973 and I understand there was a later, expanded version in 1991 which included material considered too radical for a 1960s audience and so I'll concede there may be more to Heilein's vision than is apparent here. Actually the part of this utopia that worried me most was the nudity - in particular the suggestion that people were cooking in the nude. It made me wonder if Heinlein had ever cooked! I'm also a little mystified by a suggestion I read out there somewhere that this is a utopia of "rugged individualism" since the inhabitant's of the utopian Nest here appear remarkably uniform in outlook, a fact only strengthened by their mutual telepathy. Heinlein may have been a rugged individualist but this utopia is not.

Of course the other fun part of reading predictions about the future written in the 1950s and 1960s is to look at what they got right and what they got wrong. Sadly we still do not have flying taxis, but I am grateful for computers and the internet! The attitudes of the time, especially towards women, are also very obvious. There is a lot of debate out there about whether it is a sexist work. Jill, one of the viewpoint characters, is presented as resourceful, intelligent and independent (at least until she vanishes into the utopian one-ness of the Nest and becomes just another priestess - in fact once the Nest is established I think we never again see anything from a woman's viewpoint) but boy! does she get patronised and talked down to on a regular basis. Since so many of the characters here are clearly acting as mouthpieces for Heinlein it is difficult to separate the rigidly patriarchal views frequently expressed from the manifesto itself. In particular Jubal Harshaw's household appears to be presented as a first, and practical, step towards the desired utopia and it is clear this is a household in which women are expected to run the kitchen and only venture opinions on important matters in exceptional circumstances, even if their lives are considerably more free-wheeling than was probably common in the 1950s. In the end I would say the work is not as sexist as many would believe but clearly the concept of a woman in charge was too radical for 1961 even though the concept of free love was not!

I'm glad I read the book. It is interesting to see in it the roots of ideas I've read elsewhere but I can't honestly say I can see myself reading it again.
fredbassettfredbassett on September 27th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC)
God, I haven't read any Heinlein for 30 years, but I remember being massively bored by this, I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough For Love, to the extent that I find it hard to believe I ever finished them. But I am rather curious to see what they read like now.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on September 27th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
B said I should read Starship Troopers or Have Spacesuit, will Travel instead - although he read the latter to me when we were first going out together.

It's probably counts as "worthy, but dull" in a modern context if you're no longer going to be shocked by all the sex. Which seems an odd epithet to attach to Heinlein's work.

Edited at 2009-09-27 05:16 pm (UTC)
fredbassettfredbassett on September 27th, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC)
Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is probably where I;d start.

But it's a helluva long time since I've read sci fi like that.

Takes me back to they days when I read Frank Herbert, as well.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on September 27th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
I read the first four (? I think) Dune books and then decided I was in the land of diminishing returns. However its looking like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers should both go on my "to read" list.
fredbassettfredbassett on September 27th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
Yes to both, and add By is Bootstraps as well. It's only a short story, but it's excellently timey wimey.

I stopped after Children of Dune, which was still a book too far, IMHO, although I think Duncan Idaho still wins the prize for the most killed off character.
Susanlil_shepherd on September 27th, 2009 07:20 pm (UTC)
although I think Duncan Idaho still wins the prize for the most killed off character.

And the most resurrected character! (Though perhaps Jean Grey would rival him. "Mutant heaven has revolving doors" an' all.) Actually, God Emperor of Dune is the nadir, and the last two books are, at least, readable. I'd stop after Dune Messiah, myself.

Heinlein is pretty sexist, in that he thinks that women are only interested in having babies and keeping house - but he is certainly not racist, and the heroes of both Starship Troopers and Farnham's Freehold (which I hated as a teenager but need to re-read) are most assuredly not white. (Something the film of Starship Troopers which I'm rather fond of didn't get right.)

Charlie Stross has just sort-of re-written Friday in Saturn's Children. I haven't got round to reading it yet, but I bet it's funnier!
fredbassettfredbassett on September 27th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
I should have stopped at Dune Messiah, or even at Dune!

I have a sneaking liking for the film of Starship Troopers as well.
louisedennislouisedennis on September 27th, 2009 09:01 pm (UTC)
Dune Messiah was the favourite of the one's I've read - it has always mystified me when people try to persuade me that it's the one that was written for cash rather than love.

I really like the Starship Troopers film, but I gather the book rather lacks the sense of humour. I'll check it out though...
Susanlil_shepherd on September 27th, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC)
Frank Herbert wrote two great books, Dune and Dragon in the Sea aka Under Pressure aka 21st Century Sub [ouch!]. He also wrote some decent ones, in the form of Dune Messiah, The Dorsadi Experiment and Whipping Star.

Hellstrom's Hive is one of the most horrifying books I have ever read and I do not wish to read it again, but it is very, very effective.

The rest can be ignored.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on September 27th, 2009 09:02 pm (UTC)
You know I think I've read Dragon in the Sea - a rather tense very cold war era book, set in submarines, yes? and I recall it being good.
Susanlil_shepherd on September 28th, 2009 11:34 am (UTC)
Yes, that's the one. Four people on a submarine, one is an spy, one a spycatcher. It's a very tense psychological thriller and won Herbert his first World Fantasy Aware.
reggietatereggietate on September 27th, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC)
The only one of his juveniles that isn't really much good is 'Citizen of the Galaxy'. It's great for two thirds of the way, but falls apart in the remainder, which is a great pity - Fred might like it, it begins as slave!fic, though the slave is a boy, not a man, bought by Baslim the beggar, who turns out to be more than he seems.
Kargicq: Neuromancerkargicq on September 27th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
I've never read it either. Must say telepathy, telekenesis, teleportation, mental control of a person's appearance temporal manipulation and the ability to vanish things all sound to me considerably more achievable-given-enough-time than a functioning community based on free love and communal ownership.... ;-) Neuromancer
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on September 27th, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
As I understand it Heinlein's hypothesis is that once that vast shopping list is achieved (handily it all comes for free if you learn to speak Martian) then it will be completely obvious, even to those with only a partial mastery of the language, that nudity, plenty of sex, a no concept of personal ownership are the way to go.

It's charmingly naive in a way...
Susanlil_shepherd on September 27th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
Stranger in a Strange Land was a novel of its time. It is not RAH's best novel (that would be The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) or yet his worst (there is agreement that this would be The Number of the Beast but I had stopped reading him then, and would nominate, instead, the reason I stopped, I Will Fear No Evil which is a dirty old man's wish-fulfillment fantasy.)

I think I read everything he wrote up until Number and had a go at Friday (which is inamac's pet hate) and Job, neither of which I found readable. It wasn't the Libertarian right-wing philosophy (which had always been present and which is shared by a lot of SF writers of that period, and which I find it easy to ignore) or the sudden obsession with sex (and particularly with breasts, as guyed heavily by Dave Langford) as the overwhelming authorial voice, plus the number of Mary Stus (of which Jubal is a terrific example.) Not to mention the loss of invention, and the lack of humour (and it is humour that makes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress such a great read.

Of course, Stranger in a Strange Land is the first of his books that, following the huge success of Starship Troopers, was not heavily copy edited. Apparently, the editorial blue pencil had taken out all those uninteresting gabby chunks. He needed editing and he didn't get it.

However, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress still makes my top ten SF books. The Long Watch and The Man Who Sold the Moon still have me in tears. All You Zombies and By His Bootstraps remain the two best time travel paradox stories ever written - and there is still no better writer of SF children's books.
fredbassettfredbassett on September 27th, 2009 05:40 pm (UTC)
By His Bootstraps!!! God, I loved that story.

And oh boy are you right about I Will Fear No Evil (see above).
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on September 27th, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
I don't particularly mind liberatarianism - at least, as it's always described to me I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that government should interfere as little as possible in people's lives (it's just I have a sense that my concept of "as little as possible" lies a long way away from most libertarians').

Your comment about a dirty old man's wish fulfillment fantasy reminds me of my amusement at Heinlein's obvious assumption that porn was something which involved men viewing and women exhibiting with no apparent realisation that the equation could work the other way round as well.
Susanlil_shepherd on September 27th, 2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
I Will Fear No Evil involves an aging man who has his brain transferred to the body of his young female secretary after an accident, and his/her sexual adventure. It is all very coy and totally stupid.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on September 27th, 2009 09:04 pm (UTC)
You know that almost sounds appealing - but I'm guessing it's less unintensionally hilarious than it sounds at first glance.
Susanlil_shepherd on September 28th, 2009 12:00 pm (UTC)
It is Heinlein trying to be profound and failing miserably, mainly, again, because he doesn't really understand women. (Though, apparently, all his heroines are based on his wife, which says something about both of them, though I am not sure what!)

Humour - er... no.
reggietatereggietate on September 27th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
His later books are the most unsatisfactory, and Stranger is probably not half as good as its reputation, but it has its moments. Of his longer works, I like Time Enough For Love, despite its oddity and frequently wonky philosophy. His junior novels are much better and mote entertaining, even though they're pretty dated now in technological terms, and some of the attitudes.

Heinlein had a strange attitude to woman. He's not above making women his heroines, but he seems to have been incapable of writing a believable mother figure, especially in his juvenile novels. But I love most of his work, and the short stories in the anthology 'The Green Hills of Earth' still have the power to make me weep.

He's worth reading, even when you think his opinions are bonkers.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on September 27th, 2009 09:08 pm (UTC)
Half of what makes people worth listening to is when they aren't afraid of sounding bonkers. It's hard to be both radical and always right and if you're radical and wrong you are almost bound to come across as bonkers.