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Rereading Stranger - Mo's Journal
May 28th, 2008
10:29 am

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Rereading Stranger
As covered here my book club read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land this past month. It had been one of my favorite books as a teenager and one I had reread a number of times as a young adult, but it's at least 25 years since I've read it, probably longer. I have reread a number of the Heinlein juveniles with my kids in recent years and have enjoyed them greatly. I was looking forward to reading Stranger. I started off loving it, and having that great feeling of revisiting a much loved book. And I ended up having to force myself to finish it. Not in a "Oh no, here comes the sad part!" way, but in a "Did I really like this book when I was a kid?" way.



I just loved the beginning of this book, this time round, as much as when I first read it at 15, I think. Two things sci-fi can do really well (but doesn't always) are:

- Showing us our world and society in a new light by seeing it through alien eyes
- Showing us our world and society in a new light by projecting trends into the future

I think Heinlein does both of those things brilliantly in Stranger. Michael's observations as he tries to make sense of human society amused and delighted me, from the trivial (the mention of "the color that is called red when it refers to hair but is not called red when it refers to anything else") to the substantive (the way he is able to grok a "wrongness" about Digby). And Jubal's reflections, trying to explain Mike's take on humanity to Duke, were similarly enjoyable and insightful.

As to the projective nature of the book, although I was certainly struck by the things he got wrong, from the trivial (he couldn't predict pantyhose!) to the substantive (he really had no idea the role that computers would play in our lives) I thought a lot of the predictions - from that Paris Hilton-esque woman who pops up from time to time to "host motherhood" to tabloid tv - were bang on.

Okay, what didn't I like? A few things, including sexism, religious philosophy and overuse of superpowers.

I always had found the religious parts of the book less appealing, and particularly the "heaven" scenes, and I found them hard to take this time round, even though the basic religious principle of finding the divine in everything is much more closely related to my personal theology now than in my youth. I think when I first read the book I thought Heinlein was kind of wise and definitely knowledgeable about Western religion and its history. With an adult outlook and a relatively knowledgeable albeit layperson's understanding of world religions and a somewhat more in depth understanding of my own religion and its history, I find his take on religion ignorant and puerile. And I felt disappointed by that.

I had decided to not be bothered by the sexism, to just take that as a given, but I think I didn't quite succeed. When happily Miriam relates that her husband says "women should be obscene and not heard" it was a little too much for me. The really limited range of occupations he depicts women engaging in (and always ones in service to men); the way the women are always objects - sexual, servile, or otherwise; the way that Dawn and Jill become more and more alike to become interchangeable objects - all of that I found really hard to take. And I was surprised by that. I certainly have noticed sexism in the juveniles as I read them with the kids (and talked about some of the sexist assumptions with them) but not at this level. I've actually been pretty impressed - considering when they were written - by some of the strong female characters and by the range of activities they engage in in the juveniles. But not in Stranger. I think Heinlein thought he was looking at women and at gender roles differently, because he was rejecting monogamy, but he just could not overcome a view of women as objects. So the sexism really bothered me, in spite of my resolve.

What bothered me the most, though, was that I found the ending too pat and too sunny. The book seems poised to have Mike truly grapple with his own humanity, really understand that he has killed people and what that means to him as a human. When he realizes he's a spy for the Martians, he distinguishes between what they would think was right (destroying Earth) and how it would not be right to him, not now, because he is human and wants to preserve humanity. But then at the end it's all resolved with sweetness and light and superpowers that solve any impediments and group sex and immortality and it felt cheesy and superficial and kind of dumb. I cried at Mike's death the first time I read the book - and the second and the third. I rolled my eyes at it this time. I had to force myself to finish the book.

All that said, I think there is true genius in its pages, if only intermittently, and I do find myself thinking of the characters and thinking of parts of the book fondly since finishing it.

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From:talktooloose
Date:May 28th, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC)
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Very interesting experience to revisit the books of our life. Thanks for this.

What do you refer by "the juveniles"?

I recently re-read my favourite childhood book, A Wrinkle in Time, and was amazed to discover the early-60s critique of suburban America on the planet Kamazotz (sp?). I also got that the planet's name was a reference to the "Camelot" of the Kennedy era. These threads went completely over my head at 14.

The book held up wonderfully, actually, though my recognition of the parody level did take it a bit of the purity out of the battle between the power of love and the power of absolute control.

Please forgive tortured sentences. My brain isn't working this morning.
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From:mofic
Date:May 28th, 2008 04:04 pm (UTC)
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The Heinlein juveniles are a bunch of books he wrote for kids during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Each one has a story, but also science lessons. I loved them as a kid and still love them. My favorites are: Citizen of the Galaxy (I think this one is the most sophisticated, in plot and characters, and the only one where the science lesson is a social science), Time for the Stars, and Tunnel in the Sky.

I've had the experience you had of seeing what I missed in books I enjoyed as a kid a *lot*, both in a course in grad school on the history of children's literature and through reading old favorites to my kids. When I read Little Women as an adult, I was struck by what I hadn't realized:

- That the war that their father is off in is the Civil War. It was just some generic war to me as a kid.
- That he is not a soldier.
- Most importantly - that they aren't poor. That's one of the main themes of the book, that because of their diminished circumstances the March girls *think* they're poor, but they aren't. Only it went totally over my head.

Oh, and later on - when my kids all got Scarlet Fever, which is what Beth dies of - I was struck by the change in medical knowledge and treatment.

Edited at 2008-05-28 04:05 pm (UTC)
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From:kestrelsparhawk
Date:May 29th, 2008 12:00 am (UTC)
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Citizen of the Galaxy and Between Planets were my favorites, each in its own way, with Red Planet high up there. (Which might have led to higher expectations for Stranger.) and of course Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, which was heavy science indeed but easy reading even though I didn't know how to use a sliderule. ;)

Tunnel in the Sky I think reflects the Dangerous Heinlein -- the guy who sees that democratic decisionmaking is by its nature bad, that a good woman is one who watches your back and defers to you, that humans are in a battle against nature throughout the universe, and must win....
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From:mofic
Date:May 29th, 2008 01:59 am (UTC)
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Oh the slide rules! I loved the slide rules. I thought it was so funny to have these futuristic types with their slide rules. I had to explain to Doran what one was. And yes, I *do* (or at least did) have slide rules and knew how to use them.

Tunnel in the Sky was to me like the sunny alternative to Lord of the Flies - kids on their own and they make a go of it. And I saw Carolyn and Rod as best friends/teammates and thought it was very radical of Heinlein to have a pair that was biracial and boy/girl.
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From:vorquellyn
Date:May 28th, 2008 06:51 pm (UTC)
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This is why while I enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land and find the issues it brings up fascinating I have no intention of reading it a second time. When I was fourteen I found the polyamory and religious criticism to be exciting stuff. Then I read more of Heinlein's work and realized that all of his female characters are essentially the same woman.

The thing that squicks me is his mommy issues. In Stranger you can kind of see it when Jill is bathing Mike and more clearly in his dealings with Patty (which even when I was fourteen and didn't really get it that relationship bothered me) but in Fear No Evil and Friday ti becomes really obvious. And according to my dad in Number of the Beast there's the equivalent of shouting it from the rooftops. (The part where he goes back in time, sees his mom in a corset, and passes out.) The result is that he has women on this weird pedastal where they're smart and strong but always devoted to tending to their spouse's needs. Dawn and Jill turning into a pair of bookends didn't creep me out nearly as much as Miriam's relationship with her husband.

I read Brave New World a couple months after I read Stranger so I had to rethink some of the bits I thought were cool. I enjoyed it but I think that I disagree with Heinlein's view of religion for the same reason I reject mainstream religion. I don't think there is any one appropriate way to live life be that monogamy, polyamory or celibacy. Mike gets his cult but he gets it too easily. Even with superpowers he's never shown to be confronting the fact that some people just can't live the way his cult is set up. I know that's what his whole sacrifice at the end is about but there's no dialogue. Not everyone who disagrees is going to do so violently and not everyone willing to talk about it is going to convert. He starts off so well with the inside and outside views and then falls to glossing over and clumping people into a few categories.

*sheepishly gets off soap box* Um, yeah. I agree with you. :)
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From:vorquellyn
Date:May 28th, 2008 07:03 pm (UTC)
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To clarify: Jill and Dawn's interchangeability didn't bother me because I thought the point of the cult was to get everyone into a hive mind. My interpretation could be off there.
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From:mofic
Date:May 28th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
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Having just read it, I felt it was very specific to the two of them and had to do with them being Mike's main "priestesses" and sex partners. But that's just my interpretation.
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From:mofic
Date:May 28th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
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I stopped reading with Time Enough for Love. I thought he was really going down hill by I Will Fear No Evil, but stuck in there for one more. I just felt like both of those books were good ideas but soooo poorly written. So I don't know about Friday and all those other later novels.

Anyway, interesting thoughts. Thanks for weighing in.
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From:kestrelsparhawk
Date:May 28th, 2008 11:55 pm (UTC)
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I've been waiting for your take on Stranger. I haven't read it for about 10 years now, but I recognize most of your references.

What I remember best is that I liked the first part and got silly-bored once Heinlein turned it from a "stranger in a strange land" to the stranger as prophet. Msaking fun of religion, etc. was all quite radical (to me), but once they created their own cult, it went boring for me -- too obviously a series of political/cultural lectures and FAR too subject/object, where the subject (Mike) was still a Heinlein puppet, not a character, and the objects... well, as you said, the women were objects.

Did you notice what I was saying about its fascistic base? Rigid roles, high authority, the view of anyone coming to the group as a flawed person who can be saved, and anyone outside the group as more than flawed? (With very special exemptions for Heinlein's own Marty Stu.) Killing as a natural right (was it burglars Mike just disappeared?) so long as the Good Guys do it? Agggh. I never liked that book,not even at 14. And the unedited version is worse.
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From:mofic
Date:May 29th, 2008 02:03 am (UTC)
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I thought the thing about Mike killing the people was just shallow. At first he doesn't really understand what he's done - he just made them go away. Martians don't have a sense of life and death like we do. So I wanted him to have to really grapple with what he'd done, but then Heinlein just gives earthlings immortality, too, and says killing people is just "removing them from the game for unnecessary roughness" and their souls start all over again. Too pat and too sunny and too unmessy for me.

I didn't think it was authoritarian society; I felt it was much more communitarian but not in a real way with the real struggles people have in trying to live communally. He should have spent some time on a kibbutz or something.

I bet the unedited is worse. mamajoan quoted me one paragraph from each (well, I think it was two sentences in my edited version and two long paragraphs in the unedited one) and it was just way too long-winded.
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From:kestrelsparhawk
Date:May 29th, 2008 02:25 am (UTC)
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I've never seen Heinlein actually write a story where they hero really grappled with anything I'd call an important ethical dilemma. But you're a more careful reader than I am, so possibly it just floated away from me.

I have an uneasy feeling I write like Heinlein at my (and his) worst, and hope Gates finds a decent editor or agent or whomever it was who cut that book in half. It's at 195,000 words at the moment, and half a new chapter to go. Every time I cut stuff, it gets longer.

I'm stalling by bringing it up, because I have been searching for the last two HOURS to find a map of DC which shows me clearly what the river/bay/ocean situation is around it, with a distance legend, and not a million streets aggravating my anxieties. It doesn't seem to exist. Before that, an hour or so playing with a map showing what parts of cities are going to be underwater if the sea level rises. I'm not sure, but I think you might have to move. (If you're still around in 200 years.)
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From:mofic
Date:May 29th, 2008 10:36 am (UTC)
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I think Thorby in Citizen of the Galaxy really grapples with ethical dilemmas. Don't you? LOL on Gates getting longer every time you cut it. I think you need to start sending it out, don't you?

I am in the coastal flood plain and may have to move, even before 200 years are up (and of course I expect to live that long). Being in Emergency Management I know such things.
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