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April 17th, 2008
10:19 am


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Stranger in a Strange Land - discussion questions
So my book club is reading Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land this month. I'm quite excited, as it was one of my favorite books in my teens and I haven't read it in a long, long time. I'm this month's host, so my responsibility is to say why I chose the book, to provide a list of discussion questions, and to provide the virtual snacks. Here's what I said to the group on why I chose it:

"Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is, like The Sparrow, a story about the sole survivor of the first human mission to an inhabited planet. In this case, the survivor was an infant and was raised by Martians. He comes to Earth, his ancestral planet, as an adult. Having grown up on Mars, Earth is very much an alien country to Valentine Michael Smith, known as Mike. His adventures on our planet shed an often satirical light on human (and particularly American) society of the mid-twentieth Century, by projecting a few years into the future.

Stranger was one of my favorite books as a teen, and I still see it as one that has informed my way of thinking about the world in some key ways. It was considered a "hippie book" in my youth, and I was surprised recently to see that it was first published in 1961. I had assumed that it reflected the hippie phenomenon, but it seems more to have predicted it. I do think the book has had an enduring effect on our culture, including on the language ('grok'). I chose it because Vanessa had recommended it, because I haven't read it in a long time, because I wondered if I'd still enjoy it and because I'd love to hear what this group of women has to say about it.

The title is biblical, as are a few of Heinlein's. In Exodus, Moses is the one who says 'I was a stranger in a strange land.' Like Mike, he was raised by an alien people and returned to his own tribe as an adult."

I started reading it yesterday. At about 100 pages in, I'm finding it still a gripping read and thought-provoking. I'm very much noticing the ways in which it is dated, but most of them aren't bothering me. I'm not sure how much of the not-bothering to attribute to the book itself and how much to my fond memories of it, iykwim.

In any event, I put together initial discussion questions for the Book Club and they are, to some extent, guiding my re-reading. I thought I'd share them here, since I think most of my flist has probably read the book. And I'm putting them behind the cut for those who haven't, because there are some spoilers.

Discussion Questions for Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

1. This is a novel of projective fiction. Heinlein wrote about a future society in 1961, looking at trends he saw – technological, political and social – and predicting what would happen with them in the future. Some things he got right and some he got wrong. How did you feel about that, reading it close to 50 years later? Did you feel distracted by the things that didn’t come to pass? Were you impressed or surprised by the things he did predict? Did it still feel projective, or did it feel too anchored in the mid-twentieth century? What are some of the ways in which the book is dated? Did they bother you?

2. What are some of the things that Heinlein got right in his predictions? Were you ever surprised that the book was written in 1961?

3. One thing Heinlein seems not to have predicted is changes in gender roles and gender relations. His female characters are often capable and intelligent, but all of their agency occurs through men. They are secretaries, wives, nurses. Heinlein is able to foresee huge changes in social configurations in other ways, but seems unable to imagine even a female doctor. Did that bother you? Did it seem like a blind spot to you?

4. There’s a lot of Christian symbolism in the book, particularly around Mike’s death, where he is shown as Christ-like and even uses some of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian bible. If you are a Christian, did you find that offensive? Inspiring? Something else? If you are not a Christian, could you relate to that aspect of the book?

5. Have you ever heard or used the word “grok”? Did you know it comes from this book? Does it mean something to you beyond simply “understand”?

6. I said in my intro that when I read this book in my teens it was considered a “hippie book.” What aspects of the novel reflect or predict hippie culture? Is there a message in the book, and is it one that’s consistent with the hippie phenomenon?

7. Mike is an enormously wealthy and potentially politically powerful individual who – at the beginning of the book, anyway – is completely unaware of his wealth and potential power. This is a plot element Heinlein has used in other books as well: naïve young man unaware of his wealth and power. What makes that worth exploring more than once?

8. Heinlein often has a character in his novels who is an irascible older man who expounds on his philosophy of life at various points during the book. His fans generally view that character as the voice of the author. If Jubal Harshaw is the voice of the author, what is Heinlein trying to tell us through him?

9. Heinlein wrote a bunch of YA novels about resourceful young men coming of age under difficult circumstances, collectively known as “the Heinlein juveniles.” Stranger is also about that topic, but is not intended for an adolescent readership. If you’ve read the Heinlein juveniles, what makes this book different? In what ways is it the same? Would you read this one to a child?

10. What is the significance of sexuality in the novel? How does it relate to spirituality?

11. My copy says on the front “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written.” Do you think that’s true? If not, what are the other candidates for the title? Do you expect people to know about the book? If so, what do you expect them to know? If you met a man named Valentine and said, “Like Valentine Michael Smith!” would you be surprised if he didn’t know what you were talking about :-)?

12. Have you read this book before? If not, what did you know about it?

Book Club Day isn't until May 15, so that's when we'll be discussing the book. If anyone wants to say anything about it here and now, though, I'm happy to discuss.

Fun Fact to Know and Tell: the inventor of the water bed was unable to get a patent for his invention in 1968 because of the water beds that appear in Stranger in its 1961 publication.


(9 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:April 18th, 2008 12:06 am (UTC)
For the blasted THIRD time (if anyone knows how I can tell my carrier to open new windows instead of taking me out of commentary during a search, I'd welcome it.)

So, the 300+ words I've written are lost and fairlyl forgotten. Just wanted to say #6 and #9 were the questions that triggered my thinking -- about how Heinlein actually was the Horatio Alger of his generation, substituting inherited (but often secret) wealth for the "luck" in Alger's famous "luck and pluck." That Stranger came out the year after Starship Troopers, and its politics in no way dissimilar, but the one female with speaking part (besides the Mother, a common character) was actually a rocket pilot, not a secretary or nurse. That I infinitely prefer his The Moon's a Harsh Mistress</> a handful of years later, which made it much clearer that he was a rightwing populist, a slightly different breed of cat than a fascist. (http://www.vh1.com/movies/person/144529/bio.jhtmlputs forward the usual claim that Troopers reveals Heinlein's fascism, but has some interesting comments on film Heinlein I liked reading.)

Mostly, though, I'm pretty sure that it definitely wasn't a "hippie book" in 1961. That was the tail end of the beat era. Stranger did become popular with the hippies years later, but mostly for the sex -- the "free love" movement was on the upswing with the hippies, and Heinlein plunged into the concept of group marriages and relationships in a way nobody else quite had (the virtues of sf, I think, are not whether or not its visions of futures are "right," but that it hacks space in people's heads for alternate possibilities.)
[User Picture]
Date:April 18th, 2008 12:07 am (UTC)
Gahh, I hit "post" instead of "preview. That link will take you nowhere; but if you copy and paste, or try this, you should be fine.
[User Picture]
Date:April 18th, 2008 11:11 am (UTC)
Well, thanks for all the efforts! The Horatio Alger comparison is interesitng. I'll check it out. I have to think more about your comparison with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as I read Stranger. I think I've always accepted the conventional wisdom that the two books represent two completely different political world views, but I'll give that another look.
[User Picture]
Date:April 18th, 2008 01:02 am (UTC)
Oh wow, I was just thinking to myself yesterday/today that I want to re-read Stranger in a Strange Land this month, and here you picked it for your book club! That is amazing.

These are some great questions to guide discussion.
[User Picture]
Date:April 18th, 2008 11:11 am (UTC)
I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of them. And you can always join the club, if you like.
[User Picture]
Date:April 19th, 2008 04:11 am (UTC)
Awesome, I'll re-visit once I get a new copy. Is your book club an online one, then?
[User Picture]
Date:April 19th, 2008 11:50 am (UTC)
Yes, I'll try to paste in the charter (not sure if it's too long for comments):
APW Book Club Charter

1. The name of the Book Club is APW Book Club. It is a Yahoo group and is available online at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/APWBookclub

2. The club is open to all members of APW, past and present, active and inactive. As with the recipe list, members are also welcome to nominate people who have not been APW members if they think their friends or family would enjoy participating. Contact the list owner with your nominations.

3. The purpose of the club is to read a book a month and discuss it.

4. Members will take turns hosting the club. The list owner will publish a hosting schedule going out six months. If anyone wishes not to take a turn hosting, she should tell the list owner, who will leave her out of the rotation. If anyone is scheduled for a month that is inconvenient for her, she should let the list owner know at least one month in advance.

5. The host's responsibilities are:
a. To choose the book
b. To write a brief statement of why she chose it
c. To come up with an initial set of discussion questions (using widely available internet book club question sets is *not* considered cheating)
d. To kick off the discussion
e. To provide the virtual snacks to consume during the discussion.

6. Book Club Day occurs on the 15th day of each month.

7. In advance of Book Club Day, members are welcome to chat about the book or anything else, but no spoilers are permitted.

8. One week or more in advance of Book Club Day, the host will post the initial questions to the files section of the website. As discussion questions often contain spoilers, they will not be posted as messages before Book Club Day, so that those members who prefer not to be spoiled can avoid doing so.

9. It is recognized that we are all busy people and not everyone will have finished the book by Book Club Day, but free discussion (including spoilers) begins on Book Club Day, with the host starting it by reposting the initial questions as a message. Those who don't want to be spoiled and haven't finished the book can go no mail and jump in later, if they so choose.

10. Books can be chosen from the following categories:
a. Contemporary Fiction – this includes any fiction published after September 16, 1955, including genre fiction (e.g. science fiction, mysteries, and so forth)
b. Classic Fiction
c. Non-Fiction

There will not be two non-fiction books in a row.

11. New books can certainly be chosen but, in deference to tight budgets of some members, no books should be chosen that are not yet out in paperback. It is not expected that all members will buy the book, but the paperback rule also means that the book will be easier to borrow from a public library.

12. Next Month's Book is announced on Book Club Day, by the upcoming host, with a message that includes basic bibliographic info and why she chose the book. The host does not need to have read the book in advance of choosing it.

13. Discussion continues as long as members want to discuss. If discussing a book other than the current book, members are encouraged to put the title of the book in the subject line.

14. All opinions on books are welcome. Members are encouraged to explain their reasons for holding their opinions. Members who disagree with one another should be careful to express that disagreement respectfully. No flaming of members is allowed, although flaming of books (even "This sucks!") is permitted.

15. Any suggestions for revisions to this charter should be addressed to the list owner.

[User Picture]
Date:April 18th, 2008 08:44 am (UTC)
i'd say 'the time machine' was the most famous sf novel ever written. or maybe 20000 leagues under the sea. they've had that much longer to become famous, after all :)
[User Picture]
Date:April 18th, 2008 11:08 am (UTC)
That's true. I was thinking, similarly, about War of the Worlds. To me, the most famous one would be the one that people who don't read science fiction would know about, since people like us know about a whole bunch. And with War of the Worlds there's not only the time factor, but two movies and the famous radio broadcast.
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