Monday, October 23, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND” by Robert Heinlein (first published in 1961; longer version first published 1991)

            Some books you read for pleasure. Some you read because you think you should. And some you read because you have to (reviews etc.).

But there is a very small category of books that you read because somebody has earnestly and repeatedly recommended them to you. For me, one such book was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

            If I am searching for escapist or genre reading, science fiction is far from being my first choice (and pure fantasy is of little real interest to me). I have, however, read the odd entertaining SF novel and have even read some that give real food for thought. Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) I knew, largely by reputation only, as a prolific American SF hack who emerged out of pulp fiction in the 1940s and hit his stride as a big name in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember as a kid reading one of the books Heinlein wrote for juveniles – Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. Apart from that, the only one of his books I’d read was The Puppet Masters, a vigorous piece of pulp in which aliens invade the Earth, attach themselves to human brains and proceed to drive human beings as their slaves, until there is a real human fight-back and a rousing finale of the sort that pulps require.

It was enjoyable brainless entertainment.

            Then a friend started telling me that I really should read what was touted as Heinlein’s magnum opus and SF masterpiece Stranger in a Strange Land - a book that was said to come to grips with really important matters and raise all manner of profound philosophical questions about the human condition.

So I gave it a go.

            In the preface to the 1991 edition of the novel that I read, Robert Heinlein’s widow said that this was the uncut version. Stranger in a Strange Land was 160,000 words when it was originally published in 1961. The 1991 edition restored the full 220,000 word version that Heinlein apparently laboured over for much of the 1950s and then presented to the publishers. In 1961 the publishers told him to cut it by about a third – which he did.

By the time I got to the end of the 1991 edition, I decided that the original publishers had been right. At 654 pages in the edition I read, Stranger in a Strange Land is formless, rambling, repetitive and incredibly dull. A flatulent bore, complete with jejune ideas. At most its central situation and ideas might have made a couple of good short stories in a pulp magazine.

A synopsis to orient us.

A Third World War has happened, and commercialised religious organizations have huge influence in the USA. Michael Valentine Smith is a human male who has lived his whole life on Mars and has been brought up by Martians (who are never fully described but who have quite brutal ideas on who or what should live or die). Michael Valentine Smith is brought to Earth for the first time and kept under wraps, for observation, first in a hospital, then in a government facility. He knows nothing of the human condition. He knows nothing of human sexuality and has never seen a woman before.

Smith is sprung from his confinement by Jubal Harshaw, an offbeat physicist and author who is often Heinlein’s mouthpiece. Jubal proceeds to orient him to the realities of the world. Having lived all his life naked, Smith does not know what clothes are, what war is or how jealousy feels. He has psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence. Why he has these attrbutes is never clearly explained, except that we have to take it as a “given”. He is also unbelievably wealthy as he nominally “owns” Mars and the mining rights thereto. There is much page-filling detail on financial tussles over this.

These earlier sections of the novel are like a ham-fisted combination of Frankenstein and Candide. I mean the parts of Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein, where the monster gets a convenient crash course on human history and mores, just as Michael Valentine Smith does. And I mean the way Voltaire’s satire has an incredibly innocent young man exposed to humanity’s follies and shortcomings.

Gradually Michael Valentine Smith the Martian gets to display his mental and physical powers. At first he dabbles in a religion, the “Fosterite Church of the New Revelation”, that sounds a little like Scientology (segregation of inner and outer members; highly sexed inner members). Perhaps this should not surprise us. Heinlein was a sometime friend of fellow-SF writer L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, and apparently the two of them once had a bet on who could found the more outrageous religion.  

This first dabbling in pop religion, and his increased knowledge of human sexual interaction, lead Michael Valentine Smith to found a “religion” of his own, the “Church of All Worlds” in which all religious traditions from all planets are equally valid (and therefore equally invalid?). But celebrations are based on sexual intercourse, the complete merging of personalities and there being no God but the collective self. As Michael Valentine Smith has broken with his former Fosterite colleagues, the novel leads to his public martyrdom when the Fosterites call him a heretic from their original beliefs and his church is attacked. (Apparently Heinlein’s working title for the novel was The Heretic.) After this there is a memorial feasting on his body, in which his friend, and now acolyte. Jubal Harshaw takes part. This, according to the novel, is based on a Martian rite, though at least part of Heinlein’s intent is clearly to parallel and ridicule the Christian idea of the Eucharist. But, for all the mayhem, Smith’s followers are conveniently teleported to safety, and Smith gives advice from the afterlife on how his huge fortune can be used to build up his church, evangelise the Earth and change human mores forever.

I was sorry to have to tell my friend how amazed I was that this bundle of bilge and half-baked ideas could be taken seriously by any adult reader. As in so much science fiction, the level of ideas is not high. Comments on art, religion, sex and so forth come across as, at best, undergraduate discussions, and the rambling plot cannot disguise their flimsiness. Was this really the great satire on religion, and the great attack on received sexual norms, which I had been told it was?

It’s probably a bit unfair to point out the many topical references that have faded (gossip-columnists are called “winchells”; political commentators are called “lippmanns”). But it’s not unfair at all to show how much this all plays as a Californian surfie’s sexual daydream. Jubal’s ideal sex life – three nubile young women look after him – resembles an early 1960s Playboy–inflected male version of sexual liberation. And though I often find third-wave feminists annoying, I cannot but agree with those of them who have criticised this book for its idiotic version of what women are.

Then there is an incredibly evasive made-up blur-word that frequently occurs in Stranger in a Strange Land. The word “grok” is used to mean something like “intuit and fully comprehend” by Martians. Smith “groks” many things which we are invited to see as signs of his superhuman intelligence and his superhuman morality. It is interesting, then, that Smith “groks a wrongness” in homosexuality, which shows how much Stranger in a Strange Land itself reflects a past set of norms. Nirvana, for the followers of the Martian, is unrestrained heterosexual shagging.

To contexualise things, I should say a few more words about Robert Heinlein. He trained as a naval officer. He dabbled in politics and was originally a “liberal”. But he turned right in the 1950s, outraged that some people, as he saw it, jeopardised America’s security by questioning the manufacture of nuclear weapons. He now identified as a conservative libertarian and he supported the very right-wing Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. Along with all the libertarian stuff about free and unrestrained sex, his books show also a strong belief in the need for a powerful military order. For example his juvenile book Starship Troopers makes military service a requirement for citizenship.

Much of Heinlein’s output, including Stranger in a Strange Land, is simply a projection of the idea that, behind the protection of a strong military, Americans should be able to live a sybaritic life of uncommitted sex.

When the novel first appeared in 1961, enthusiasts said it showed the way to a future of human liberation from oppressive sexual morality. In the 1960s the novel was a hippie favourite, and was the basis for a Californian cult. I repectfully suggest, it didn’t show the way to the future. At best, it showed the way to some of the dippier aspects of the 1960s, and it can now safely be forgotten.

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