Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Stranger in A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

I want to preface this review by going a little bit into my experience with Heinlein who I don't think I've really talked about on this blog terribly much. Way back in the 1960's and 1970's Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, became the famous ''Big Three'' of science-fiction literature. Which isn't to say they were the only authors writing at this time. Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, and Ray Bradbury were all writing stuff at the same time, the Big Three just happened to be the most famous. My mom, happening to be a sci-fi fan during this era, accumulated a small library of cheap science-fiction paperbacks including what's been described as an ''unhealthy'' amount of Heinlein books. Being a budding science-fiction fan myself, she handed me a copy of Tunnel in the Sky when I was in eighth grade and I spent a good part of my high school years reading a variety of Heinlein's works.

Anyone who's read several of Heinlein's books can tell you Heinlein gets....odd. His early works tend to be thrilling space adventures when a young man (and it's almost always a man) uses grit, ingenuity, and some extensive mathematics and engineering skills to conquer space problems for fun and profit. His later works get...weird. Creepy, lecherous old man weird. Let me put it like this: Asimov was kind of like your awesome grandpa who let you help him build robots in his garage and Clarke was like your cool uncle who let you help him build rockets and took you scuba diving. (Clarke really liked scuba diving.) Heinlein was your creepy uncle who lived on a farm somewhere out in the backwoods to get away from the ''gubment'', lived with a bunch of ''special lady friends'', obsessively carried an AR-15, and walked around stark naked when the weather would allow it. Individually these would be eccentricities, but together they make up a whole big barrel of crazy and it really started showing in his later books. The odd thing is I'm not sure Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1960, was after he went into his crazy old man phase but it's definitely got a lot of the hallmarks.

I will admit that I hadn't read (or in this case listened) to it, but I was always a little curious about Stranger in a Strange Land. Whenever I'd look at another of my mom's books they always seemed to have the phrase: ''by Robert Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land'', as if that was the only book of his worth noting. Starship Troopers occasionally got mention, but Stranger took unusual precedence. So, much like my decision to take a class on Nietzsche, I decided to look into it to see just what all the fuss was about. Unlike Nietzsche I have come to greatly regret my decision.

Our plot begins with a human child, Valentine Michael Smith, being born during the first manned expedition to Mars and very quickly becoming an orphan. Much to the surprise of the second expedition that comes some twenty years later, V.M. Smith has been taken in by the native Martians and raised as one of their own. So although Smith is biologically a human, he thinks like a Martian in a manner utter alien to all human understanding and devoid of the thousands of bits of emotional cues, social proprieties, and other bits of information that human beings accumulate through their lives and don't realize they know. Which makes human beings, and Earth itself, confusing and downright baffling for Smith. On top of this he happens to be heir to a fortune beyond comprehension, doubly so for Smith since Martians don't have stocks, corporations, or even money, and by a technical bit of human law the de jure sovereign of Mars. On its own these would be interesting plots that could be used for an entire book exploring all of the complexities of just one of these problems. Unfortunately two of the three are resolved by the halfway point of the book and Smith spends the rest of the book being Space Jesus. I wish I was kidding about that but no, he becomes Space Jesus. I don't even feel bad about spoiling the book in this review because while it may have been groundbreaking and scandalous in 1960, it's little more than bigoted pseudo-philosophical trash half a century later.

This book is filled, and I mean absolutely filled, with tedious and long-winded arguments about differing philosophies and in this case religion as well, some of which I've heard before in other places. Of course, Heinlein is almost famous for his author tracts which range from the vaguely fascist culture of violence and force espoused in Starship Troopers to the communist eugenic utopia depicted in Beyond this Horizon. But in Stranger in a Strange Land, especially the second half of the book, it feels like the book's just absolutely filled with author tracts. It wouldn't be so bad if they weren't just littered all over the book and filled with the same pop-philosophy garbage that makes sweeping generalizations about cultures and civilizations that can either be refuted with a bit of research or are so vague and general that they're difficult to refute because of their incompleteness. Heinlein even goes so far as to try and defend cannibalism, claiming every culture has practiced it at some point and claiming transubstantiation of bread and wine is the exact same thing as roasting someone and eating them. It's so broad an argument that it'd take forever to refute it in detail and utterly ridiculous in its conclusion.

The religion ones especially just go over the same tired points that have been iterated a thousand times elsewhere, and much better than they were here. There's the pointing out that with the plethora of religions in the world, many claiming to be the One True Religion, it certainly raises the possibility that none of them are right. Or maybe all of them. But it's done in such a high-handed and imperious manner that I found myself, a more or less atheist, wishing they'd just shut up about it already. And of course there's the pointing out that while the Bible contains some teachings of peace, it contains some fairly awful teachings as well. In this case the story of Lot, and his decision to offer his daughters up for a gang-rape instead of offering up his mysterious guests, is given as an example.

But the decision to criticize Lot for offering his daughters up for a gang-rape comes across as absolutely hypocritical considering the sheer amount of sexism that seems to pervade this book. Part of it is definitely a product of its times. The rampant casual sexism of the 1960's was one of many things that touched off Second Wave Feminism, after all, and rightly so. But I feel like this goes a step beyond  that. Heinlein goes to considerable lengths to argue that a woman's natural state is to be an object to be viewed with lust by men, and women should feel honored by the attention and enjoy such attention. This is utterly offensive to both sexes in a number of ways and I'll try to enumerate here but I'm sure this argument will be incomplete. First of all, people are not objects. This should go without saying but unfortunately even today there are people who appear to be somewhat confused on the subject. Every woman is a living, breathing, human being with her own wants, desires, fears, ambitions, and the thousand million things that make her a fully developed human being. To this day we are still fighting against this...assumption that women exist on this earth merely to be eye candy for men. This assumes that a woman's worth is entirely wrapped up in her physical appearance and everything that makes her more than just her tits and ass is utterly irrelevant.

If this was true for both sexes, and men exist only to be attractive eye-candy for women to lust at it wouldn't be slightly better. Equally demeaning and equally awful, but better by a tiny fraction. But oh no, instead Heinlein argues that women don't care about a man's physical appearance. (Something which I know is patently false from first-hand experience.) Women care about a man's inner being, his soul if you want to call it that. So go ahead, don't put any effort into your appearance. Be a giant blob for all we care. It's your soul that women really care about. The ridiculous double standard isn't even the worst part, it's just this assumption women have no value beyond being sex objects. I will admit that there are people who are exhibitionists and do get some measure of pleasure from being objects of desire, especially strangers, but I feel that's on a different level. First, it's their choice to put themselves on display in situations of their choosing, rather than constantly being on display all the time. Or all the time if they choose to be. The point is, they make a conscious decision. This leads to my second point that exhibitionists, at least I hope most of them, understand that this is not the normal state of affairs. To put it in BDSM terms, you don't force your kink on other people, you only share it with their consent. What Heinlein argues in this book is a woman's value is directly proportional to her sex appeal.

The absolute cherry on top of this ice cream sundae of rampant sexism was the statement, and I'm more or less quoting here: ''Nine times out of ten when a girl gets raped she's asking for it.'' Casually stated by a female character as if it were a matter of fact. At that point I seriously considered throwing my Kindle across the room, consequences of broken electronics be damned, because if there is one thing I cannot abide it is victim blaming. (Well, okay, Nazis certainly top my list of things I cannot abide, but victim blaming takes a very close second.) If I had a physical copy of this book I probably would have thrown it against the wall repeatedly and then began tearing it apart. As a bibliophile I do not like to see books defaced or damaged, but in one line this book earned all the wrath I could possibly bring to bear on it. Amazingly I had the presence of mind to keep pushing through and managed to finish it with much exasperation and eye rolling, but no further incident.

Beyond the sexism the book indulges in a variety of other forms of casual bigotry which, again, half a century ago may have been acceptable but are absolutely abhorrent by today's standards. The example of a Muslim character, Dr. Mahmoud, being nicknamed ''Stinky'' and eventually called that by everyone, including his wife strikes me as casual racism. I can't see why he'd be nicknamed that except out of some assumption that Arabs can't be bothered to bathe on a regular basis and I can't see someone, especially a highly educated linguist able to learn Martian, tolerating being called such a demeaning nickname. (Perhaps I am overreacting, but it certainly bothered me.) Furthermore there's a casual homophobic remark which establishes a firm heteronormativity within the book, dismissing homosexuals of both genders as poor deluded souls or aberrations that cannot truly understand happiness. Again, this was perfectly acceptable by the standards of fifty years ago, maybe even encouraged, but it's absolutely unacceptable by today's standards and, hopefully, the future's as well.

Finally, on at least a stylistic note, I cannot count how many times I noticed a character being a response with ''Eh?'' or ''Huh?''' or ''Hm?'' before answering the question they've just been asked. It got absolutely infuriating after a while, as if every character in the book was going deaf and needed things to be repeated. Yes, it probably makes for more realistic dialog and I know that I've done that myself in the past, but the sheer number of times it was repeated began to grate on my nerves after a while.

I do not know if Stranger in a Strange Land enjoys the prominent place it used to in the pantheon of science-fiction literature. At least among my group of friends Starship Troopers, even with its fascist leanings, is the more famous of Heinlein's books. If Stranger is still held in some vague sense of esteem, I will say that it definitely should not be in any respect. It's pop-philosophy attempts at pseudo-intellectualism fall far short of rigorous study and make typical sweeping generalizations Furthermore they feel like a never-ending parade of intellectual masturbation where we make absolutely no progress whatsoever and discover nothing that hasn't been talked about more competently somewhere else. In addition, the rampant and casual sexism, a step beyond what you might typically find in a Heinlein book, is so extreme as to be positively abhorrent and push the book into utterly intolerable ranges. To quote an old bibliophile saying, ''This is not a book to be set aside lightly; it is to be thrown with great force.''

- Kalpar

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