Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Reconsidering Stranger in a Strange Land

Sixty years ago, Robert Heinlein won the Hugo Award for Stranger in a Strange Land. Perhaps enough time has passed that it is now safe to ask the question: does this book deserve its exalted reputation, and to live on in a seemingly endless series of reprints and extended and revised editions? Or is it just a big load of Sixties hippie claptrap? 

I ask the question with some trepidation. One does not diss Robert Anson Heinlein lightly. I tried that, very early in my career, and George Scithers pointed out in no uncertain terms that if I intended to have a career in this genre, I’d better cut that out right now. I listened to Scithers. I learned. I’d meant no great disrespect to Heinlein, as I’d grown up on and loved his early novels—Rocket Ship Galileo, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky, The Puppet Masters, Double-Star, Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, Methuselah's Children, Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starship Troopers, Glory Road—the list goes on and on, and exceeds the time I have to write about them. What I was reacting to at that time was the then newly released The Number of The Beast, which I considered to be the biggest load of self-indulgent crap I’d ever seen sandwiched between hardcovers—until a few years later, when I ran across Gordon Dickson’s mighty 700-page doorstop, The Final Encyclopedia

I was quite young, then, and full of that harsh judgmentalism that is readily the province of the young. I considered Beast to be evidence that Heinlein had lost it, and really didn’t appreciate how old Heinlein was, or how precarious his health had become, nor how close he was then to really losing it all, forever. I find it easier to be sympathetic now. 

In debating the merits of Stranger in a Strange Land, then, one must remember that Heinlein had a very long and widely varied career as a writer, that only started after he was invalided out of the Navy with tuberculosis. Hey, there’s an alternate history idea for you. Imagine what life today would be like if Lt. Robert “Bob” Heinlein had not been given a medical discharge, but rather had been able to continue in his original ambition to be a career Navy officer, and consequently had still been aboard the USS Lexington when it was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Would there even have been an Apollo program without Destination Moon

By the time he wrote Stranger, Heinlein was in his mid-50s, had been married three times and divorced twice, had been rich and broke several times over, had been a socialist who became a defender of Joe McCarthy and a supporter of Barry Goldwater, and had been publishing professionally for more than twenty years and was really tired of writing what he considered to be “children’s books.” So in one sense, Stranger is a cathartic discharge of all the life’s experience he didn’t dare to put into his previous decade or two’s worth of books, and it was a combination of dumb luck and savvy market-timing that made this book the unofficial required reading for all those 1960s neo-pagan sexual revolutionary wannabes who were looking for a new paradigm. 

I first encountered Stranger in this edition. The tag line reads:

“The best-selling underground novel by the dean of American science fiction writers.”
I’m not sure how a novel published first in hardcover by Putnam and then subsequently reissued in paperback by Avon, Berkley, Putnam, Penguin, etc., etc., etc., etc., qualifies as “underground,” but never mind that now. In the late Sixties, including that word in a tag line was like catnip to hip, clever, iconoclastic counter-culturalists like me, and we bought that book and read it over and over again like it was a guide to life. Especially a guide to how to have a liberated sex life.

Sixty year later, all that seems… Well, fatuous, to be charitable. I could think of worse things to call it.

On another level, I’m inclined to read this book now as a satire on religion, and particularly as a satire on Scientology. You cannot separate Campbellian science fiction from Scientology, as much as Campbell’s defenders might wish that you would do so. Heinlein would have been writing this book at right about the same time as he’d finally become convinced that John W. Campbell, the magazine editor who had launched his career, had gone completely ‘round the bend on this whole Dianetics and “psi” business. In that regard Stranger really caters to the sci-fi fanboy’s conceit that there are awesome untapped powers in the human mind, and if one could only learn to liberate and control those powers one could twist the fabric of reality like a Bavarian pretzel and do terrible violence to the laws of thermodynamics, simply through the power of pure wishing

In fantasy stories, the hero does this by doing something like finding an ancient scroll and learning how to work a eldritch magic spell. In Campbellian science fiction, the hero does this by learning to speak Martian. See the difference?

I never met Robert Heinlein in person. We had a friend-of-a-friend relationship. I did have a long correspondence with Ginny Heinlein after Robert died, and she was always interesting and gracious. Being the sort of science fictional Young Turk I was at the time I didn’t keep any of those letters; a pity, as some collector would probably pay serious money for them now. Most of Robert Heinlein’s novels still occupy a place of affection on my personal bookshelf. I just passed my old hardcover of Farmer in the Sky on to my eldest grandson. 

But Stranger in a Strange Land? I’ve probably bought that book ten times now, including the 1991 “original and uncut” edition, and the more I consider it, the more I think of it as being like all the different “extended edition” and “director’s cut” versions of Blade Runner I’ve bought over the years. I keep going back to it because I keep hoping to find some deeper meaning in it to justify my youthful affection for it, but the more I do so, the more I come to believe that perhaps that deeper meaning was never actually there in the first place. It’s a just a collection grumbles and rants by a late middle-aged man, hung on a framework of a satire of religion, and overseasoned with envy that there was all this Beatnik/Hippie “free love” going on and he wasn’t getting any of it.

That’s my take on it. What do you think?

—Bruce Bethke


LookingUp said...

I've not read that book, but then, most of my sci-fi experience came from Star Trek (television, not books). I'm curious about this book now.

Henry said...

I'm a big fan of Heinlein, too. Farmer in the Sky was the first "real" science fiction book I read, and I still have that same copy on bookshelf. I first read Stranger in 1974, when I was all of 17 years old. It made a huge impression on me at the time (no doubt the sex had something to do with that), but that impression has lessened each time I've reread the book.

I had no considered the possibility that Heinlein was making fun of Hubbard and Scientology, but that argument makes a lot of sense to me. From that point of view, perhaps the book does deserve some veneration. But if I missed it for the last 48 years, I suspect more casual fans did, too.

In the long run, I agree that it's very much a book of its time, and that time has passed.