Monday, 12 December 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve just finished a re-read of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic novel—it’s been about 30 years since I last picked it up.  I had remembered it fondly and it did not disappoint me in the least.  It was just as gripping as I remembered it and I stayed up much too last night reading as fast as I could.  This time, I read the unedited volume, longer than the original version that I enjoyed so long ago.  I would be interested to compare the two eventually and see which parts got excised to conform to the sensitivities of the times.  Now it doesn’t seem as racy as it must have in 1961.
            It’s a compelling examination of the nature and purpose of religion, philosophy and the relationship of sexuality to both of them.  Trust me, when you’ve grown up in the Bible-belt of southern Alberta, you can appreciate a fresh eye, especially on the religion and sexuality questions!  Heinlein doesn’t withhold and gives a extraterrestrial’s eye view of all these issues.  The final words seem to me to be: 1) all religions have a little goodness in them and 2) sex is very, very good.  Not a bad message really and it has spawned its own religious movement, The Church of All Worlds, which existed for at least a while in the United States.  Complete with lots of study, nudity and communal living apparently.
            Would Heinlein have been pleased or horrified?  I suspect he may have been a little of both.  There are reports that he briefly corresponded with the founder of the Church of All Worlds, but there is no indication of the content or tone of the communication.  (He’s not alone, either—Frank Herbert’s Dune series has inspired some readers to become “Bene Gesserit” also).  It must be rather flattering to have people connect so deeply with your writing—but also rather worrisome that people are so hungry for some kind of spirituality that they will even adopt science fiction novels as the basis for faith.  Mind you, followers of Star Trek have been using it as a model for life for decades now.  (A female friend and I have a theory that Star Trek is/was an educational tool for nerds, modeling  normal social behaviour and maybe even how to get lucky—just a theory).  And since Heinlein, like many science fiction authors, seems to have had a love-hate relationship with religion in general, I would be interested to know how he felt about this appropriation of his work.
            What truly surprises me, during my foray through the sci-fi of the 50s and 60s, is the complete assumption of the male authors that women are really just a side branch of humanity.  C.S. Lewis, in the third book of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, pretty much directly tells women that they should be raising babies and not worrying about cosmic issues.  (He went way down in my estimation after reading that novel).  Others like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, don’t expressly state this thesis, but it is definitely implied.  The movers and the shakers of their novels are men.  Women feature as a way to move the plot along and as motivators for the central male characters.  They are important because they have babies and the men in these novels haven’t figured out a way to just clone themselves yet (and like Heinlein are willing to see sex as a very good thing).  In other words, we women are a pleasant accoutrement to life, much like the alcohol and tobacco that is ubiquitously consumed in these tales.  (I am particularly fond of the works of H. Beam Piper, in which “happy hour” is considered to be a Terran religious observance by denizens of other planets—but in his fiction women are also just “helpmates” to the men that populate his universe). 
            It reminds me a great deal of the state of the field of Anthropology before many women were involved in it--all the studies of “Man the Hunter” and talk of weaponry & hunting being the primer motivators in evolution.  See Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book The Woman That Never Evolved for a much better discussion of the issue that I could possibly give it.  That is being redressed, as women have doing research (see Meredith Small’s lovely book Female Choice about the female primate’s role in sexuality, for instance).  Finally, issues like friendship and cooperation among primates are being properly addressed.
            It makes me realize just how far we as women have come in the last forty years and the positive effects of feminism.  That rather condescending attitude to femininity is on the decrease, although I think all women of a certain age have experienced it.  (You know the guys—the ones who call you “Little Lady” and assume that you have no intellectual capacity—and then get angry if you actually make good points and receive acknowledgement from others). 
            The other assumption that annoyed me in Stranger was that male sexuality was the model to follow, that it was evolved somehow to be willing to have sex with everyone (of the opposite sex, that is, there was still a taboo against homosexuality).  It was also the basis of sexuality in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which good citizens are required to sleep around and “everybody belongs to everybody.”  In that universe, it was frowned on to become too attached to only one other human.   Goddess knows, this arrangement was tried during the 60s—communes often set up with the intent to live by the “everybody belongs to everybody” credo.  One friend of mine who lived through that stage told me of her experiences—and it seems that it was mostly the men choosing whom to sleep with each night and the women waiting to be chosen--not really a state of equality.   The problem with this assumption is that the human being is naturally programmed to pair up, at least long enough to raise a child to a semi-independent state, about 4 years.  As much as men like to imagine that this tendency will disappear, it has an evolutionary basis—men who stick around their mates for that long will raise disproportionally more children than the ones that gallivant, and evolution notices these details! 
            I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see such wishful thinking in the works of male authors.  I will be interested to read the works of female authors like Ursula K. LeGuin and compare their views on these matters.  I have rather hazy memories of LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which I think postulates an androgynous population that can become either male or female, depending on the circumstances.  (It makes me think of the meeting of hermaphroditic snails, during which each one struggles to be the male and make the smallest contribution, rather than be burdened with the energy outlay required of egg-laying). 
There’s no doubt that men and women are different psychologically and have differing evolutionary goals—otherwise referred to as the battle of the sexes.  At least female roles are given more air time these days.  Just as anthropology was shaken up by women’s contributions, so I hope science fiction has morphed into something more female sensitive that it used to be and that we have escaped from the male-dominated paradigm.  I hope to see evidence of a shift as I read my way forward in time.


  1. Hi Wanda

    You are getting way ahead of me I still have a TV and it is hockey season after all. I really enjoyed Robert Heinlein when I was younger and I still enjoy his juveniles, short stories and some of his shorter, earlier novels. However I must admit that I tried to reread an old favorite The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and put it down, I just found it too sexist, too paternalistic. I noticed some time ago that as what I termed his adult novels like Stranger had become longer his writing flaws became more obvious, his lecturing even more pronounced. What I realized as I thought about my comments is that I am not sure he ever became an adult himself and wrote more mature works. Having said this his works still hold a proud place in my collection and just looking at the covers of the Scribner's editions of The Red Planet, Starman Jones or Space Cadet that, I was lucky enough to read in my public school library in Windsor brings back many happy memories.


  2. Guy,

    You're entirely correct that Heinlein is very preachy in Stranger. I currently have a hold on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (and in the past I read his novel Friday--which also has some strongly sexist overtones), so there may be more musings on this topic. I did enjoy Starship Troopers--maybe because it was almost entirely populated by men and the status of women was barely acknowledged.

    Despite it all, I still enjoyed Stranger a lot.