Thursday, July 23, 2009

When is a feminist not a feminist?

A few more notes on Stranger in a Strange Land, so that I can purge this all and move on:

Said best in this article in The Stranger: "Are there people who call themselves feminists in this day and age who would actually call this book feminist?"

Okay, he was talking about a different book by Heinlein, but I think this applies to Stranger in a Strange Land as well. Stranger is supposed to deal in part with feminism. I know this is true because it said so on the back cover of the book. As I read the book, however, I kept wondering where the feminism came in to play. All those men who talk too much are often condescending to women while doing so. The women didn't seem to be full of liberation either; one of them says that rape is the woman's fault 9 times out of 10 (she did not explain why this is, by the way, and I wish she had).

My thoughts on the subject only stray from The Stranger insofar as I don't think feminists of any age would call Heinlein's writing feminist. This book was published in 1961, and I find Virginia Woolf's writing - in the 2os and 30s! - far more advanced in terms of feminism. I suppose he can be apologized for from a number of angles, such as being a mere sci fi writer compared with Virginia Woolf. But I reject the notion that higher thoughts and better writing are restricted to classic literature, which is part of the reason why I am reading this list of novels!

So I keep searching for evidence of feminism. The women had jobs, but they were nurses and secretaries. The women were fairly strong-willed, but they were also ordered around a lot, usually being told to go cook dinner. I just don't see it. Anyone who has a different point of view on this is welcome to share.


Following my completion of this novel, I felt like my brain needed cleansing. At first I craved Sherlock Holmes very badly. I guess I wanted the order and logic of his world, but I also didn't want to get fully involved in something that isn't on the list, short though the Holmes novels are.

I decided instead to read A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman. I think it is one of the most perfect short stories that Neil Gaiman has ever written. I'm a big Gaiman fan, and preferring this over some of his other works is like preferring that your favorite musician play cover tunes. Still, I have some favorite musicians who play very excellent covers, and likewise Neil Gaiman "covers" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle excellently. Or I should say, Doyle and Lovecraft - he was asked to write this as a story that combines the worlds of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft.

You can read A Study in Emerald online for free. If you don't like reading stories on a computer screen you could print it - it's designed to be very attractive - or you could read it from the book Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman, which is a collection of short stories.

Next up, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, which I think A Study in Emerald provides a good transition into. It mentions Dr. Jekyll, and a few other monsters from literature as well. I spent a few minutes today identifying them all, and I'm pleased and amused at their cameo appearances.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Didn't realize the land was going to be this strange

I'm nearly finished with Stranger in a Strange Land, so nearly finished that I think it's okay if I go ahead and review it, because I can pretty much tell how this car crash is going to end up.

I'm not a fan. Sorry, old sci fi fans who say things like "may just possibly be the most popular sci fi novel ever perhaps!" (uh, no) or even "one of the most influential novels of our time maybe or perhaps that's just me!" (yes, it is totally just you).

OK, so a big problem with this novel is the wordiness that I discussed previously. There are some very talkative characters in this novel. About mid way through the novel, Robert Heinlein tips his hand completely on why his characters talk so damn much, when one of those really chatty guys goes on for an entire chapter about how he doesn't like abstract art. Pages and pages of that kind of business, and no, this is not a very important theme in the novel. To sum up (which rarely happens in this novel), the character says nobody likes abstract art because they like to know what art is about. At this point, I got it; all of this talking is because Heinlein wants to make sure the readers understand what the novel is all about. Every major concept of the novel, at some point, conveniently needs to be explained to someone ignorant. These ignorant people represent you and me, the readers, whom Heinlein has little faith in.

But whatever, I don't care so much that the author comes across as an arrogant snob who thinks his ideas might be too high-minded for his audience. My real problem is that I'm from the school of "show don't tell" when it comes to writing, and Heinlein is much more of a teller.

So, the main points that he wants us to get: 1. Free love is the ideal life 2. So is anarchy.

Regarding the free love - it's depicted as a free-for-all, enjoyed by all the members of the man from Mars' inner circle, which by the way is a religion or a cult, depending (as it always does) on your point of view. Many of the members of the free love cult have children, which led me to wonder where the kids are during the constant love-fest. Apparently the idea is that the kids are raised by the group communally instead of by one or two parents that take specific responsibility. Which leads to stuff like the curse of the hippie parents. As noted in that article, parents who are into free love can lead to inappropriate sexual experiences for minors. I wondered what Heinlein thought about such stuff, did a little research, and learned that he explored that idea to its obvious conclusion in other novels, in which he promotes incest and even pedophilia. I'm not sure what I found most disturbing: the fact that his later work includes lots of creepy sex, or that many of his fans online say "he's a really good writer if you can disregard the pedophilia." I also hear John Wayne Gacy was a really nice man if you could get past that serial killer thing.

Sticking just to this novel, however, Heinlein conveniently glosses over simple human jealousy as an emotion that people could just sort of get over. As I understand it, this is not what the hippies learned when they gave it a shot.

As for the anarchy, Heinlein conveniently doesn't follow that through to its logical conclusion, which is a rather dangerous game. I am of the opinion that anarchy leads to fascism, a notion that is supported by the novel in a section that is not explained at great length. The man from Mars believes it is wrong to put a man in prison, but not wrong to kill a man who has done you wrong. The man from Mars is able to determine if a person needs to be killed, and as his followers say he is incapable of lying, so we can trust his judgment regarding who needs to be killed and who doesn't.

Of course, there is no discussion on whether the person who is being killed might prefer the "wrongness" of imprisonment over his death sentence, decided upon by a jury of one.

So overall, I found this novel paternalistic, full of the creepiest aspects of hippie society, and irresponsible in its political message. To top it all off, the writing was kind of crappy with all that talking and explaining.

I hadn't planned on going for this sort of "what were you thinking" brand of criticism, but in The Guardian's list that led to this project, I honestly can't believe that this book made the list and Ender's Game did not. Epic fail, Guardian.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Connections between Joss Whedon and Stranger in a Strange Land: A very geeky investigation

I'm about half way through Stranger in a Strange Land. It is good, but it reads slow; it's somewhat dense. A couple of the main characters talk A LOT. They sort of remind me of men in movies from around the time that this book was written. Especially newspaper men; very wordy, constantly clever, to the point of being too clever. I like the book, but it requires that I forgive this kind of wordiness.

Anyway, I believe I've spotted a few Joss Whedon connections in the book. First, one of those very talkative men is named Jubal Harshaw. Of course, anyone who has obsessively watched and re-watched the sadly short-lived Whedon show Firefly knows that the brilliant episode Objects in Space features Jubal Early, a bizarre bounty hunter that manages to confound the entire crew, with the exception of one teenage girl. I always suspected that Jubal Early was meant to have been a subject of the same experiment that River Tam was a part of, but a much earlier subject, perhaps the first. I learned while reading Stranger in a Strange Land that the name Jubal means "The Father of us All." And of course, Early means, um, early. Lends support to my theory, anyway, if Joss Whedon knows the meaning of the name Jubal!

OK, and yes I know that Jubal Early is the name of a Confederate general that is also an ancestor of Nathan Fillion. But I'm just saying, if the name meaning is completely coincidental to Jubal's role on the show, it is a mighty big coincidence!

Also, in the novel religious leaders are called "shepherds". This isn't a completely unique idea for either Joss Whedon or Robert A. Heinlein, but it's another interesting parallel.