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.

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