Friday, December 31, 2010

Decades 2010 Challenge: Stranger in a Strange Land

I wanted to like this one, really I did. It's a famous science fiction novel, it's a 1960s cult classic, etcetera. But as it went along, it lost me.

Heinlein tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised in the radically different culture of Mars and then returned to Earth. Earth has gone global and techno, but Smith's presence is still a shake-up. Smith winds up staying with Jubal Harshaw, a reclusive lawyer, doctor and trash fiction author who arranges for Smith to be recognized as the owner of Mars, and then facilitates Smith's disappearance into contemporary life so he can continue his education in the ways of humans. Smith eventually founds a church and is sacrificed to a mob, although it's made clear that his soul survives and goes on to another life.

I really enjoyed some aspects of this book. Some of the futurism is exciting. I loved the concept of the bounce tube, a kind of elevator without a car that moves people from floor to floor in buildings. I loved the idea of the Fair Witness, a person trained to observe events and things without the observations being colored by any assumptions or conclusions, and therefore to produce a completely impartial account.

But the more I read, the more I discovered limitations in the author's imagination, and after a while they grated on me. Some of these were picky details, such as the continued emphasis on videotape, typewriters, and shorthand. But some of them were higher concept.

For example, the Fair Witness is one of several live-in secretaries/housekeepers for Harshaw, who threatens to paddle them when they question his judgment. Other women are nurses, nurturers, and the wives of heads of state, but apparently nowhere in a position of power, unless it's playacting the Goddess/Mother in a religious tableaux. Announcing that you're a lawyer is enough to strike terror in the heart of any opponent. And the afterlife is apparently a huge bureaucracy where there is a lot of paperwork to be processed.

Perhaps the most grating failure of imagination was the concept that when humans perfect their abilities and understanding, as they do in Smith's inner circle, the result is a communal society of true believers who keep a bucket of money by the door for the taking, where clothes are unnecessary, where free love is practiced, and where people can control their appearance at will, so all the naked, available women choose to be shapely and beautiful. All the expanded understanding in the world can't overcome the fact that this is a traditional male fantasy, more like the mind of Hugh Hefner than the mind of the Man from Mars.

Despite its futuristic intention, this book turned out to be very much a product of the Sixties, after all.

Excerpt (the writing was pretty forgettable, so I've simply picked a selection I liked):

There was a cat who lived on the place (not as a pet, but as co-owner); on rare occasion it came to the house and deigned to accept a handout. The cat and Mike had [understood] each other at once, and Mike had found its carniverous thoughts most pleasing and quite Martian. He had discovered, too, that the cat's name (Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche) was not the cat's name at all, but he had not told anyone this because he could not pronounce the cat's real name; he could only hear it in his head.


  1. JG, Happy New Year, I imagine after all that reading you'll be doing a little something else tomorrow, no? Did you complete all of your challenges in the end?

  2. I finished the reading ages ago, Oreneta; it's the reviews that snuck (sneaked?) up on me. I'll have a few leftovers to write in the New Year, but that's close enough to success for me.

    Have a happy one yourself, in Par-ee!

  3. Try as I might, I just don't ejoy much science fiction. I have to force myself to read it. I don't know why.


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