Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Ongoing Book Discussion Discussion

Original Post - 6/19/08: Sean has nominated Robert Heinlein's classic novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, to be the topic for this Saturday's book discussion. Does anyone want to second this nomination or recommend an alternative?

Update - 6/21/08: 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, 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 this morning — but what I'd been reacting to at that time was the then-newly released The Number of The Beast, which I considered the worst load of crap I'd ever seen sandwiched between hardcovers, until Friday came out two years later.

I was 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 then was 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. 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, he 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 had become a defender of Joe McCarthy and 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 in 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 cult-classic for all those 1960s neo-pagan wannabe sexual revolutionaries who were looking for a new paradigm.

On another level, I'm inclined read this book as a satire on religion, particularly Scientology. You cannot separate Campbellian SF from Scientology (much as Campbell's defenders might wish you could), and Heinlein would have been writing this book at right about the same time as he'd become convinced that John W. Campbell, the magazine editor who'd launched his career, had finally gone '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 that if only one can learn to liberate and control those powers, one can twist the fabric of reality like a Bavarian pretzel and do terrible violence to the laws of thermodynamics through the power of pure wishing. In fantasy stories, the hero does this by finding an ancient scroll containing a magic spell. In science fiction, the hero does this by learning to speak Martian. See the difference?

Ooops, out of time, must dash. Will try to write more later.