Game Changer   2 comments

Thoughts on Dune by Frank Herbert – Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1966

Books have always played an enormous role in my life, something that was true at a very early age. There’s no practical way now to even estimate how much I read as a boy, but my appetite for books gave me a certain reputation as a youngster, and not always a comfortable one, so it was surely a significant number to have drawn such notice. If I didn’t “have my nose stuck in a book,” as my mother was fond of saying, I was carrying a book with me on the off chance that I’d have a few minutes to read somewhere along the way. It was one of several habits and interests that made it difficult for me to fit in with kids my age, and at the same time made my misfit status easier to bear.

A lot of books, then, and too many to count after the fact. And yet, for all that the number is likely to be large, there are books from those distant years that I remember. They loom large in memory because they came to me at just the right time to have just the right impact on an impressionable and imaginative youth. I can recall clearly being rocked at various times by such books as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Nightfall and Other Stories, and 2001: A Space Odyssey,  to name a few. Of them all, two works stand out clearest, and have best withstood the passing of years, the test of time: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.

I first read Dune in high school, and came to own a copy almost by accident. I was enrolled in some sort of school-oriented book club in which you earned bonus points with the purchase of books. In the spring of 1970 I had enough points for a couple of free books, and of the books available only two sounded even remotely interesting. Rather than have the points expire at the end of the school year I took a chance, and soon owned copies of The Fellowship of the Ring and Dune. Both books rocked my world. My early relationship with science fiction had been rooted in Tom Swift Jr. adventures, comic books, and B-movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s that I watched while housebound by messy winters in north central Illinois. As I edged into high school the early impressions of the genre were leavened by Heinlein “juveniles” (we’d say YA these days), classics works by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and an early introduction to Asimov’s robot stories. It was science fiction in which the hard science idea was the point of the story, often a single idea presented in a “what if” frame of reference. Plot and characters existed only to serve this central “what if,” often with the result that plots were simple and characterization rather shallow or even two-dimensional. The sci-fi I’d experienced to that point didn’t explore multiple themes or sociological ideas (“soft” science), and was rarely character-driven to the point that I could find myself identifying with the characters as real people. Or their world as a place complete unto itself.

So Dune was a shock to the system. I’d never before read a book that held that many layers of complexity. Dune presented me with fallible characters that carried very human contradiction between the roles they knew they should play and what they ended up doing. There was Dr. Yueh, who so deeply loved those he betrayed; Paul Atreides, who avenged his father’s death by becoming something very different from that father; and his mother Jessica, member of an ancient Order seeking to control the fate of humanity through selective breeding, who chose to follow her heart in the end and defy that Order. Dune is a tale of interstellar intrigue and adventure that is wrapped around political conspiracies and a deliberately contrived mysticism that on Arrakis takes on an unexpected life of its own. There were characters with super-normal abilities that were the result of training and discipline, not magic, who yet seem otherworldly at times. And there was the world Arrakis, the desert world with its giant worms, and a warrior race living for a deliberately planted prophecy that was meant to control them, but did something altogether different. There was a drug from the sands, the product of a complicated alien ecology, one that allowed very special individuals to see into the future. Listed this way, it seems a hodge-podge of plot elements, but when you read this novel what you find is a complicated and skillfully twisted braid of plots and subplots that include all these things and more.

Dune is also a product of its times. When written, the social turmoil of the Sixties was heating up. Eastern traditions were becoming popular in the Western world. An awareness of our impact on the world’s ecological systems was growing rapidly, with revelations that alarmed many. You see elements of these issues, among others, reflected in the novel, revealing the author’s awareness of the change unfolding around him. This reflection of what were then current events is one of the things that made the book stand out for me, though I may not have been fully aware of it at the time. I read Dune almost five years after it won the Hugo Award and much of what would have been fresh and raw in American society and politics when the book was written had played out by then. The so-called “drug culture” had lost some of its shock value, and the novelty of those Eastern traditions had faded somewhat. (Americans are so often quick to become complacent even about things they dislike. Especially when it’s happening in the News to someone else.) I was aware, even in my small home town, of these social undercurrents, even though I didn’t truly understand them, and so the book resonated in ways I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and would not recognize until later readings.

I didn’t look at science fiction in the same way after reading Dune. I didn’t know it at the time, but the so-called New Wave in science fiction had just swept over me. Where I had in the past enjoyed the escapism, now I found myself thinking about a story I’d read. Ideas from the tale lingered long after the closing lines. I didn’t just go on to the next book in the stack and plow through it. Somehow, I just couldn’t do that. I’d been too involved with this fictional world to let it go so easily. To be affected by a work of fiction in such a way was a new thing for me. That fiction could do such a thing was a mind-altering revelation.

Eventually, that summer, I caught my breath and picked up the next book in the summer reading pile. Of course, the next book in the stack was The Fellowship of the Ring. That was quite a summer.

 

The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1965

For the first time since beginning this series of essays, I find myself dealing with a new-to-me book. In the early 1980s I made it a project to read Hugo-winning novels (and short stories) in an effort to better understand the genre that inspired me to write fiction. During that earlier effort, I was unable to locate a copy of the 1965 winner. The book had apparently gone out of print (I was working in a bookstore at the time and couldn’t special-order a copy for myself), and the few copies I found in used bookstores were either too expensive, or in such bad shape that I passed them by. I always meant to bridge this gap, and this time around was determined to do so. Fortunately, during the intervening years the book was brought back into print, and so tracking down a copy through an online source proved no challenge. At long last, I could read the eleventh novel to win the Hugo Award. After all that time and effort, I suppose it sort of figures that this book doesn’t measure up to those preceding it.

The Wanderer is a tale of disaster on a planetary scale. During a lunar eclipse, a rogue planet suddenly appears in the solar system, so close to the Earth and the Moon that tidal forces are able to tear the Moon apart. The same tidal forces devastate Humanity, creating flood tides of Biblical proportions, triggering massive earthquakes, and setting off super-volcanic eruptions. As civilization is hammered by catastrophes, survivors on Earth and a lunar base seek to unravel the mystery of the Wanderer, as they all come to call the rogue planet. The hardships experienced on Earth are seen through the eyes of survivors scattered around the globe.

As interesting as the premise of this novel surely is, I had quite a bit of trouble getting into the story. There are a lot of points of view used, but there is a lack of consistency in the way they are developed. Three subplots are strongly developed and a number of others weave in and out of the main flow, apparently to add details to illustrate the horrors being inflicted on the people of Earth. Many of these subplots appear and disappear sporadically, and only those that involve the deaths of the characters involved are resolved. One of the throw-away subplots ends with what stands as the worst sex scene I’ve ever encountered as a reader of science fiction. These partially developed subplots ultimately failed to support the story, and left me feeling more distracted than informed. It’s as if the author (and the editor) couldn’t quite decide which story to tell. Two such subplots could have accomplished the job; a less-is-more editorial approach would have greatly improved the structure of the book.

Improved it, but perhaps not rescued it from the cardboard, heavily stereotyped characters that inhabit this tale. Remember how people reacted to the dialog between characters in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones? The characters and their interactions in this novel have that sort of awkwardness. And then there are the aliens responsible for the mess who, when the reader gets to know them, come across as little better than cartoonish.

By the time I was finished with The Wanderer, my reaction was one of puzzlement. This is not what I would call a very well-executed novel, especially when I compare it to Way Station, the previous year’s winner, or with either Dune or This Immortal, the winners (in a tie) of the best-novel Hugo the following year. Was the year in which The Wanderer first saw print a poor year for science fiction? That’s frankly hard to believe. And yet this imperfect book, written by an author who has done much stronger work (including The Big Time which brought a Hugo award to Leiber in 1958) took the honors in 1965. Fame is a fickle thing, and the ways in which it is bestowed often make little sense in retrospect. This is apparently as true in science fiction as it is with any form of entertainment.

This one disappointed me. I expected more of Leiber, being familiar with his work, and felt that The Wanderer fell short of the mark he usually hits. It isn’t a book I’ll ever read again, and as this review makes plain, isn’t one I’d recommend unless you share my desire to read all of the Hugo winners. Or unless you’re curious to see what it is about this book that makes it seem like such a train wreck to me. In which case, read it! I will never, in any of these reviews, tell you that a book is “bad,” or worse, heap venom and scorn on a work just because I don’t like it. If the book fails for me, it might be me and not the book at all. It may be that many others see this book the way I do, but in 1965 readers of science fiction saw The Wander in a very different way. They bestowed upon it the highest honor we have for science fiction. Who was right? Does that even matter? All I can tell you is that the book didn’t work for me and why I felt it failed. In other words, I didn’t like it. To go from saying “I didn’t like it,” to the conclusion that it’s a “bad book” that no one else should read has always seemed to me to be a step too far.

The Little Book That Could   1 comment

It’s a milestone. It’s also something that was quite likely inevitable, and in time may well become permanent. Now that it’s come, however, I find myself with mixed feelings about it.

Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession is no longer my number one seller. My novel The Luck of Han’anga has overtaken it. It’s by just a couple of copies, for the moment, but I’m so accustomed to the memoir outselling the first book of the sci-fi series that the realization that this is no longer the case feels rather odd.

Before any thought of self-published ever occurred to me, I gathered together material to use as a series of astronomy-related essays, intended for posting on the Cloudy Nights amateur astronomy forum. The project was never completed. As I was cleaning up the novel that eventually became The Luck of Han’anga, I realized that I had enough of this material to publish a small book of early astronomy memories. Doing so would provide valuable experience, and if I screwed up I would do so on a relatively small stage. Damage control, it seemed, would be easy, from what I knew of such things at that time. So when I turned The Luck of Han’anga over to beta readers, I began to work on the memoir in earnest, with the idea of using it as a sort of experiment, or a toe stuck in the proverbial waters. During the writing, it took on a life of its own, becoming much more than a test. On March 21st, 2011, I uploaded the book to Kindle Direct Press and Smashwords. It was quite the learning experience, indeed, and it did smooth the way for The Luck of Han’anga, which followed in June of that same year. By then, I’d seen a gratifying number of copies of the memoir sold, but fully expected the novel to go past the memoir in fairly short order.

That’s not what happened. Instead, the memoir sold steadily, and maintained the lead its head start gave it over the novel. It even held on to that lead when the next two novels were released, driving sales of the first novel in the series. Feedback from readers, along the way, both surprised me and helped explain what was happening. This little “experiment” was selling outside the intended niche market. While most of those who discovered Mr. Olcott’s Skies were in fact fellow amateur astronomers, a fair number had no such interests. Some of the non-astronomers were people who had encountered me in various social media venues. Others I can’t account for so easily. Either way, a couple of bucks – for the eBook version – apparently sounded like a small price to pay to satisfy their curiosity, so they gave it a try and found themselves reading a book that reminded them of quieter times in their own lives. It’s a book that apparently takes readers back to memories of their own childhood adventures. To say that this is gratifying would be an understatement.

For more than two years, Mr. Olcott’s Skies led the pack. A small slice of life set in words, an attempt to learn self-publishing, aimed at a niche market and going happily wide of that mark, this little experiment has been one of the real joys of my self-published journey. In our household it came to be known as The Little Book That Could – a reference to an old and revered children’s book. This year, The Luck of Han’anga finally started to eat away at that lead. As the gap began to close, I found myself rooting for the little guy. Perhaps that was foolish, but I couldn’t help myself. Every time a copy sold, I found myself grinning. Still in the lead! Way to go, Little Book That Could!

And now it’s in second place, and that leaves me feeling a bit melancholy. Silly, really, since the book is still “in print,” and will be for as long as I have anything to say about it. (One of the true advantages to being self-published is that you can keep a book out there indefinitely, no matter how slowly it sells.) It will sell additional copies. There will be more readers sharing that starlit journey with me. It may even regain the lead. You never know! And yet, I’m sitting here feeling the way I do when the team I root for loses the World Series. Yes, there’s always “next year,” but still …

Hope and Melancholy   1 comment

Thoughts Inspired by Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1964

Growing up in the 1960s was a peculiar thing. We were surrounded, as children, by such a mix of confidence and anxiety, high adventure and social unrest, lofty visions loudly proclaimed and horrible nightmares manipulated to manufacture fear – and control. Such was American society in the Cold War. As a pre-teen growing up in that time, I sometimes had nightmares in which tornados, often a clear and present danger in rural Illinois, transformed into the mushroom clouds of nuclear destruction. I didn’t fully understand the nature of the danger, but I could feel the uneasiness, the anxiety, and sometimes outright fear in the adults around me, and images of “The Bomb” were commonplace. The black-and-white B-movies I watched on TV were often tales inspired by the mutant consequences of radioactive disasters. And there were all those duck-and-cover exercises at school, cleverly concealed as “tornado drills.” Our culture was saturated by the fear that the next big war really would be the war to end all wars, because there would be no one left to fight another. Somewhere in my memories of those years I recall telling an uncle that I wanted to be an astronomer if I grew up. I remember this because great concern was expressed over my use of the word “if.”

I was barred from watching the evening news for some time, after that one.

The science fiction of those days, film and print, was heavy with variations on a theme of ultimate war and its consequences. You see this in the novels that won the early Hugo Awards: Bester’s The Demolished Man is set in a post-apocalyptic future; Heinlein’s Starship Troopers depicts a civilization that rose following World War III. These books and others like them at least contain a note of optimism; as in wars past, we survive and rebuild. It’s an optimistic  assumption that shows these authors had not the slightest idea what they were talking about. Of course, to be fair, very few people did. More brutally honest is A Canticle for Leibowitz, which depicts the long and agonizing rebirth of a civilization doomed, by its failure to learn the lessons of history, to die again. So many novels, award winners and those passed over, assumed such a war would come, and tried to imagine the consequences of a thing that truly defied imagination. It is not, by its nature, an uplifting body of literature.

In the midst of this, in 1963, Clifford D. Simak added his own take on the troubles of those times, a book that stands in powerful contrast to so many other sci-fi tales from the Sixties. Way Station, winner of the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is the story of a man who survived the worst of the American Civil War, and who finds himself, shortly after, recruited to run a relay station for a galactic civilization. This civilization uses a strange form of teleportation to bridge the vastness of interstellar space, and knit a multitude of species into one star-spanning community. Enoch Wallace has hardly aged at all in the hundred years that followed, sustained by an aspect of the galactic technology for which he is Earth’s only, and completely unknown, custodian. Unfortunately, after a century of meeting and befriending hundreds of alien beings from dozens of species and cultures, Enoch’s quiet existence as station keeper is threatened. Someone from a government agency has realized Enoch is the same man who came home from the Civil War long ago. And in coming to the aid of an abused deaf/mute girl, Enoch has come into conflict with her family, and drawn to himself exactly the wrong sort of attention. Discord in the galactic civilization threatens to shut down his way station, leaving him the choice of being abandoned where he is on a world of which he is no longer truly a part, or himself abandoning the world of his birth forever. On top of all of this, that very same world is on the verge of blowing itself to bits. Calculations using the advanced mathematics of the galaxy show that Earth’s destruction by way of nuclear holocaust is inevitable, and the cure suggested by Enoch’s alien friends is almost as bad as war itself.

In resolving these conflicts, Simak weaves a compelling tale of interstellar intrigue and very human drama. The resolution to it all is sudden, a bit fanciful, but very satisfying. It’s also more than a bit melancholy, for the hero does pay a price to hold on to the life he has come to cherish. It ends not with a bang, but a whisper. But the story overall is one of hope, and not calamity. This is a novel that looks at the Cold War tensions of those unsettled and uncertain years not from the perspective of how bad things might turn out, but with the idea that what might seem unavoidable could, in fact, be prevented. Way Station stands apart in an era of sci-fi nuclear holocaust novels in a refreshing and thoughtful way. It also holds up well to the passage of many years, and seems not in the least bit dated. I first read this book when I was in high school, almost a decade after it was published, and was fascinated by its very different take on how a galaxy-spanning civilization might work, and how Earth might take part. Now, so many years later, with the bad dreams of glowing mutant tornado mushroom clouds fading into memory, I have a different and perhaps improved idea of why the book appealed to me. It presents a positive vision, based as it is on the thought that the worst need not come to be. It was a story of hope and melancholy, and what teenage loner growing up in troubled times could  resist such a tale?

The Man in the High Castle: Thoughts on the Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1963   Leave a comment

It’s been at least 30 years since I first read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The only detail I could recall, when I picked it up to read for this series of reviews, was that someone got his throat cut. Strange, the things that stay with you from a book.

Stranger still, now that I’ve reread The Man in the High Castle. It has a solid, well-developed plot and the story moves right along, as all good stories do. The characters are well-developed, with motives readers can relate to, even if the alternate history setting might seem hard to grasp more than sixty years after the Second World War. Even so, the only moment of familiarity offered during the rereading was that incident involving a single-edged razor blade.

The first thing that needs to be kept in mind, when reading this novel, is that WWII was still all too fresh in the minds of many people in the early 1960s. As always, when reading an older novel, a modern reader needs to keep in mind the context provided by the times in which it was written. Dick’s presentation of Japanese characters, in particular, might strike today’s readers as somewhat racist, but the way he handles those characters, and the culture they represent, doesn’t really support a racist interpretation.

In this alternate reality, the war ended with the United States of America and its allies defeated. Japan has control of the west coast, while Germany occupies most of the eastern third of the nation. In the middle is a shadow nation that is to various degrees under the influence of the war’s victorious Axis powers. The world as a whole seems divided between the sophisticated influences of Japan, and barbarism of Nazi Germany. In this setting, a tale of cultural conflict and survival unfolds in parallel with political intrigue that threatens to set off a holocaust, while people ponder a popular novel that seems to reflect our own reality, the one in which Germany and Japan were defeated. It’s a post-war slice-of-life alternate history, with elements of what might these days be called magical realism. The book easily held my attention to the very last page, and then left me wondering just what the hell happened.

This is a strange book, a story that at first left me with the feeling that my copy was missing chapters at the end. It took me a while to understand that the book actually ends as it begins. It fades in, and then fades out, without a sharp hook at the beginning, and no dramatic stroke of the pen to underscore The End. I find myself thinking of the story between the covers as comprised of a single object, instead of a flow of ideas. Or a flow of words and ideas that became, when I was done, a single thing in my mind. It’s as if this story were a small wood carving or a bit of jewelry you could hold in the palm of your hand and appreciate with one long look. This concept comes to mind because of a plot element in the book itself. A purveyor of historic Americana (the Japanese in the story are crazy about the stuff) tries to interest a Japanese client in something different, jewelry made by local American craftsmen who create designs like nothing seen before. The Japanese client (and later another of the main Japanese characters) is at first inclined to dismiss the item, but finds himself unable to do so. There’s a quality or property possessed by the thing that simply cannot be ignored. The Japanese client declares that the object contains “wu,” a concept from Chinese philosophy that seems open to a certain degree of interpretation. As the character in the book expresses it, an object that has wu is complete in itself, balanced in a way that cancels dualities. It isn’t one thing or another, it doesn’t begin or end; it just is. (It can also apparently mean that a thing is lacking in distinguishing characteristics, not necessarily something an author would want associated with his work.) A quick bit of research in Daoist philosophy more or less supports this, though – not surprisingly – it would seem there’s a bit more to the concept than what is employed in the novel. But if I stick with the explanation given by the character Paul to Mr. Childan, I seem to have a concept that fits the underlying oddness of The Man in the High Castle.

Like the bauble that mystifies the Japanese client, and later entrances – literally – one of the primary characters, The Man in the High Castle would seem to be a book possessed of wu, that certain something that makes it work as a whole, even though the components seem to be a little hard to distinguish. Since the author was obviously familiar with the concept, it’s natural to wonder whether the novel itself was an attempt to imbue a work of literature with wu, or if that knowledge informed the writing process as the story unfolded, and wu was the result.

Or the concept of wu merely caught my fancy, and became a straw to grasp while trying to comprehend this strangely compelling, well-written tale. Or both. I can’t really say. In any case, a rereading of this winner of the Hugo Award has given me something more subtle than a single-edged razor blade to carry away in the end.

The Process, Part One: The Stuff of Which Daydreams Are Made   Leave a comment

I once heard an author declare that the most bothersome question you could ask a writer of fiction was “Where do you get your ideas?” This happened at a science fiction convention sometime in the middle 1980s, during a panel discussion. The other authors present wore knowing smiles as they nodded in agreement. A long conversation followed, and an interesting one, that provided the audience with plenty to think about, but no real answers. In the time since I’ve resumed writing fiction, I think I finally understand why they failed to provide a definitive answer.

There really isn’t one.

Imagination is a thing poorly understood by science. The same is true of creativity in general. All human beings are capable of dreaming, and by that I don’t mean visions in your sleep, but dreams in the waking world, in which we ponder how things might be different, perhaps better, in our lives. Such dreams lead people to set goals and test limits, to see whether or not, or to what degree, their dreams can be made real. They have practical dreams, firmly set within a real-world frame of reference that entices them with the possibility of something potentially attainable. It seems doable, and so they get to work.

Artists, musicians, and writers go further. Their daydreams may have, upon realization within their respective media, practical consequences. After all, I’ve always dreamed of being a successful author. I still do. But that isn’t really the motivation. Rendering imagination, the daydream itself if you will, into a tangible form, drives the process. If you are of that inclination, you can’t avoid pursuing the vision, whatever it is. As a good friend was fond of saying about writing, some years ago, you can’t not do it. I learned the truth of this the hard way. I stopped writing fiction. I told the daydreams to leave me the hell alone. They refused to comply. It was an awkward and deeply unsettling episode in my life. Artists, musicians, and writers take it further, because the real ones have no choice.

So here I am, a writer with a head full of ideas and no clear way to tell you how they come into being. I daydream, and the daydreams become stories. Sounds pretty simple, but how does it work? And why? Why do I dream the dreams I do, about civilizations in the future, ships and swordsmen, hostile aliens, and worlds like our own – only different? Why does my imagination generate such things and not, for example, innovative business plans or experimental protocols? For that matter, why words and not music, or pictures? Why do I even have such a fertile imagination in the first place?

I can provide no solid answers to any of these questions, only the sort of speculation that comes from looking back across the years. I’ve always been this way. For the record, it really is a blessing, not a burden – which is not to say it’s always easy. As a youngster, before the idea of writing fiction ever occurred to me, I had a penchant for spinning yarns and windy stories. I’ve always related to the kid in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip because I lived in a similar imaginary world, and all too often the line between reality and imagination faded away. The consequences of that fade were sometimes awkward. It might be honest and accurate to say I was born with that style of imagination, that the root of it all is in some quirk of gene expression, but by itself that doesn’t explain the way the phenomenon manifests itself. The way my imagination works may be a consequence of the times in which I spent my childhood, the Sixties and early Seventies, when the race to the Moon was on and Cold War nuclear paranoia was palpable – even if you were too young to really understand the rhetoric. “What if,” was the big question on those days. The “what if” scenarios were not always pleasant.

I was also a skinny kid, and not terribly sociable. Being a bit of a misfit, the urge to escape was natural, and having a lurid imagination being fed by equally lurid speculations regarding space travel and nuclear war, you can easily guess the direction in which I escaped. I read mostly science fiction, adding fantasy somewhere in high school when I discovered Tolkien. The addiction to print was an early development, and the inclination to write in a similar vein just seemed to co-evolve. And maybe that really does explain it all.

Or not. As explanations go, it still feels incomplete. And even if it’s adequate for those reading these words, it says nothing about the creativity and imagination of others. It’s all surely variations on a theme, but others are writing those themes. This is just me.

These musings merely touch at the roots of a process that becomes, for me, a novel or a short story. Roots grow into places dark and fertile and strange. Maybe this is as deep as I should dig, for now.

Stranger from a Strange Time: Reflections on “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written”   3 comments

After my recent experience rereading Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning novel Starship Troopers, I approached his third Hugo winner, Stranger in a Strange Land* with a certain amount of trepidation. As was the case with the former, the latter was one of those novels that made a profound impression on me as a young reader of science fiction. I was disappointed by Starship Troopers as an older and more experienced reader. The contrast between my impressions of the book, then and now, was stark. I was in my late teens – a little older and a bit more experienced, though not perhaps as much as I believed at the time – when a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land fell into my hands. I remember being strongly affected by the book back then. With this rereading of another old favorite, was I about to be disillusioned yet again?

The answer, I’m pleased to report, is no. While I certainly responded to the novel in a very different way after forty years of life experiences, I came away from this reread with a favorable impression. The novel is a strong enough character-driven story that it held my attention to the very end, even though these days I don’t read a novel and take its contents at face value. (That was very true of me in younger days.) To my relief, Heinlein resisted the urge to simply use Stranger in a Strange Land as another glorified soap box for his political views. I was able to read it and be entertained, even though his beliefs and attitudes do come through, at times loud and clear. Some of what comes across strikes me now, as a more mature reader, as an oversimplified take on human nature, but Heinlein’s views on such matters never derailed the storytelling process, as I saw happen in Starship Troopers. They were part of the tapestry he wove into the story, and for the most part the story worked.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the tale of Valentine Michael Smith, a young man raised by a very alien culture on Mars, who is then returned to Earth where everything humans consider normal is completely new to him. He discovers himself as a human being while observing all aspects of the human experience through that thoroughly alien frame of reference – one that, by the way, gives him superhuman abilities. Smith has no reason to simply accept his humanity as a given, or to accept blindly the rationalizations of those around him regarding the human condition. And thereby hangs a tale. Through the experiences of Valentine Michael Smith, and the people who become involved with his life, Heinlein examines who and what we are as human beings. This is a common theme in science fiction, and grows none the worse for the wear through constant reuse. Heinlein puts it to very good use in this book. To my mind, this is one of the best novels Heinlein wrote. Some would go further than that. The cover of the old paperback I read proclaims the book to be “THE MOST FAMOUS SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.” (And yes, it’s all capitalized on the book cover.) I’m not sure this is literally true, but it surely is one of the most best known novels in the genre, in part because of the way it seemed to anticipate the “counterculture” of the 1960s. Oh, and for its famous prediction of the waterbed. (Can’t leave that out!)

Stranger in a Strange Land is sometimes dismissed by modern-day readers as – among other things – sexist. By today’s standards, the book could indeed be seen that way, though I doubt it would have seemed sexist in quite the same way more than fifty years ago, when it was published. The female characters of this novel certainly are comfortable with their own sexual appetites, and show a level of assertiveness not usually seen as completely acceptable in popular fiction of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And yet these same characters also seem to carry plenty of 1950s happy homemaker baggage, which really doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) play well these days. To those who read old novels without considering the times in which they were written, this seems a mixed message. When this book was written, however, our society was stepping none too steadily out of one societal norm and into the next. Sometimes, while rereading the book, I got the impression Heinlein was a man standing with one foot in each epoch, not at all sure which way to go.

The strongest complaints regarding sexism seem to center around the character Jubal Harshaw. Jubal’s treatment of and interactions with the women he employs toucha nerve with many modern reviewers. Harshaw’s openly and bluntly sexist behavior toward these women would be cringeworthy in modern society, heard without a proper understanding of the context. But there is a context, and even a casual read of this book should reveal the understanding that exists between Harshaw and these women, and his obvious respect and affection for each of them. This is apparently missed by some modern reviewers, who interpret the material as being a typically sexist portrayal of women as brain-washed objects. (The character Anne, by herself, should dispel such a notion.) That seems too harsh to me, especially after reading Harshaw’s lecture to Ben Caxton regarding the sculptures La Belle Heaulmiere and Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone. Not exactly the attitudes of your average insensitive male sexist pig.

For all that I believe some modern readers judge the book too harshly, I can understand, up to a point, why they react as they do. However, as I read the book I didn’t get the feeling that the author intended to belittle or diminish the value of female human beings. Quite the contrary, he seems more inclined to glorify them, although in a somewhat awkward, adolescent way. This explains why I could enjoy the novel, even though I often found myself shaking my head and thinking, “Really?” Heinlein’s portrayal of women obviously remains rooted in a time when some things we now consider sexist were seen as normal and acceptable. We no longer see things that way – well, some of us, anyway – and so whatever he intended is sometimes lost on modern readers. Perhaps because of this, I’ve seen reviews of the book that go much too far in their response to the apparent sexism, suggesting that the book should be shunned or heavily edited, because it does not match modern sensibilities. Such an idea makes me almost as uncomfortable as the degree of gender-based inequality that stubbornly persists in our modern times. The works of the past should not be dismissed, or worse, altered, because they do not reflect the beliefs of the present day. We need these books – and films, and whatever else from the past might draw such a response. We need these things in order to provide a perspective that can help us to judge how far we’ve come, a perspective that provides the only realistic measure of how much further we have yet to go.

 

*I read the “uncut” edition of the novel, released in 1991, but realized afterward that I really should read the one people actually voted on thirty years before. The original is the book discussed here. I didn’t see that the uncut edition added anything of substance to the story.

 

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