Revisiting the Classics

by wjw on April 8, 2015

As part of my program to revisit books that I liked when I was younger, I recently re-read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time since I was in college.

Oh, my.

I should point out that as a young person I read all the Heinlein I could find.  (Have Space Suit, Will Travel remains one of my favorite books of all time.)  Nor did I stick just to the juveniles.  Heinlein had the gift of a perfect avuncular voice: if you were a bright kid of thirteen and curious about the world, he was the kindly uncle who would help you find out how things worked.  And as a thirteen-year-old I read Heinlein and I believed everything Uncle Bob told me: I believed we should bring back flogging (Starship Troopers), practice Upton Sinclair’s version of socialism (Beyond This Horizon), and practice Free Love (Stranger).

(Of course, when you come down to it, what thirteen-year-old male doesn’t want to practice Free Love?)

That Heinlein’s various visions of the future were contradictory did not occur to me.  I also was unable to distinguish between the ideas that Heinlein meant seriously and the ideas he was just throwing out for their own sake.

When I re-read the book in college, I had the feeling that my kindly uncle was something of a blowhard.  Now that I’m older, I’m finding the avuncular voice just the least bit condescending.

But I’m not merely older, I’ve been a professional writer for a long time— and now I can look at the book from the point of view of someone who’s written nearly as many books as Heinlein himself.

Firstly, the structure is very odd.  I can well believe, as biographer Patterson maintains, that it was written over more than ten years, with many diversions and false starts.  One has the sense that there were several manuscripts all cohabiting uneasily together.

And it’s a novel almost entirely without suspense!  It starts off well enough, with Martian Mike being smuggled out of government custody to the home of renegade lawyer Jubal Harshaw— but then the book just stops, to give Jubal the chance to make speeches and give us his opinions for 25,000 words or so.  Heinlein’s avuncular voice does very well with the speeches, and any single speech is entertaining, but there are so damned many of them!  I felt as if I were being repeatedly walloped with a hockey stick.

The story picks up again when the government stormtroopers start circling Jubal’s fort, but then it turns out that Mike the Martian has superpowers, and he effortlessly banishes the bad guys from our dimension.  (So much for suspense . . . ) And then Jubal works out a settlement with the government, and that ends any hope of suspense in the book, which nevertheless continues on for well over 100,000 words, mostly declamation.

(Heinlein’s original version of the book, now available, goes on for 60,000 more words than the edited version I re-read.  My God, more speeches!)

Things happen later that could be suspenseful— Mike’s church gets bombed by the Mafia, which could be an exciting scene— but we’re told right away that the bombing doesn’t matter, and that it’s all part of Mike’s plan, so everything is okay, no need to get excited, and so I wasn’t.

Heinlein gives us two protagonists who are, in essence, perfect human beings.  (So much for watching them grow and change.)  Neither Jubal nor Mike can think a wrong thought or perform a wrong action.  Their judgment is perfect and their actions even more so.  Mike’s knowledge of the human race is sub-perfect at the start, but once he finds out about sex and laughter (fortunately not at the same time) he demonstrates his eerie perfection for the rest of the book, and for the most part takes over Jubal’s job of giving speeches to the reader. (His speeches are less entertaining than Jubal’s, because they’re not delivered by Heinlein’s cranky-old-man persona, but rather by an earnest messiah delivering unto us mortals the Trvth.)

The perfection of the two protagonists leads to the side effect of everyone else in the book becoming their foils.  The rest of the cast have to ask the dumb questions, and make the dumb arguments, that allow Jubal and Mike to demonstrate their knowledge and mastery.  This is particularly true of Jill, Mike’s girlfriend, who is repeatedly saddled with irrational prejudices and arguments so that Jubal and Mike can knock them down and make her look dim.

I’m hardly the first to say that all the girls in the book are essentially interchangeable, and I’m not the first to note that while Heinlein tells us repeatedly that the women are intelligent and accomplished and competent, none of them appear that way when they actually appear in the narrative.  Their function is to sexually initiate Mike, and once that’s done, they go on having interchangeable sex with other interchangeable partners.

Heinlein of course practiced free love and nudism in real life, but as depicted here the polyamory is idealized and far more simple, I suspect, than it is in reality.  It’s True and Right, because one of the perfect protagonists says it is— just as, in Starship Troopers, a society that restricts the franchise to the military is True and Right, because a Professor of Moral Philosophy declaims it so.  No evidence is needed, just the word of someone Heinlein’s put in authority.

I found the last third of the book hard to get through, because it was endless speechifying.  I was eye-rolling and flipping through the pages as fast as I could.

And still . . . I have to say that this is a very remarkable book, particularly for one that was composed in the Eisenhower Administration.  Possibly all the arguments and declamations were necessary in order to convince Mr. Average Joe of 1960 to take any of the ideas seriously at all.

And I am left with no doubt that Heinlein reveals himself in many of the speeches— not just his opinions, of which there are many in the earlier works, but Heinlein’s inner self, what he actually believes and cares about.  Heinlein’s inner self is exploding out of the pages here, and it’s interesting when it happens, at least until it starts happening to excess.

In his later works that person got really tiresome, and I stopped reading well before Heinlein stopped writing.  Ranting Uncle Bob was spoiling my memory of Kindly Uncle Bob.

But still.  Stranger.  Wow.  Nothing like it.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Gary Gibson April 8, 2015 at 6:29 am

I tried to reread Heinlein a couple times since I was a kid. I tried re-reading Stranger, but that was back in the Nineties, and I could barely drag myself halfway through a book I’d thought was great in my mid-teens. It was awful. More recently – maybe ten years ago – I tried re-reading Glory Road, and that plumbed the depths of awfulness to levels I hadn’t realised were possible.

I still have fond memories of Podkayne of Mars, from when I was even smaller. I may yet try and re-read that one some day, even though it’s probably really not a good idea.

Phil Koop April 8, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Hey! Leave hockey out of this!

I went through the exercise of re-reading Starship Troopers a couple years ago, and unfortunately I must confess that I still liked it. That isn’t too surprising, because its flaws were obvious to me even as a child: the absurd political premise, the annoying proofs-by-assertion, the heavy breathing about sex as the ultimate motivation for sacrifice. The only thing that really changed was that I felt a bit guiltier about enjoying it.

But I never understood the appeal of Stranger, even as a kid. Not sure I could make it through now.

Urban April 8, 2015 at 2:10 pm

For a long time, I kept all Heinlein books; Then I realised _Sixth Column_ was just wasting space, and recently I tried _Number of the Beast_ but gave up. No idea if I even kept _Stranger_.
I think that weirdly structured books were the *point* for him, because they’re either that or very straightforward.

Barry April 8, 2015 at 6:32 pm

“I still have fond memories of Podkayne of Mars, from when I was even smaller. I may yet try and re-read that one some day, even though it’s probably really not a good idea.”

I have a feeling that the juveniles will re-read better, simply due to the fact that any speechifying/propaganda had to be restrained and very carefully delivered.

Note – I’m a professional statistician, and when I recall a couple of places (e.g., Starship Troopers) where the protagonist is required to cliometrically prove certain things, I laugh out loud.

barryT April 8, 2015 at 7:20 pm

I agree – ole Bob’s feet left the deck around the time of ‘Stranger’, and IMO things then proceeded to go even further downhill ( have you tried reading ‘The Number of the Beast’ without ending up throwing the damn thing across the room?). But this is the stuff he gets judged by, that the greater part of his reputation was built on – and it’s getting a cold hard look by a new generation of readers. Pity, because he wrote some nifty sf – ‘Double Star’, ‘Waldo & Magic Inc.’ ‘Time for the Stars’ etc.

Could be some writers keep going to the well when it’s run dry or their bucket has a hole in it, but it obviously gets most attention when it’s one of the GOM of sf. Asimov lost his touch in his later years, as did Arthur Clarke – though I’ll admit that the only Clarke book I personally really rated was ‘Tales from the White Hart’.

Against that – these days I reread one hellova lot more of the older sf titles than I do of the new stuff – I find it’s more fun.

Shash April 9, 2015 at 2:48 am

My best friend introduced me to Heinlein with “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” back in 10th grade. I would have arguments with her about how paternalistic he was and how all his females were cut from the same cloth. She quit speaking with me (some friend!) and I set Heinlein aside. About 8 years later, I tried again. No go. My mind was set in stone about him.

Shoot forward another 12 years or so and my new boyfriend set about the argument that the women were intelligent and interesting. So I set about showing him the sexist, paternalistic, way Heinlein portrayed all of them and demanded he tell me something different about the personality of each one. He couldn’t.

There’s a lot of good writing out there. I’m not wasting my reading time with Heinlein again.

pixlaw April 9, 2015 at 3:09 am

Walter, from your earlier posts I’ve gathered that you and I are almost the same vintage. And like you I worshiped Heinlein when I was an adolescent. Because he told me about how stuff really was. And like you I just sucked it all in.

It’s truly embarrassing now to think about all of the words and pontificating of his I just lapped up like a kitten on cream. Sixth Column? I was there, and it was great…smart murderous white guys annihilating oppressive killer “orientals” and their thuggish quislings, but with SCIENCE (and then cutting them up in bathtubs), but disguised as religion. Glory Road, which made it clear that if you were a college fencer and went to Vietnam, you could end up having torrid sex with a beautiful Empress, as well as barely-pubescent groupies and their mothers, and if you didn’t have sex with them, their fathers and/or spouses would be pissed. Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which for about 4 years running was my favorite book of all time, and which featured one of the most classic Uncle Bob avuncular explainers of all time, Professor Bernardo de la Paz. And Time Enough for Love, which was published when I was a sophomore in high school, and which seemed at the time to prove to me exactly how ill-equipped to deal with the real world I was. I couldn’t birth a baby or explain how banks worked to stupid politicians, and I didn’t even have a talking mule, much less a a grandfather full of wise sayings. At least the Notebooks of Lazarus Long solved that last problem for me. But even back then, the whole going back in time to have sex with your mother thing seemed a little creepy to me.

And I just never got Stranger in a Strange Land at all. I have vague memories of reading it probably 3 or 4 times, and constantly saying “What?” and “I just don’t get this,” over and over again.

I just can’t read his stuff any more. It’s too much of a time and place that’s lost entirely to me. Which makes it all the more weird when some in fandom make Heinlein some kind of litmus test to determine whether you’re a true SF fan or not. It does seem to resemble the way people use The Fountainhead to determine if you’re REALLY an intellectual revolutionary aching to fight socialistic conformity, or just, you know, one of those 49% takers. Makes you think, man. Really.

pixlaw April 9, 2015 at 3:18 am

Oh, and the other thing I meant to say was that in retrospect, it also explains why I really liked the Travis McGee books by John MacDonald at the same time. He always explained shit too.

Every book had at least 2 if not 5 places where McGee would explain why modern art really sucked, or how to hitchhike, or how to do whatever the fuck it was. I’ll bet there’s a place in one of his books where McGee explains quantum physics, or at least whether Schrödinger’s cat is really alive or dead; and if it’s dead, who killed it, just before jumping into the sack with some hot babe.

How come rabid fans don’t use MacDonald as a litmus test?

wjw April 9, 2015 at 3:28 am

I re-read Starship Troopers a few years back. I had fewer fond memories of it, and thought it was a poor book. But what most surprised me was that, as a founding document in what became Military SF, it had so little action in it. The rest was talking and training. Modern MilSF writers add a lot more combat— though possibly it’s because they have less to say.

wjw April 9, 2015 at 3:29 am

On the other hand, I also re-read Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I thought stood up rather well.

Ralf T, Dog April 9, 2015 at 4:47 am

I think the most interesting of his books was Number of the Beast. About half way through the book, I think something happened to his brain. The book transforms from a somewhat interesting multiverse story into something Philip K Dick would call irrational and disjointed. The change happens from one page to the next.

If anyone knows any back story as to what happened or if I just did not get what he was trying to say, please let me know.

mdhughes April 9, 2015 at 5:47 am

Stranger’s weird now because it’s not so weird; at the time it must’ve been pure fantasy, and today it passes for current events minus Mars (and we’ll be there soon enough). The sexuality and politics seem plausible, we all know people in complicated relationships which would be better served by Mike’s disingenuous total honesty. The religious lunatics and stormtroopers are half our political system.

I was a little bored by the last reread of it, a few years back, but more because Mike’s powers are so irrelevant and unexplored.

Friday is basically Stranger volume II, and it’s even more weirdly current, and Jubal has fewer speeches in it.

Number of the Beast is hilarious. It’s Heinlein’s collection of fanfic (including a self-fanfic/parody) with a snappy-dialogue framing story. Who wouldn’t want to read his take on Oz or Alice in Wonderland? I suppose a Mrs Grundy going in expecting another Starship Troopers is going to be upset.

wjw April 9, 2015 at 6:01 am

You’re right in that Mike’s powers are unexplored. He disappears rather a lot of people after having grokked their wrongness, but otherwise he uses his powers for practical jokes— making the D.A.’s clothes disappear during the trial, or making the bars in the local jail vanish.

He has little in the way of conscience, but then he’s perfect, so he doesn’t need one.

TRX April 9, 2015 at 11:45 am

I still like and own many of Heinlein’s earlier works and juveniles. I kept a copy of “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, but the rest of Heinlein’s later work got culled years ago.

I never understood the hate for “Starship Troopers.” I probably first read it when I was eleven or twelve years old. Even then, I knew the difference between “setting up a fictional background for a story” and “seriously proposing political changes.” Yes, the book had serious problems with pacing and more than its share of Heinlein preaching; I still grooved on the exoskeletons.

Many of Heinlein’s later books were merely novel-length chase scenes, often without clear resolution, much less plot. Nothing at all like his tightly-written earlier work. Many authors tend to sprawl later in their careers; I’ve sometimes wondered if it was their style changing, or if they were always that way, but now with enough clout to by bypass editing.

Jonathan April 9, 2015 at 2:16 pm

“one of those 49% takers”

Now, let’s now exaggerate. It’s only 47%.

Elizabeth Burton April 9, 2015 at 4:47 pm

Stranger appeals to adolescents because it’s essentially a story about opposing authority. Which is why, I suspect, it was all but a bible during the ’60s. The idea that humans are perfectible—and that the way that can be achieved is via guilt-free sex and communal living, ditto.

Still, the underlying theme of questioning authority and resisting it when it’s clearly oppressive isn’t a bad one any time of life. Taken in its historical context, Stranger is what it is—one man’s political polemic thinly disguised.

MR Bill April 9, 2015 at 7:47 pm

I reread “Stranger” perhaps ten years ago, and found it bloody awful. I still remember the Heinlein juveniles (“Tunnel in the Sky”, “Between Planets”, “Have Spacesuit will Travel”) fondly, but only “Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Double Star” seem to hold up…The late novels (“I will Fear No Evil”, “Friday” “Time Enough for Love”) were books not worth a reread when they came out…Was unable to finish “Job”…

TRX April 10, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Heinlein told us almost nothing about the government in Stranger. We see some possibly-overzealous police types, and some politicking, probably nothing notably out of line back when, much less in 2015. The book is supposedly Mike’s story, but he’s never developed as a character. Jill gets some development for a while, then gets relegated to “girlfriend.” We get quite a bit of Jubal Harshaw, who has some memorable lines, but it’s not supposed to be Harshaw’s story. It’s a good example of what I call “late Heinlein”; it rambles. And then it abruptly ends without resolution.

FWIW, back in the late 1980s a thead on Byte’s messaging system talked about the possible cast of a movie version of Stranger. There was considerable debate over who would play what, other than one unanimous agreement: James Earl Jones for Jubal Harshaw. Nearly thirty years later, that’s still who is in my mind’s eye when I think of the book.

Kaleberg April 12, 2015 at 12:09 am

My exposure to Heinlein was in college. I started with ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ and ‘Farmer in the Sky’, so I figured that Heinlein was a Marxist as both books are Marxist parables. The former is about workers seizing the means of production and the latter about the need for personal sacrifice for the future of the agricultural commune. It even had tractors, just like contemporary Soviet fiction.

I tried to read ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, but it just seemed to drag on and on with no point. It wasn’t as bad as deSade’s ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom’ which I read as a tract about why one should keep philosophy out of the bedroom, but it was pretty lame. Let’s face it, free love is an old idea. I’ve retired out to Port Angeles which is at the edge of the continent, and back in the late 19th century there was a big free love colony out here, and I doubt that it was the only one ever. People used to come out and gawk at it, just the way they used to visit Utah to see bigamists. Now they come here for the marijuana cigarettes and hemp tee shirts.

If you are going to read Heinlein, my advice is to stick to his juveniles as they are more likely to be action stories with stuff happening. For Asimov, read anything of his from before he got his first word processor which was some time in the 1970s. Asimov had an amazing ability to put words on paper, but not every talent should be so completely indulged. As for deSade, read his ‘Justine’ which has a real sense of humor and some amusing irony.

Neil in Chicago April 12, 2015 at 1:29 am

It so happens I listened to Stranger in an audio recording on a recent road trip. I’d read it half a dozen times over the decades, and enjoyed it, but out loud the relentless bloviation was almost painful.
Still, except for the late stuff when he could refuse editing, there’s gold in just about every one of his titles. And I categorically reject any bumpersticker reductions of Heinlein. The first page of _Starship Trooper_ is about still being scared every time. The second page offhandedly lists some of the jobs where women are better than men. “Good. Now prove your answer.” “Horatius, Alvin York, Swamp Fox, the Rog herself, bless her heart, Colonel Bowie, Devereux, Vercingetorix, Sandino, . . . ” Sandino?!? Augusto César Sandino who held off the U.S. Marine Corps for six years in Nicaragua?!! Listed between Francis Marion and James Bowie. In a novel written at the end of the Eisenhower Administration, where almost everyone in the book is a “Person of Color” . . .
Anyone who dismisses it with the single epithet “proto-fascist” is illiterate. My one overarching opinion of Heinlein is that he was not simple, and any simple opinion of his work is wrong out of hand.

Odin April 12, 2015 at 2:45 pm

I thought “The Puppet Masters” was his most readable work.

wjw April 12, 2015 at 9:18 pm

“Puppet Masters” was a good one, and it holds up well.

“Starship Troopers” is something of an aberration, as it seems to have been inspired by his fear of the nuclear disarmament campaign, which for some reason RAH thought only himself and the members of the Patrick Henry League knew about. I have to think he wasn’t thinking clearly when he came up with that one.

Heinlein’s politics don’t fit easily onto a left-right spectrum, but there’s a perceptible rightward drift from his early days as an anticommunist socialist. (Influenced by Ginny, I’m guessing.) He idealized the military, but he insisted it be filled only with volunteers; he wrote books like “Citizen of the Galaxy,” which preached the rights and duties of the good citizen; but he wanted citizenship to be voluntary, too.

He wanted people to volunteer for the things he cared about, and then follow through. It’s not a bad program, but it depends on enough people caring about the stuff that Heinlein cared about, and in the same way, and that seems impractical.

Odin April 13, 2015 at 2:25 am

Are you inferring all this from his fiction? A lot of authors I’ve read seem to put their pearls of wisdom in the mouths of their most respected characters but I don’t think it follows that those characters are necessarily touting the author’s positions in all instances.

wjw April 13, 2015 at 5:30 am

I’m largely following the argument in Patterson’s massive biography.

TRX April 13, 2015 at 12:12 pm

I recently listened to the audiobook of the “restored” version of The Puppet Masters. I liked it quite a lot, and not all books hold up well as audiobooks.

There was the still huge glaring problem of Agent Mary though. “Yes, we have a super secret wet work agency operating in a USA engaged in a not-so-cold war with the Soviets, and we have all kinds of interrogation techniques, but we’ll hire some woman with no past or papers and train her up to be a super-agent without bothering with even the most cursory background check.” I had problems with that as a teenager, as well as the whole “Venus Colony” thing, which apparently only got a mention to give Mary a later backstory.

Jerry April 16, 2015 at 1:13 pm

I couldn’t find the fish in the photo, but I did see the basset hound. I still remember the best review of Starship Troopers that I ever read. I think it was in Analog. The entire review was: “Some people consider this the last of Heinlein’s great novels. Others consider it the first.”

RIckard Goranowski July 13, 2015 at 3:14 pm

I stopped inside ‘Strangers’ once I realized RH was whacking off through his characters. The novel I remember was I think ‘Space Cadet’ when his young Alec Ramsay “Kadet” protagonist chose to epitath his hard-corps Mac something noncom “tombstone: ‘he ate what was set before him;’ not ‘He played the cards he was dealt'”– because “he’d switch whole decks”– sartorially averred that leadership uniforms should be unadorned but well-tailored leaving the bombast gutta-percha brassard, chrome and polish to the sergeants.

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