A stranger in a strange land, by Robert Heinlein: Metaphor or stereotype?

By Philip (Norval Joe) Carroll

As I listen to my fellow editors at Flying Island Press, I realize they are much better grounded in Science Fiction than am I.

I was introduced to reading by J. R. R. Tolkein and it was the epic battles between humans and non humans, and the travel through strange lands with forests and mountains, and trolls, that turned me on. So fantasy has always been my thing, over science fiction.

I tried Ray Bradbury, (Remember, my youth was in the 1970’s.), but I think I got lost in symbolism, or unstated meaning that the reader was supposed to assume. One book I read and used for book reviews for several years in a row from sixth through ninth grade was the novelization of a movie I had seen called, “Silent Running.” The environmental theme of the movie and book had such an effect on me–picturing a world completely devoid of plants–that I filled my bedroom with house plants. I had my own indoor forest. (Until I forgot to water them.)

One of my first attempts at writing was in sixth grade as I tried to write the sequel to this movie/book and had a dome filled with plant life crash land on earth. I never could figure out how to keep it from burning up as it plummeted to the earth, so pretty much gave up after one scene.

Moving forward to 2011, finding I lacked a good foundation in popular science fiction, I decided to expand my reading, (or in my case, listening) of the classics and current popular science fiction.

The first book I read was Robert Heinlein’s ‘A Stranger in a Strange Land’. I like history. I was listening to a book recommended by Dan Carlin of The Hardcore History Podcast, ‘The Pity of War’, about the first world war. It was heavy listening. I’m only a third the way through. But I found ‘Stranger’ an interesting historical commentary on gender roles in the early sixties.

I don’t know if Heinlein was pointing out the male chauvinism of the times, or if he, in real life, spoke to women as the men in his story did. At times he seems contradictory. He puts women in positions of power, but still has them subservient to men. He has his character, Jubel Hershaw, make many of the comments that we would expect from an old man, (Archie Bunker, if you are old enough to remember the tv show, “All in the Family”) and justifies his archaic attitudes to being old and unable to change. But then Heinlein has women swooning, passing out, because of how nicely Michael kisses, and one woman even went into hysterics when placed in a stressful situation.

Also, I found interesting that he didn’t predict, or foresee, the advance of the computer. Television is mostly unchanged. People make phone calls using the old exchange system. (My parents phone number from 1960 was on the Ivanhoe exchange. If you wanted to have the operator connect you to their number, rather than giving them seven digits, you would ask for Ivanhoe 37673.) The funniest miss I felt he made was when they did the paternity check on Michael they used blood type and rh factor. Can you imagine life, or forensics, without DNA?

I thought his presentation of big religion as trite and predictable. But that may be because he was right and that pop religion seeks converts through excitement, money and absolution without commitment.

One review said that this book shaped a generation. You can see where the hippie movement found identification in it as well as many other cult movements. Free love, communal living, meditation, and spiritual enlightenment were all factors in Michael’s characteristics as a Martian, and in his “Church of all worlds”. But, did they become part of the counter culture because Heinlein wrote it, or did he write it because that was the direction the popular illuminati were already practicing in 1961?

Therefore, if popular fiction is a mirror of popular feelings, where is our fiction headed now? The Windup Girl is a story set in the future when the polar icecaps melt, the ocean level rises and we have to deal with cyborgs, genetically enhanced animals and crops, and political corruption. Will it accurately predict our future in 50 to 100 years from now?

I got that story from Audible and will review it, hopefully better that I did this one, in the next few weeks.
Final thought, “If you haven’t read “Stranger” before, should you read it now?” I wouldn’t recommend it. Maybe after I’ve read others from the same time period I’ll have a different answer to that question.

Philip ‘Norvaljoe’ Carroll is an Army trained Certified Orthotist, former slot car racer, former Boy Scout leader, and currently a staff editor at Flying Island Press. He enjoys sharing his opinion with anyone who will listen, or at least act like they are listening.

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