Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

'Stranger In A Strange Land': Can You Grok That?

When I decided to go with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land as this month's pick, the first thing I did was call my dad, being generationally incapable of solving problems without parental input. My dad, last shanghaied into action for our Hammer of the Gods discussion, is a man of exquisite and discerning taste. Sometimes, though, he must be nudged along:

Nicole: Dad, you have to watch "Sherlock," it's a revelation.
Dad: I watched about ten minutes. It's not believable that he's that smart.
Nicole: YOU WATCHED ALL OF "BUFFY" TWICE, ASSHOLE, AND VAMPIRES AREN'T REAL. I'm sending you the DVDs. Call me back when you've seen them. But don't watch the second season yet! Save it so I can watch your facial reactions to "The Reichenbach Fall"!

(Six days later.)

Dad: Yeah, it's great. You were right.

… but he always gets there in the end. Anyway, old science fiction is kind of our thing; he stopped reading new science fiction when it became about computers instead of space, which I completely respect. You have to know when it's time to pack up your bindle and start riding the rails to a new town, you know? We're Dangerous Visions people. I had never read Heinlein, possibly because I had some vague memory of my dad saying it wasn't great, so I was intrigued by the tenor of our discussion.

Nicole: Dad, tell me about Heinlein. You have… thirty seconds..
Dad: Shit. Shit. Okay. He was a bit of a fascist, though he was originally kind of a socialist, and SUCH an American
(ed: my dad is Canadian and hates all of you, even the children), so although he's similar to Andre Norton in terms of writing chiefly adolescent-oriented sci-fi in the 1950s and 1960s, he's more planet-domination based. But it was good adolescent-oriented sci-fi, really. We didn't have a lot of pornography at the time, so everyone had to seed their books with a lot of gratuitous sex scenes.
Nicole: I have an impression of Heinlein being for dudes. The kind of dudes who would go on to prefer Philip K. Dick when their taste improved? Would you agree?
Dad: No. I wouldn't agree with that. Don't quote me on that.

Hearing that Heinlein might be okay, I was obviously very excited, as someone who reliably enjoys popular things and SPACE. Space is wonderful, guys. It's the future! We're gonna trash this place, so let's start working on an exit strategy. Heinlein knows what I'm talking about. Clearly, because the first sentence is: "Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith." Okay, guy, I'm listening. Go on.

Because so many Heinlein-isms ("grok," etc.) have emerged into the Tumblrverse, it's fun to watch individual sentences ping-pong between seeming incredibly current and adorably dated. "An all-male crew was vetoed as unhealthy and unstable. Four married couples were considered optimum…" Could you be more heteronormative, people-who-are-supposed-to-be-in-the-future? Not to mention a "Mad Men in Space" office sexual-harassment culture: "Well, if it ain't 'Dimples'! Hi, honey, what brings you here?" SCIENCE, motherfucker! And, naturally, when making a list of desired skill sets, they seem to require a cook, but not an IT person. (This was before you could buy astronaut ice cream.) But then, there are things we don't even have NOW: "She put on the suit she had changed into back into her locker and put on a dress kept there for emergencies. It was demure, barely translucent, with bustle and bust pads so subdued that they merely re-created the effect she would have produced wearing nothing." Um, paging Heinlein for Target? Where is our questing, visionary spirit?

Speaking of "Mad Men in Space," Jill, our lady-heroine, is totally a Joan, so she effortlessly parries all of the ham-fisted "honey chiles" thrown her way. Heinlein appears to have loved some righteous women in his day, and it shows. Yes, not only did I unexpectedly enjoy the hell out of Strange in a Strange Land, it's not nearly as reactionary as I had been led to believe. Maybe it prepared a bunch of sad, masturbating male teenagers to appreciate sassiness? Because, really, it's kind of great. I must confess, I'm not quite resigned to the loss of years the locust has eaten. There's such regret, isn't there, in not reading things at the right time? We talked about this a little bit with Mists of Avalon. It's best to spend your teenage years doing nothing but reading. What else is there to do? The boys are in a cloud of Axe, the men are bad for you, the women aren't interested, and the girls, like you, are trying frenetically to figure it out. Best instead to read all the things, you'll have decades to watch television after work. It doesn't have to be good; it's all the apprenticeship-work of gathering information that matters. I'm sorry, even, that I skipped Ayn Rand in high school, now. Maybe it would have been useful to me? This is a tangent, but I'm beginning to collect massive swaths of books for my kid, and you have to fight the urge to make them all "good." The best experiences of being a kid, for me, involved going into the grown-up part of the library and reading an entire shelf (maritime law! sheep ranching!) from left to right, barely taking breaks to pee and eat the penny candy I afforded by stealing from my brother.

Science fiction, speculative fiction, whatever, is the perfect choice for that kind of behavior. Someone, and I LEGIT can't remember who, once wrote that poking fun at science fiction, as a genre, is so silly, considering that mystery novels (which are also great!) are about death and murder and crime, while sci-fi is about reimagining the world and making it better and new and different. And, honestly, these are the books and pulps and magazines and comics that have done more than any other genre to begin the process of playing with race, and gender. No one is claiming that Heinlein is a social justice blogger, or anything like that, and it's not a super-great book, but ANY KIND of science fiction, even of the Tits in Tight Silver Outfits variety, is implicitly saying that the world we currently live in is not the only way a world could be, that things could change. That's really revolutionary, when you think about it. And, jeez, if you want to talk about "the story not the storyteller," let's think about Orson Scott Card. The man is a bag of dicks, when it comes to his personal politics, but Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus could actually make you a better person.

Now I'm starting to sound crazy, but please, if you've never tried, buy a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. And Dangerous Visions. Get a little weird with it. Buy Women of Wonder: The Classic Years. I used to read it once a month, while scarfing bags of chocolate-covered almonds I wasn't supposed to have access to, and now I am an interesting person.

I'm still not quite done with Stranger in a Strange Land, I need to get back to it. See you next month. WE'RE DOING ATLAS SHRUGGED. WHAT?!


Honey (four instances)
Honey chile
Honey lamb
Little one (four instances)
Sugar foot
Baby girl
The babe
Little slut
Good girl
Pretty foots (two instances)
Child (three instances)
Girl (four instances)
Little girl

Bonus phrase: "A woman who can't cook is a waste of skin."


1. Maybe there are vampires? There are definitely Geocities sites from the 1990s to this effect.

2 . No, really, though, arrrrre you watching "Sherlock"? I don't know who the hell thought Kevin Costner out-acted Benedict Cumberbatch, but they should all be hung from meat hooks.

3. Speaking of Hammer of the Gods, in which Eric Clapton is referenced, I heartily endorse reading Clapton's memoirs followed by Patti Boyd's memoirs, followed by getting sober and reevaluating your life and marrying a younger woman. Who has thoughts about Eric/George/Patti?

4. I started a list called "People I Thought Were White Until I Saw Pictures of Them," but realized it would only have Samuel Delany on it. Who would be on yours?

5. Starship Troopers: Great Movie, or the Greatest Movie?

6. What if Heinlein had founded a cult instead of L. Ron? What would it look like? Be specific.

7. Read Packing For Mars. This is not a question, it is a summons.

8. Ugh, I got so earnest. Sorry.

Previously: 'Rebecca': The Real Housewives Of Cornwall County

Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.

60 Comments / Post A Comment

melis (#1,854)

The greatest movie, no question.

ipomoea (#207,034)

@melis absolutely. Cinematic artistry at its finest. Personally, it's one of those movies like The Princess Bride or High Fidelity that is a day-ruiner: you see that it's on TV and welp, there goes two hours.

deepomega (#1,720)

SHERLOCK IS A NIGHTMARE, the second episode is the most racist thing I've seen on a popular teevee show in years and just waters down the original mysteries and makes them more boring. Also it was clearly written by a person who has no understanding of how the internet or cell phones work. Also, it has a decidedly Heinlein-y relation with women.

@deepomega I actually totally, totally agree about "The Blind Banker," but otherwise you are a Person Who is Wrong on the Internet and Must Be Crushed. Crushed. Sherlock 4 Lyfe.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

Sherlock is 100% about the homoerotic tension in the Sherlock/Watson relationship. And the sexiness that is Benedict Cumberbatch in a overcoat.

@deepomega: I remember getting to the "nine times out of ten if a women gets raped it's her fault" line in SIASL and wanting to throw the book across the room. You're dead on about Moffat and Heinlein, they both have a rubber stamp approach to their "strong" women characters. They are all the same character with different names. A commenter on another website referred to them as "aggressive flirt machines," which is just about perfect.
I just can't quit Sherlock or Dr Who, though.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@deepomega I know right? Super fucking racist, though it somehow doesn't even come close to how terrible the Hound of the Baskervilles episode was. I think what really killed the first two series was their take on the Moriarty rivalry. So dulllll* and it consumes like 75% of the show, plus it doesn't even make sense after the final reveal of the first episode. I actually enjoyed the puzzle / mystery aspects for the most part.

* I feel like they couldn't get Giovanni Ribisi so they got his non-union UK equivalent.

melis (#1,854)

@Danzig! My only problem with your theory is the idea that someone couldn't get Giovanni Ribisi.

LotaLota (#1,703)

@brilliantmistake I believe it was Alexei Panshin in his book 'Heinlein in Dimension' who perfectly described Heinlein's idealized female character as "a liberated woman who knows her place".

That, in a nutshell, is the major problem with reading anything by the asshat Heinlein. If you're a woman possessing a modicum of brains or self respect, you will find yourself deeply, deeply offended every few pages. But if you want to read something REALLY offensive by Heinlein, try 'Farnham's Freehold'. Actually, don't. It's so incredibly racist, you'll fling it into the trash where it belongs in short order.

The weird thing is, Heinlein's abrupt turn from liberal to hard right was due to the influence his third wife had over him. She was the big conservative, and he was so in love with her that her political views became his in short order. He claimed to have modeled his later idealized female characters mostly upon her, too. Personally, I have always found his female characters to be so unbelievable as to indicate the man had zero insight into what being female is about.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@melis If you need a small twitchy Scientologist for your kid's birthday party, dude's available!

summer somewhere (#238,263)

@deepomega I recognize the show has a serious sexism/racism problem, and I can see why that would turn someone off. I do love that it lets me fantasize about living in a world where queer relationships are so normalized that Watson is the only person who has a problem with the idea of him coupled with Sherlock.

Incidentally, @Danzig!, Moriarty and Sherlock totally have the hots for one another, they just do sex through mysteries! Mystery-sexuals! Now it all makes sense.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@deepomega I agree with the thumbs-down on Sherlock but are we at the place where Nicole's dad was before he gave it a chance?! It's all so worrying/exhausting.

@LotaLota yes and no? Heinlein's male characters are "unbelievable" too, but correct. To me he's like Dickens, calling things as he saw them, and if we think we are 1% less deluded that way now, pfft please. Isn't the idea of "a liberated woman who knows her place" kind of the same as "a liberated man who knows his place" as in, a regular human being–a just man or woman in an unjust world–basically true?

Also Valentine Michael Smith in the swimming pool. I haven't cracked that book open in decades and I still remember this perfectly.

xee (#8,831)

@Danzig! my only problem with your theory is that no actor in the UK is non-union

Danzig! (#5,318)

@xee Given the way he seems to pick up and drop accents and his whole Funny Games schtick I would just as soon assume he was just some guy picked from an in-patient care facility

marklondon (#11,064)

@deepomega Sherlock is absolutely frickin' TERRIBLE. Martin Freeman! Hello! Its sexist and racist and dull. That's a hell of a trifecta. If you must watch Holmes on TV, please dig up the Jeremy Brett version – by far the best video Sherlock ever.

However, you are right about Orson Scott Card vs those two books of his.

I tried rereading this SiSL recently – I couldn't overcome the 'honeys' etc. Stopped me dead. Sorry. I don't find then ironic or of apocryphal interest.

skahammer (#587)

You're father's Canadian? Then why am I even reading this?

jfruh (#713)


@jfruh I have no beef with consensual cannibalism. I felt so bad for the German guy!

Emkay (#228,613)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook ha ha…"beef".

Lil Geniuz@twitter (#238,258)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook HOW CAN YOU GET PAST THE HOMOPHOBIA and PRO RAPE SHIT?? i know it's the early 60s, but still. i made it almost all the way through the book and finally had to stop reading when Jill states “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault." This is a serious question… I want to finish, but i just can't. How do you get past this statement???

@jfruh I had a harder time with the glossing over of rape in "The Dispossessed."

I thought Dobie Gray was white for the longest time.

atreides (#252,839)

@Dylan Wisor@facebook You are either racist or have a bad ear, or both!

Jared (#1,227)

It's been years since I've read Heinlein, but I seem to remember it being very libertarian. Or maybe that was just the sexual politics? In any case, I still totally agree with your idea that teenagers should read everything they can get their hands on, without regard for trashiness or politics, and then work out all the issues for themselves. And yes, SF is probably the best genre for this. It's fine if it gets no respect considering the writing is usually crap (Ballard and Delaney and early Wm. Gibson are exceptions, IMO), but if you ignore it for that reason, it's your loss.

Leon Tchotchke (#14,331)

@Jared Heinlein was all over the place politically. Starship Troopers is pretty fascist in some but not all respects — there's a terrible, TERRIBLE strawman advocating corporal punishment as the only way to raise anyone to believe anything — but then you've got something like The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress which is fairly libertarian? I'd say his politics are primarily old school libertarian/free-market anarchism, which is to say bearing almost no resemblance to modern political libertarianism. But that might not be a fair characterization, either.

@Leon Tchotchke Heinlein suffered from an irreconcilable internal paradox- he was a libertarian to an almost hippie degree, and also deeply in love with militarism and military life. This caused the politics of his books to bounce all over the place, with Starship Troopers as one pole, and Harsh Mistress & Lazarus Long as the other. There is no coherent, consistent philosophy to be picked out of the sum of his canon. You have to just choose the ones you like.

Man Meets Stove (#238,233)

Read it as a teenager, and again as an adult. Classic as hell. When I re-read it, I was surprised to learn how many people thought he was chauvinistic. The women in his books are tough as hell. Or as you say, sassy. I don't see the women in his books as weak, ever. They always kicked ass and took names. In this case literally.

@Man Meets Stove It turns out you can write about a class of people in a 'better' way than most of your contemporaries and still be pretty bad at it. Heinlein was a chauvinist. A lot of writers were, and are, chauvinists. A lot of other people, too.

Yatima@twitter (#12,963)

Heinlein made me the red-headed slide-rule-totin' gal I am today (I have neither red hair nor a slide rule but my point stands.)

You reminded me of the kickass quote from Lois McMaster Bujold's Denvention Guest of Honor speech: "If romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency."

"Maybe it prepared a bunch of sad, masturbating male teenagers to appreciate sassiness?"

Yes, except that I was nine or ten, so maybe not masturbating yet.

zidaane (#373)

Can anyone call your dad or do you have to be a daughter or something?

@zidaane He's a soothsayer, man. He's got it all figured out.

theharpoon (#10,705)

Nicole. You are very right about Left Hand of Darkness, that is, that everyone should read it.

Also the guy who said this "surprised to learn how many people thought he was chauvinistic" above is cracking me up.

BadUncle (#153)

God I can't stand Heinlein. His misogyny and military right-wing bullshit suck the fun out of reading. When I want space, I want Iain Banks, Peter Hamilton, Alistair Reynolds and Richard Morgan.

BadUncle (#153)

@BadUncle Also: Ender's Game will make you a better person? Really?? That astonishingly over-appreciated piece of pedo-rotic crap simply froths with bizarre messianism. I don't mean to piss on the Number 1 YA Book for the Under-30s. Well, wait, maybe I do. Read that junk as an adult.

Danzig! (#5,318)

I loved Stranger In A Strange Land, though I could barely remember it. I remember I cried at the ending in like 4th grade. If you like reactionary Heinlein, read Starship Troopers, which will make you love the movie (and Paul Verhoeven) much much more.

I was wondering why "grok" was popping up so often lately, I'm so sad to hear it's coming from Tumblr (for some reason). It took me a few moments to remember the book when I first saw the term again.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

While I do understand why people keep singling out The Left Hand of Darkness, really it's the whole Hainish Cycle that kicks ass in a way that nothing else does.

AitchBee (#228,856)

I would absolutely leave my husband for the man who wrote "Layla" about me, and people who counter by bringing up "Something" are not, I suspect, very good in bed.

[In reference to #3. But I have been known to bring the topic up spontaneously]

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@AitchBee Maybe you shouldn't have settled.

jetztinberlin (#392)

Nicole! I love you! But Philip K Dick is a terrible writer!

I mean that very literally. Excellent, wonderful, amazing ideas. Bad, painfully, cringingly bad, prose.

I would submit that Heinlein was totally more libertarian than fascist, although he was definitely a massive elitist and believed most people were just not smart enough to run their lives properly, which certainly does smack of fascism. I think Time Enough for Love is his real treatise on this…

Also, while there is plenty of sexism in the books and a certain amount of Mary Sue-ing, because hello, Gwen / Hazel in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and Deety in The Number of the Beast are pretty much impossible, actually a lot of the men are equally impossible, and in general I think the sexism is being expressed by the *characters* and not the *author*… that generally he does seem to love and respect his (ridiculously impossible) women. A lot of people have said his wife was insanely kick-ass, super egalitarian and the inspiration for most of his female characters.

(And now, having outed myself as a huge Heinlen geek, farewell)

@jetztinberlin : Oh man yeah. PKD writes like the worst stereotype of a sci-fi writer, but has ideas like the best.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@jetztinberlin Methuselah's Children is all about the genetically superior race leaving the rest of us behind. That's as fascists as it gets, I'd say.

PKD may not be Dostoevsky, but he is certainly superior to Heinlein.

BadUncle (#153)

@Niko Bellic Agreed. You don't read PKD to bathe in artesian wells of prose. His are novels and stories of ideas. And Heinlein's are novels of muscle reflex.

robotosaur (#238,251)

#4. Darius Rucker.
#6. Finish the book already!

Aumeh Alert (#238,253)

I'm really disappointed in this evaluation. This book is sexist and homophobic and offensive. Dude "groks" that male-male love is inherently wrong, and THAT'S the level of justification he provides? When they live in a CRAZY sex cult? Also, the women. These are NOT empowered women. Toward the end of the book, the women achieve spiritual/existential transcendence thru what? Becoming indistinguishable from each other and anticipating all the men's needs with out the men even realizing it. Basically, women are best when they are sex slaves attending to your every need and hey! You don't even need to tell them apart. Now let's discuss the ridiculous angel crap on Mars and the non-condemnation of the casino church? This book is terrible and offensive, although I suppose I agree with you that it's super juvenile, in all the worst ways (…and I love anime).

bluewindgirl (#217,008)

@Aumeh Alert THANK you. I read this when I was 14, and it filled me with blind rage. Possibly I was a somewhat conventional child and the idea of The Nest was unsettling to me, but I still maintain that there is nothing utopian about people's features gradually becoming the same (because how we look is exclusively relevant to who wants to have sex with us); that is creepy as hell. I also, to this day, do not understand whether the marvelous money-free cult, the existence of which depends upon the guy inheriting a jillion dollars from his parents, is intended to be ironic or not. Everything would be better if we didn't use money, so lets have a bunch of money so we don't have to use money? What political system does this reflect?

figwiggin (#228,895)

See, I hadn't heard of Samuel Delany until college, when I studied him intensely, so I never didn't know he was black. I love that he was super-smokin' as a young man and now he kind of looks like Santa, though. That beard! I read one of his early books recently (The Einstein Intersection), and it…definitely read like an early book. Meandering, weak plot, all sorts of smart stuff that goes over my head. I feel a little embarrassed for liking his most commercially viable work best (Nova, Babel-17, Trouble on Triton), but I can't help it! Also never finished Dhalgren. *hangs head* I read The Mad Man, though, so that makes up for it, right?

Rianne R@twitter (#232,384)

My mother bought my Stranger in a Strange Land as my road trip book (every got a new book at the start of every road trip) when I was 14.

This prompted a Heinlein bender that went on for YEARS. In retrospect it's all kind of terrible and I should have known better, but it was so much fun.

He has one story about telepathic twins being used to keep a spaceship in touch with earth, except the whole relative aging thing meant eventually he was in touch telepathically with his great-great grand niece or something… I ate that shit up.

JanieS (#228,605)

I cannot with Heinlein. I tried, but no. NO matter how sassy they are, his women are in no way real people and can't get past it, no matter how many earnest nerdboys try to convince me I should.

I will, however, happily watch the naked co-ed shower movie with Neil Patrick Harris dressed up in a bitchin' overcoat at least once a year. And Sherlock is the best.

Ren (#238,254)

9. Everybody go read everything Ursula K. Le Guin ever wrote because she is 100% the antidote for all sexism in the entire SF canon.

@Ren Even The Dispossessed?

kim_krypto (#238,255)

Nicole, I would be so interested to know what you think of this article about Ender's Game. I personally agree with it – that the book's philosophical underpinnings are actually pretty suspect – and also, I LOVE serious criticism of SF!

ataraxia (#238,306)

@kim_krypto thank you for this! I love John Kessel's work, and this really brought together what I have found troubling in OSC's writing; and Ender's Game in particular.

Regarding #6, Heinlein may not have founded a cult, but there is a religion based on Stranger in a Strange Land: The Church of All Worlds (, one of the first officially recognized (by the government) Wiccan religions.

ipomoea (#207,034)

When I was in high school, one year the regional Unitarian youth group weekend conference was Grok-themed. My dad flatly refused to allow me to go, and I couldn't understand why. I read Stranger in my 20s and now understand why my father feared his child attending it. I mean, every UU conference involved sex and drugs, regardless of the theme, but whatever.

catullus (#238,300)

Nicole, would that I could be a father who could provide insights and guidance as your father did, when my daughter asks about Robert Heinlein.

Jason Tan@facebook (#238,324)

Heinlein is the MacDaddy! (WTF a MacDaddy is…)

But Startship Troopers the movie?
No way.
Pure crap. Except they chose Song 2 as the war cry.
Hollywood can't seem to translate a book to a movie.
They. Just. Can't.

Seriously if you have not all ready try the Time Enough For Love trilogy. Time Enough for Love, Startship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange land are the best of the adult Heinleins.

It should be noted that starship troopers was the number 1 traffic generating movie on usenet until at least 2003. Love it or hate it, it generated traffic.

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