'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.