Friday, February 14, 2014


So, as part of my current effort to go back and read some of the classics of science fiction which I'd somehow never gotten around to reading (e.g., RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA and currently A PRINCESS OF MARS), I just finished listening to an audiobook of Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. It's hard to describe the experience of what reading this book is like without getting scatological. Let's just say it feels like I've been sold a bill of goods. It's as if I've long been told that a certain pond was a great place to swim in, the only debate being whether it's best to swim directly across the short way or the long way from end-to-end.* I'd long been put off by the fact that the pond in question looked drab and muddy, decidedly unappealing, but decided to give it a try -- only, when half-way across, to discover it was actually a cesspool.

I know there are people who love this book. I'm not among their number. I thought it had a pretty good idea (a human raised by Martians) which was buried, first under the poorly written slang used in the opening chapters that hoped to be hip, jive, and with-it, and wasn't. Then once the main story got launched it was continually derailed by the endless blovating of a Heinlein-figure who can't stop talking, and talking, and talking. R.A.H. clearly enjoyed having a mouthpiece through which to air his tendentious views on every matter imaginable (at one point the action stops so the Heinlein figure can deliver a lecture on Rodin's bronzes), but having to listen to all this guff is a bit much. I know there's debate over which is better: the version of the book that was famous in the 1960s, or the significantly longer version released after Heinlein's death. Having persevered through the latter, I can only say that the shorter this book was, the better -- I can't imagine its not being improved by being cut.

And all this is quite apart from the book's plot, or the content of said tendentiousness, some of which is pretty vile (e.g., Heinlein's comments about rape).

It's not all bad, just about 95%. The bits set in heaven, obviously inspired by Twain's** CAPTAIN STORMFIELD with a touch of Cabell's JURGEN, were amusing, but only a v. minor element. The parts about someone thinking in Martian and trying to embrace new concepts for which his language has no word were by far the best part of the book -- but the story soon left that behind for its solipsistic Plato. Too bad. Heinlein cd write a good book, but this isn't it.

So, there's an experience I don't need to repeat again, and a book I don't need to take seriously.

--John R.

*e.g., the original edition or the posthumous unedited text, which is significantly longer
**not someone we associate w. Heinlein; it's easy to forget he was a fellow Missourian

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