Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (or, if Alyosha Karamazov started a Martian sex cult)

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Stranger in a Strange Land starts out in 1960’s cheese-style but evolves to read like Dostoevsky…, if Dostoevsky had been alive for that painfully confused decade between the ignorant and intolerant past and the self-absorbed, yet more worldly future. That decade was like an adolescent, striving to define itself through new experiences, yet not self-aware enough to shake all of those ingrained, deep-rooted beliefs that had shaped prior generations.

Or, maybe that’s just Heinlein, demonstrating his enlightenment through his characters, but missing some of those cobwebby corners of old-fashioned machismo.

I compare Heinlein to Dostoevsky because, like Dostoevsky, Heinlein’s stories aren’t just stories. For both writers, the story is just the backdrop for the author to expound on all things philosophical. You get a sense from both writers that they aren’t really sure of their own convictions (which is likely feigned), so their characters represent varying viewpoints on a spectrum of issues and explore those viewpoints throughout the story. In Stranger, not many events occur, yet Heinlein explores a variety of issues, including male/female relations, organized religion and atheism, politics, monogamy, sex, and family.

What’s funny to me is that, aside from all of the issues he spends time on, the most driving philosophical issues in the entire story were:
1. the ethics and implications of removing a human being from it’s adoptive, alien culture, and
2. the implications of introducing our society to more powerful alien intelligences,– those who have mastered telekinesis and ESP to a point where they can manipulate human behavior and vanish people out of existence with their minds.

But, to my disappointment, neither issue is explicitly addressed, (although you can argue that they are, considering the falsifiably happy ending). Maybe because by 1962, those issues had already been explored in SF/F and Heinlein wanted to directly cover more taboo ground? I really don’t know, but I expected a completely different story. (I mean, people disappeared. Were those disappearances never investigated? Where was Dragnet?)

And onward with the Dostoevsky comparison…

The main character of Stranger, Michael Valentine Smith, is much like Alexei (Alyosha) from The Brother’s Karamazov. Both men are young, intelligent, curious, and sensitive. Although they are outsiders of their own culture (Alyosha is a novice monk in 19th century Russia, and Michael is a human from Mars in 1960’s America), they are portrayed as the heroes of the story, shaped by their grumpy old father figures, yet shining with optimism and compassion. We see both young men mature as the story progresses, and that maturity affects the people around them. The two men share messages of hope and love at the end of both stories.

Ultimately, though, Stranger in a Strange Land, is really about a sheltered human teen discovering sex as he grows up. And, because he is a particularly exceptional teenage boy, with Martian powers and charismatic pull (as well as loads of dough and important friends), he gets all the sex he wants and eventually starts his own sex cult that is based on a combination of Martian teachings and the pleasures of sex. His cult attracts beautiful women who love to share him and share themselves with others, including other women, although the men don’t dare explore that wayward sort of sexuality with other men. (We’re talking sexy taboos here– not craziness!)

It is such a blindly hypocritical view of sex, yet Heinlein never even winks at it. All that professing about the beauty of the polarity of men and (multiple) women, I almost expected Mike’s cult to start chanting, “It’s Adam and Eve, and Anna and Eve, but not Adam and Steve, although Steve can join in– but not with Adam!” Can you preach about free-love and open-sex and bigamy and polyamory, and not even invite the possibility of gay male love into your polyamorous sex cult? C’mon, Bob.

Besides that, I still feel icky from all the potential STD’s that must be floating around that disgusting “nest,” Regardless of how powerful that Martian boy is at sterilizing his people from disease, that place must be filthy. And how is this not rape? At a few points in the story, characters hint that they suspect Micheal can control other people’s emotions. How far do his manipulations go? Is it a Martian-style roofie? If he can control the sniffles and genital warts outbreaks among his followers, is it too far-reaching to assume that he can also control a woman’s willingness to get sexy with multiple partners, and without feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable?

Have all the free-love you want, but let’s make sure it’s consensually consensual.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is an engaging read, but it could have been so much more, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. The women are total twits, the guys are total asses, and that speaks more for the author than anything else.

Heinlein just isn’t my guy.

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The Robot series by Isaac Asimov (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn)

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For such an old series, I was surprised that these books are the most enjoyable reads I had all summer. All three novels are sci-fi mysteries, based on a detective named Elijah Baley and his robot partner Daneel Olivaw (tell me that’s not an anagram), and are set a millenium into the future, when Earth’s population is bursting at the seams, and a minority of snooty “Spacers” have colonized the galaxy.

As an adult, I don’t consider myself a fan of mystery stories, but I have noticed that a great deal of science fiction stories revolve primarily around a mystery plot. In fact, of the five current Hugo nominees for best novel, three are mysteries (2013, Redshirts, and Blackout). To me, mystery plots seem like an unfair plot device that is designed to withhold and deliver whatever the author chooses, while endowing the protogonist with extraordinary analytical capabilities, even if the protagonist is portrayed as a “regular Joe”. It’s a rather loaded technique.

But back to the Robot series…

Synopsis
Elijah Bailey is a no-nonsense detective who lives on Earth, approximately three millennia into the future, where the city sprawl populates all of the eastern seaboard of the United States, and is primarily hidden from the sky by over-hangings of steel. A murder of a Spacer has occurred, but Baley must overcome his bias against robots in order to solve the crime with his new robot partner Daneel. In later novels, the two partners work together on other planets where Baley’s tension with robots is constantly tested and adjusted.

What I liked:
1. Laid-back sci fi. While I love a good, deep science fiction novel that challenges my mind, it’s nice to take a break and just enjoy the creative edge of the genre. Reading these novels brought me back to my childhood Nancy Drew phase, when I would zip through those stories so fast, and not mind devoting an entire weekend to reading on the couch. Asimov’s novels are quick, easy reads. I wouldn’t describe them as hard sci-fi, even though they contain elements of robotics and galactic travel. Asimov was a bio-chemist, but even so, he allows his “regular Joe” character to ignore the scientific how-to’s of his technology. You won’t be getting theory or mathematics out of these books. They are more about sociology than they are about rocket science and bioengineering.

2. Robot Daneel Olivaw is the character base for Star Trek Next Generation‘s android Data. I love Data. I want a Data of my own. He’s so logical and calm and candid. It’s no secret that Gene Roddenberry consulted with Asimov for his shows, and that Data was born out of Roddenberry’s enjoyment of the Robot series. Frankly, I never really warmed up to Detective Elijah Baley (he’s a bit too 1950’s asshole for me), but I’ll follow Daneel anywhere.

3. The characters grow with the series. The main character starts out rough, as he expresses anti-robot, anti-Spacer, and anti-progress sentiments. For the first two novels, he is unabashedly rude to Daneel and other robots. (Why would you be rude to a robot? The robot doesn’t care. It just highlights your own insecurity.) The roughness and the rudeness make Baley an unlikeable main character, but stick with it! By the third novel, Elijah warms to Daneel, and experiences a lot of self-growth.

4. Even earth is a different world. Asimov’s vision of our future Earth is pretty scary, and his characters’ comfort on that Earth is a testament to his belief in the adaptability of human beings. The Earth he describes is just as foreign to the reader as the planets Baley visits in the second and third novels of the series.

What I didn’t like:
1. It’s a little bit old-fashionedSpeaking of asshole characters from the 1950’s, there is a dated perspective in these books that is hard to ignore. Even for an open-minded, humanist like Isaac Asimov, his first two novels in the series contain elements of 1950’s culture that are not acceptable today. The women are dimwits (omg, Baley’s wife, ugh), the male view of women is limited and sexist, and, as I mentioned, the men are pretty insecure about their status in the world (and galaxy), hence their hatred toward robots. (The friction between man and robot reminds me of today’s friction between the white working class and immigrants, so maybe it’s not that dated.) Still, Asimov’s novels aren’t nearly as intolerant as some other vintage sci-fi novels, and by the third novel, which was written in the more modern ’80s, he addresses (and rectifies) some of the non-PC slip-ups he made in the first two novels. This all ties into Detective Baley’s personal growth and fits appropriately into the story.

2. The galaxy is completely uninhabited! Really? So future Earth colonizes 50 planets within the Milky Way and there is no threat from outsiders of any kind? All these idyllic planets are just waiting for us, the blessed humans, to settle them? This provides an unusually human-centered view of outer-space, which also seems a little old-fashioned. Like Middle Ages old-fashioned.

My final word. This is a great little series to enjoy if you are looking for some real sci-fi to cut your teeth on, but are not ready to dive into the heavier Kim Stanley Robinsons or Neal Stephensons of the genre. Plus, you’ll get to experience the very first-time the word “robotics” was ever put into print.

I hope you enjoy it like I did.