June 11

Retro Recs–Stranger in a Strange Land

HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.

I grok Heinlein.

I do, and with all that ‘grok’ means. I see all the warts and bumps, all the sharp edges, and all the unavoidable misogyny possessed by men his age and station. I see the lack of atmospherics—important to me, for I want the smell and feel of a place. More, I remember the world that Heinlein’s generation—in actuality, my father’s generation—came from, and mourn that we were so immersed in that world that even science fiction—stories that are supposed to make us question and challenge our own realities—often refused to see past the ingrained, casual “‘isms” that were an unfortunate fact of life.

But I also see a stark beauty in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Despite an admitted surfeit of subterranean glitches—which passed as both unremarkable and seldom remarked upon in earlier decades—it also posed mind-bending questions and challenges. It opened my eyes to some amazing possibilities. The characters were fascinating. Stranger in a Strange Land addressed as many thorny social issues as it disregarded–or unfortunately supported. But it’s also true that it lit another spark in the fires of insubordination against an untenable reality—particularly for ‘a girl who read weird stuff’, and who was growing up in the deep south in the wake of the fifties.

(By the by, why do young women lately insist on dressing up like ‘50s housewives? Do they even know what they’re emulating? Never mind: that’s a whole ‘nother essay…)

SiaSL plays with religion by showing what it can be and what it usually, unfortunately, is. It employs a trope that I find particularly fascinating: the outsider, considered ‘other’ and ‘alien’, brought into what they consider equally ‘alien’ circumstances—and it gives both viewpoints, a startling new addition in its time. It plays with sexual mores—not nearly enough, let it be said—but an impressive amount when one considers the reality it was written against.

And that phrase is key: when one considers the reality it was written against.

Many books are dismissed because they were written in another time, to the (usually grossly inaccurate) standards of that time. I understand the anger that comes from misrepresentation. I have some pretty visceral reactions to The Searchers. History isn’t pretty, and I grew up in the midst of some damned ugly history myself, had much of my own heritage swept under the rug by shame and the dominant paradigm. (With many blessings to my grandmother’s spirit, who kept me in the loop regardless…)

And I fully applaud #itstopshere.

Yet I still recommend this book: subversive brilliance on one hand, warts and too many “‘isms” to count on the other. I refuse to dismiss something because it makes me uncomfortable, particularly when I’m uncomfortable and have the privilege of dismissal before me. Discomfort and failure and horribly wrong paths wended… all of that exists within every journey and experience. Avoiding discomfort means we don’t learn. It means we end up making the same sorry mistakes because we don’t grok what our world and its peoples have endured.

So, you may ask, what the hell is ‘grok’, anyway?

Here’s a bit from the book:

“…but Mike would have agreed if I had named a hundred other English words, words which we think of as different concepts, even antithetical concepts. ‘Grok’ means all of these. It means ‘fear’, it means ‘love’, it means ‘hate’—proper hate, for by the Martian ‘map’ you cannot hate anything unless you grok it, understand it so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you—then you can hate. By hating yourself. But this implies that you love it, too, and cherish it and would not have it otherwise…”

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

This is pretty powerful stuff. And yes, I think Stranger in a Strange Land is worth the read, within a proper context.

Do you grok? Or not?