Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein

So, I've now read my first Heinlein book. I was not impressed, to put it mildly. Getting through it was quite a chore, made worse by it being the extended edition (yawn). The plot is quite simple. Man is brought up by Martians, comes to Earth, and timidly learns about the world. One quick bonk later, he becomes super-cocky, and founds a church based on free love, teaching telekenesis and Martian. Great. Heinlein appears to have a thing about religion, but the main notable feature about his needling of it is how ineffective it is.

Anyway, ignoring the plot, the writing is pretty dire. People may wave the 'early sci-fi' card, but there should still be some standard, especially for a 'classic'. It appears he can't write women. I bet he was pretty proud of how liberated his female characters were. I mean, they even talked back to their masters occasionally.

My main gripe with the novel, though, is Jubal Harshaw. This is the real star of the story, and the first time I've seen a professional author quite so blatantly insert an idealised form of himself into a novel. Idealised in the author's view, of course. Jubal is an elderly libertarian recluse. He is, under pseudonyms, 4 of the best-selling authors, and has 3 fetching secretaries at his remote retreat. He is a medical doctor and a qualified lawyer. He is highly educated, despite the fact that his obscure knowledge isn't, and everything he says is trite. This is not an issue, as all that he says is readily agreed with by other characters. He appears to do the Jedi Mind Trick on random government officials. He rants at length on what you suspect are RAH's pet peeves.

I believe this kind of rubbish has brain-damaged a generation of Americans. If you read and believe, you end up with rubbish like the Illuminatus trilogy. If you don't, you'll have a very warped view of what sci-fi as a genre can be. Who knows, you might end up as Vonnegut. This kind of book has also influenced plenty of people into screwed-up interaction patterns on Usenet and the internet. I guess these people mistake non-conventional thinking for critical thinking. They see themselves as Jubal, and post Jubal-style rants to the internet. Sadly, there are people on the internet who don't go in for catch-phrase-based reasoning, and might even go for a little logic. Sadly, the wannabe-Jubal generally can't cope with being the othercharacter in a Socratic dialogue, and it all bogs down quite quickly. I bet Eric Raymond likes Heinlein.

Posted 2006-08-09.