You know the neighborhood restaurant that’s been around for a really long time? The one that you pass every morning on your way to the Metro and you think you should try it sometime, but “sometime” never seems to come around? Then you have a couple of friends tell you how good the place is and how it’s one of their favorite places to eat and that you’d really enjoy it, so you decide finally to go for dinner. You find that the meal is okay even though the service is a little slow and clumsy, and you start thinking halfway through that it’s a satisfactory enough place that you might come back for another meal…and then it happens.
You find a hair in your food. It’s wound up with your pasta, dangling uncomfortably close to your agape mouth, the color indicating that it could in no way be your own hair. Your stomach clenches a little and whatever enjoyment you might have found instantly drains away. You immediately put down your fork and stare at your partially finished dinner, contemplating how to best handle the situation, but knowing that there’s no way in hell you’re finishing that food.
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was this meal for me. Heralded as “the most famous science fiction novel ever written,” I’ve known for a while that it fits the bill of must-read literature for my sci-fi tastes. Plus, I’ve had a few people in my life say how much they love this book. Good enough for me.
I picked up the unabridged, restored version, which at 438 tiny-font-filled pages, was more like a sci-fi smorgasbord than a light repast. But I dove in, hoping to savor the flavors that so many have enjoyed before me. After a while, though, it started to feel more like a force feeding rather than enjoyment. Heinlein is WORDY.
But the story embedded in all those words was an intriguing one, about a Human, Valentine Michael Smith, born on Mars and raised by Martians, who is then brought back to Earth to learn how to be among “his kind.” It’s an interesting twist on the Mowgli tale, even if Heinlein never really explains a lot of the things that Martian Mike is able to do beyond stating that he was “raised by Martians.” You’d think, with all the words he crammed into this book, he could have explained something to the effect of the Martians taught Mike how to use portions of his brain that Humans had yet to tap into, which is why he was able to alter his appearance or make people and things disappear. To simply glaze over all of Mike’s powers with the fact that he was raised by Martians is, to quote Captain Picard, “Not good enough, dammit! Not good enough!”
Then came the discovery of the glaringly disgusting hair: Gillian Boardman, one of the main female protagonists, says to Martian Mike at one point, “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.”
WTF did she just say?
Up to this point (which didn’t arrive until page 304), I had been trying to view the women in this book through the eyes of the times in which this novel was published. Treatment and views of women in 1961 were still quite pandering and stereotypical all across the board. Plus, early science fiction is not a realm in which women are held in any higher regard than they were in current presentations, never mind that the stories were supposed to be taking place in the future. Heinlein is no exception here, with his women appearing in traditional caregiver roles or as strippers. There are a few women in the story who break the mold, but they are outnumbered significantly in this book…plus, two die “off-stage” as it were, while a third joins the sexy orgy party that is the end of this book (yeah, I’m spoiling, I suppose…get Jubal Harshaw to sue me).
But this line…this line was so fucking jarring that I stopped reading the book for several days and debated during this time about whether I even wanted to finish the book. Sexism aside, this was ignorance of the purest and darkest variety. I continued to read the book until the end, deciding that I wanted to find out if this statement would be revisited and corrected. It never was. But there was lots of polyamory and nekkid time to distract us later, so who cares about the discovery of this nauseating hair?
Obviously, I did. Still do.
I guess what bothers me the most (beyond the obvious) is that this is another reminder that science fiction remains a genre that, while not exclusively a boys’ club, isn’t all that amenable to female fans. I’ve already mentioned my disappointment in the female character from my first Asimov adventure (note to Tony: I swear on my Gates McFadden-signed hypospray that I am going to give him another try thanks to your generosity), but this one line from this HUGE tome of what New York Times critic Orville Prescott described as a “disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism” plunges my despair even deeper regarding women’s status in the sci-fi universe. That this could be embedded among lesser but still degrading commentary toward women in what is heralded as the most famous sci-fi novel ever written disheartens me to my very marrow.
Final score: 1/5. I guess I didn’t grok this book after all.
I’ve got three more books from the library that I need to finish, and then I’m declaring a moratorium on borrowed books. This challenge was supposed to help me get through all the books that I own and have yet to read. The time to focus on those books is now!