Stranger in a Strange Land
In my life, this is the second, third, maybe fourth time I’ve read this text. On a bookshelf with, quite literally, several dozen books, maybe three linear feet, I’ve got RAH’s young adult material, paperbacks, later first editions, some collectible items, some that harkens back to the Golden Age of pulp, and at least two copies of Stranger in a Strange Land. Both of my copies are hardback, a reprint of the original first edition, I think it was a book club version, 20th anniversary or something, and then, the first edition of the full, unexpunged text, 220K words, released after his death, compared with the 160K of the original 1961 version.
While I’m reading this version on an iPad, the recall of the story, what resonates, even in this day? Following so closely on the heels of reading Men Wo Stare At Goats, and Uncollected Poems, there’s a tweaker-influence from what was then — historically — “Eastern” thought.
Stranger in a Strange Land
As a novel, as a work of speculative fiction, it stands alone. Originally marketed as Science Fiction, when that brand was little more than pulp westerns in outer space, Stranger in a Strange Land helped shape much of my thinking. That’s more obvious now, in this re–reading, than it was the last time.
The last time, I wrote a review for the paper, based on the then–newly–released “Uncut Version,” the literary equivalent of the director’s cut, I suppose. The DVD version with the extras: out takes, blooper reel, and so on.
- Odd, I can’t locate a copy of that article. Certain digital archives have not survived.
Some of the names, some of the symbolism seems a tad heavy-handed, now.
The not-even-vaguely-veiled Libertarian leanings are clear, though, “Secrecy begets tyranny.” (Page 53)
Then there’s the comic bit–part, about?
“…I’ve told you repeatedly the only true science is astrology.” (Page 143)
With its single line I’ve clung to:
“But remember: the stars incline but they do not compel. You enjoy free will.” (Page 153)
Enough of the softer sciences.
“You had better take your motives out in private and have a look at them. Then you will be better able to judge which way you are going.” (Page 170)
There are nuggets of straight–forward philosophical underpinnings from an artist, born of that “Greatest Generation,” hints, admonishments, and oddly enough? The next book, that he published, after this?
Starship Troopers, with its heavily militaristic spin.
“Government! Three fourths parasitic and the other fourth stupid fumbling” (Page 187)
I forgot what a joy the character Jubal was. With a nod to that Scorpio from Oklahoma, Will Rogers? I would have to believe they were cut from similar cloth.
The premise, itself?
“Here, by the grace of God and an inside straight, we have a personality untouched by the psychotic taboos of our tribe-” (Page 207)
A personality, a human with training from a different civilization, presumably much older than Earth’s standards?
Perumably, the author speaking through the character?
“A poisonous snake is not dangerous, not any more than a loaded gun is dangerous-in each case, if you handle it properly.” (Page 276)
Not even me getting into that with 2nd Amendment, gun nuts. I live in Texas; that’s the way I was raised. Education.
Two versions of the book’s cover? Image here.
I tend to forget archaic expressions that no longer apply, which leads to a sidebar item, “Just stay on the line,” as in a phone conversation. Fewer and fewer phones are wired now. So if I tell a kid, these days, to “Stay on the line,” I wonder if the antecedent is understood?
“Congratulations. A desire not to butt into other people’s business is at least eighty percent of all human ‘wisdom’ … and the other twenty percent isn’t very important.” (Page 401)
Shortly thereafter is yet another quote from Shakespare, the Scottish Play, “Twere done quickly,” and in context, too. Politics when the book was written and politics now? Some things never change.
“Democracy is a poor system of government at best; the only thing that can honestly be said in its favor is that it is about eight times as good as any other method the human race has ever tried.” (Page 369)
If I recall, and I might not be the most reliable source of this information, there was always a strong Libertarian spin this work.
It’s easy to recall, now, why fiction like this can do. It is about what is possible. What the human mind — human soul — is capable of doing. The potential power of the mind.
Another golden age author once observed that the difference between magic and reality was just a matter of technology.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of the Future.”
The term “grok” originated in this book. Became a catch–phrase for a generation, and in a weird twist of fate, the term has surfaced again. In a long piece in the middle of the book, one character attempts to explain what “grok” means, and then, the ensuing description offers a fairly well–rounded view on Taoism.
“The Martians seem to know instinctively what we learned painfully from modern physics, that the observer interacts with the observed simply through the process of observation.” (Page 483)
And that’s a fact. Part of the original premise of my BareFoot Astrology, sadly overlooked in much of my profession.
“Audacity, always audacity’-soundest principle of strategy.” (Page 500)
Always with the showmanship.
There was a secondary influence the novel brought into my life, as well, with a supporting character who is a devout Muslim. There’s a bookend companion, a heavy Penguin facsimile copy of the Koran, that I’be carried around with me for the last two-dozen years. My copy dates from a decade — or more — before the end the Millennium. In part because it was deemed a holy text, and in part, because I wanted a sincerely better understanding of various faiths, I’ve held onto that one copy. It’s printed with tiny facsimile pages in Arabic surrounded by the passages in English.
As I hefted that older volume, I noticed a dog–eared page, and I opened it up. Underlined in pencil, the English version of the verse, something about “… man ruled by the Sun, the stars, &c.”
One tenet supported by RAH, or what I’be gleaned from Stranger in a Strange Land, it has to do with reading all the scared texts. Yeah, I’m not going to learn Arabic, as I’m tapped out between French, border Spanish, with a sprinkling of Latin, and then, weird English layered over it all. No, not going to even attempt the original language for those texts. I can trace my desire, though, back to the protagonist in the novel, and that character’s suggestion to read the sacred texts in their original tongue.
There’s that fear if I mention that I own a copy of the Koran, much less that I might be reading it, my fear is I’ll make some watch list, but my curiosity is merely sparked by wanting to have a better understanding of the pillars of that faith.
Emotionally, I’m probably closer to something like Zoroastrian — or Zen Buddist — than anything else.
A singular point that the main, supporting role in the novel makes? The difference between huckster and a believer is very thin line, and the advantage goes to the huckster, as we can change. The True Believer is more dangerous because of that belief.
How many people know the antecedent to the expression, “Don’t drink the Kool–aid”?
As I got older, I wondered whether the Mormons were a veiled target of the book, just as a question on the side. Who’s going to worry, though, it was merely Science Fiction by a pulp author.
The aspect of the near-dead position of carnival huckster – and how that position hovers almost too close to religion? Good question. Another point, strictly taxonomy, but does this novel then veer into “Magical Realism” instead of its original nomenclature, Science Fiction?
“I spend my days and nights rushing from one job to another, telling people why they must never hurry.” (Page 799)
In any situation, certainly worthy of either reading or re-reading, in some form, or another.
“A prude is a person who thinks that his own rules of propriety are natural laws.” (Page 811)
Remarkable as a futurist as much as a fabulist for presciently presaging the spiritual climate change of the 1960s.