Oops in the First Degree

David Klaus comments, “How marvelously ignorant of how Stranger in a Strange Land came to be written is The Guardian’s reviewer.” Sam Jordison wrote:

Just two years after producing Starship Troopers, a book beloved of right wing militarists everywhere, Robert Heinlein came up with Stranger in a Strange Land, in which guns are seen as “a great wrongness”, personal and sexual liberation a “goodness”, monotheistic religion no better than a carnival trick and making money an absurd diversion from the real business of life.

Jordison’s choice of the word “producing” does leave the impression he might be unaware Heinlein took 10 years to complete Stranger. Or that Heinlein interrupted work on Stranger to write Starship Troopers.

On the other hand, it might just be a poor word choice. Brian Doherty’s article “Heinlein at 100” for Reason (Aug/Sept 2007) makes essentially the same observation as Jordison, with the vital difference that Doherty states it more carefully:

Just two years later, he was publishing the counterculture classic Stranger in a Strange Land

“Publishing” accurately focuses on when these two books appeared in the marketplace. Of course, both writers are invoking political stereotypes when they imply that readers of Heinlein’s work in Starship Troopers received a startling (perhaps chilling) surprise from the mores exemplified in Stranger. Is this anything more than internet-era smarminess? Science fiction fans at the time awarded both novels the Hugo – they evidently weren’t shocked and offended by Stranger, as Jordinson and Doherty might be suggesting.

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3 thoughts on “Oops in the First Degree

  1. Just wanted to point out for those who might assume from this casual quote from my 4,000 word article that I’m a dope who misunderstands Heinlein, the entire point of my article is painting a wide picture of Heinlein’s ideas which explains exactly how the two books fit together; I was not indulging in some disconnecting contrast of them. And yes, given the way standard ideological attachments have settled on the American mind in the past 40 years re: things like free love and admiration for the military, attachments that Heinlein is orthogonal to, the two books do on the surface seem surprising coming from the same man. (That science fiction fans, who adored Heinlein almost to a man then, praised them both does nothing to dispute this.) But Heinlein was a surprising man.

  2. It will be difficult for somebody to take away an impresson that you are a dope from a description of you as stating something more accurately than a reviewer for The Guardian.

    But I don’t see the rest of your comment as an effective rebuttal of my main point. While Stranger was widely read and had a reputation and impact that far exceeded its readership, only people who actually read Starship Troopers were at any risk of being surprised by the book. Starship Troopers did not have the same impact outside the sf readership (at least, not until it was released as a movie in 1997) despite selling very well, for an sf novel. So did readers of Starship Troopers bring expectations to Stranger that left them surprised and upset? I would hope, nearly half a century later, well-informed students of Heinlein would have become immune to the need to set up straw-man comparisons about pro-military-conservatives and free-love-liberals, and notice that the books’ audiences shared Heinlein’s ability to reconcile civic responsibility with personal freedom.

    Heinlein took credit for perceiving that public mores were changing, and deciding it was time for Stranger to go to a publisher (see Expanded Universe, p. 403) Do you think that was just self-congratulatory hype? I think he was right. The Hugo Awards for both novels are one piece of evidence in favor of that argument.

  3. This is exactly why I’m hoping anyone who cares will read my article rather than what you seemed to take from it.
    Since I never came anywhere near the mistake the Guardian writer made–in fact, I quite explicitly point out as see below that he interrupted STRANGER to write STARSHIP–I was not above writing to rebut your larger making; I was trying to explain to anyone who cared that my article shouldn’t really be dragged into it.
    But now I will do some rebutting: I think you are mistaken to imply, as I read you doing, that because both STARSHIP and STRANGER were honored in the SF community, that neither were controversial for their seeming ideological stances; or that all, or most, readers happily accepted the overall Heinleinian position as presented in the two novels together. While I do not have citations handy here, I have in my readings and conversations come across plenty of evidence that many readers both then and since DO find the two books in seeming opposition; it was not an invention of mine that the books seem to bridge ideological gaps in America; it is not a straw man position to imply that there is significant NON overlap between people who firmly believe in the honorable and essential role of the military and those who believe in the Crowleyan “do what thou wilt, love is the law” ideology of VMSmith.
    I can appreciate that in your mind its just too, too hidebound to believe that anyone anywhere takes the divisions of “left” and “right” that dominate American culture seriously and thus they are not worth noting; I can only say I live in a world where almost everyone takes them seriously, and do indeed get perplexed by the seeming ideological divisions between these two novels that hit the world on each other’ heels from the same writer.
    In trying to explain Heinlein at length to an audience I had to presume knew nothing of him, I found the two novels a very effective way to suggest both the scope of Heinlein’s thinking and the way he reconciled or rose above what smaller minds see as contradictions.
    I never suggested that Heinlein was not absolutely right on in guessing that 1961 was a propitious time to release Stranger, which, as I noted in my long article, very neatly presaged many cultural trends of the following decades.
    For them that care and don’t want to read 4,000 words by me, here’s what I wrote in terms of comparing and contrasting the two novels:
    “The anti-communist, pro-military message of Troopers might seem to suggest that Heinlein stood firmly on the right wing of the larger American individualist tradition. But Troopers appeared as Heinlein was in the middle of writing another novel, one that painted a very different picture.

    The interrupted novel became his breakthrough both as a successful “mainstream” writer and as a public influence. It was Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human being raised by Martians who returns to Earth and begins a new religion of free love.”

    What I am saying is that the two novels stake out positions within a larger libertarian-traditionalist movement that are seen by most Americans as in opposition; I later go on to explain in Heinlein’s own words exactly why he doesn’t think so.

    Yes, I am absolutely “invoking political stereotypes,” and I do so because such stereotypes are perfectly real–in fact, they dominate American discourse, to this day. One of the more interesting things I think someone trying to understand Heinlein from scratch should get is how he rose above such stereotypes. You seem to think that because Heinlein did, it’s somehow foolish to even mention the world of people that didn’t in trying to explain Heinlein to them. (Or you may think that most people think as Heinlein does, which I can only say in my experience moving through life on this here planet is just not true.) I respectfully disagree.

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