Reading Robert Heinlein in 2017 – Stranger in a Strange Land

About 30 years ago, I read The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.  It was my first adventure outside of kids’ books, and the first Robert Heinlein story I ever read.  I think I was with my Dad at a supermarket when we picked up the paperback off a rack.  That book started my Heinlein phase, which didn’t end until I’d read almost 30 other Heinlein books.

Some of the subject material went over my head.  Some of the stories stuck with me and influenced my writing.  Others were just okay.

I never finished Stranger in a Strange Land.  When talking to other Heinlein fans at conventions, I kept this fact secret.  I was embarrassed.  This is probably Heinlein’s most famous book.  It won the 1962 Hugo.  It gave us the word “grok.” I read almost all of his books.  How could I have left that one out?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to correct this omission.  I downloaded the audio book and I chewed through it slowly.  I wanted to savor it because in many ways, I was going back in time.  I was going back to a reflection of the 60’s, when Heinlein wrote the book.  I was also going back to when I was much younger, and the only thing I was reading was Heinlein paperbacks.

Here, then, are my observations.


The Casual Misogyny

The first thing that hit me as I listened to the book was that women did not have an equal place in the world.  Jill Boardman is constantly called by pet names.  The women are often admonished as if they are children rather than as adults.  Several male characters throughout the book, including Jubal Harshaw, describe the role of women in society, and it isn’t flattering.

To Heinlein’s credit, the female protagonists aren’t wilting flowers.  They display strength in personality.  They eventually express their own sexuality and appetites on par with their male counterparts.  But even within the views of Jill and Michael, there is a “truth” that Jill realizes: it is natural for men to need to look at women, and it is natural for women to flaunt and be seen.

I chalked up the inequality of the sexes as being a byproduct of being written in the early 60’s.  A time full of dames and broads.  Given that context, the story is quite progressive.


Jubal Harshaw, The Pro From Dover

Jubal Harshaw is a bigger than life character.  Both a doctor and a lawyer, no one gets one over on Jubal Harshaw.  Throughout the story, he outmaneuvers world leaders, police forces, and religious zealots.  He is the only one that fully groks without learning Martian first.  Michael values Jubal Harshaw’s word above all others.

Again, this seems like a trope from the era.  That is, authors from that time seemed to inject in their heroes over-the-top qualities that make them unbelievable.

My first attempts at writing fiction featured a character named Arthur Kane that was also over-the-top.  He was rich, super smart, knew karate, and was a mechanical genius.  Even though I hadn’t finished Strange in a Strange Land before I started writing, I feel like this type of writing was present in the other Heinlein books I’d read.  His influence on my early writing is clear.



I found the exploration of religion extremely interesting.  I saw the Fosterites with their hedonism, commercialism, and political and military influence as an exaggerated version of today’s Christian right.  When Michael talks about initiates in his church, he refers to them as marks.  Indeed, everyone that attends a church in the book is made out to be a dupe getting suckered by carnies.  When it comes to church in Stranger in a Strange Land, the game is always rigged.

Once people have made it far enough into Michael’s church, they realize that it isn’t a church at all.  They become part of the community and they’re no longer treated like suckers.  Their enlightenment is that every creature that can understand, that can grok, is God.  Thou art God.

Interestingly enough, Jubal Harshaw, the patron saint of Michael’s church, the figure that Michael claims to be capable of grokking fully even without learning Martian, is an atheist.  He is the last to join Michael’s home, and he never gives up his agnostic views.

It’s also interesting that the Christ-like figure of Michael is brought to an ultimate conclusion as a martyr.  Having delivered his message and done what he needed to do in a corporeal body, he discorporated.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, all religions are true.  And none of them are.  I don’t believe Heinlein intended to give us any answers.  I believe he just tried to make people think and discuss.  However, if he was projecting his own philosophy anywhere, I’d guess it was through the pragmatic viewpoint of Jubal Harshaw.


Left Versus Right

Just as Heinlein can’t avoid bringing bits of his culture into his writing, I can’t avoid bringing bits of my own into it when reading.  Consequently, I saw reflections of our present day in the pages of Stranger in a Strange Land.

All of the protagonists lean so far left that their homes describe perfect socialist utopias.  In Jubal Harshaw’s home, people work for Jubal, but they’re treated as family.  They eat together.  They play together.  While sex is not quite as free as it is in Michael’s home, it isn’t discouraged.

Michael’s home goes even further.  Money and possessions and clothing are things that are used outside the home.  The relationships are polygamous.  There is no place for jealousy.  All are equal, for all are God.  Michael is described as a first among equals and is given reverence, but only to a point.

The protagonists are definitely bleeding heart lefty liberals, with their free love and socialist living.  And in the context of the story, taken to the ultimate conclusion, they are superior and closer to natural order.  They have control of their bodies.  They are happy.  They move with purpose.  They need not fear death, because they are spiritual, enlightened beings.

Who are the antagonists, then?  The Fosterites, certainly.  And as I said before, they’re very much Tea Party right wingers taken to the extreme.  They seek money and power.  They borrow scripture from Christianity without actually living lives that follow that religion.  And they are intolerant of any other faith or way of life.  They are destructively evangelical.

Joseph Douglas and his police forces are antagonists for a while.   I believe the police are even described as “S.S. troupes.” though I might be mistaken as a fault of listening rather than reading.

In the end, it’s the police state influenced by the Fosterites that closes in on Michael and his home.  As he is being killed, the news media keeps cutting to commercials.  The media is unemotional in broadcasting the gruesome destruction of someone preaching love and hope.  They continue to smile while that’s going on, peddling products with commercial glee.

I don’t want to go too much into the reflections I see with present day reality because some of my conclusions aren’t particularly flattering.  I don’t mind offending people, but it’s not what I’m setting out to do in this post.



I enjoyed Strainger in a Strange Land.  If for no other reason, the nostalgia from reading a Robert Heinlein story was fantastic.  Beyond that, I liked picking out (or perhaps guessing at) the world Heinlein lived in when he wrote the book.  He set out to write a story that would make people think and get them talking.  I think he succeeded.

If you have not read it before, I recommend it.  But don’t go in lightly.  Be prepared for some viewpoints that would not survive the world we live in today.


A Guide to Retaining Our Humanity While Dealing with Nazis

Like my last post, I’m going to start with the important stuff, because I don’t want to be misunderstood.

Donald Trump’s recent press conference failed to denounce white nationalists, KKK, and Nazis.  He went off script and demonstrated his low character, his wrong-headed approach, and just how unfit for office he is.  He gave false equivalence between the Alt-Right and those of us that think Nazis are bad.  He blew it.  He sucks.  He should be impeached and removed from office as soon as possible.

That’s the important part.  I needed to state that, because there were a couple of things he said that might have been truthful.  I’m going to cherry pick those points, because they are important.  But I’m not letting Trump off the hook.  He screwed up.

These last few days have been an emotional roller coaster.  A woman lost her life to a homegrown terrorist in a car.  Social media has exploded with righteous outrage and sincere grief.  There have been a lot of emotional releases and some things said in haste, and I want us all to take a step back and consider a few things, so that we don’t lose our own humanity.

1. The Nazis, Alt-Right, and KKK are the Minority

There are way fewer of them than there are of us.  That doesn’t make what they’re doing any less deplorable, but it should give us hope.  Their bigoted, narrow-minded view cannot last, because their voice will continue to get smaller and smaller, until they’re just a dark spot in the history books.

It’s true that Bannon, Miller, and Gorka are in prominent positions, and Trump has elevated the Alt-Right’s to a place where they have disproportionate influence.  But the age of Trump will end.  His influence will continue to wane as his approval plummets.  When it becomes obvious to the Republicans that he will sink their chance of re-election, they’ll renounce him.

And let’s face it.  When things get tough, they’ll turn on each other and destroy themselves.

2. We Need to be Careful with the Doxing

In the last few days, pictures of the tiki torch wielding assholes have been appearing on Twitter, and people have been identifying them.  Many have already lost their jobs.

I think it’s great that white supremacists are facing consequences for their actions.  If you go out and publicly start spouting hate, I hope you get what you deserve.

Let’s just be careful, though.  How hard would it be to take a picture of someone and put it out there, suggesting that they were among the white supremacists?  What defense would that person have?

Or, let’s say we do take a legitimate image of someone that marched with the tiki-Nazis.  Is it possible that they were there, but their only interest was in preserving the monument?

As I said in my last post, my gut tells me it’s wrong to tear down the monuments.  I’ve examined that feeling, and I know that it comes from a place of privilege.  To me, the monuments represent scars in our nation’s history.  To other people, they represent oppression and slavery.  From a place of compassion, I can support tearing them down, even if my initial instinct is to find some other solution.

But there could have been well-meaning individuals at the rally that simply wanted to preserve the monuments. It’s one of the things Trump said in his last press conference that might be true.  There might have been people on the side of the Alt-Right that were not white nationalists.  Maybe.  And if that’s true, then getting them fired and black balled on the internet seems a little bit harsh.

Also, doxing itself isn’t cool.  It was the tactic used by small-minded, cowardly boys to punish women for enjoying video games.  Maybe we should think twice about using the tactic.

3. Nazis are Still Human

This point receives a surprising amount of resistance.  Earlier, I tried to make this point in a comment, and I wound up having to delete it.  The blow-back was “When they are acting human, we’ll recognize them as human.”

This sentiment is wrong.  It is the heart of the argument of racists and bigots.  It is the problem with the internet, and it is why we can’t have nice things.

Nazis are bad.  I’m not sympathetic to their cause.  I renounce their hatred and their methods.  I do not agree with them.  If I’m in a position where a Nazi needs to be fought, I will fight them.  But I do not renounce their humanity, because then I’m no better than they are.

4. We are Judged by How We Treat our Enemies

I can’t find the quote, but I believe that how we treat our enemies is a reflection of the quality of ourselves and our society.  We already judge the Nazis, KKK, and Alt-Right jerks by how they treat their enemies.  History will judged us on how we treat them in turn.


I’ve seen a lot of people saying things about how love only defeats your enemy when they have a conscience.  I’ve seen people say that love doesn’t work.  I’d like to end this post with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr which is as pertinent now as it has ever been:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (from “Loving Your Enemies”)



Charlottesville, and Condemning White Nationalists

Normally, I would want to start from the very beginning of an event and work chronologically forward.  This time, I need to go backwards, because I need to get to the important stuff first.

I condemn the behavior of the white nationalists that brought violence and death to Charlottesville.  There are no excuses.  Their behavior and their values are not American.  Whether you are Republican, Democrat, or Independent, we should all be united in this stance.

That is the important part.  Some of the rest of this post is going to sound like I’m softening on it, but I’m not.  Do not misunderstand me.  There is no excuse for the behavior of white nationalists, KKK, Nazis, and far right extremists.  They are taking advantage of the freedoms that make this country great.  They are hypocrites of the highest order.  They are reprehensible.

I’m not going to go so far as to wish harm on them, or suggest that they should be rounded up.  I hope those that violated the law were caught, and that they suffer punishment that is suitable to their crimes.  I hope that justice prevails.  They caught the driver that killed at least one person and injured many others.  As for the rest, I hope they learn the value of human life, the depth of the American values that they have taken advantage of, and that they have a change of heart.  I hope they all get what they deserve.

If there had been no violence, we could all be having a different discussion.  It is everyone’s right to peacefully assemble.  If a group of white nationalists want to peacefully assemble and protest, that is their right.  I typed that with the hugest of eye rolls, but it’s true.  The right to demonstrate isn’t granted based on the quality of the people’s argument.

I think that if you’re going to wander around waving flags with swastikas or chant “blood and soil,” you’ve earned the mockery you’re going to receive.  But as an American that believes in his country, I have to support anyone’s right to peacefully gather.  Even if it’s just to display ignorance, and demonstrate how far on the wrong side of history some people have chosen to stand.

It’s also the right of others to counter-protest, as long as no laws are violated and everyone stays safe and sane.

But that’s not how things went down.  And at least one person is dead, and many others are injured.

And this all stemmed from a statue.  A memorial to Robert E. Lee.

Now comes the plot twist to this whole post.  I actually support the idea of preserving the statue.  I’m not in favor of tearing it down.

Whether we like it or not, Robert E. Lee is a part of our nation’s history.  We should remember his name and his role in the civil war.  We should remember what he stood for.  And we should remember that he fought on the wrong side.

Paris still has monuments to Napoleon, a man that crowned himself and formed his own dictatorship.  A man that, once deposed, tried to turn his army on Paris, but his men mutinied.  They still have statues of him, one of which is made from melted down cannons.  France has not forgotten its history, and neither should we.

I would rather be having this kind of conversation about the preservation of history.  I would rather have someone that disagrees with me offer me counter arguments, such as the statue is a source of pain for people of color in the area.  Maybe I’m not being sensitive enough to people that are directly harmed by the statue’s existence.  If that’s the argument… well… my mind can be changed.  Maybe there’s a compromise, such as moving the statue to another location.

That’s not the kind of conversation we can have, though.  Instead, we have to deal with the ramifications of a bunch of racist, close-minded assholes.  We have to take a stand and condemn the acts of evil men.  And in some cases, condemn other people that aren’t fast enough with their own condemnation.

I believe that white supremacists usurped an issue and applied their own agenda.  They took a stage not meant for them, called for the spotlight, made damned fools of themselves, and now we’re forced to talk about them and their idiocy.

But what other choice do we have?


I Enjoyed the Dark Tower Movie

Everywhere I look, I see people bashing the Dark Tower movie.  Very few people are actually defending it.  So, I’m going to talk about it, and I’m going to go deep into spoiler territory, for both the movie and the books.

I repeat, this post will contain spoilers for both the movies and the books.  If you haven’t read the books and you intend to, don’t read this post.  If you haven’t seen the movie and you don’t like spoilers, look away, my friend.  Because we’re going to get into it.

Okay?  Okay.  Let’s start with the books.

The books start with one of the best opening lines: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

This is a great opening because it gives us our protagonist, our antagonist, and our setting in one line.  Roland, The Man in Black, and the desert, which really is Roland’s world.  A world that has moved on.  A world that looks like it might once have been like our world.  But different.

In the first book, Roland knows he is a gunslinger.  He is resolute.  He is duty bound to a fault.  He is willing to let a boy fall to his death in order to achieve his goal.  Ultimately, his goal is to get to The Dark Tower.  The Man in Black is just a stepping stone to achieve that goal.

Continuing on with the books, Roland draws his companions to him.  We learn about what it means to be a gunslinger.  We learn about those that traveled with him in the past, and how they fell along the way.  We see, right up to the very end, that Roland’s curse is to follow his duty, and in the pursuit of that duty, walk across the backs of the beloved dead in order to reach his goal.

At the end of the books, he pretty much does that.  Jake and Eddie are dead and gone.  Susanna leaves him.  He’s lost everyone, but he perseveres until the Crimson King is defeated and he enters The Dark Tower.  He goes up each level, seeing his life.  At the last level of the tower, there is one more door.  He goes through it, and what happens?

The man in black flees across the desert, and the gunslinger follows.  He’s back to where we saw him at the beginning of the quest.  The cycle starts again, but there is hope that Roland has learned something.  That this time around, it will be a little bit different.

The Dark Tower series contains multiple endings.  Roland starting the cycle over again is one of them.  Another ending involves Susanna.  She is in another world, much like our own, but a little bit different.  She finds Eddie there.  This Eddie is much like the one she’d lost, but this one is alive, clean and sober.  And Jake is there, too.  Jake and Eddie are brothers, and they are both happy and alive.  They’re the same people we’ve loved through the series.  Just a little bit different.

I’ve spent a bunch of time talking about (and spoiling) the books, but before I go on to the movie, let me talk about one other minor point.  In the books, Roland laments that he should have taken just a few seconds longer at one battle, and picked up The Horn of Eld when his companion Cuthbert had died.  In his visions of approaching the tower, he saw himself standing on a hill, surrounded by roses.  He blows the horn before going to the tower.

When the cycle is restarted, a hint that things are different is that he has the horn.  Roland has grown and changed.  And if he has changed, then maybe the next time around will be different.  Maybe Eddie and Jake won’t have to die.

Now let’s talk about the movie.

The movie does not start with the gunslinger in the desert.  It starts with Jake having a vision of Roland’s world, and how Walter, the Man in Black, is using gifted children to attack the tower.

The movie focuses on Jake at the beginning, because when we get to Roland, he is a different man.  He’s broken in a fundamental way.  The deaths of his companions weigh on him.  He is no longer trying to get to The Dark Tower.  He just wants to kill the one responsible for the death of the ones he loved.

Right away, we can see that this is a different story than the one in the books.  Both Jake and Roland are similar to what we saw in the books, but they’re different.  In the books, Jake grew up in 80’s, and he had to die in order to get to Roland’s world.  In the movie, he’s in our present day, and he finds his own way to Roland’s world.

The characters are familiar, but a little bit different.  Does that sound familiar?

The movie is not trying to retell the story from the book.  It’s not an adaptation.  It’s an extension.  It’s a new chapter.

The movie even addresses this with one, subtle clue.  The Horn of Eld.  Roland doesn’t ever mention it in the movie, and no one remarks on it.  But look at this picture:

Nestled into that bag with all of that ammo is The Horn of Eld.  In this movie, Roland stopped when his good friend Cuthbert fell at the Jericho Hill.  He stopped, mourned the loss, and took up the horn.  In the movie world, if Roland reaches The Dark Tower, he won’t have the same regrets as the Roland from the books.

And yet, the movie is getting bad reviews.

Obviously, I went into it with a bunch of knowledge.  The lore from the books enriched my movie experience, and excited me every time I saw a nod to the story I already knew.

What about people that haven’t read the books?  Well, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey gave outstanding performances.  The set pieces were detailed.  The action was great.  Tom Taylor as Jake did fine.  The story was fine.  And at only 95 minutes, it didn’t drag on too long.  I didn’t notice any pacing issues.

So what gives?

Here is my theory.  I think the first reviews came from people that wanted to see the story from the books on the big screen.  People that wanted to see the Roland they enjoyed and adventured with for thousands of pages.  People that loved Eddie and Jake and Susanna, and were looking forward to The Drawing of the Three.  People that might have forgotten the ending of the series, or maybe put the endings out of their mind, because Stephen King isn’t known for great endings.  Besides, he wrote himself into the last books.  How corny is that?  Who would want to remember how The Dark Tower ended?

Since the story in the movies is so different than the books, it did not meet expectations.  Therefore, the movie is bad.

Let’s face it.  Some people on the internet started shitting on the movie as soon as they found out that Idris Elbas was cast as Roland.  In the books, Roland is described as looking like Clint Eastwood.  A thin, hard-case.  Idris Elba is not particular thin, and he really doesn’t look like Clint Eastwood.

After the first few bad reviews, Group Think took over, and now everyone is saying it’s terrible.

Obviously, I disagree with the bad reviews.  I enjoyed it.  I’m glad I saw it in the theater.  When it hits DVD, I’ll buy it and watch it again.  I’m sure I will see even more details that I missed on first viewing.

The bad reviews tell me that we don’t want new stories.  We want the ones we know regurgitated back on the screen.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with that knowledge as I try to write new stories.