Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Rude Awakening in the Library Sci-Fi Section

At the library this weekend, I found myself gravitating toward the science fiction section. I have read a lot of sci-fi, but none at all recently. Back in my teens, 20s and 30s I read quite a lot, Heinlein and Asimov, Clarke, A.E. van Vogt and Phillip K. Dick and more. And then – don't ask me why because I don't know – I just sort of stopped.

But I'd been thinking about sci-fi the last couple of weeks. One of the members of the library writers group had submitted a couple of chapters of a piece. It wasn't good for a lot of reasons, and it had me thinking about writers who had handled a similar theme really well, notably Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, which over the years I've read five or six times at least.

There was a particular passage in her piece, a conversation between the disguised alien secretly on earth to observe humans and a woman he meets. The dialogue is just terrible, they talk exactly the same. In any story you ought to be able to tell who is talking by how they talk, and certainly in one where one is a human and the other an extraterrestrial pretending to be human.

"That doesn't make any sense," I thought. "That would only make sense if ..." And it hit me. An idea for a story, a new take on an old theme. At least I think it's new, it's new to me, anyway. So I've been tossing it over in my mind, and that's undoubtedly what led me Sunday to the sci-fi section.

I came home with Stranger in a Strange Land, plus a collection of Dick's stories (Tori and I had recently stayed up late watching Total Recall, and I thought it might be time to read the story it was based on,) and a collaboration between Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl.

First I read the Heinlein, and I was surprised. The things that are good about it are still good – it's a delightfully jaundiced, cynical look at humanity as seen by a complete outsider. Morals, ethics, religion, politics, all are skewered.

But I was surprised by quite a few things. First, the edition I was reading, an Ace paperback printed in 2003, was really badly produced. Lots of missing words and wrong words and typos I'm sure weren't there in the earlier volumes I read. There was a stretch in the middle where there were one or two mistakes on every page. That sort of thing is distracting to the reader

Even more surprising, considering how many times I've read it, was how dated it was. It was published in 1961, so Heinlein write it in the late 1950s, no later than about 1960. And his idea of the near future was to have flying taxis, a colony on Mars and some different names for things that are obviously unchanged – stereovision instead of television, for instance. Other than that, it's still firmly stuck in the 1950s, with telephones still wired to the wall, newspapers, mail only delivered by the Post Office. In this future computers exist but only as giant mainframe number crunchers. Heinlein didn't – couldn't? – foresee the changes in communication that have shaped the world. And just writing that, I get it. He wrote in a time when the ability to move people and things quicker and more efficiently still defined modern. Our devices have changed that formula. Today we carry telephones in our pockets, many of which are more powerful than any computer that existed in 1961. They brought us together without physically moving us, and now the world is very different than that in which Heinlein lived, or that he could imagine.

Even worse was Heinlein's casual acceptance of sexual morality, even as he thought he was satirizing it. The second major character in the book is crotchety old Jubal Harshaw, whose dyspeptic tirades on art, religion, education and pretty much everything else make up the satirical heart of the book. (And don't get me wrong, I still love the character and will continue quoting him.) It's clearly Heinlein himself, thinly disguised, ranting about things that have been bugging him, and feeling all smugly superior for having such avant garde ideas. But he's still stuck in a mid-20th century mindset that has no room for women in anything like a position of authority, even disdain for women who "don't know their place." And though it celebrates the idea of free love and sexual freedom, it's clearly for heterosexuals only. Gay men dismissed several times as pansies, and one character saying she's glad she's not a lesbian, as if she was afraid she might have caught a disease.

But there was something worse, much worse, tossed off so casually I almost missed it, and so shocking it literally made me a little sick. It occurs when Jill is discussing her own sexual awakening and her surprise that that includes a bit of exhibitionism. And she tells Michael that that's not really that abnormal, "In nine out of ten rapes, the woman is at least partially at fault."

I almost threw the book across the room. My stomach did flip flops. I was so disappointed to read that I almost couldn't finish the book. And I still worry about why I hadn't ever noticed that passage before. Did I at one time believe such nonsense? I don't think so. (As a brother with seven sisters, then the father of three girls, I wouldn't have been allowed to believe that even if I was so inclined.) But it was a mindset so pervasive that I might simply have not noticed it in Heinlein's book, because until very recently a lot of people thought that same exact stupid thing.

Let's just remember, for the record, that a) Rape is not about sex. It's about power. b) No means no. c) As we've taught our kids, "maybe" also means no. d) Women have the right to dress however they want without it being construed as an invitation or a come on. Because e) Again, no means no.

Stranger in a Strange Land is still milestone book and worth a read. But I never noticed before how ridiculously dated it was, even when it came out. This is one case where maybe I should have let my memory of the book stand instead of reading it again. My recollection is that Asimov handled the idea of future worlds much better, especially in the Foundation series, which I loved. But do I dare put that to the test, after my disappointment with what I wrongly remembered as a masterpiece? 

I'm hoping for something better from the Clarke/Pohl book, which I just started.

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