Why, oh why didn't I write about "Stranger in a Strange Land" when I had actually just finished reading it? It's been at least a year (two?), and although I know it moved me and changed me and set me on a new path, I feel as if I can only talk about its points in relation to what other people are saying about it. Because I didn't capture those personal responses to the work immediately. I'm going to regret that forever, I know, because you can never re-read a book for the first time.
I know that it changed me in two ways: it returned some of my hope about life and humanity, and it put me on a new path that has reinforced that hope time and again. This book set me on the path to devour all things Heinlein. And with very few exceptions, each of his works has brought me to that place of "Oh my god, yes!" again and again. I don't think I'll ever be able to adequately describe the effect that Robert A. Heinlein has had on my life, or my great sorrow that I've only discovered him so long after his death.
This book moved me because it expressed so well my core beliefs about myself and humanity, beliefs that I have never been able to properly name, beliefs so slippery and elusive that I forget about them and have to be reminded. What does it say about me that I have to be reminded of a personal belief in hope?
Something that has bubbling to the surface over the years, the same something that caused me to start a new blog, was momentarily brought to the surface and shown in a shining light. A connection with and hope for humanity. The realization that yes, it may be paradoxical, but it's time to face the truth that although I am an atheist-leaning agnostic, I seek out and yearn for and suspect there is meaning to life. There is enlightenment to be had, if only we can let ourselves open up to it. Life can be chaotic and random, but somehow serendipity and fate can still occur. Without some overlord or god or grand designer. I can't explain it any better than that, maybe because I haven't been enlightened. I suspect it is merely the journey to enlightenment that *is* enlightenment.
But I was going to talk about this book, about Valentine Michael Smith, the human raised by Martians who became a sort of messiah. As I said, because it's been so long, I can't remember the details well enough and have to describe my reactions to the book as a response to what others have said.
I'm going to attempt to respond to the GoodReads review written by "Christy".
1. She has a strong response to the ugliness of the word "grok". I can sympathize with this, truly. I definitely feel like there are words that sound or feel "ugly", and "grok" is definitely one of them. But at some point I got over that, possibly at the point that I actually figured out the true meaning of the word. Something I suspsect that Christy has defined in a slightly different way than I have, which could explain a few things.
2. She sees a bit of hypocrisy in Heinlein's critique of religion and his use of religion to get his point across, saying that using religion as manipulation is too cynical for her taste and goes against the "Thou art God" philosophy. This is where I begin to suspect she has a different definition of the word "grok", as well as the concept of "thou art god", but I want to get to that later, as it's the meat of everything.
3. "The sexism of the text, which is inseparable from its heteronormativity and even homophobia." Yep, she's got me there. I still can't get over that line, "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault". shudders But it's easier for me to give him a pass on the sexism than it is for homophobia. I just don't understand where the homophobia comes from. It is so very much against everything that I've come to love about Heinlein as I've read more and more of his work. Which makes me wonder about it. A comment on Christy's review by "Stew" suggests much of the book's offenses are contrived to be offensive, as their own commentary on things wrong with society. Speaking of the sexism, I don't think so. But the homophobia? Maybe. I can't recall much, if any, homophobia in any of the other works that I've read by him. I just don't know what to do with these sentiments. They will probably always be the most disturbing thing to me about Heinlein.
Why is it less disturbing when confronted with the sexism? Mostly because it's pretty much in all of his books. It's difficult to stomach, but you eventually have to roll your eyes and move on. Because at some point you have to remember that no one is perfect, and it's ok to recognize someone's contributions without letting their faults overshadow their good works. Do you point it out? Hell. Yes. Do you ruminate and question and let it frustrate you? Yes. Then you set it aside and move on. One does not judge the Constitution by the way it sets up how to count slaves. Critique it, yes, but don't throw it out. It being a living document, in fact you work to change it, while keeping the historical records as a remembrance of how times have changed.
One does not ban Huckleberry Finn for its use of the "N-word", but instead focuses on its message that black people are human. One does not judge the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. for its heteronormatism or religious content, but for the message of overall equality. One does not throw out the contributions of Margaret Sanger for access to birth control because she support eugenics. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that Christy has done this. No, this is me explaining part of my reasoning for giving Heinlein a slap on the wrist rather than a beating for his sexism.
All of that aside, I have a more slippery reason. I think it's part of Heinlein's sexuality. Yes, I will go so far as to say that I think Heinlein himself was sexist. Time and again, Heinlein's male characters physically dominate the strong women they are drawn to. The scenes are like an eroticized breaking of a horse: the two fight for dominance, the man uses physical force to still the woman into true submission until she stops fighting and listens, he tells the woman how maddeningly feisty she is and how she is never to do "x" again and by the way she is the most amazing woman ever and so beautiful and intelligent and awesome and lets have babies now, she melts into his arms and their relationship is instantly transformed into one of loving hen-pecking and hot sex and adoration and baby making. The man and woman instantly understand everything about each other and all the conflicts from before this moment become silly endearments. The woman can be as "uppity" as she likes until the man raises an eyebrow, then she instantly knows she has crossed a line and with contrition she acknowledges that of course it is her duty to defer to his judgement in the matter.
Bleck. But... I can't ignore how very much this sounds like the relationship between a true Submissive and his/her Dominant partner. Yes, I'm talking about "BDSM" culture. I'm talking about a very real, valid, and contemporary (as in it's not just 1950s prudish patriarchy) form of sexuality.
Feminism is still divided strongly between sex-positive and sex-negative views. I am strongly a pro-sex feminist. Some of the anti-pornography and anti-dominance arguments I can understand, even occasionally agree with. But overall, I see sex as a positive human endeavor, pornography as a way to enjoy it, and submission/dominance relations as valid forms of sexuality. In light of that, I strongly suspect these scenes are exactly in-line with Heinlein's personal views. His work is filled with social commentary, much of it along liberal lines, but by no means is he a "flower-child". The man is pro-military and anti-democracy for crying out loud. These are just facets of his world view that we must accept as part of Heinlein, and move on from there.
Also, I am very frustrated with the entire second paragraph in the 3rd point of Christy's review. I don't see the problem with Jill's leap to the conclusion that appreciating poronography makes sense. It about sums up how I feel on the matter: it's ok to want to be looked at and it's ok to look. Pornography as an industry may have issues of power, and I have a big problem with the everyday objectifying of women as sexual objects in order to sell products, but I don't think pornography itself is wrong or anti-feminist, nor do I feel that seeing a person as a sexual object is wrong. The quote about Jill's relief at not having lesbian tendencies is troublesome. Part of me ridiculously holds out hope that we can take the comment at face value - that Jill wasn't ready for that much change, but that it isn't necessarily commentary on homosexuality. But of course, there's all the rest of the anti-homosexual sentiment to quash this. *sigh* But where does Christy get the impressions that Jill thinks "women are the spectacle, never the spectator" and "women's role in sexual behavior is essentially passive"? I find this whole paragraph to be too close to the sex-negative view point for my comfort.
4. Christy's response to the "emphasis on self" is where she completely loses me. She says "but if feeling good and being happy are the primary goals of life, then that opens the door for abuses of others in the name of love or happiness and seems a rather meaningless goal in and of itself. Hedonism alone is not enough for me."
Well damn. Crap on toast, woman, hedonism is basically the core of my entire life view. But for the love of all that is unHoly, how does any of this "open the door" to abuse and make life meaningless? Christy ends her review contrasting Heinlein's view that God is in all of us with Vonnegut's view that there is no god anywhere, saying that she finds Vonnegut more appealing. I've yet to read any Vonnegut, but I can see how someone can believe that view is more realistic or true. But more appealing? She faults Heinlein's finding meaning in the physical as too meaningless, but favors Vonnegut's view that life is meaningless? How can you prefer meaningless but fault someone for being too meaningless? It makes no sense to me. It makes me scratch my head so much, I wonder if I've misunderstood it somehow. (She thinks Mike duping people into knowledge via false religion is "too cynical", but Vonnegut's no god scenario is "appealing"? Huh???)
But this is a good transition back to my feeling that Christy does not define "grok" the way that I do, and that the definition goes to the core of my beliefs.
Christy bemoans "philosophy that believes that YOU are the center of the universe, that everything will work out for the best." She mentions The Secret, something that I haven't read (because I suspect I won't like it and there will be much eye-rolling), so I don't understand her "name-it-and-claim-it" comment. Working out for the best... huh?
As stated, Mike's lesson for humanity isn't religion. Christy doesn't see that although the word "God" is in there, "Thou art God and I am God and all that groks is God" has nothing to do with any "God".
I'm not Heinlein, and I'm not the character Michael or any other Martian, but I have always understood that to "grok" is to understand the existence of something completely and implicitly. And essential to this understanding is that there is no one thing to understand, there is no God or creator or meaning, there is no me and there is no you. Everything just is. Everything is Everything. There is no chair or you or Martians or books or God or... I suspect no love or hate or fear or action or movement or... anything. Because all there is is everything. There is no ONE thing. There is just EVERYthing, which is one thing. To grok is to understand this. To use Michael's mind powers, one simply taps into Everything, to be One with the All. It's that simple. This isn't religion. It is fact. The meaning of life is that life and unlife and existence is... existence.
Everything is Everything.
It's not cynical to dupe people with religion. It's using religion to bring them closer so you can whisper to them that there is no religion, there just is. The lesson is not religion. The lesson is that we are all part of a single existence. It's easy to say "single entity" here, but I don't think that's right either.
I was in tears when Michael told the ant "Thou art God", not because the ant is part of God and so is Michael and therefore everything will be ok in the end. No, "God" is merely a human name for something unnameable. "God" is the name for the realization that everyone and everything that ever was and is and will be is All. He was saying hello and goodbye to himself. He was acknowledging there is no death. I believe the only reason he uses the word "God" at all is because it is the closest word in the English language that comes anywhere close to covering it.
And this is as close to something that I can believe in as I've felt since I realized I didn't believe in God when I was 18. It's how I can be an atheist and say there is meaning to life. Do I believe that if I can truly transcend, to somehow actually BE the concept of everything is ONE, that I could then manipulate the things around me? Make my own reality? No. Maybe. It would explain some of the unexplainable phenomenon. It would explain afterlife and quantum physics and ghosts and non-linear time. Because there is no time either. There just IS. Psychic phenomenon*, all of it. Because everything just IS.
Maybe when I die, all of me will just BE everything else, and everything will sigh in relief that everything is finally one Evertyhing again, and I will know that it's all ok. I'll know how it all ends, I'll know the meaning of life and the universe and god, because I always will be and always have been Everything. Or maybe not. Probably not. But I like this idea better than anything I have ever heard. And it sounds much more probable than anything else too.
*Heinlein's book "Beyond This Horizon" and Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End" both imply the psychic phenomenon can be explained by the fact that time is non-linear. If there is no time, or if everything that happened/is happening/will happen all happens at the same time, then having fore-knowledge of something is just that person having tapped into non-linear time.