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12 May 2009 @ 11:20 am
 
Stranger in a Strange Land programmed me in ways that were not obvious for months and even years, and some that were right away. It is now obviously flawed, largely in the ways it failed to meet the author's goal of challenging all the assumptions of his society (most notably sexual dimorphism), but I still retain a lot of the benefits I got from reading it.*

Russell Blackford makes the case for the good parts while noting the flaws. Blackford may have been the first to notice that the book is an anatomy, or Menippean satire, a category defined by Northrop Frye as made up of large books in which the central plot is subsidiary to digressions, copias, lists, set pieces, parodies, and other sideshows, creating a whole larger than the sum of its parts, a quality later noted in William H. Patterson jr. and Andrew Thornton's excellent defense brief, The Martian Named Smith.

Most of the fiction I really love is anatomies, including Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, Illuminatus!, Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas, & Electric, Neil Stephenson's The Cryptonomicon, Paul Di Filippo's Ciphers, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, John Barth's Letters (and other books of his to a lesser extent), The Recognitions, and The Public Burning. With a bit of stretching, we could include my two favorite works of Big Trash, The Carpetbaggers, by Harold Robbins, and The Godfather, by Mario Puzo.

*Good things about Robert Heinlein, besides the obvious:

"Man, as a social animal, can no more escape government than the individual can escape bondage to his bowels."

"Thou Art God": the Martian blasphemy that's also Eastern wisdom.

His innocent observer of Terran culture learned a valuable lesson about humanity from seeing a monkey hit a smaller monkey, who in turn hit a still smaller one.

Long before the 80s, he told a story in which the "amiable nullity" who led the free world was actually controlled by his wife's astrologer.

In one book, he had a character who labored to make things better for all those billions of people because "their lives may not have cosmic significance, but they have feelings. They can hurt." That may or may not have expressed Heinlein's own beliefs at the time, but it perfectly represents the condescension of liberals and their equally genuine compassion. (I am a liberal.)

The possibility that we are all different parts of the same record, being played at different times and in different places (expressed in a letter to Theodore Sturgeon)

The taboo against cannibalism is a good idea because we’re not civilized, so it’s nice to have one fewer way that people can prey on each other.

"When Robert Heinlein invented the term 'grok' to mean simultaneously know, eat, embrace, make love to and incorporate, he was invoking the secret logic of all writing, and the reason it is so comforting to write"—Donna Minkowitz

"waldoes": devices that enable one to pick up and manipulate parts of the physical world without actually touching them. He left it to the reader to realize that the three greatest waldoes are language, mathematics, and science.

Astrology is nowhere near being a science, but a perceptive astrologer can use its symbols as a guiding metaphor to interpret people. (I doubt that it’s much worse than other social sciences. I’d much rather trust my psyche to a good astrologer than a bad Freudian.)

understanding scientific method and using it where it works, but also being able to express nonmaterialistic approaches without sounding like The Weekly World News.

and of course the invaluable intellectual exercise in recognizing the many areas (such as strong sexual dimorphism) in which he was utterly full of shit.
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shelleybear: Grendelshelleybear on May 12th, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
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Astrology is nowhere near being a science, but a perceptive astrologer can use its symbols as a guiding metaphor to interpret people. (I doubt that it’s much worse than other social sciences. I’d much rather trust my psyche to a good astrologer than a bad Freudian.)


My ex-wife was more then a little impressed by the face that I could do accurate tarot readings using a set of Warner Brothers cartoon playing cards.
In fact, it's not the images per se, but the characteristics we ascribe to them.
It makes about as much sense as astrology.
grendel1031: DrPrunegrendel1031 on May 12th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
Astounding!

Thanks to you, I now have a category for books that I love: Gravity's Rainbow, Illuminatus, Stand on Zanzibar and The Public Burning

Additionally, I have several more titles to add to the To-Be-Read Mountain Range.

Thanks
randy_byers on May 12th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the concept of the anatomy. I believe that Sterne's Tristram Shandy would be another prime example. Maybe Dhalgren too?
El Coyote Gordo: Pink Panthersupergee on May 12th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
Tristram Shandy was one of the original ones, and I liked that too.
nancylebov: green leavesnancylebov on May 12th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
The initial section from Mike's pov in the hospital is amazing. He isn't taking anything the way a normal person would, but it adds up to a coherent worldview.

I suspect everything that's being satirized about human society in the book could be cured with a little telepathy.

Do you mind if I crosspost this to Eric Raymond's blog? There's a current "things I learned from science fiction" thread.
El Coyote Gordo: breechessupergee on May 12th, 2009 05:47 pm (UTC)
Please do, though Eric is somewhat displeased with me for failing to stand behind the Prez on Iraq.
Ayesha: frescobrowngirl on May 12th, 2009 06:28 pm (UTC)
I dunno... sometimes I prefer the polite lie to the ugly truth, and someone who needs to read my thoughts to believe I'm sentient will just find another way to rationalize that knowledge away.

Quibble put first, because it's much less important than the agreement. :) I've bookmarked this post for the next time I reread Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Avram Grumeragrumer on May 12th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
He left it to the reader to realize that the three greatest waldoes are language, mathematics, and science.

I think I'd leave science off that list; it's all about touching the world.
El Coyote Gordo: alchemysupergee on May 12th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC)
There's also a part where you figure it out from a distance.
randy_byers on May 12th, 2009 08:14 pm (UTC)
Also, waldoes are for touching the world, but with tools rather than with skin.
El Coyote Gordo: kleinsupergee on May 12th, 2009 08:59 pm (UTC)
We are of course not separate from the material world, but as Owen Barfield said, even when we cannot divide, we can distinguish. When supping with matter, some of us like to use longer spoons than others.
Sabrinasophiaserpentia on May 12th, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)
Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose could probably fit comfortably in this category as well.
et in Arcadia egoboo: Barnabyapostle_of_eris on May 13th, 2009 04:13 pm (UTC)
When I told Bob Wilson that Name of the Rose was an alternate version of Illuminatus!, he said, "Good! Now I don't have to read it."
et in Arcadia egoboo: whole earth moonapostle_of_eris on May 13th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
digression on "astrology"
The collection of 12 images of the "signs of the zodiac" have been conserved and transmitted through thousands of years and an implausible sequence of cultures. I really do wonder what this "system" or taxonomy has that reaches so deeply into people that it has had such unique persistence.