Stranger in a Strange Land: Life-Changing Literature

Most people who know me know that Robert Heinlein was a hero of mine even before I had read any of his works, because he is the creator of Pantheistic Multi-ego Solipsism, which is very similar to my Multiple Personality Solipsism. This was a speculative fiction author who died three months and one day before I was born, who became an adult in the twenties and was big in the fifties and sixties, and yet blows me away as modern conventions of story-telling and social order are still generally miles behind his genius.

After reteaching my self how to enjoy reading other people’s writing, I finally got around to reading Heinlein to get a grasp on his brand of solipsism. I started with The Number of the Beast and fell in love with it, much as I had expected. Then, before starting that book’s series from the beginning, I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land, as that was supposed to be his most popular work, and I wanted to know why. Stranger in a Strange Land is a book about a human who was raised by Martians who comes back to Earth and has to learn the English Language, what women are, what greed is, and what humor is, among many other things that Martians don’t have. Yeah. It’s fascinating because he has extreme control over his body and sports the a minor ability to manifest, which makes for some tense moments because he doesn’t understand human ethics. As I touched on very briefly last June, what left me thinking about this book again and again later was how he learned intimacy and love.

One of my room mates recently got to what I consider to be the major climactic scene in the book, and talking with him about it and listening to some chunks of it on audio book with him prompted me to write about it. In the scene one human character describes to an other his disturbing experience within the Man from Mars’s new temple. The religion that he designs is based on the notion of ‘thou art god’ and the practice of community polyamory. The open sexuality and absolute sharing is what pushed the character Ben over the edge of course. He was disgusted, and yet his audience of the retelling argues that his disgust is socially conditioned and that there is not, in fact, any unethical behavior presented in his story.

Some thing that I struggled with and wrote about per haps a year ago was a distinction between ethics and morality. This is not a popular distinction, but it is a useful one. For clarity, I will again use the term ‘personal morality’. Ethics is the study and practice of what is ideally most just and compassionate, while personal morality is what we believe simply because we feel it to be right and wrong.  In other words, personal morality is based upon each individual’s biases of disgust, hatred, fondness, and faith.  What the character Ben was describing was his personal morality, and what Jubal was defending was true ethics.

I understood this; I thought it; I knew it, but I did not feel it.  Group sex?  Inviting an old friend over to catch up and then having sex in front of him with his other friend mid-conversation?  It felt too base, too impersonal, not private enough.  It felt like an improper mixing of interactions.  It felt wrong.  I was disgusted, horrified even, but the true trouble came to me in knowing that I was wrong.  That was wrong, or, more specifically, that my feelings did not reflect any truth value of right and wrong.  I didn’t know what to do.  The facts were right there.  They were a family of consenting adults, all very much in love with each other, all fair, kind, compassionate people.  Expression of sexuality is a basic need, and there’s no need to frame it up any other way by setting arbitrary codes of conduct.  It was made clear that these interactions were extremely personal and loving.  They all had their privacy together in seclusion, and sex need not be a secret!  Why should we feel shame?  Are we ashamed to love or to be hungry for food or thirsty for water?  And yet there I was trying to rationalize my feelings, my emotional responses to this passage in a genre fiction story…

May be for some people Strange in a Strange Land has no thing to tell them about their lives, and it’s just good ol’ quirky science fiction entertainment.  Well, I feel sorry for those people, but that’s not the point.  For me it was challenging.  It was mind-bending.  It was life-changing.  It forced me to look in side my self and and make a change, and I think that all good story-telling should.  Escapism is useful in small doses, but the real value of art is in its inspiration to make us better people in satisfying ways, to make self-improvement fun!  As I’ve said, the best art teaches us to enjoy tempering our virtues and our knowledge, and the best art does this by challenging us.  Challenging our views of society, of psychology, of faith, of physical limitations, of every thing!

Stranger in a Strange Land is one such masterpiece.  The Man From Mars- his whole understanding of humanity as learned from his Martian perspective, is fascinating.  An other memorable scene involves him explaining how he understands humor as being a product of our inability to avoid suffering.  He struggled to understand what humor was, because, well, when you don’t take it for granted, you’re more inclined to wonder.  Can you explain why we laugh?  Sure.  Because things are funny.  Why are things funny?  Why did we evolve with the ability to laugh?  What purpose does it serve?  If there had never been this fictional Martian-born human, I might never have thought about it, and been awed at the implications.

So get out there.  Read some thing challenging.  Read a Heinlein novel, or an Arthur C. Clarke, or some Jorge Luis Borges, Fyodor Dostoyevsky- hell, read Frankenstein!  Watch Memento, if you’ve never seen it!  I should go before I start recommending psychological thrillers.

 

 

PS: You can also try some thing that I’ve written.  Through Sunday the Kindle version of my epic fantasy novel “O” is free, and I’ve also signed up for Noisetrade’s free ebook program.

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