Feb. 9th, 2017

avevale_intelligencer: (bitmoji)
I love Stranger In A Strange Land. It's about the only thing of Heinlein's I do actually love. There is much wrong with it besides what I'm going to talk about, but much right as well. He did, however, fall victim to the very common fault of idiot plotting.

This is where, in order to make the story work, some or all of the characters have to be too stupid to do what to the reader is the obvious thing. To be fair, this may be because it wasn't obvious to Heinlein either, but since he conceived the characters, the situation, and the plot, one has to ask why not.

The omniscient narrator states as a fact that the driving force behind all humanity's strivings is the bipolar nature of human sexuality. If there's evidence to support this contention, I missed it. The driving force behind humanity's strivings is far more obvious to me, and if it had been explained to Mike early on in the book, a lot of heartache might have been avoided.

Jubal, or Jill, or Ben, or someone, could so easily have sat Mike down and said something like this. "Look, kid. Where you come from, when Martians get old they leave their bodies and hang around as Old Ones giving advice, right? They transform into some sort of incorporeal form of life. We don't. When we get old, we die, and we either stop existing altogether or we go somewhere else, we don't know where. Opinion is divided on this because we don't know.

"We just don't know. We don't know anything. We don't know what's going to happen next. We don't know what the universe is really like. We don't know, but we want to, real bad. And since we don't know and we don't have any way of finding out...we guess. We imagine. We make up stories. We guess what happens after we die and we call it heaven, or hell, or reincarnation. We guess where the universe came from and we call it god. We guess what's going to happen tomorrow, and if the guess is good we call it hope, if it's bad we call it fear. And when we guess right, we figure there must be a reason and we make a guess about that and call it intuition, or clairvoyance, or reasoned deduction, but all it is is a guess, because we don't know."

And that is the real driving force behind all our strivings. We strive to take care of our future needs because we don't know if we'll be able to do it tomorrow. We desperately strive to understand the universe because we don't know what it's going to do next. And we defend our guesses, whatever they may be, because if we lose them we're back where we started, in the void of unknowing, and we don't trust other people's guesses because we don't know what's going on in their heads. But all the while we know, deep down, that everything we like to think we know is just a more or less informed guess, and the only thing that makes that uncertainty bearable...is faith. Faith in our guesses, whatever they may be. Faith in the reliability of science, faith in the validity of the evidence we think we have, faith in the veracity of our own perceptions, faith in other people, faith in the rightness of law, faith in the future, or faith in gods. It's all faith. Because we don't know.

Faith is what drives human beings. It's all we have.

Heinlein's Martians don't have any of that. They know everything about their universe, because Heinlein decreed that it should be so. And nobody in the book twigs that that's the difference, that's what tears Mike apart, because he feels he should share that certainty, he tells himself he does, but he doesn't have the equipment to perceive it. Of course Heinlein also decreed that there was an afterlife for humans in his universe as well, but the humans didn't know that and neither did Mike, till after he was dead. Up to that moment, just like everyone else, he was relying on faith.

Maybe Heinlein did know all this, and his apparent nescience was a sophisticated bluff...but it certainly leaves what looks like an idiot plot right at the heart of Stranger, because nobody ever explains to Mike the central fact about human beings that sets them apart from Martians, and it's certainly right out there with a big neon sign pointing to it.

Or maybe I'm wrong. I don't know.


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