An earlier post
discussed the topic of one of the panels that I participated in at Westercon this weekend. Another was on the subject of the Heinlein best seller, in particular its effect on the present day world. It occurred to me that some readers of my blog might be interested in my view of the subject.
Stranger had a significant short term effect on the culture when it came out, but a negligible long term effect judged by the present. Its most radical message was the idea of group marriage, group marriage of a particular sort. The nests it described were high trust families formed with minimal search and courtship, yet stable. You looked in someone's eyes, recognized him or her as a water brother, and knew you could trust each other forever after. It was a naively romantic picture, possibly workable with the assistance of the protagonist's super powers, but distinctly risky in the real world. The picture fit well into the naively romantic hippy culture of the time, quite a lot of people seem to have tried to implement it, and no doubt for at least a few it worked. One member of the panel audience made it reasonably clear that she had joined a nest, was still in it, and was happy with the result.
Sexual mores did indeed change, but not in that direction. Living in southern California in the eighties, the view that seemed most common among young adults—many of those I associated with would have been met within the SCA, a subculture that had noticeable overlap with hippiedom—was very different. The ideal pattern was stable monogamy—but who could be so lucky. Insofar as it had been replaced, it was mostly by the increasing acceptability and practice of casual sex.
There has been some development since Stranger was published, in practice and theory, along the lines of group marriage, but of a very different sort. Polyamory is much more self-conscious and structured than what we see in Stranger—partners are classified as primary or secondary and a good deal of attention paid to just what those terms mean and what behavior they imply. The result is rather closer to the Oneida Commune of the 19th century—on a much smaller scale—than to the nest. Another and less visible development has been the gradual increase in acceptability of the BDSM subculture, although most of that, at least in realspace, is still pretty low profile.
I think this description fits not only what happened in the real world but what happened in Heinlein's fictional worlds. Consider another and much more sophisticated version of a group marriage, the line marriage in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It is highly organized, new members are brought in at the low age end on a regular pattern of alternating gender, there is extensive search/courtship. And the protagonist offers a plausible explanation of its social role, why these particular institutions developed as they did and what purpose they serve.
Finally, consider Friday
. The protagonist, surprisingly naive given her profession, joins a group marriage, makes a substantial commitment to it, and is booted out, her share of the assets stolen, when it is discovered that she is an artificial person, the superior product of genetic engineering. Her much later commitment to a second group marriage is the result of somewhat more careful research.
And, for a tangent back to self-publishing, one of my reasons to attend sf cons and participate in panels is as an opportunity to get some publicity for my work. Being, like (I suspect) many authors, addicted to the frequent checking of Amazon ratings, I took the opportunity to monitor the effect on the rating of Salamander
of my con participation last weekend. As best I can tell it drove the rating, which had been drifting up above (I think) 100,000, back down to something in the 20-30,000 range, which is about the best it has yet managed.
Of course, it's now drifting back up. But if I mention it often enough here ... . And we do seem to have sold a few more cookbooks