Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land: Fifty Years After

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.


Jonathan said...

In my younger days, when Heinlein was still alive, I accepted the widespread opinion that he was one of the leading sf writers.

But by now his writings don't seem to age well, and I seriously wonder whether he deserves top billing.

I used to find Stranger in a strange land at least entertaining, and I've lost count of the number of times I've reread it during my life, but in the 21st century the entertainment wanes somewhat, and it begins to seem like some old black-and-white television series.

I seem to be losing interest in Heinlein. I wonder if other people feel the same effect, or just me.

Anonymous said...

David do you know of any restaurant that serves only medieval recepies? I've got some curiosity as I love to taste unusual stuff, but don't have the patience to cook my own meals.

David Friedman said...

Olde Hansa in Talinn, Estonia, is a medieval restaurant. As of a few years when I was there, the decor was very good, but the proprietor was a chef with an inclination to invent his own medieval recipes, so the food was less authentic.

If you happen to be in the south Bay and want to drop by for dinner ... .

Or you could give a copy of our book to some friend who likes to cook.

Milhouse said...

Not medieval, but worth a mention in this context, is Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem.

David Friedman said...

Eucalyptus does sound fun.

But note that "Jerusalem Artichoke" has nothing to do with Jerusalem--it's a New World sunflower. The name comes from "girasol."

Scott said...

Much as with Ayn Rand, I'm not sure if my loss of interest in Heinlein is a result of the order I've read his works, or as a result of my changing tastes.

With Rand, I was intensely moved when I read "Atlas" at age 18. At age 20, when I read "Fountainhead" I found it turgid and obvious.

With Heinlein, I loved "Harsh Mistress" when I read it, and "Farnham's Freehold" as well. Four or five years after that I read "Time Enough for Love," and "The Cat Who Could Walk Through Walls," both of which, especially the former, I thought generally lousy works. I haven't read any Heinlein since.

So I'm curious if it's my tastes that have changed--or if "Mistress" was simply a superior work.