Hello, loyal readers, and welcome to day one of Cass Reads Stranger in a Strange Land! Or, if you’re one of those people who won’t touch classic sci-fi with a ten-foot pole (which is fine and good, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for that and I’m not here to convince you otherwise), Cass Reads Stranger in a Strange Land so you don’t have to. Though people seem excited about the fact that I’m doing this, which is good. Now I just have to make sure their excitement is justified.
This is my first read-along, by the way. I’ve read plenty of them, but never actually undertaken one myself. So if I fuck up, please be patient. This is not, however, the first time I’ve read (at least part of) Stranger, even if it was a bootleg PDF with awful formatting, so I have a decent idea of what to expect. I expect that over the course of this read-along, you’ll hear me ramble about neopagan history, alterhuman identity, social constructivism, neurodiversity, the fact that 1950s gender relations still exist in the far future apparently, the relationship between my roommates and I, the importance of sincerity, and lots of other fun shit.
So, without further ado, let’s dive right in. This should be interesting, and if you’ve spent more than five seconds with me, you know how I define interesting.
(Google search: Is Robert Heinlein dead? I need to know how much I can directly quote from the book without getting a C&D letter. Ah, fuck it. Welcome to Cass Reads Books Sometimes, where the posting schedules are made up and the copyright laws don’t matter.)
The first human expedition to Mars was selected on the theory that the greatest danger to man was man himself.
I’ve grown increasingly less fond of the idea that human nature is inherently dangerous lately. There are bits of it that are less than desirable, yeah, but I’ve come a long way from where I was when I believed that a few bugs in the software meant you should throw out the whole damn thing and start over.
…Oh, the solution is to bring married couples.
(I can see the Reddit bros now, talking about how much of a triggered feminist I am for that line. For the record, yes, I do have PTSD, but I’m not triggered at the moment, and yes, I do hold queer feminist beliefs, but this isn’t a queer feminist reading. Are we all set to continue? Good.)
Gender weirdness aside, though, I can see the point here. If I were in charge of planning a long-distance spaceflight, I would… probably do the same thing. It seems like a crew composed of happily committed partnerships would have significantly fewer interpersonal problems than most other configurations. If you don’t believe me, imagine Firefly, but all the other characters besides Zoe and Wash are duplicates of Zoe and Wash.
Apparently, finding four married couples to crew the expedition was (predictably) too good to be true.
There were hundreds of combinations of eight volunteers possessing [the necessary] skills; there turned up three such combinations of married couples– but in all three cases the psychodynamicists who evaluated factors for compatibility threw up their hands in horror.
Guess we can’t all be Zoe and Wash.
What we end up with is a crew of eight, four male and four female (like I said, this read-along is not meant to be a queer feminist reading, so I’m just going to go with it and accept the heteronormativity of this setting as part of the world-building), strategically chosen for both their respective skill sets and their compatibility. They then pair off into arranged marriage type deals, and a lot of space sex ensues before the crew mysteriously goes missing soon after landing on the Martian surface. Or at least one would imagine that a lot of space sex ensues, because somehow, a child is born, and unless humanity invented Looms in this vision of the future and Heinlein just forgot to tell us, I don’t see any other way that could have happened.
25 YEARS LATER…
Federation Ship Champion… made the crossing under Lyle Drive in nineteen days. The Champion landed south of Lacus Soli, as Captain van Tromp intended to search for the Envoy. The second expedition reported daily; three dispatches were of special interest.
The first was: “Rocket Ship Envoy located. No survivors.”
The second was: “Mars is inhabited.”
The third: “Correction to dispatch 23-105: One survivor of Envoy located.”
TV Tropes would call this a Wham Line, but if I go on TV Tropes now I’ll never get this post done and the tree in my Forest app will die.
The survivor in question, Valentine Michael Smith (the titular stranger), is immediately taken to the hospital for observation, and the heroic space captain who rescued him is brought to a council meeting in which he loses any and all respect that I may have potentially had for him by throwing a hissy fit about the use of the word “man” to describe Smith.
Granted, he had a decent reason for doing this– leading up to an attempt to keep Martian Softboy (and I mean “softboy” in the best possible way, don’t worry) from becoming a lab animal. But come on. The “they don’t even have sex! Clearly, they’re nothing like us!” bit was kind of unnecessary. It kind of makes me wonder what Heroic Space Captain would do if he saw a nun.
After a bit of a squabble over publicity, we finally meet the softboy, and…
Readers, I’m just gonna come out and say it. I’ve said it before, but this scene just proves my point.
I think Robert Heinlein was Autistic.
As an Autistic person, I couldn’t help but notice that Smith’s first honest-to-gods scene is very much a “new confusing environment sensory overload” moment, and a very accurately described one at that.
His body, unbearably compressed and weakened by the strange shape of space in this unbelievable place, was at last somewhat relieved by the softness of the nest in which these others had placed him. He dropped the effort of sustaining it, and turned his third level to his respiration and heart beat.
He saw at once that he was about to consume himself. His lungs were beating almost as hard as they did at home, his heart was racing to distribute the influx, all in an attempt to cope with the squeezing of space – and this in a situation in which he was smothered by a poisonously rich and dangerously hot atmosphere.
Show of hands, how many of my Autistic readers can say they’ve felt this exact feeling? Granted, there’s some sci-fi flair added, but I honestly don’t think an allistic person could have described Them Feels quite this well.
As retroactively “headcanoning” real people as Autistic tends to get the people who do it into trouble, I’m going to clarify my point here: I am only talking about the fact that his description of the experience of adjusting to Earth’s gravity and atmospheric conditions seems to be inspired by experiences of sensory overload. I feel the need to specify this because I once saw a post on Tumblr which put forth the idea that H. P. Lovecraft’s notoriously idiosyncratic eating habits and fear of unfamiliar experiences were both possible Autistic traits, and immediately got dogpiled by comments stating that he wasn’t Autistic, just racist. As if it’s impossible to be both, or as if being the former somehow absolves a person of being the latter.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s continue.
You know, I think that the ability to slow down my breathing and heart rate, in order to put myself in a state of partial hibernation, would come in fairly useful sometimes. I believe that my own people had the ability to do the same thing in some situations, though my memory may fail me on this. Translation of memories across universes can be fairly unreliable at even the best of times.
He felt that dismay which so often overtook him in trying to communicate with these creatures – a frightening sensation unknown to him before he met men. But he forced his body to remain calm and risked an answer. “Feel good.”
HEINLEIN IS AUTISTIC AND SO IS MARTIAN SOFTBOY PASS IT ON.
My apologies. That was undignified.
We get the barest possible glimmers of information about the culture of indigenous Martians here, though I promise more is revealed later– the importance of grokking, or understanding a thing so completely that you become part of it, and the concept of eating the dead as an act of respect. I can get on board with the first bit (seeking transcendent understanding of the Universe and one’s place within it is a very Gallifreyan concept), but the second, not so much. I know I’m basically proving the book’s point by saying that, but fuck. Prion diseases are a thing, and eating people is a pretty great way to catch one. Maybe indigenous Martian physiology was such that prion diseases weren’t something they had to worry about, though, so that would make the concept easier for a person raised by humans to swallow. (Haha, see what I did there.)
We close the third chapter, and this blog post (which is the longest thing that I’ve written since high school) with an unexpected visit from a news reporter of questionable integrity, hoping to create a tabloid story about Smith, called “I Was A Prisoner on Mars.” And coerce Smith, who cannot read a word of English or any other human language, to sign a release form for said “documentary.” If this blog post wasn’t already over 1600 words, I might ramble for a few more paragraphs about how people will take inability to perform certain tasks as evidence of a lack of intelligence, or evidence that it is okay to manipulate a person, but this is already running a bit longer than I thought it would, so I guess that this is where I’ll leave you all for now.
His devoted Acolyte and Agent,
Cassandra of Oakdown