Nearly Ruined

Dunstan wonders why authors ruin books by presaging who the murderer is. Robert A. Heinlein almost ruined Stranger in a Strange Land for me, but not by giving away the ending.

The first speaker in the section quoted below is newspaper columnist Ben Caxton and the second speaker is respected Fair Witness James Oliver Cavendish—Fair Witnesses are, when they are on duty, capable only of telling the truth based only on the information they witness for themselves and have perfect memory of the events they are called in to witness. Both have just come out of a meeting with who the former believes to be the Man from Mars. (This appears on pp. 52-3 of my copy of the book.) The Fair Witness points out that the columnist may have missed something.

"Huh? What did I miss."
"Surely. A man's history can be read from his calluses. I once did a monograph on them for The Witness Quarterly. This young man from Mars, since he has never worn our sort of shoes and has lived in gravity one third of ours, should display foot calluses consonant with his former environment."

The bold is added to highlight the part that almost ruined the entire book for me. A good 70 years had passed since Arthur Conan Doyle published his Sherlock Holmes stories when Heinlein published his novel, and anybody—myself included—that that has read more than a few of Doyle's short stories knows that Sherlock Holmes proudly reminds his assistant Watson that the former has written monographs on marginalia that have direct impact on the cases the latter solves. A quick search reveals that nobody seems to think this is satire. If this isn't some kind of law with regards to popular fiction than it should be: if a character in a book says something Sherlock Holmes would say, then it's a cliché.

I plodded on and finished the book, and I'm glad I did: the book is overflowing with ideas, mostly about government, society and, of course, sex, all of which are controversial, even today. (Especially today, some would say.) It challenged a lot of core assumptions, and the book will have to somehow be incorporated into my belief system.

Relately, at Electrolite, there is an interesting discussion about Heinlein—partly in response to an article about Heinlein's recently-released first novel—which is, at least for the first half, about whether Heinlein got the science right in "The Roads Must Roll". One commenter asks three questions that I think apply to a lot of SF authors: “Is Heinlein really a hard SF author? Or a technophilic sociological SF author who used his talents to propagandize for science? Or someone who just liked telling good stories?” Basing this only on the SF authors I've read, some do just "hard science" (Clarke's 2001, 2010, 2061 and 3001), and some do political science fiction dressed up as science fiction (Asimov's original three Foundation novels) and others do comedy with science fiction as the plot device (Douglas Adams' entire works: even his science fact writings can be funny). At least with Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein uses science fiction and fantasy to serve up social criticism (especially with regards to sex, but also with regards to religion and cannibalism) and political opinion (government, law and authority).

In that last book, though, all that was nearly ruined by a few lines near the beginning.