Thursday, July 12, 2007

Stranger in a Strange Land: a Cocktail Party to which I was not invited

I decided to read Stranger in a Strange Land because Wrinkle in Time got me so keen on science fiction. And Stranger in a Strange Land is billed as "the most famous science fiction novel of all time." Um. Give me a break. I guess I might be cynical, but this book was light on science fiction and heavy on early 1960s hangups dressed up as radical breaches of authority. Ugh. So perhaps it is apt that it gave its name to the worst episode of LOST ever (sorry), The One With Bai Ling. I wonder if that was on purpose...

So here's how it goes. Years before the book started, a crew of astronauts landed on Mars. Though they all died, one of them had a kid, who was raised by Martians. When another crew of humans picks him up years later and brings him back to Earth, it becomes clear that life on Mars has changed the way he experiences things--he can make people disappear if he is displeased with them, he goes into catatonic states for long periods of time, he can speak into peoples minds and see through their eyes. In short, he is in the business of "grokking" things, which is a combination of understanding and loving and being a part of them. Cool, right?

Well, what do you with that sort of guy? He teaches people about Mars, but he also teaches them about themselves. The book gets caught up describing the political details involved in the rescue of the Man From Mars (Mike Smith) and subsequently spends a lot of time describing the swinging lifestyles of Smith's coterie, which includes a number of beautiful, free-spirited women and an oldish wise man who also happens to be sort of a swinger, named Jubal. Jubal guides Smith's education, which involves a lot of dissing on organized religion and a lot of learning to find women very, very attractive. Eventually, after a visit to the Fosterite Church (an early prediction of the importance of the jazzed-up mega-church phenomenon), Mike sort of gets it in his half-martian head to start his own religion. What this basically consists of is everyone walking around telling each other "You are God" (ugh) and enjoying the benefits of free love (or more accurately, free sex). He's also teaching them how to be more like Martians, in terms of clairvoyance and seeing through other peoples eyes and so forth and the Martian language. In the end, though, good-old future Americans can't handle his blasphemy and stone him to death, whereupon his followers eat his body in order to fully "grok" him (because thats what they do on Mars). Bleh.

There is some Urban Legend stuff about Charles Manson loving this book, and my parents tell me that all the druggies liked it in their high school, so apparently it was pretty brazen. But it seems like the Man from Mars was just a cheap excuse to talk about and praise sex and rock+roll in a 1961 context. And even then, it seemed insincere. It is hard to make good literature which attacks social mores at length unless it comes from a position with some willingness to actually explore the workings of those social mores. Science fiction, at least in this personal story over broader political fable story, doesn't quite seem to be the right medium. And this dwells far too long on whats wrong with the world, taking it on faith that we agree. Some critics suggest that the book is a satire of attitudes, but I guess that either I don't enjoy that and that the joke seemed too messily and obtusely executed. Also, I don't think that those druggies took it as a satire. Finally, I don't think that LOST brings with it this attitude of insincere dismissal of social mores, and doesn't really show any hint of changing them. As far as religion goes, whether it loves or hates it, LOST is gladly in debt to its stories and attitudes. And as far as sex goes, Aurora says "It's almost neck in neck with Buffy for the sex is bad theme." Even if it ends up anti-religion and pro-promiscuity, I already know that Lost did a good job exploring the cultural norms that those go against. End complaining.

There is one thing I think might be of some use--the Martians have a signifier for a level of being beyond corporal existence. These folks are called "the Old Ones", and are more or less guiding spirits who dictate Martian life. The existence of wiser, bodiless creatures who direct the planets affairs might be of some use to our conception of the Island--both the whispers and Jacob could be this sort of thing, although just how wise and controlling they are is up for debate.

There is too, the alternate way of looking at this in terms of LOST, which I like better--simply that it refers to the verse of the bible.. Exodus 2:22: And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land. Or to Oedipus at Colonus:

Patience, stranger--
here in a strange land, poor man,
hate with a will
whatever the city holds in rooted hatred,
honor what the city holds in love.
The implication of these, I guess, has something to do with the person who doesn't fit in anywhere but has to fit in somewhere to go on, a characterization which could apply to many of our Losties. Are they strangers in a strange land on the island? Will they be strangers in a strange land when and if they return to the real world? Is Richard Alpert a martian? (teehee)...Is Bai Ling an alien?! Or is it simply about Jack, who, his escapades in Asia as proof, is a little less together and has a little more trouble fitting in then he'd like to let on? His tattoo says that "he walks among us but is not one of us." Hm... I know its easy to say there's more about our characters than we're seeing, but Jack has something other than his dad and his divorce and his waning power over the Losties bothering him. And I have no idea what it is. Do you?

So, I'm reading the C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy now as a break.
He presents a much more affable version of mars, and I am enjoying it. Sometime I will blog about the Space Trilogy, and also The Chronicles of Narnia, as they relate to our show. Which I think they do.

Also: Locke's dad plays Jason Segel's mean dad on Freaks and Geeks. He's so scary! Bye!

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