Recently I’ve been researching Heinlein, for the ongoing project on Buddhist futurism, but also in light of Farah Mendelsohn’s recent book, which I have sitting on the shelf, waiting to be read properly.
I thought it would be worth catching up on existing criticism of Heinlein first before tackling her magnum opus, so among other things, I picked up a copy of “The Martian Named Smith”, a thin but weighty text on Stranger in a Strange Land by William Paterson Jr and Robert Thornton.
Amazingly, the second hand copy I purchased was the one that Paterson had given to his father, before he died.
The book was as I say slight as in short, but managed to be incredibly dense on detail and panoramic on perspectives on what remains an influential and also controversial novel. This is not necessarily surprising, as Paterson was a great scholar of Heinlein, perhaps the best to date.
What most struck me, though, was that this density and range of perspective was aimed at undergraduate readers, perhaps even secondary school students. I derive this conclusion from the fact that each chapter had debate questions at the end for discussion in class.
This book was published in 2001. What an odyssey we have embarked upon since then. Paterson and Thornton’s work exudes a sense of the scholarly mission. It acknowledges different schools of thought, weighs up seriously competing perspectives and ideologies. It’s becoming hard to imagine such a text emerging nowadays, when polemic and activism are supplanting the pursuit of knowledge.
The present is a strange land, and this book, like so much scholarship from the (even very recent) past, seems a stranger in it.