Tag Archives: Tom Robbins

Can’t get much ‘Stranger’ than Heinlein

“He’s ignorant to six decimal places.” – Jubal Harshaw

“Faith! What a dirty Anglo-Saxon monosyllable – Jill, how does it happen that you didn’t mention that one when you were teaching me the words not to use in polite company?” – Michael Valentine Smith

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange land was billed, on the cover of the 25th anniversary complete edition I borrowed at the library, as a classic of the Free Love era. It’s easy to see why.

The tale is an examination of the life of Michael Valentine Smith. Smith was the child conceived and born on the first space flight from Earth to Mars. Only this known to no one until, more than two decades later, Earth sends a second spacecraft to the red planet. There, the pilgrims find Michael, the only survivor of the first voyage, a human raised as a Martian with no Terran influences. The Martians send Michael back with part of the Earth crew, to see his “home planet.”

Michael goes from an Earthling who doesn’t understand bathtubs and has never seen a female to the leader of a powerful, controversial cult. His powers allow him to make matter – such as guns and the humans holding them – disappear. He can move items – briefly working as a carnival magician – and can speak telepathically with others. He uses these gifts to teach other humans how to attain them under the guise of a neo-religion, taking only the most advanced and open to the top of the “church’s” nine levels. It is a matter of both knowledge and being connected to the universe that will allow humans to manipulate the world as Michael does.

Plus, free love. Lots of it. Anywhere, anytime. To the discomfort of several characters, at least initially. And the key to enlightenment is openness at all levels, whether it is in the pursuit of expanding your intellect or your sex life is irrelevant.

Grok it? Stranger in a Strange Land is much broader, has greater depth than I’m making it sound like, but you can see the hippie overtones. Heinlein makes a compelling case for how Michael chooses to live his life, and how he spreads his gifts to others. He also takes square aim at government corruption, predicts the ridiculousness of cable news decades before its existence, mocks the frailty of religion while simultaneously admiring it, even taken a few shots at his own craft.

The only downside is it does get a bit talky, with a number of characters giving monologues, particularly Michael and his human mentor, doctor-novelist-lawyer-rebel Jubal Harshaw. Stranger in a Strange Land reminds me a lot of Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction in that regard. If you’re a fan and you’re into it, like I was in both cases, you gobble it down. But if you’re not a big reader or really into, I could see how that verbosity might drag the story down.

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Yes, apparently, I am that stupid

I’m a huge fan of the work of Tom Robbins. Another Roadside Attraction is my favorite, although I’d probably argue Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is his best. Recently, I started re-reading – for the third or fourth time – Jitterbug Perfume.

A brief synopsis: Jitterbug Perfume is an epic tale that connects the desire of an ancient, pagan king to thumb his nose at death to the activities of a group of modern perfumers making an effort to create the ultimate natural scent. Scent is the center around which the rest of this novel works, whether’s it’s the incense of Kudra, the earthy odor of Pan or the jasmine that permeates the modern scenes. It’s all about odor.

So I get about 75 pages in, enjoying the read, catching those little things you sometimes miss on earlier reads because you’re caught up in the tale or because you were a less mature reader last time around. Then it hits me: My developing novel doesn’t stink. Which is a bad thing.

I realized that, through all the work I’ve done setting scenes, drawing the reader in, giving them that vital mental picture, I’ve pretty much completely ignored one of the five senses: smell. There’s a church scene where smell comes up, and there’s a specific scene where the change of odor in the room is a hint that someone’s broken in. But that’s it. I’ve set a novel in rural Indiana, in the middle of a bunch of cornfields, yet never mentioned the smell of fertilizer, cow shit, tractor grease, outdoor cookouts, that fresh, breezy smell of the early rural morning. I’ve got a Grandma getting down in the kitchen, but I never mention the odor of butter, baked bread, cooked corn, greasy ham, nothing. I even have a character who smokes weed, yet never mention that distinctive, skunky smell.

I don’t know why, is the thing that’s driving me nuts. I understand the power of smell, the power it has for me, particularly when it comes to nostalgia or a sense of place. How did I pretty much completely ignore that?

Perhaps I should focus on the positive, that I caught it now, while still in the developmental/writing stages.  I’ll just call it a win, and move on.

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