Dec 29, 07
Read in December, 2007
The Man From Mars, the main character, starts out as a fascinating, strange and fragile creature. Born on Mars and raised my Martians, creatures vastly different from ourselves, he has no point of reference for understanding human language and culture. Hell he can't even cope with our gravity! His early interactions with "his own kind" are fascinating. What makes someone human? We generally think of it as a matter of species, but the Man From Mars lacks any of our traits beyond the physical. He doesn't even think like us. Hilarious, poignant, and disturbing interactions ensue. Brilliant stuff, really.
Spoiler: Sadly, it turns out he's a superman. Seriously, the man of steel wouldn't last a second against this guy. And he's richer than Bruce Wayne. And a philosophical genius. Yawn. Supermen make for boring literature. Take a lesson from the Greeks and give them a weakness or two.
This book has a stellar start, introducing fascinating concepts aplenty, promising to expound upon them in luscious, ground-breaking detail. Alas, it was not to be. Heinlein does not delve deep enough. He promises an exploration of the nature of language and symbols, especially the untranslatable concept. The verb, "to grok" gets a healthy exploration of it's nuanced meaning(s) early in the book. To drink, to grow closer, to think, to learn, to know, to eat, to cherish, to hate, to become: all these English verbs share meaning with, or are encompassed by, the Martian concept of grokking. But Heinlein doesn't go any further than this. He chooses to tell, rather than show, when it comes to the Martian language. Supposedly many of the great insights he is writing about can only be understood if one first learns Martian. Well, then teach us some, gorrammit! Do we need to get Professor Tolkien on the case?
Heinlein has some great insight into what laughter is, and what purpose it actually serves. Sadly, his own sense of humor gets very tiring after a while.
His notions about sex and community are quite cool to me, at first anyway. Then it kinda degenerates into 1960's-style softcore porn, complete with the literary equivalent of soft-focus lenses. Also, Heinlein's attitudes towards women are so dated as to be truly aggravating.
In summary, Heinlein really hits the mark on a lot of topics. Sadly, he raises some brilliant questions that he doesn't bother to answer. Those answers he does give are often unsatisfying. Much of it has an odor of "hippie space magic."
Ok, so I actually liked the book, on the whole. I loved the first half, and found some real gems in the second half. It deserves it's place in the sci-fi canon. Maybe some lively/thoughtful discussion will help me put it in perspective.