Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Consideration of Works Past: Stranger in a Strange Land

(Picture from here. I'm the ant. Heinlein's the finger.)

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein was important to me for a couple of years. Many people absorbed this book the same way a previous generation absorbed Ayn Rand's work. I read it when I was eighteen and loved it. The fact that Heinlein could write rings around Rand probably had something to do with my preference of Heinlein over Rand. My love for the book lasted for about 3 years and largely revolved around sex. When sex was more available, I lost interest in the book.

However, I've been going over works that were important to me in my childhood and it seemed incumbent to re-read this one.

I'm not going to review the book. It's such a famous book that better minds than I have analyzed it. Instead, I want to show a few things I discovered I had incorporated into my world view. These are:
  1. The way language drives thought
  2. An appreciation of the works of Rodin. How to look at art in general.
  3. How to introduce a world
  4. Patience == waiting
1. The idea that language maps the world to the brain is not original with Heinlein-- Heinlein didn't have very in the way of original ideas in the book. But Heinlein used an alien language as a map to drive superhuman changes in the human brain.

Later in college I ended up studying neurophysiology-- an interest I've kept ever since. The idea of language driving a physical change in the brain has been controversial. In recent years, new neurological techniques have shown brain differences in users of different languages. (See here. Here. Here. Here.)

I used to speak Spanish-- never fluently but well enough to get by. And after a while when I was in Mexico, I did begin to think in it. It was unnerving because it was like one of those dual illusions when you can see one of two images but no both at the same time. When I was thinking in Spanish, it would only last so long as my knowledge would support my thoughts. Which wasn't long given my limited ability. Then, I would crash back into English.

2. I was fortunate to get to the Saint Louis Museum of Art after I'd read SIASF. They have several works by Rodin and I was, of course, struck. What has always amazed me about his work are the faces, the hands and the feet.

The Museum also had an exhibit of the studies Rodin drew in order to design The Thinker. This introduced to me how artists create their works. In many cases, the studies were unintelligible scribbles-- unremarkable except they were studies of a great work and therefore begged to be examined closely.

But what was discussed in SIASF-- the important thing Heinlein said about viewing art-- was how we should bring our own self to the experience. Heinlein was first and foremost a storyteller and he brought that storyteller interpretation to the viewing of Rodin. This, not surprisingly, struck a chord with me. However, I'm also an engineer, untalented musician and indifferent painter. So all of those figured in. The Thinker without a viewer is a corroding hulk of bronze. We bring our own context to the viewing. But it was also important to understand the context surrounding the work of the artist.

This was brought home to me many years later in the book Dear Milli, by Wilhem Grimm of the Brothers Grimm. It's a beautiful story about a little girl lost and found by her mother, all colored by the distant rumbling of war.

So. I read this book. I was moved. But I couldn't figure it out. It seemed different from the other Grimm fairy tales. Darker in some says but more specific. The second sentence says, "Her children had died, all but one daughter whom she loved dearly." I looked around again. Dear Milli was written in 1816 as a letter to Grimm's friend, a little girl. Well, I thought, Wilhelm is in Germany. In 1816. What was the context?

The Napoleonic Wars, that's what.

Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo the year before the story was written. The distant thunders of war and death were his wars.

I don't know that I developed an interest in artistic context with reading SIASL but I think Heinlein crystallized it for me.

3. This is pure technique. I have to say, I've gone back to Heinlein several times to see how he does this. It's particularly interesting in SIASL. He starts in distantly-- on the third planet of the sun... And at some point in the narrative he goes from a list of items that are occurring in the world to the point of view of a single character. Karen Joy Fowler uses an almost identical technique in Sarah Canary-- a truly brilliant book I would recommend to anyone.

This is a particular problem in science fiction (and, in some cases, fantasy) where the world has to be explained enough that the rules are understood. Heinlein does this brilliantly.

4. Waiting. I didn't realize the extent that this idea had permeated my life until I re-read the book. This is probably the single most important concept I got from the book and though it's salient in the main character's nature, it's not a particularly important piece of the book. It's more armature than motor.

But, apparently, I absorbed it down to the root.

I'm not a patient person. I have a strong temper and neither repetition nor rote memorization are my friend. Yet, somewhere I embraced the idea of letting something lie. Not forever. I do finish projects-- though it's likely some projects will outlive me. But I do not hurry. I would rather leave a project unfinished and return to it later when I have a fresh perspective than hurry through it. I have a fiberglass canoe project holding down the ground next to the garage. It's been there for two years. I have a couple of old appliances I want to tear down for parts but haven't got to yet.

My wife does understand patient and is very patient with me.

But I do get them done. And when I do, I'm often satisfied with the results.

To myself I've referred to it as delayed decision making.

Where this relates to me is in the emotional compulsion to finish things immediately. I've developed over the years into someone who thinks a long time between bouts of work. This has been known to drive my managers crazy. But I think it's worked out over the long run.

That's what SIASL has meant to me.

Navel gazing is probably less fun for you than it was for me. But I won't do it often.
Political Links
Where Your Money Goes

Links of Interest
Power from Space
Photo Synthesis
V: Uncertainty in Science
How Giraffes Fight
Doctor Steele and here
V: The Flaming Bacon Lance of Death
Junk Art
Autonomous Vehicle Competition
V: Dancing Wires
V: World's Largest Piano

Charge Cellphones on Wasted Heat
Polish Boots with a Banana
Electronic Components
Paper Commander
Scrap Wall Lamp
V: Tennis Ball Launcher

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