Friday, February 10, 2006

Science Fiction Double Feature

First a correction: In my earlier post on the State of the Union human-animal hybrid issue, I made a reference to " if anyone outside a Jules Verne novel were even contemplating the creation of human-animal hybrids!" Well, on further review, I believe I was actually thinking of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is not by Verne but by the other giant of pre-20th century science fiction, H.G. Wells. Either I was remembering the French name in the title of Wells' work and therefore incorrectly attributing it to Verne... or more likely, I was confusing Moreau with Verne's The Mysterious Island, which actually continues the story of Captain Nemo and has (as far as I know) nothing to do with bizarre man-beasts. Oh, well... c'est la guerre, eh?

While on the subject of science fiction, though, I'm fascinated -- and more than moderately delighted -- to note that my daughter's high-school book club is soon to read Robert Heinlein's seminal 1961 novel A Stranger in a Strange Land. Why delighted? Well, aside from the fact that I've been a rabid Heinlein fan since discovering Red Planet in junior high shool, and the fact that the Heinlein Forum was my earliest online "home," I guess I'm pleased with the selection because the book's just so dangerous!

Stranger, which famously added the word "grok" to the language (and inspired an actual neopagan church that still exists), is sometimes credited as the original prototype for communal, free-love ideals of 1960s hippies. I think that's a bit of a stretch, but there's no denying that the novel (which I've just finished rereading) presents... shall we say challenging?... ideas about some cherished social values, especially including sexuality and religion. Through the story of a human raised from infancy by Martians and then returned to Earth as a young adult, Heinlein offers a unique perspective on human social, sexual, and religious practices, mercilessly testing our underlying assumptions about sexual morality and the nature of God. Though some of it seems slightly dated now, as a whole, it's just as threatening to today's orthodoxy as it was to 1961's... perhaps more so. In short, it's just the sort of book that parents and pastors and "family values" advocates agitate to have removed from public schools.

And that's exactly why I'm delighted that my daughter's school is encouraging her to read it (admittedly in an extracurricular club rather than a class, but still...). In an era that is, for my tastes, all too prudish, prissy, and protective about the ideas we're willing for our children (or ourselves, for that matter) to be exposed to, such a fearless choice pleases me immensely. And it's not just this book: the RHS Book Club regularly draws its material not from the "safe ground" of the Young Adult section of the library, but from the best contemporary literary fiction, even when that means confronting adult themes. That the Book Club's faculty sponsors take this approach, that they (apparently) meet little opposition from the community, and -- it must be said -- that there's a ready audience of teenagers mature and thoughtful and inquisitive enough for these works... these facts help give me hope that our society is not quite so close to a new Dark Ages as I sometimes fear.


Mara said...

awww...I'm glad I give you hope, Daddy. For anyone interested, i think the most notable other "challenging" book we've read in book club was A Handmaid's Tale which we did last year, and I liked quite a bit.

Bill Dauphin said...

Well, you and your friends do give me hope. It's traditional for adults to moan about how "kids these days" are going to Hell in a handbasket... but sometimes I think it's the adults in that handbasket (whatever a handbasket is), and you kids -- who are reading better books and thinking deeper thoughts and more aware of the larger world around you than I was at your age -- are the cure rather than the disease.

As for A Handmaid's Tale, I knew you'd read that, but since I haven't read it myself, I couldn't comment on how "challenging" it was. One of the other benefits of your book club is that we're building a library of good books for me to read!

PS: I know my comment about our current era being "prudish" might seem weird, given all the stuff that's out there on the internet, and in popular music, movies, and TV; I'm working on another post to better explain what I mean.