I’m reading Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, but not for the first time.
Many, many years ago it was my ‘bible’; the good book that I read from before going to sleep. As an agnostic faux-intellectual college student I latched on to Heinlein’s unconvinced, usually cynical attitudes toward politics, government, society, and found solace in the advice of Jubal Harshaw and in the commune of the Nest.
My paperback has long since split in two and the back cover is no longer attached. These days almost everything I read is in ebook form, and the ebook version of Stranger I got is the unedited version. It opens with a forward by Heinlein’s wife Virginia explaining how some years after Heinlein’s death she found the original, thought it was better, submitted it for consideration, and how the new editors agreed with her and published it. (Or, ‘Hey, fresh revenue, guaranteed return, no risk; sure we love it.’)
Years ago I saw a web site with examples from each publication. The objective was to show how the original was more authentic, more Heinlein, and better, but I decided that I preferred the edited version so I never bothered to look for the original. Now that I’m reading the original, I still feel the same. I’m almost half way through and looking for chunks that were removed (this version is 220,000 words and the edited version clocks in at 160,000), but mostly I’ve noticed unnecessary phrases and sentences (including dialogue) and repetitive or muddy descriptions that aren’t familiar to me. The version I remember is cleaner, clearer and spends fewer words in fuzzy Heinlein-esque pirouettes. He was a great writer; full of cool ideas and philosophies and technologies and situations, but better with those elements than with the craft of perfecting sentences and paragraphs. Or maybe he just spent more of his focus on those parts.
Heinlein is a better read when filtered through an editor, even if that editor, apparently, was the author himself, pressured by the publisher to cut the length.
This brings up a number of points. One is that even the work of an experienced author like mid-career Heinlein can be improved—at least, imo—which brings up another thought; perhaps there are readers—and perhaps they outnumber readers like me—readers who actually prefer the unedited Heinlein (and not just for revenue generation reasons).
The edited version has more sharply defined characters, snappier dialogue and is missing extraneous repetition or near repetition. I don’t think those changes can be lamented too convincingly. But some of the self-indulgent meandering, occurring both in dialogue and in narration, is also trimmed or cut. Maybe some readers like those parts. They are common in Heinlein’s writing and, when he rambles well, it’s one of his strengths as a writer/thinker, though the ones that have been removed are, imo, weak, unnecessary wanderings. And sometimes there is a soft, passive kind of interaction description style that I criticize when I’m presented with it in reviews.
Here are some examples. Not the best ones, scoured from the entire novel, but just a few from where I’m reading right now. I’m selecting these by comparing what I read against what I remember, then searching in my paperback to see how my memory compares with the actual and how that compares with the ebook.
“I said, ‘No!’ Can’t you understand plain English? But you are to deliver this letter to Mr. Douglas at once and to him personally, and fetch back his receipt to me.”
A little over the top with anger, at least compared with the first published version:
“I said, ‘No!’ You are to deliver this letter to Mr. Douglas at once, and fetch his receipt to me.”
I don’t think the over-the-top anger is needed given the situation or the characters. A terse statement carries more authority, more impatience, and doesn’t make Jubal sound as petty as the first version does.
Here’s a simple one:
“Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic, do you not?”
Not bad, but again, unnecessary words, compared with the edited version:
“Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic?”
I couldn’t argue with either, partly because there isn’t much difference. The extra three words might better represent the character, but without them it reads a little faster.
This one I found disconcerting.
“I’ll get it,” said Dorcas, and jumped up.
It sounds so, beginnerish. Dorcas should be moving to collect the glass to refill as she speaks, her action concurrent with the dialogue and not that awful phrase “and jumped up.” Heinlein chose to prune it to:
“I’ll get it,” said Dorcas.
In this case I wouldn’t have minded a little something to indicate Dorcas’ enthusiasm because it helps set up her nature as the most sexually focused and seductive of the females, a characteristic that plays a part later in a small mistake by another character. On the other hand there are other indications, and it is a very small mistake/joke.
This one is awkward in more than one way:
“Anne, you have just interrupted a profound thought. You hail from Porlock.”
Who is going to say “You have just interrupted a profound thought”? “Just interrupted”? “Profound thought”? Doesn’t sound like Jubal, and there must be better ways of saying this. How about “Anne, you’ve derailed an impending statement of brilliance.” And after saying this, why would he shift to the declamatory statement “You hail from Porlock”, using it like a fancy alternative to “You idiot.” To clarify this reference to “Kubla Khan” it seems more reasonable to say “You must hail from Porlock.” One extra word, but it fits the situation better, even if you lose some of the the metaphorical element of his statement.
I admit that it took me years to figure out the reference from the edited version:
“Anne, you hail from Porlock.”
The edited version is so obtuse that, even one knows the reference, you probably have to read the line twice to figure it out. For me, it was many years later that I read Coleridge (I first read “Stranger” when I was 15 or so, didn’t read Coleridge until college) and was finally able to make the connection. But it fits the characters much better, and without the odd lead in/clarification sentence, it works by itself. As a bonus, Anne’s next sentence and Jubal’s response to it are short single sentences, creating a brief sense of hanging on the edge of something before Jubal hurries off to take the call that Anne announced.
The next is an example of redundant writing, otherwise known as “reader gets it”:
Jubal nodded agreement. “Quite true. That’s why I’ve kept up my reading of it, a little.”
It’s not necessary to nod “agreement”. Nodding is agreement. And to say “Quite true” is a third statement of the same thing only in dialogue. Don’t need all three. Normally don’t need more than one.
And at the end of the example there’s no need to qualify the quantity of his Arabic reading because Jubal said those exact words a couple paragraphs earlier. When people talk they often repeat themselves but in fiction, unless it serves a purpose, characters should not be repeating themselves. If well written, the reader will pick it up the first time, and useless repetition makes the reading slow and sticky.
Jubal nodded. “That’s why I’ve kept up my reading of it.”
Just as clear that he agrees, and a better reading experience.
The next one is an example of confusing writing. It begins with a sentence that is awkward because Heinlein tries to transition between two scenes but creates a sentence that is unbalanced and runs too long in the second part, stuffed with too many things: returned, find, Nelson, Mike, bedrooms, checking.
The second sentence is one of those sentences we’ve all written, where our feet are in the way and over them we trip:
They said good-by and Jubal returned to find that Dr. Nelson had taken Mike into one of the bedrooms and was checking him over. He joined them to offer Nelson the use of his kit since Nelson had not had with him his professional bag. Jubal found Mike stripped down and the ship’s surgeon looking baffled.
The whole thing is re-written into something much clearer:
They said good-bye. Jubal found that Dr. Nelson had taken Mike into a bedroom to examine him. The surgeon was looking baffled.
After completing the first part of this post I did some internet research and found people who claim there are two groups;
- people who like the first published version of “Stranger” and dislike the rest of his writing, and
- those who like everything else he wrote but wondered why they didn’t like “Stranger” as much.
I guess it’s comforting for them that their world is black and white. Myself, I like a lot of Heinlein—my favorite being “Farnham’s Freehold”— but “Stranger” is in a different category; something exceptional. I fail to see why the unedited version has any significant advantages over the edited one. It has some long paragraphs of muddied writing, some unnecessarily repeated statements and concepts, some unclear phrasing, and occasionally what I interpret as dialogue that does not fit the character. It is possible that his other works are more similar in looseness to the unedited version, but I have not spent anywhere near the number of hours reading any other of his novels, and don’t have any interest in doing so. As I said, “Stranger” is exceptional and I don’t think any other even tries to be as great an accomplishment as “Stranger” manages to be. They’re just novels.
There are times in the edited version where its succinctness makes understanding it more challenging, like the Porlock example I cited above, but like any good book, you get more out of it each time you read. I don’t need everything spoon fed to me the first time, and I don’t need elements (situations, emotions, descriptions, words, phrases) repeated multiple times unless each adds an additional shading or helps to generate an appropriate sense of urgency or of blockage.
Much of the confusing wording, the awkward phrasing, the unnecessary phrases, the repetitious writing, and the occasional actions uncoordinated with the dialogue in the original version are common in early drafts of writing. As you’re typing you write “a little”, and when your character speaks again you think, I want him to qualify the amount that he reads, so you type “a little”, and it isn’t until many re-reads later, or sometimes not until someone else points it out, that you see you’ve repeated yourself.
It’s this last point makes me a little embarrassed to be reading a version that went unpublished during Heinlein’s lifetime. I feel as if I’ve arrived uninvited and caught him in his underwear (though, being a nudist, he might not have been wearing any). As a writer, though, it’s cool to be able to read and to compare the two versions.
* * Update: The original published version does not seem to be available any longer which is a sad discovery. I guess it’s good that the publisher is following Heinlein’s wife’s request but it’s as if Don McClean’s version of “American Pie” was removed and now we can only hear Madonna sing it.