STRANGER VS STRANGER:
Comparing Versions of Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”
by G. E. Rule
©1994 G. E. Rule
“My reputation rests almost solely on how I tell a story… my individual style. It is almost my entire stock in trade.”
“Without changing the plot in the least, without changing the manuscript in any fashion that could be detected by someone else without side-by-side comparison, [he] has restyled the copy in hundreds of places from my style to his style. It would be very difficult to show how he has damaged the story, but in my opinion he has changed a story-with-a-moth-eaten-plot amusingly told into a story-with-a-moth-eaten-plot poorly told.”
“. . . the cash customers won’t know what is wrong, but they will have the feeling of being let down –not quite ‘first-rate Heinlein.’ ”
“You see? All little things, but hundreds of them. I can’t prove that the story is spoiled. Maybe it isn’t, but I know that it is filled with stylisms that never would have come out of my typewriter. You might try the magazine version yourself without checking for the changes, but simply checking to see if it tastes the way it did the first time you read it.”
–Robert A. Heinlein in a letter to his agent
No, Robert Heinlein didn’t write the above letter about STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND as originally published in 1961 (hereafter referred to as SIASL and AOP respectively). Instead he was talking about the myriads of changes an editor had made to the magazine version of THE PUPPET MASTERS a few years earlier.
But he might as well have.
The completed manuscript of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND was 220,000 words. The version printed by Putnams in 1961 was 160,000 words. During January of 1961 Robert Heinlein cut 60,000 words from the novel he intended “to break [me] loose from a straitjacket, one of my own devising. I am tired of being known as a ‘leading writer of children’s books’ and nothing else.” Mrs. Virginia Heinlein, in the introduction to the Uncut SIASL (ACE books, 1991) calls this radical, albeit mostly successful, surgery “close to an impossible task.”
Of course the situation isn’t totally analogous. After all, in the case of SIASL it was RAH hisownself doing the editing –a huge improvement, no doubt, over that earlier editor. But even He, in a letter written at the time, seems to realize what effect the radical surgery on SIASL had on readability:
“. . .the story is now as tight as a wedge in a green stump and, short of completely recasting it and rewriting it, I can’t get it much tighter. I have rewritten and cut drastically in the middle where Mr. Minton [at Putnam’s] felt it was slow, and I have cut every word, every sentence, every paragraph which I felt could be spared in the beginning and the ending. As it is, it is cut too much in parts –the style is rather ‘telegraphese,’ somewhat jerky –and I could very handily use a couple of thousand words of ‘lubrication,’ words put back in to make the style more graceful and readable.”
But why cut it at all, particularly to such a degree?
Quite simply because no one was willing to publish it at the original length. It was much too “dangerous” for 1961. RAH, in order to break out of his “straitjacket”, was prepared to go to almost any lengths –while still preserving the core story– in order to make SIASL acceptable to a publisher. In fact, he and Virginia had feared that no one would take a chance on publishing SIASL at any length. His happiness and surprise were quite apparent when his agent, Lurton Blasingame, found a publisher:
“Lurton, I do not think I have told you what a wonderful job I think you have done in placing this [manuscript]. . .”
“When I finished it and reread it, I did not see how in hell you could ever sell it, and neither did Ginny. But you did. Thank you.”
I never particularly liked STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. For many years I didn’t know why. I just knew that it didn’t “taste” right to me. Interestingly, such an attitude was by no means unknown among other hardcore RAH-o’-philes –a camp I unambiguously plant my flag in. While SIASL brought many new fans to RAH’s fiction, my own unscientific observation over the years has been that the more ardent the RAH fan the more likely she/he was to be lukewarm, at best, about SIASL. In fact, often the demarcation was so marked that I had taken to identifying visitors to our PRODIGY-based RAH coffee-klatch-cum-mutual-admiration-society as either “Primarily SIASL fans” or “Primarily RAH fans”. Does this mean that you can’t be a “good” RAH fan and a SIASL fan?
No, of course not. Actually, …ahem, “Some of my best friends are SIASL fans!”.
But my opinion of SIASL changed when I read the Uncut. I can’t thank Mrs. Virginia Heinlein enough for making that possible. It will still never make my RAH top five, but she has given us back a RAH book (a treasure beyond price– they ain’t making ’em anymore) where before, for me at least, there was only a baffling disappointment.
You see –I love RAH’s “authorial voice”. Always have. And THE HUGE MAJORITY OF THE CUTS IN SIASL/AOP were made at the expense of that “voice”. 60,000 words cut, but not in large chunks. Not at the expense of the story itself. Oh, no. Read the two versions side-by-side and that becomes immediately apparent. A word snipped here, a phrase compacted there. Rarely are whole paragraphs excised. 60,000 words cut –*more than 1/4 of the total– and he did much of it literally one word at a time. Truly an amazing achievement.
But at the expense of the greatest “voice” SF&F has ever known.
RAH, 19 years after the fact, wrote that the huge cuts to SIASL had had some beneficial effect:
“Then I had to cut the damned thing; sticking to that complex and ponderous plot resulted in a [manuscript] more than twice as long as it should have been, either commercially or dramatically.”
It would appear that time had dimmed his memory somewhat. “More than twice as long…”? Hardly. In fact, the publisher had asked him to cut another 10,000 words –based entirely on financial nervousness, not artistic necessity– more than the 1/4 he actually did excise. And he refused –it was impossible to cut another word without doing violence to the story itself.
Could it have profitably stood some cutting from it’s original size of 220,000 words? Maybe. Maybe a perfect middle ground exists somewhere around 190,000 words. We’ll never know. I do know that the Uncut, on the whole, is a much better read. A much more RAHian read.
Does being “more RAHian” equate to “better”? It does for me, but there are those who believe that RAH is too wordy, too preachy, too…too…well, too Heinlein. They will almost certainly prefer the AOP version.
Listed below are some examples of the cuts RAH made to SIASL that winter of ’60-61. On the left is the text As Originally Published (AOP) in 1961. On the right is the Uncut text as RAH first wrote it. Obviously every difference between the two versions can not be listed in this article. But while considering the changes listed below please remember that you must multiply them by many hundreds of times to truly appreciate the cumulative effect.
The removal of “in space” here significantly changes the meaning of the sentence. The AOP version is a general philosophical statement; the Uncut a hard-headed calculation about the critical role teamwork and personal relationships will play on a long, long journey in a tiny tin can.
This one is a good argument for the “middle-ground” theory. While on the whole I prefer the Uncut version of this passage, a solid case can be made for trimming parts of it. Perhaps the removal of the phrase containing the second “doubly-tangent” reference.
One little word –“stiffly”– but what a difference! Of course the institute was stiff about offering to return their nominal fee –they did so to rub the mission managers’ nose in the fact of who was helping who and on what terms. Yer damn right they did it “stiffly”…and that’s just the way RAH would have described it.
The early parts of this passage are a very good example of the hoops RAH jumped through to cut out every possible word –and that not every one of the 60,000 he cut were at the expense of his voice. “Someone who was willing to look up for him” in the Uncut becomes “Someone who looked up for him” in the AOP. Do I find that kind of change objectionable? Nope. But there are much more egregious indignities inflicted later on. What started literary life as “horse-faced spinster semantician” is reduced to just “spinster”. RAH was known for not using physical descriptions unless they served a specific purpose. Here it most definitely did–that love at first sight was probably not Captain Brant’s motivation. “Carlsbad Archives” is the kind of casual, cultural of-course-you-know-what-I’m-talking-about that help make RAH’s works so believable. The last sentence, about Brant’s “intuitive audacity”, strikes me as 180 proof Old Heinlein.
Jubal Harshaw, Unbound! Jubal is a wordy, folksy kind of guy. Remember, this is a combination of author/lawyer we’re talking about. The AOP versions of Jubal’s speech patterns show evidence of the “telegraphese” RAH mentions in a letter to his agent. The Uncut versions are much more natural to the ear, and much more likely to be the way Jubal actually talks. Jubal was always a great character, but he didn’t come fully alive for me until I read the Uncut.
Minor, but again more natural.
The Uncut seems a more likely description, particularly from someone who has been intensely trained to describe exactly what she sees. If there’s a fault here it exists in both versions –Anne, as a Fair Witness, would be unlikely to use such a subjective phrase as “as if it were disappearing into the far distance.” On the other hand, since she was startled silly I guess we can forgive her slight lapse!
JH, Unbound –The Sequel!
Is there any doubt in your mind which column tastes more like the prose of Robert A. Heinlein? Can there really be any doubt? Not for me.
I do not argue that authors would be better without editing. I do argue that any editing that maims the one thing that in the end separates one author from another, his voice, should not be forced upon him. After all, RAH was known to be very generous in helping other authors with ideas. He could have given waldos or waterbeds to another author–but the resulting story would not have been Heinlein. It takes more than cheese to make a tasty cheesecake.
I started with RAH calling his voice “almost my entire stock in trade.” I would not got so far in denigrating the other talents of the first Grandmaster. But it was his greatest gift, and this Uncut STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND has finally come home to familiar, beloved, territory.
All I can say is, “Better late than never!”
SOURCES: GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE –Del Rey, 1990; EXPANDED UNIVERSE –ACE,
1980; STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND –G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961; THE ORIGINAL
UNCUT STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND –Ace/Putnam, 1991