Thursday, December 22, 2016

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

"You've probably never encountered honesty before.  Innocence.  Mike has never tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and we don't understand what makes him tick."
My copy, front cover
When around the turn of the century I heard they were making a series of big budget films out of The Lord of the Rings I hurried to reread Tolkien's trilogy, as well as The Hobbit, so that I could experience the story one more time with my own personal images of characters and settings in mind, images uninfluenced by the advertisements and action figures I expected to be seeing for the rest of my life.  When I learned recently that there would be a TV presentation of Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, I decided I'd better read my crumbling early '70s copy (a specimen of the twenty-seventh printing of the 1968 Berkley Medallion edition), even though it seems doubtful that the aisles of Toys "R" Us will soon be choked with action figures of newspaper columnist Bob Caxton and best-selling author Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B, M.D., Sc.D.

I'm fully aware that there is a later edition of Stranger in a Strange Land which restores the text to something closer to Heinlein's original vision for the book, but I think it makes sense to read this old version; for one thing, life is short, and the uncut version is like 600 pages.  More importantly, it is the 1961 version of the text that won the Hugo and struck a chord with so many people; reading this old edition will give me something closer to an authentic 1960s experience, the experience of so many people in the SF community and beyond it who read the book when it was new.

Stranger in a Strange Land (414 pages in this edition) is split into five parts.  In Part One Valentine Michael Smith is discovered on Mars.  Smith, or "Mike" as his friends call him or "The Man from Mars" as he is dubbed in the press, is the descendent of crewmembers of the first Earth ship to ever land on the red planet, a ship lost 25 years ago--the intervention of World War III prevented a second manned vessel from searching for that pioneering craft earlier.  Smith is brought back to an Earth ruled by a single planetary government based in Washington D.C.  Over the course of the novel Heinlein piles up details that give the impression that everything on this future Earth is some kind of a scam, an insincere facade; the top executive of the world government, Secretary General Douglas, provides an early example.  Douglas has a loveless marriage and is dominated by his wife; she manages the executive branch behind his back and bases many of her decisions on the advice of a fraudulent astrologer.  Characters like the Secretary General, his wife, and her astrologer are all as much victims of scams as perpetrators, deluding themselves as much as they delude others.  Additional examples include such relatively common SF tropes as the prevalence of synthetic foods and of vapid advertising.  Central to the novel is the prominent new Christian sect, Fosterism, a religion even more bogus than the ancient religions we are all familiar with; the Fosterist church is a major political force that the governmental authorities are reluctant to rein in, and often feel the need to placate.

1961 edition featuring a Rodin sculpture
that is prominently mentioned in the text
Smith, because of culture shock and because of the differences in gravity between Mars and Earth, is weak when he arrives on Terra, giving the government the excuse it needs to hide him away in a secure room in a hospital, out of the sight of the public and any pesky journalists.  They want as much control of Smith as possible: due to complicated legal reasons, Smith is the legal owner of Mars, and he is also fabulously wealthy independent of his "ownership" of the red planet--Smith's mother was a physicist and the inventor of a state of the art space drive, and Smith has inherited her vast fortune and business interests.  Away from the prying eyes of the public, Secretary General Douglas tries to trick Smith into signing away his rights to Mars, but anti-government newspaper columnist Bob Caxton, via his espionage devices, observes these shenanigans.  Caxton and nurse Jill Boardman sneak Smith out of the hospital to the estate of wealthy genius Jubal E. Harshaw.

Heinlein novels often include a venerable elder who shares his wisdom with the younger characters and serves as a sort of mouthpiece for Heinlein's own opinions.  Hershaw, who is not only a best-selling author but also a medical doctor and an attorney, plays this role in Stranger in a Strange Land. (In keeping with the book's "everything on Earth is a cynical scam" theme, Harshaw makes his money dashing off stories and poems for which he himself has little respect, publishing them under pseudonyms; presumably Heinlein knew, or knew of, SF writers who did just this sort of thing to make ends meet or to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.)  Heinlein is always interested in alternative forms of family life, and Harshaw lives with three beautiful professional women who act as his assistants.  The wise and good but curmudgeonly Harshaw, a sort of libertarian rebel against society who flings out aphorisms like "A desire not to butt into other people's business is eighty percent of all human wisdom" and "of all the nonsense that twists the world, the concept of 'altruism' is the worst....people do what they want to, every time"  becomes a father figure to Smith, and tries to educate the Man from Mars in the ways of Earth at the same time he seeks to learn all he can about Smith and about the mysterious aliens who raised him.

The Martians, whom we learn about second hand (there are really no scenes set on Mars or in space) are one of the strong elements of the novel. SF is full of aliens who are essentially just like humans; they travel in vehicles, they fight with guns and swords, they have religions and governments, etc.  Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land tries to create aliens who are actually alien: they don't have sex, or religion, or government, or fiction, or death, most of the things which occupy the time and drive the lives of us Earthlings. The radical biological and cultural differences between Martian and Earthly life make it hard for Martian-raised Smith to fully comprehend ("grok" in Martian) much of what goes on on Earth.  Smith's alien upbringing has also provided him with astonishing powers over his own body and outside matter; early in the novel we witness him shut down his life functions to the point that he can stay underwater for many hours, telepathically sense the "feelings" of plants and telekinetically move objects, and even make things--including people--simply disappear.  Smith in fact has just about every superpower you can think of--he could never star in an adventure story because he could defeat all the enemies and overcome all obstacles in seconds.  Stranger is less about Mike's psychic powers than it is his alien set of ethics and morality; he can't lie, he has no fear of death or sense of revulsion at cannibalism, and is selflessly devoted to all who have shared water with him--water is rare on Mars, and those who have drunk water together are "brothers" who must implicitly trust each other and support each other in all circumstances and at all costs.

Through legal, political and PR tactics, by the end of Part Two Harshaw has secured Smith's freedom, finances, and a high reputation before the public and among Earth's politicians.  In Part Three, Smith and we readers become intimately acquainted with Fosterism.  Heinlein's depiction of Fosterism is a broad satire of religion; Fosterism is shockingly garish and vulgar and its leaders are absolutely corrupt, promoting the religion as a crass commercial venture.  But at the same time Smith recognizes the comfort and joy that ordinary parishioners, those duped by the scam, derive from Fosterism's ritualistic and social elements.

Largely acclimated to Earth's gravity and America's culture, Smith and Jill Boardman, now lovers, leave Harshaw's estate and explore America, Smith using his superpowers to work a job as a carnival magician.  Smith fully reclaims his humanity with his experience of sex (Martians do not have sex) and by learning to laugh--we humans laugh to help ourselves forget that our lives are a tragedy; the immortal Martians, above pain, hardship, and discord, have no need to laugh.

Now fully human, in Part Four Smith, taking advantage of what he has learned about religion and about manipulating "marks" as a carnie, founds his own "church."  While there is a lot of ritual and rigamarole, Smith's group is more of a commune (where people hang around naked and enjoy sex with multiple partners, unburdened by the irrational prejudice of jealousy) than a religion; in fact it exists primarily to teach people the Martian language.  (Heinlein describes the organization and workings of Smith's cult in the same sort of detail in which he would later describe the lunar revolutionary organization in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)  As people learn the Martian tongue, they begin to think more like Martians, which not only brings people closer together but has significant health benefits and confers on the best students some of the psychic powers Smith is always using.  Ben Caxton and Harshaw's entire household join Smith, forming much of the cult's inner circle.  But the success of Mike's movement raises the fears of the powers that be!

In Part Five Harshaw himself finally joins the cult, just in time to witness Smith's martyrdom at the hands of an angry mob.  Mike, of course, could have used his superpowers to survive the attack; we readers know his martyrdom is just a step in the cult's rise, and we are given every reason to believe that over the succeeding decades or centuries the Martian way will win over humanity and our descendents will be a peaceful and happy race of promiscuous nudists who have abandoned jealousy and technology.

Heinlein has a good style and the story moves along, but make no mistake; this is a (long) book about ideas, not about adventures or interpersonal relationship drama--I found it comfortable and interesting, not thrilling or gripping.  Long sections of the novel consist of legal wrangling between Earthborn lawyers or conversations about philosophy and religion, dialogue that is full of obvious sarcastic jokes, and the entire text is larded with references to art, literature, history, and psychology.  (Among the more subtle references is an homage to Chelsey Bonestell, while a reference to Dorothy Kilgallen that would have been obvious to 1961 readers may fly over 21st century readers' heads.)

As I read Stranger in a Strange Land, over fifty years after its debut, at the front of my mind was the book's massive popularity, its enduring reputation as one of the top five or ten SF novels, and its reach beyond the SF community; what about the book appealed to so many people so strongly?

I've said that the book didn't thrill me, but my perspective is that of a middle-aged man living in permissive and licentious 2016, when things like divorce, abortion, sexual promiscuity, pornography and birth control have been normalized, even celebrated, and are a ubiquitous presence in the media and public discourse, a time when Christianity is a spent force that is routinely mocked or ignored. 1961 was a different world, a world in which, perhaps, young people would have been thrilled by a book that told them religion was a racket and monogamy was a foolish and unhealthy idea that should be jettisoned tout suite.  Maybe early '60s readers got a thrill from Stranger like the thrill people of today get from TV shows, comedians and art that are "transgressive" or "politically incorrect," art which questions or ridicules accepted norms and cultural elites.

One reason I found the novel more appealing than many satires is that, even though it is telling you that the institutions of our society are a scam and our bedrock morals are in fact inimical to our happiness, it isn't bitter or condemnatory; many of the characters that at first come across as villains or knaves are later shown to have a good side, to be essentially decent people.  Douglas and the astrologer, for example, end up providing valuable support to Smith.  The novel even tells you that the most important message of religion, that your soul survives death and that you will live forever, is true--there are several scenes which take place in the afterlife, in which it is made clear that supernatural beings are looking out for the human race, guiding us to enlightenment. Stranger in a Strange Land is not angry or despairing or dismissive, it is confident and hopeful--when Mike is killed his water-brothers are not discouraged or brokenhearted because they know their friend is alive in another realm and that their movement is fated to succeed.

Heinlein's satire isn't flippant, he doesn't seek to merely shock like a comedian might, and his book isn't an absurdist farce: he tries to create a believable world and he goes beyond simply attacking our society to provide an alternative template for how you should live your life and how society should be organized.  Stranger, though sharing some characteristics with them, comes to the opposite conclusion of some of those misanthropic SF books in which honest and peaceful aliens, by contrast, make humanity, with its history of deceit and belligerence, look like a bunch of swine who should be exterminated or ruled by their extraterrestrial betters.  Heinlein celebrates the human race's potential; reminding me (oddly enough) of the end of A. E. van Vogt's The Weapon Makers, Smith suggests to Harshaw that the human race is very likely unique in the universe, and uniquely superior because our species is split into two sexes and has been blessed with the ability to have sexual intercourse, an ideal means of achieving togetherness.  The human race has every reason to expect that it will surpass the very Martians whose teachings have made revolutionary advancement possible.

My copy, back cover
Another thing I kept thinking about as I read Stranger was Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody, which I read recently, and Sturgeon and Heinlein's personal relationship.  Godbody and Stranger are broadly similar--in both a Christ-like being from somewhere out there appears and, for a small segment of the population, rehabilitates religion and brings to their attention the life-affirming magic of sexual intercourse.  When I read Godbody I remarked upon how it was pleasant to read Heinlein's introduction, in which he expressed his admiration and love for Sturgeon.  Sturgeon offers the same kind of gushing in a blurb on the back of my copy of Stranger, suggesting that his friend has produced a unique masterpiece of purity that leaves anything from the last 15 or more centuries or so in the dust(!)  The friendship between Heinlein and Sturgeon reflected in such extravagant praise is charming, even moving, even if you don't necessarily share the two writers' sky high opinions of each other's work.  Another important element of Stranger's appeal, I suspect, is that it inspires in the reader some of the same warm feelings that Heinlein's and Sturgeon's heartfelt writing about each other does.  While Stranger doesn't really provide the satisfaction offered by so much popular fiction, the catharsis of witnessing the protagonist overcome his enemies or some other challenge, the fulfillment of our wishes to conquer adversity and glory in triumph, what it does do is depict sincere affection and selfless love between and among the man from Mars and his friends, offering the reader a different kind of wish fulfillment, the dream of having friends we can trust to never betray or abandon us (as well as plenty of risk-free sex.)

Well, it feels good to have under my belt another of these oversized icons of speculative fiction which have impacted the wider culture.  After Lord of the Rings and Stranger in a Strange Land can it be that a reading of Dune lies in my future? Too bad they already filmed that one...twice.

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