Stranger In a Strange Land

This is a book club, book, so of course I have to abide by the first and second rules of book club and not talk about it before we meet. But I have to write about it soon, or I’m going to forget details of what I wanted to say about it. So, book club members, don’t read below the fold.
Stranger in a Strange Land is a Robert Heinlein classic, written in 1960, which had an vast influence not only on science fiction (it won a 1962 Hugo Award, and dramatically change the genre), but on 60’s “Age of Aquarius” culture as well. The classic that everyone is familiar was originally much longer; when Heinlein presented his publishers with the manuscript, they thought it might be too much for people to take in, so they had him re-write the novel, cutting out about 60,000 words and slimming it down. In 1991, after Heinlein’s death, his wife discovered the orgininal, longer manuscript which she had published. This is the version I ended up with from the after putting the book on hold at the public library. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

The story is that of Michael Valentine Smith, a young man born on Mars after a first, failed space mission to the planet. A second mission years later retrieves Smith, who has been raised by the ancient race of Martians, and who knows nothing of Earth culture or even of women. He manages to make his way in the world with the help of a wealthy Hugh Hefner-esque novelist named Jubal Harshaw, and Harshaw’s harem of women, learning about our terrifying and confusing planet and at the same time having a profound influence on it.

This is an extremely thought-provoking book, that’s for sure. I’m glad I read it. I don’t know that it’s my favorite book, or that I particularly like Robert Heinlein as a person (or at least the guy as he was in 1960). But I certainly spent a number of mornings standing in my shower pondering different aspects of the novel.

One of the first things that struck me is the similarity between this story, and the Bildungsroman narrative from The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” — innocent, naive young man bewildered and buffeted by a loud, greedy terrifying world, but who ultimately conquers it by turning its flaws against it. It also helped that I pictured the whole novel taking place in a groovy space-aged bachelor pad like in the movie, complete with those egg chairs.

The other thing I noticed was that I had the old Heart song “Magic Man” playing in my head throughout reading the book. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that either The Who or Heart had read this novel.

Smith returns to earth and, while still trying acclimatize himself to our atmosphere, becomes a tug-of-war object for political factions of the world. He has two things everyone wants: vast wealth inherited from his dead astronaut parents (who left him pretty set up) and claim rights to the planet of Mars, which everyone wants to invade. The global government has him held captive, while parading around a double. So a kindly nurse in the hospital where he’s held sneaks him out. With the help of her reporter boyfriend, they get Smith to the Harshaw household, where they begin to teach him about the world, and he sets about showing them his special martian-taught abilities – telepathy, telekinesis, and out of body movement being among them.

Anachronisms

One of the comic effects of reading the book in 2006, some 40 years after it was written, is that we can compare Heinlein’s vision of the future with technological and social advances that have come since.

Major things that Heinlein missed: the internet, cell phones, and the feminist and gay rights movements, all of which would have had a drastic effect on his story.
He does put the stereo together with the television and give greater abilities to his version of the telephone, but the phone remains firmly anchored to the wall, which would have changed some plot points, like the Ben Caxton kidnapping.

The way that women act and are treated in the book; pissed me off a bit, I have to say. And don’t get me started on what little he has to say about gay people. He expounds a lot on what the future of love relations between men and women are like and should be like, but all through the narrow lens that love relationships are only between men and women, with men being the dominant figures in the equation.

Flaws

Heinlein does a great deal of lecturing in the novel on the state of the world, which I had imagined was part of the padding that got cut out of the longer version of the book. Turns out after talking to people who read the slimmer version: not so much. A lot of the framework for the book is nothing more than Heinlein expounding on what’s wrong with human society, with Smith serving as the fish-out-of-water lens to expose that.

Stacking the Deck – Smith gets to do a lot of shit that regular humans can’t do, because he has magic Martian powers, and an endless supply of wealth. It’s very easy to set up a free-love “church” to teach everyone martian-speak while getting it on, if you have the cash for a super-cool high-tech love shack and telepathic powers that enable you to control when babies are conceived while you’re doing “it.” I suspect in the real life free-love communes that were set up after this novel came out, they ran into a few difficulties in these areas.

The Old One’s Problem – why doesn’t he ever address this issue? This is the crux of the book; Smith sets about “changing humans” by teaching them the Martian language so they can learn, through the vast store of Martian knowledge, about science, relationships and interaction, with the goal of fixing the “wrongness” that is human kind. But that’s going about it from the back end forwards.

The thing Martians have that we don’t that gives them their vast, benevolent and loving society, is the Old Ones. They have their “dead” folks or “discorporated” in Heinlein-speak, hanging around telling them how to do shit. The vast store of Martian knowledge is ever-present. Rather than fixing the symptoms of the problem by tapping into Martian knowledge, why wouldn’t Smith fix the actual problem by figuring out why we don’t have Old Ones on Earth, or (because we’re omniscient and we know Earth has Old Ones) how to reach the Old Ones from Earth to get them to tell us how to solve disease, build things, and have ESP with each other?

But of course, the answer to that is obvious; that would defeat what Heinlein’s trying to do — he’s not here to tell a cool story, but to deliver a lecture on what’s “wrong” with humans, and to advocate for free-love to “fix” all of our problems, rather than solving the mysteries of the universe.

Posted in Books I've Read Tagged with: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: