Wednesday, June 8, 2011

1962: Stranger in a Strange Land

I do not grok Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in A Strange Land.  “To grok” in Martian means to understand completely and fully.

I wished I did though because two of my friends who read it thought it was great. One told me that her friends wanted to use it as a model for their lives. The other told me that it changed the way she saw the world. I didn’t see anything like that. Instead of life changing work, I found Stranger in a Strange Land plotting, boring, and loaded with half-baked ideas. 

Stranger in a Strange Land is composed of two very different but interconnected parts. The first is about how the Man from Mars, Valentine Michael Smith, (since he is usually called Mike that’s what I will call him), is brought back from Mars after having been raised by the Martians. Martian society is completely different then human society so he is kept in isolation until he can adapt, both physically and mentally. Also, by some strange laws he legally owns Mars and a major Lunar company, but we will get back to that. An early plot point is that he is not allowed to see women because Martians don’t really have males and females in the same way humans do. As a science fiction fan I like to see truly different aliens (wholly alien biology and culture) but why Mike can’t see women is not well explained. His doctors seem to think that this will have a negative reaction on him but when he first meets a woman he can’t tell that there is anything really different about them. And then it’s dropped. This actually is a major problem for the novel. Every times something interesting comes up it doesn’t last long before it is forgotten.

Anyhow, as I mentioned before, Mike owns Mars and is fabulously wealthy so the world government is trying to take advantage of him and get the rights themselves. No one seems to think much that Mars is already inhabited by a very ancient and powerful race but whatever. A muck-raking reporter named Ben Caxton tries to break Mike out but is captured and imprisoned so his girlfriend (this is a guess because their relationship is hard to understand), Jill, breaks Mike out and takes him to Jubal Harshaw, a reclusive lawyer/doctor/writer/libertarian who lives in the Poconos with his three live-in secretaries.

Let’s take a moment for Jubal. First of all, Jubal is not sleeping with his secretaries. I feel I have to say this because it really seems like he is. Otherwise it seems rather odd that he would have live-in secretaries that expected to appear before him whenever he says, “Front!”. This isn’t my biggest gripe with Jubal though. Even in the books I like by Heinlein, he often makes his characters too great. More often than not they have multiple very difficult skills. Jubal seems to know everything and be great at everything and therefore, he is not very interesting.  Another problem is that Jubal is clearly Heinlein’s mouthpiece. This book is primarily dialogue and primarily coming from Jubal as he explains mankind’s foibles to Mike and to anyone else that he is talking to. That said, Heinlein does a good job of making this seems like real conversation, not like the leaden dialogue in They’d Rather be Right.

Back to the story. The government comes after Mike and he uses his godlike powers to stop them. Apparently, Mike can sense the “wrongness” of things and just make them disappear. Jubal works out a deal with the government to leave Mike alone and set up Mars for human colonization (the Martians actually don’t mind). Mike is now free to learn about the world and humanity. That’s the end of the first part.
I thought the first half of the book was decent and fairly interesting but it did not prepare me for the second half.  In the second part, Mike starts to learn about humanity and further develops his godlike powers. Not only that, he creates a new religion that preaches that everyone is God (they greet each other with "Thou art God”) and by learning the Martian language and Martian thinking the people who join the religion also become godlike. Oh and tons of nakedness and free love.

This to me is where the book fell apart. Mike and his followers’ powers started to strain my suspension of disbelief. Now I am a science fiction and fantasy fan so I have no issues with super powered individuals. Magic, super technology, whatever, it’s fine. What’s so annoying about Stranger in a Strange Land is that Mike and his followers are good at everything. Mike can make anything disappear. He goes to casinos and the stock market and makes a killing. In a year, he goes from not being able to speak English to a charismatic leader. He can read 10 books a day. The list goes on and on. He makes him and his followers boring. They do everything perfectly and the last hundred pages or so of the book are taking up by characters saying how awesome Mike’s system is. All this power comes from learning how to speak Martian and Martian discipline. I just couldn’t buy it.

The book stands on shaky theological ground. Mike claims what he is preaching is not a new religion and is not meant to supplant other beliefs but there is no way around it. “Thou art God” is heretical under most religions. Not only did that but Heinlein not seem to do his research before writing this book. Take the character Dr. Mahmoud, the linguist on the ship that picked up Mike and supposedly a devout Muslim. Yet later in the book, he explains to Jubal that there is no contradiction between being a follower of Mike and being a Muslim because Islam never says there won’t be other prophets. Any devout Muslim would know that Mohammed was God’s last prophet and that there will be no more after him. At all. This is a pretty important and fundamental Islamic belief. It would be like a devout Christian not knowing that Jesus is the son of God. Also, Jubal nicknames Mahmoud “Stinky” early in book and everyone calls him that afterwards. I’m not sure why but I found that very irritating and offensive. I don’t want to be harsh on Heinlein though because he was very progressive on racial issues. More than any early science fiction author, he worked in non-white characters. You were more likely to find green men then black men in early science fiction.

Heinlein’s views on women are hard to puzzle out. On the one hand, most of them are intelligent self-confident professional women. Take Jill in Strange in A Strange Land. She is a head nurse and breaks Mike out of the government hospital by herself. She is not a damsel in the distress. On the other hand though, Heinlein’s female characters hold sexist views and their number one concern is men. Again take Jill. As soon as she gets Mike to Jubal’s, she becomes one of his secretaries and obediently does whatever he tells her. Later she is Mike’s high priestess and serves as a sex object. Jill comes to the conclusion that she likes be ogled by strange men while working as a dancer in Vegas. It was kind of strange and creepy. Heinlein’s female characters are all portrayed in a very sexual way. It is hard to put my finger on exactly how this is but the feeling never left me. Also, many of Heinlein’s free lovin’ characters express some old fashion views such as when Jill tells Mike that when a woman is raped, nine times out of ten she is partially responsible. Reading that line made me cringe. Also all the free love is only ok if it is heterosexual.

Despite all the criticism I have piled on Strange in a Strange Land there are parts I liked. As usual, Heinlein’s writing is good and his characters are (somewhat) believable. Though a little too godlike I was impressed with how different this book’s Martians were, even from Martians in other Heinlein books. I also I really like the work “grok”. I’ve started to use it myself every now and then.

Obviously Stranger in a Strange Land wasn’t one of my favorite Hugo winners. It disappointed me all the more because I like the previous Robert Heinlein books and, this being his most famous work, I had high expectations. You win some and you lose some. I’m very excited about the next book: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.