Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein
The most famous science fiction novel written, Stranger in a Strange Land is the epic saga of an earthling, born and educated on Mars, who arrives on our planet with superhuman powers and a total ignorance of the mores of man. His name is Valentine Michael Smith, and he is destined to become a freak, a media commodity, a scam artist, a searcher, a sexual pioneer, a neon evangelist, a martyr, and finally, a messiah.
This novel became not only the bible of the "love generation," it managed to transcend the science fiction genre to achieve the status of a modern classic; or, as others put it, Heinlein's earthly "divine comedy."
About the Novel
Stranger in a Strange Land is a best-selling 1961 Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians on the planet Mars, upon his return to Earth in early adulthood. The novel explores his interaction with — and eventual transformation of — Earth culture. The novel's title refers to the Biblical Book of Exodus. According to Heinlein in Grumbles from the Grave, the novel's working title was The Heretic. Several later editions of the book have promoted it as "The most famous Science Fiction Novel ever written."
When Heinlein first wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, his editors at Putnam required him to drastically cut its original 220,000-word length, and to remove some scenes that might have been considered too shocking at the time. The resulting edited version was about 160,000 words when first published in 1961. In 1962 this version received the Hugo Award for the Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. After Heinlein's death in 1988, his wife Virginia arranged to have the original uncut version of the manuscript published in 1991 by Ace/Putnam. Critics disagree over whether Heinlein's preferred original manuscript is in fact better than the heavily-edited version originally published. There is similar contention over the two versions of Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars.
While initially a success among science fiction readers, over the next six years word-of-mouth recommendation caused sales to continue to build, requiring numerous subsequent printings of the first Putnam edition. The novel has never been out of print since it was released in 1961. Eventually Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult classic, attracting many readers who would not ordinarily have read a work of science fiction. The late-1960s counterculture, popularized by the hippie movement, was influenced by its themes of individual liberty, self-responsibility, sexual freedom and the influence of organized religion on human culture and government, and adopted the book as something of a manifesto.
In 1962 Tim Zell (now Oberon Zell-Ravenheart) and others formed a neopagan religious organization called the Church of All Worlds, modeled after the religion founded by the primary characters in the novel, but Heinlein had no other connection to the project.
Valentine Michael Smith is the son of two of the eight astronauts of an ill-fated first human expedition to the planet Mars. Orphaned when the crew died (the full story of how this happened is not portrayed, but his parents were unambiguously murdered by his mother's husband, who later committed suicide), Smith is raised in the culture of the native inhabitants of the planet, beings whose minds live in another world (compare Waldo). The story portrays Valentine Michael Smith's adaptation to, and understanding of, humans and their culture, which is portrayed as an amplified version of consumerist and media-driven 20th-century America.
After the arrival of a second expedition to the planet some twenty years later in the space ship Champion, Smith is taken "home" to Earth, where he is consigned to (some futuristic evolution of) the Bethesda Naval Hospital by the orders of the Champion's ship physician Sven Nelson. However, he is effectively imprisoned in a hospital by the current world government, a successor to the United Nations styled the "Federation of Free States," which wishes Smith to transfer to itself any rights by discovery, under Human law, that he may have to ownership of Mars. Smith is also something of a political pawn in factional struggles within the Federation, and to make matters worse he is heir to the fortunes of the entire exploration party, not just his parents, including several valuable inventions which were not developed commercially until after their deaths. In short, he is a man besieged on all sides by those who wish to use him to further their own ends.
Nurse Gillian Boardman, who regards men as secondary to her work, works at Bethesda. Since Smith is physically weak and oppressed by the comparatively heavy atmosphere and gravity of Earth, he is confined to a "hydraulic bed", and further, since Smith has not yet ever seen a female human (all the crew members of the Champion were male), Nelson has ordered that Smith be attended by male staff only, including nurses. Regarding this as a challenge, Gillian slips past the guards to get a peek at Smith, and in doing so inadvertently becomes his first female "water brother" by sharing a glass of water with him. To him this is a holy relationship based on the customs of arid Mars. Later on when a doctor meets him and attempts to converse, strange effects of custom and mistranslation ensue, including apparently catalepsy. Obviously Smith is not ready for mainstream attention quite yet.
After her watch, Gillian prepares for a date with her boyfriend, investigative journalist Ben Caxton. He sends a robocab to take her to another place, where they catch a second cab and eventually go to his place. Ben informs her that the cloak-and-dagger act is necessary because being associated with him is dangerous.
However, Jill tells Ben about her strange and wonderful experience, and Ben explains to her some of the bizarre interplanetary politics swirling around Smith, and finally she agrees to place a bug to monitor Smith. Later, when she and Ben watch a "stereovision" telecast of the "Man from Mars", she knows instantly that he is a fraud (since the real Smith doesn't really understand English or even more basic human customs). Ben sees the substitution as political and not scientific: he wonders if the real Smith will ever be allowed out into the world. Ben attempts to see and unmask the phony Smith, but disappears. Meanwhile, Gillian tries to persuade Smith to leave the hospital with her. He is willing to go anywhere with a water brother, but they only get as far as Ben's apartment before agents attempt to kidnap them. Smith causes the agents to disappear, and he is so shocked by Gillian's terrified reaction that he enters what seems to be a catatonic state. She has to carry him away in a large suitcase with wheels.
They reach the enclave owned by Ben's friend and fellow gadfly, Jubal Harshaw, an eccentric millionaire writer of fiction, TV scripts, and other kinds of mass-market pablum, who also happens to be a qualified medical doctor, a lawyer, and an advisor to certain public figures. Harshaw's five employees include three beautiful women who act as secretaries, walking dictation machines and cooks, as well as restraints on his excesses, along with technical helpers Duke and Larry. With Gillian, they teach Smith human customs and behavior, including sexual behavior.
Smith demonstrates psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence, which are coupled with a childlike naïveté. When Jubal is trying to explain religion to him, Smith understands the concept of God only as "one who groks", which includes every living person, plant, and animal. This leads him to express the Martian concept of the oneness of Life as the phrase "Thou art God". Due to his education on a different planet, many human concepts—such as war, clothing, and jealousy—are strange to him, while the idea of an afterlife is something he takes as a given because the government on Mars is composed of "Old Ones", the spirits of Martians who have died. It is also customary for loved ones and friends to eat the bodies of the dead, in a spirit of Holy Communion.
Harshaw realizes he cannot keep the young man concealed forever, and after an attempt by Federation police to arrest Gillian and reclaim Smith, Harshaw is frustrated by the young man's Martian-taught abilities, Harshaw brokers a deal under which the Secretary-General, in his individual capacity, will act as trustee for Smith's immense wealth. Harshaw is able to make his implication stick that human law, which would have granted ownership of Mars to Smith, has no applicability to a planet already inhabited by intelligent aliens who do not have the concept of ownership.
Writing in the early 1960s, Heinlein accurately predicted the existence of enormous Evangelical/Fundamentalist megachurches as corporate entities controlling their own television networks and other businesses, similar to the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and other historical entities. The Fosterites train squadrons of teenagers and young adults, the Spirit-in-Action League, to physically attack other religions, newspapers, etc., who fail to respect their version of the truth. Ironically, the Fosterites, along with all other religions, turn out to be true agents of divine forces. During his stay with Harshaw, Smith is taken to a Fosterite service and introduced to Bishop Digby, whom Smith apparently kills for reasons never fully explained (although it is known that Digby rejected Smith's assertion that "Thou art God"). Subsequent to this incident, Smith realizes that he himself is responsible for his own choices, and begins to behave in a more Earthly "humanistic" manner.
Once accustomed to the human race, Smith moves out with Gillian and joins a traveling circus as a magician. Although his "magic" is real—levitation and teleportation—he is a failure as an entertainer, because of his inability to understand people's need to be deceived. He eventually learns to understand humanity ("Jill, I grok people!") when he comprehends how painful and unjust life is by watching monkeys mistreat each other in a zoo. He also realizes that most humor is based on laughing at distress or indignities suffered by others.
Smith realizes there's no need for so much misery, and asks Jill what he needs to do to be ordained. He then starts a Martian-influenced "Church of All Worlds," which teaches its members how to rise above suffering, such as "pain and sickness and hunger and fighting." However, parts of the religion, such as group sex, communal living, and ritual cannibalism, make Smith's church a target for enemies following more conventional religions.
Smith's church combines elements of the Fosterite service with the ambience of mystery religions and initiation, similar to the Ordo Templi Orientis. Members learn the Martian language, and consequently acquire psychic abilities like Smith's: they become virtually superhuman. The church is eventually besieged by Fosterites for practicing "blasphemy," and the physical building is destroyed. However, at the moment of destruction, Smith teleports the members of the Church and all important materials to a resort hotel he owns in the same city. As this hotel was previously bought through a series of dummy corporations, there is no direct association with Smith for the Fosterite goon squads to immediately follow.
In a last conversation with Harshaw, Smith fears that people will not accept a nonviolent path because humanity must have violence for "weeding out" the unfit; Harshaw tells him that if he has faith in the movement he has started and their ability to show people what is possible through self-discipline, then in all likelihood Smith's following will eventually dominate the world religiously and politically (it appears that they are already well on their way to doing so). A mob gathers while they talk; Smith goes out to address them and is brutally killed, his final words spoken to a grasshopper: "I love you" and "Thou art God". It is obvious that he is letting himself be sacrificed. Harshaw is shocked at how blasé the others are at Mike's death and attempts suicide by swallowing three unidentified pills; Mike returns as a voice in Jubal's head and both helps Harshaw vomit the pills and causes him to realize that Mike's sacrifice was only of the body, not of the soul. Smith is explicitly portrayed as a modern Prometheus, and implicitly as a messianic figure; in the ending of the book, one interpretation is that he is in reality the archangel Michael, who has assumed human form. The book ends with Mike promoted to another plane of existence, similar to Heaven, but a place where work is to be done. The original Rev. Foster appoints Rev. Digby as Mike's assistant.
Fair Witness is a fictional profession invented for the novel. A Fair Witness is an individual trained to observe events and report exactly what he or she sees and hears, making no extrapolations or assumptions. An eidetic memory is a prerequisite for the job, although this may be attainable with suitable training.
In Heinlein's society, a Fair Witness is a highly reputable source of information. By custom, a Fair Witness acting professionally, generally wearing distinctive robes, is never addressed directly, and all present are supposed to avoid acknowledging the presence of the Witness in any way.
The character Jubal Harshaw employs a Fair Witness, Anne, as one of his secretaries. Unlike the other secretaries, she does not use dictation equipment when Jubal speaks. She can even keep track of several works at once, despite Harshaw's frequent switching between them.
Unlike the superficially similar profession of Mentat in Frank Herbert's Dune, Fair Witnesses are prohibited from drawing conclusions about what they observe. As a demonstration, Harshaw asks Anne to describe the color of a house in the distance. She responds, "It's white on this side,". Harshaw explains that she would not assume knowledge of the color of the other sides of the house without being able to see them. Furthermore, after observing another side of the house would not then assume that any previously seen side was still the same color as last reported, even if only minutes before.
When Ben Caxton decides to do something that might result in litigation—namely accusing a government official of substituting an actor for Valentine Michael Smith in a televised interview—he hires a highly respected Witness, James Oliver Cavendish, to record everything he sees, and to ensure that Ben isn't accused of slander. They visit the alleged Man From Mars in his hospital suite in the hope of determining whether he is actualy Smith or the actor who had apparently impersonated him the night before. Because of Cavendish's professional ethics, he is unable to suggest when on duty that they look for telltale calluses on the supposed Smith's feet; by the time he is off duty and make this obvious suggestion, it is no longer possible to get back into the hospital suite again and Smith and Caxton are both in danger of foul play.
Literary significance and criticism
Like many influential works of literature, Stranger made a contribution to the language: specifically, the word "grok." In Heinlein's invented Martian language, "grok" literally means "to drink" and figuratively means "to understand," "to love," and "to be one with.". One dictionary description was "To understand thoroughly through having empathy with". This word rapidly became common parlance among science fiction fans, hippies, and computer hackers, and has since entered the Oxford English Dictionary among others. Heinlein wrote most of the novel completely in dialogue, containing often long monologues, and only has a few pages of narration that depict the state of the world during the ensuing plot.
A central element of the second half of the novel is the religious movement founded by Smith, the "Church of All Worlds." This church is an initiatory mystery religion, blending elements of paganism and revivalism with psychic training and instruction in the Martian language. In 1962, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (then Tim Zell) founded the Church of All Worlds, a Neopagan religious organization modeled in many ways after the fictional organization in the novel Stranger in a Strange Land. This spiritual path included several ideas from the book, including polyamory, non-mainstream family structures, social libertarianism, water-sharing rituals, an acceptance of all religious paths by a single tradition, and the use of several terms such as "grok", "Thou art God", and "Never Thirst". Though Heinlein was neither a member nor a promoter of the Church, it was done with frequent correspondence between Zell and Heinlein, and he was a paid subscriber to their magazine Green Egg. This Church still exists as a 501(c)3 recognized religious organization incorporated in California, with membership worldwide, and it remains an active part of the neopagan community today.
Stranger was written in part as a deliberate attempt to challenge social mores. In the course of the story, Heinlein uses Smith's open-mindedness to reevaluate such institutions as religion, money, monogamy, and the fear of death. Heinlein completed writing it ten years after he had (uncharacteristically) plotted it out in detail. He later wrote, "I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right."
Stranger contains an early description of the waterbed, an invention which made its real-world debut a few years later in 1968. Charles Hall, who brought a waterbed design to the United States Patent Office, was refused a patent on the grounds that Heinlein's descriptions in Stranger and another novel, Double Star, constituted prior art.
Heinlein reportedly named his main character "Smith" because of a speech he made at a science fiction convention regarding the unpronounceable names assigned to extraterrestrials. After describing the importance of establishing a dramatic difference between humans and aliens, Heinlein concluded, "Besides, whoever heard of a Martian named Smith?" ("A Martian Named Smith" was both Heinlein's working title for the book and the name of the screenplay being started by Harshaw at the end.)
Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein
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