Russell Blackford is an Australian author and editor, philosopher and critic. He is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, and co-editor (with Udo Schuklenk) of the forthcoming book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. His other books include Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction (co-authored with Van Ikin and Sean McMullen); the thriller Kong Reborn, a sequel to the original King Kong movie; and The New John Connor Chronicles - a trilogy written for the Terminator franchise. Here Russell writes about Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.
Russell Blackford on Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
For a generation of science fiction fans who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) was a book that changed lives: a huge, bizarre, magical, loosely-knit satire of nearly everything. It recounts the adventures of Valentine Michael Smith (or Mike), a young man who is born on Mars and raised by the Martians, before being brought to a wacky near-future Earth. He is befriended by wise old Jubal Harshaw, the novel's authorial spokesman or 'Heinlein figure' (though he is presented as much older than Heinlein actually was at the time). Jubal becomes Mike's mentor and protector, then eventually something more like a disciple.
Stranger became a cult classic, with an audience far beyond science fiction's usual reach prior to the Star Wars era. It celebrated the human body (the characters seem to be nude as often as not), advocated open sexual relationships and laughed at politics, jealousy, organized religion and moral convention.
Though it fitted neatly into the hippie ethos of the later 1960s, Stranger has never entirely fallen out of fashion; it retains a leading place in the science fiction canon, and continues to attract critical discussion and new readers. An 'original uncut' version was published in 1991. According to Virginia Heinlein's preface, 'The earlier edition contained a few words over 160,000, while this one runs around 220,000 words.' Fans and literary critics debate the relative merits of the more leisurely 'original' and the relatively taut, but sometimes more obscure, version published 30 years before. Speaking for myself, I wish that Heinlein had been able to produce a definitive author's cut with the best material from both.
The book's detractors point to its apparent diffuseness and other oddities, but much of this can be justified in Stranger itself (though perhaps not so much in some of the more blatantly self-indulgent works that came later). Most importantly, it should not be read as a traditional novel with tight plotting, realistic characters and lifelike dialogue. It is more like a Menippean satire or an 'anatomy'.
Leaving aside an ambiguous remark by Heinlein himself (he once referred to Stranger as 'a Cabellesque satire of sex and religion'), I'm not sure who first pointed this out, though it's possible that I hold that honour. I made the point in a paper that I delivered in 1985, at that year's World Science Fiction Convention, Aussiecon 2: 'The Nest of the Discorporator: or, Rereading Stranger in a Strange Land'. This was published in the same year, in the proceedings volume for the convention's academic track. There, I saw Stranger as resembling a Menippean satire, and hence as not requiring a conventional novel's approach to consistent characterization.
I remain convinced that this is correct. Stranger has some of the characteristics of a monomyth, some of those of an encyclopaedia, and a tendency to include diverse literary and sub-literary forms (outlandish news reports, bad but amusing verse, Socratic dialogue, fable and philosophy). These are held together by a loose, though clearly apparent, overall structure, by a pattern of dominant references and images, and by an obsessive interest in the various topics that are satirized.
To point this out is not to claim that Stranger is a perfect work of its kind, but it is far from the shambles that it is sometimes taken for. Once it is understood in this way, many of the objections to it, made by Alexei Panshin among others (see Panshin's Heinlein in Dimension, 1968), lose their force. The pleasure of the text comes largely from its digressions and its outrageous humour - much of which no longer seems so outrageous. Taking pleasure in these things, and the book's superficially rambling form, does not require a theory of literature... but it does require us to let go of certain expectations about how a novel should work.
As I remarked in my 1985 paper, Stranger does not require much in the way of consistent characterization in order to be effective. It certainly does not need to take us on any convincing inner, or psychological, journeys, though it could not be emotionally moving - as it surely is - unless the main characters, especially Mike and Jubal, were engaging. That implies at least a degree of psychological consistency, since we cannot be engaged by characters who are psychologically capable of just about anything. Again, the overall story needs to be reasonably plausible in its own zany terms, but Stranger delivers more than that minimal degree of consistency and plausibility.
A full account of Stranger's peculiar coherence would explicate Mike's roles as a kind of antithetical or pagan Jesus, bringing salvation through self-perfection, rather than through submission to an external God. In the worldview of the book, God is whatever has life, or perhaps whatever has life and understanding. Heinlein insists that we all have the responsibility to act as creators of our own lives and values, rather than expecting any metaphysical force or being to do it for us.
Stranger, therefore, is a neo-gospel that depicts Mike as a very different kind of Christ figure. He is also shown as Prometheus, who defied the gods to bring technological power (fire) to mankind. When he talks about Mike to their friends, Jubal employs other images, such as the Little Mermaid, who left her natural element to live a life of both gain and suffering. Jubal himself resembles Socrates, rather than Jesus, both in his lengthy philosophical dialogues with other characters and in his attraction to death by poison: 'a cup of cheer from the hand of a friend'. Thus, the two supremely wise figures of the book, Mike and Jubal, are patterned on the greatest martyrs of antiquity, who more or less founded the Christian and Greek traditions of thought.
All that said, Stranger has evident weaknesses. Not least, it has an uncomfortably sexist feel to it. It presents its female characters in a way that tends to undercut the implied author's official belief in - even insistence upon - the competence of women and their equality with men. Whatever may have been Heinlein's intention, Jubal's three secretaries, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas, are scarcely differentiated through much of the narrative, and seem interchangeable for most purposes. While some of the other female characters are more interesting, none has a presence or impact comparable to that of Mike or Jubal.
Again, the long, quasi-Socratic dialogues in which Jubal expounds his cultural, aesthetic and sexual theories are sometimes heavy-handed and pompous, even for a Menippean satire with its inevitable tendency to grow into a kind of encyclopaedia and to delight in gobbets of all sorts. Stranger's implicitly elitist morality, in which an enlightened secular Elect are permitted to judge their most brutal persecutors as 'better dead', exerts an odd attraction - but is all the more worrying for that.
But whatever the book's faults, it takes a certain narrowness of literary sensibility not to enjoy Stranger. At the least, it's a delightful satiric romp, and its unashamedly sex-positive message remains refreshing all these years later - no whining or angst about sexual experience here! The polymorphous and polyamorous arrangements of Mike's 'Nest' of companions - with free love among male and female 'water brothers', but the total exclusion of outsiders - are not intended, of course, as a literal social blueprint. Rather, we are left to make up our own minds as to how the unsatisfactory arrangements in our society could be improved upon. Still, Heinlein conveys an overall sense that the Nest would be an improvement, even if nothing like it could be adopted holus bolus in the absence of an alien miracle worker such as Mike.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Heinlein wrote several more books, most notably The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), which tells the story of a lunar colony's rebellion against Earth, analogous to the American Revolution. Though it never achieved Stranger's cult status, this may be Heinlein's best novel, and is surely one of the greatest in the science fiction genre. However, his later work is often criticized as lacking shape and discipline, and there was a seven-year gap in his output from 1973 to 1980, when he was plagued by a series of health crises. He returned in the 1980s, writing several novels, of which Friday (1982) and the satirical Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) showed him still near his best form.
Heinlein's last novels - The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985) and the shamelessly self-indulgent To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987) - appeared more than two decades ago, and he died peacefully in 1988, but he will long be remembered as a world-straddling colossus of the science fiction genre. Flawed as it may be, Stranger in a Strange Land ranks among his masterworks.