BOOK REVIEW – Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert Heinlein was a pervert. He was a deviant par excellence.

I needed to get that out of the way so no one accuses me of advocating the morality practiced in Heinlein’s writings. I needed to say it because Heinlein often uses sexuality and bizarre sexual behavior as a device in his books.

Now, I would ask all the elephants to leave the room by the nearest exit. [1] If all the herrings could take their red hides out of here as well? [2]

Are they gone yet? Oh good. Now we can look at Heinlein’s intriguing work of anarchy and libertarianism known as A Stranger in a Strange Land.

What a Strange Story…

First published in 1961, A Stranger in a Strange Land is a fascinating exploration of human morality, philosophy and the tensions that make up human society. Heinlein explores these themes almost exclusively through sexuality.

The story revolves around a unique character – Valentine Michael Smith. The product of an adulterous affair between two members of a mission to explore Mars, Valentine was raised by Martians after his mother’s jealous husband killed his mother, her lover, and the rest of the crew of their expedition.

On Mars, there is no man-woman sexuality. There are females, called nymphs, and there are males who are gigantic floating white things. There is no marriage, is no jealousy. They embrace cannibalism as ‘fulling knowing’ the being that formally inhabited the body. You have to read it to get all the craziness, but in essence the Martians are complete libertarians.

Martians ‘grok’ things. Heinlein explains ‘groking’ several times but leaves you to make your own conclusions. It is some kind of intimate knowing of others, which renders them not-other but part of the same.

When Valentine Michael Smith, called Mike in most of the book, is returned to earth, he embarks on a journey of learning to be human. Then, he tries to make humans into Martians, but finally concludes that there is something wonderful about human beings that allows them to ‘grok’ one another better than Martians can. Of course, that thing is sex – in a sort of free love, everybody loves everybody kind of philosophical-linguistic-extraterrestrial-quasi-religious commune.

Heinlein borrows very heavily from the Christian gospels while ridiculing organized Christianity (and let’s face it, they need a good ridiculing from time to time). Showing he is an equal opportunity offender, he takes on the Muslims and Buddhists as well, although far more subtly. In short, religion is an attempt – a human attempt – to ‘grok’ one another and the nature of the universe. I won’t spoil his conclusions for you.

Did I enjoy the book?

It has serious flaws – like how an earthling could live on Mars in the first place, particularly a baby – that kept me from taking it seriously as a story. Stylistically, I could tell that the book was heavily edited; and as it turns out, Heinlein’s editors had him hack out over 50,000 words they felt were too risque.

Even with the science aside, I felt that Stranger has nothing particularly revolutionary. The free love idea does not age well, nor does the attitude toward sexuality that it tries to express. Heinlein’s approach is so absolutely ideological that it becomes quite preachy at times. There are long monologues from characters other than Mike meant to get us to join this journey toward free love that just feel out of place.

I will say that Heinlein’s use of sculpture to explain the human conundrum and the value of art was beautiful. I think he was attempting to show that life is more art than science. He hints at this in his writing on the Old Ones – the discorporated leaders of the Martian society – but never overtly states it. He particularly zones in on Auguste Rodin’s “The Fallen Caryatid” and Edvard Eriksen’s “The Little Mermaid” in a passage that again I will let you read for yourself. Needless to say, I think Heinlein did properly identify some human struggles that religion and philosophy try desperately to explain.

My Favorite Moment

My favorite quote from the entire book was this single statement made by a Jewish character named Sam. Speaking of Jesus, he says:

A Jew boy. Thanks for mentioning Him. He’s the top success story of my tribe – and we all know it, even though many of don’t talk about Him. He was a Jew boy Who made good and I’m proud of him. Please note that Jesus didn’t try to get it all done by Wednesday. [Emphasis mine]

I kept playing that last line over and over in my head, and it means something entirely different to me than it did to Heinlein. It is nonetheless true. We tend to think that Jesus did try to do everything by Wednesday, meaning by the time of his crucifixion. We tend to cram our faith into the life of Jesus rather than the new life of the resurrection. And perhaps that is the reason Christianity is such a ridiculed mess of divisive sects and arrogant crusader theologies.

I will have to ‘grok’ this more fully.

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One thought on “BOOK REVIEW – Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. I disliked ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ for the longest time and then realized that I’d read the uncut version which has substantial additions which were cut from to streamline the original publication.

    Check out the Uncut.

    But yes, I agree with you in that “I felt that Stranger has nothing particularly revolutionary.” However, we must place the book in its time — and for the time, this was extremely socially relevant.

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