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Stranger in a Strange Land

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Author Topic: Stranger in a Strange Land  (Read 529 times)
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« on: February 07, 2007, 02:59:08 am »

Stranger in a Strange Land is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein published in 1961. It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians on Mars, as he returns to Earth in early adulthood. The novel explores his interaction with — and eventual transformation of — Earth culture. The title of the book is from the Biblical Book of Exodus.[1]

The book was a breakthrough best-seller and eventual cult classic, attracting many readers who would not ordinarily have read a work of science fiction. Late-1960s counterculture was influenced by its themes of sexual freedom and liberation.[2] Several editions promote the book as, "The most famous Science Fiction Novel of all time."[3]

Much of the novel is didactic, consisting of long speeches by the character Jubal Harshaw, a fiction writer with training as a lawyer and medical doctor, who acts as Heinlein's mouthpiece and alter ego presenting many points of view that typify Heinlein's opinions as expressed in his works in general. This is less of a dramatic flaw than in other novels containing Heinlein mouthpieces (e.g., The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and Time Enough for Love), since Harshaw's hardheaded Mark Twain-style realism is effectively contrasted against Smith's mystical and alien point of view, and Harshaw is often proved wrong.

When Heinlein first wrote Stranger, his editors required him to cut it from its original 220,000-word length, and to remove some scenes that may have been considered too shocking at the time. The final result was near 160,000 words, and this version, published in 1961, received a Hugo Award. After Heinlein's death in 1988, his wife Virginia found a market for the original edition, which was published in 1991. As with Podkayne of Mars, critics disagree whether Heinlein's preferred version, published later, is in fact better than the one originally published.

Hardcover, showing Rodin's sculpture,
Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone, which Heinlein translates as "Caryatid Fallen Under her Stone".
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« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2007, 03:00:03 am »

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. Smith is the son of two astronauts, raised by Martians on Mars, until he is taken "home" to Earth, where he is effectively imprisoned in a hospital by the government, which wishes him to transfer any rights he may have to ownership of Mars to the government, specifically the "Federation of Free States", a world-government whose Secretary-General happens to be American. He 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. In short, he is a man besieged on all sides by those who wish to use him to further their own ends.

A nurse, Gillian Boardman, has a "hobby": men. Upon arrival on Earth, Smith is physically weak and oppressed by the heavy atmosphere, and has never seen a female human because the entire crew that retrieves him from Mars is male. Doctor Nelson, the ship's doctor has ordered that Smith be attended by male staff only, including nurses, but this is simply a challenge to Gillian. Egged on by her sometime boyfriend, the investigative journalist Ben Caxton, she 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, when she and Ben later watch a "stereovision" telecast of the "Man from Mars", she knows instantly that it is a fraud. Emboldened by her revelation, 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 is so shocked by Gillian's reaction that he enters what seems to be a catatonic state. She has to carry him away in a large suitcase.

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 sex), which he initially does not understand.

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 coin the phrase "Thou art God" and apply it to every human he meets. Due to his education on a different planet, many human concepts, such as war, clothing, and jealousy are strange to him.

Harshaw realizes he cannot keep the young man concealed forever, and after an attempt by government forces to reclaim Smith 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.

Once accustomed to the human race, Smith moves out with Gillian and joins a traveling circus as a magician, but although his "magic" is real — levitation and teleportation — he is a failure as an entertainer because of his inability to understand people. He eventually learns to understand people when he realizes that most humor is based on laughing at distress or indignities suffered by others.

To help humanity better themselves, he begins a church/school dedicated to the teaching of the Martian language, inner discipline, paranormal abilities, immortality, and to spiritual and sexual bonding, under the concept that all people are God, and should love each other. He challenges traditional values such as monogamy and property, and blames the world's problems on people's refusal to grok each other. In the novel, the most powerful church is the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, a satire on revivalist media megachurches. The Fosterites have plenty of willing acolytes ready to attack other religions, newspapers, etc., who fail to respect their version of the truth. Ironically, the Fosterites turn out to be true agents of divine forces (yet all religions are proven to be true; reference to the Islam Paradise is made in the afterlife, proving Smith to be right when he evoked this belief to Harshaw).

Smith's church gains a small following, but is besieged and the building is eventually destroyed. 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. A mob gathers while they talk; Smith goes out to address them and is brutally killed (although it is obvious that he is letting himself be sacrificed). Harshaw is shocked at how blase the others are at Mike's death and attempts suicide; Mike returns as a ghost 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, it is implied that he is in reality the archangel Michael, who has assumed human form.

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« Reply #2 on: February 07, 2007, 03:02:18 am »


•   Crew members of the Envoy, the first human attempt to travel to Mars. Their ship survives the trip to Mars, but then ceases transmission, and their fate is unknown for the next 20 years.
o   Mary Jane Lyle Smith — power technician. Before leaving Earth she patents technology, placed in trust, subsequently developed into the Lyle Drive, principal form of spaceship propulsion. Biological Mother of Valentine Michael Smith, who comes to legally own the fortune her invention has accrued.
o   Dr Ward Smith — ship physician and nominal father, during the passage to Mars, of a baby boy
o   Captain Michael Brant — captain and biological father of the baby boy — Valentine Michael Smith
•   Valentine Michael Smith, known as Michael Smith, or just "Mike", the "Man from Mars", raised on Mars in the interval between the crash of his ship, the Envoy, and arrival of the second expedition the Champion, about 20 years old when the Champion arrives and brings him to Earth.
•   Officers of the Champion. All of these people became "water brothers" to Mike on Mars or during the trip back, but this information is only revealed to Mike's earthbound human friends when they meet the officers
o   Captain van Tromp
o   Dr Mahmoud — semanticist, of Arab descent, and a devout Muslim, and the second human (after Mike) to gain a working knowledge of the Martian language
o   Dr Sven Nelson — ship's physician, and personal physician to Mike at Bethesda Medical Center until he withdraws from the case in a confrontation with the Secretary General (see below)
•   Government officials — Several government officials have roles at least at the beginning
o   Secretary-General Joseph Douglas ("Joe Douglas"). Douglas is the head of the Federation of Free States, a sort of evolution of the United Nations into a World Government
o   Gil Berquist — assistant to Secretary Douglas. Mike makes him and a cop disappear during a confrontation with Jill (see below).
o   Alice Douglas — (sometimes called "Agnes"), wife of Joe Douglas, not a government official but orders her husband and his staff around nonetheless. She frequently consults an astrologer for major decisions.
o   Jim Sanforth — Douglas' press secretary
o   Assemblyman Kung — de facto head of the Eastern Coalition, a political bloc opposed to Douglas in the Federation
o   Senator Tom Boone — besides being a politician, he's a senior member of the Fosterite religious organization, and wants both Mike's wealth and prestige to accrue to the Foster faith.
•   Becky Vesant — Mrs Douglas' astrologer, and later a member of Mike's Church of All Worlds. When Harshaw (see below) has a sudden urgent need to contact Douglas, Vesant provides the way when all official roads are blocked.
•   Gillian Boardman — nurse at Bethesda, the first person on Earth to become a "water brother" to Mike
•   Ben Caxton — investigative journalistic and boyfriend of Jill. He makes her aware of Mike's legal significant (potential ownership both of enormous amounts of Earthly wealth and the planet Mars itself, at least according to Federation law), and convinces her to bug Smith's hospital suite revealing an attempt by Douglas to defraud Smith of this wealth and power.
•   James Cavendish — a Fair Witness employed by Ben in an attempt to expose a fake Man from Mars shown on stereovision. Fair Witnesses are a legal institution created to provide impartial and accurate observation of potential contentious legal situations. Apart from Cavendish, Anne (see below) is also a Fair Witness.
•   Jubal Harshaw — popular writer, lawyer, doctor, now semi-retired to a house in the Poconos NW of Philadelphia. Harshaw's age is never given but is probably at least 80 by indirect indications. When Ben Caxton disappears, Jill takes Mike to Harshaw to defend his rights, but finds Harshaw not eager to defend Mike's right to unearned wealth. However, when the authorities get rough he changes his mind.
•   Anne — (no last name given) oldest and tallest of three female secretaries to Harshaw. Has total recall and Fair Witness standing (see Cavendish above)
•   Miriam — another female secretary to Harshaw, red-headed
•   Dorcas — third female secretary. Dark-haired. Apart from these meagre indications the three secretaries are mostly indistinguisable.
•   Larry and Duke — two men that Harshaw employees to keep the high-tech part of his isolated and private household running so he doesn't need external, expensive, and disruptive repairmen.
•   Patricia Paiwonski ("Pat") — circus performer that Mike and Jill meet while Mike poses as a magician in a small travelling circus.
•   Angels. Two "angels" provide some commentary and act quite apart from the humans. A third angel is introduced at the end of the book.
o   Foster — The founder of the Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite) upon death becomes an angel
o   Digby — Supreme Bishop Digby, Foster's successor as head of the Church of the New Revelation, also becomes an angel when he dies.
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« Reply #3 on: February 07, 2007, 03:03:46 am »

Literary significance & 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." This word rapidly became common parlance among science fiction fans, hippies, and computer hackers, and has since entered the Oxford English Dictionary among others.

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 1968, a group of neopagans inspired by Stranger took it upon themselves to found a religious group with this name, modeled in many ways after the fictional organization. Their Church of All Worlds 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."[4]

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. [5]

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.)

Lack of psychological realism

Two related criticisms[citation needed] that have been made are that the book steps outside the bounds of psychological realism, and that it advocates a utopia which cannot actually be achieved without knowledge of the fictitious Martian language or similarly fanciful supernatural powers. However, some critics, including Patterson and Thornton[citation needed], argue that the story is to be understood not as a psychologically realistic novel but as a qualitatively different form, the narrative satire. Heinlein described the story, in a letter to his agent, as "a Cabellesque satire of sex and religion," suggesting that it be evaluated on the same terms as such intentionally unrealistic stories as Cabell's Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice. The expectation, then, is that when the scene shifts to a discussion between a dead person's soul and an archangel, the reader doesn't even need to suspend his sense of disbelief, because the story has never invited belief in its realism in the first place. Similarly, if there is no expectation that the book should be taken as a realistic prescription for a utopia, then the utopia's impracticability is not a defect in the story.[citation needed]
Jubal Harshaw notes, in the book, that Smith's 'system' is fine 'for angels.'

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« Reply #4 on: February 07, 2007, 03:05:01 am »

Characterization and motivation

Heinlein's novelistic output before Stranger in a Strange Land had consisted[citation needed] mostly of juvenile fiction rooted in the pulp tradition, whereas Stranger was intended as a venture into a more highbrow literary landscape. Ironically, however, one of the main reasons critic Alexei Panshin faults the book is for its poor characterization[citation needed] — a weakness usually considered more typical of pulp SF. Jubal functions as a mouthpiece for the authorial voice, Jubal's three secretaries are interchangeable cardboard cutouts, and Jill is used simply as a devil's advocate against more enlightened points of view. Panshin writes:

Which secretary sleeps with Mike his first time out? They are so lacking in definition that it is impossible to tell. Jill Boardman supposedly loves Ben Caxton, but won't sleep with him. She will, however, go off around the country with Mike on a sleep-in basis. Why? I can't say. At any time it would not surprise me for her to unscrew her foot and stick it in her ear — she is capable of anything.

[edit] Homosexuality and gender roles
To contemporary readers, some statements in the book may seem to convey a sense of misogyny or homophobia. For example:

...[Jill] had explained homosexuality, after Mike had read about it and failed to grok — and had given him rules for avoiding passes; she knew that Mike, pretty as he was, would attract such. He had followed her advice and had made his face more masculine, instead of the androgynous beauty he had had. But Jill was not sure that Mike would refuse a pass, say, from Duke — fortunately Mike's male water brothers were decidedly masculine, just as his others were very female women. Jill suspected that Mike would grok a 'wrongness' in the poor in-betweeners anyhow — they would never be offered water.[6]
Another passage concerns the mail that the man from Mars receives:

After looking over a bushel or so of Mike's first class mail Jubal set up a list of categories: ... G. Proposals of marriage and propositions not quite so formal ... Jill brought a letter, category "G," to Jubal. More than half of the ladies and other females (plus misguided males) who supplied this category included pictures alleged to be of themselves; some left little to the imagination, as did the letters themselves in many cases. This letter [from a woman] enclosed a picture which managed not only to leave nothing to the imagination, but started over by stimulating fresh imaginings.[7]
One critic writes:

These days the "heresy" is centered more on the characters' provincial attitudes towards gay men ("poor in-betweeners" whose "wrongness" denies them water-kinship) and all women ("Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault," Jill says to Michael, when instructing him not to defend her too strenuously against such an assault). (Tasha Robinson, "Humanity, through a glass brightly"[8])
However, these passages both convey the attitudes of the prudish character Jill, who is used as a dramatic foil for Mike and Jubal's less parochial views. A major thread of the story is Smith's gradual persuasion of Jill to grow beyond her inhibitions, embrace her previously suppressed exhibitionistic nature, and learn to understand other people's sexuality (e.g., Duke's interest in pornography). The passage about the letter deals with Jill's inclination to shield Mike from it, and she is overruled by the wiser Jubal (additionally, the "misguided males" could be misguided only in that they are unaware that Mike is strictly heterosexual). The quote concerning "wrongness" in the "poor in-betweeners" likewise portrays Jill's speculation about what Mike would think of homosexuality, not Mike's actual attitudes.

On the other hand, just because some of these negative views of homosexuality occur in the thoughts and words of the characters, rather than coming from the authorial voice, that doesn't mean that they were not intended to express Heinlein's views. As Brooks Peck put it, "Heinlein loved to pontificate through the mouths of his characters," and Jubal is clearly often acting as a mouthpiece for Heinlein's own views. Also, the remark about "misguided males" is part of the book's exposition, not its dialogue or the representation of a character's thoughts.

Later chapters in the novel, depicting the workings of the Church of All Worlds, in fact have a number of references, some more obvious than others, that the sexual bonding that occurs between water-brothers is not limited to male/female. Ben, who has become a water brother but who has not received the training that normal church members receive, comments at one point that two men are kissing, but nothing about the act seems out of place or unmasculine. By the novel's end, it seems to promote a kind of general bisexuality, implying that sexual bonding can occur between any water-brothers, regardless of gender. This is, however, not directly stated so much as implied, and other interpretations are possible.

Smith determines that the greatest gift that the Martians lack is the "gift" of gender. The asexual Martians have no concept of gender and it is this balance and duality that Smith finds to be the most amazing difference between the two species.

A more general discussion of Heinlein's attitudes on sexuality, homosexuality, gender roles, and sexual freedom is given in the article on Heinlein.
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