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Stranger in a Strange Land

by Robert Heinlein

by Ted Gioia

Two years after his novel Starship Troopers, which incurred
charges that he was a militarist, Heinlein offered up
Stranger in a
Strange Land
, which would establish him as a free love guru of
the hippie generation. That must be like attending West Point in
the morning, and leading a protest at Berkeley in the afternoon.
Certainly somebody must be confused
here—either Heinlein or his critics?

But those who try to force Heinlein into
an ideological corner are missing half
the fun. This is science fiction, after all,
and it is supposed to be provocative.
Does anyone really think Asimov
wanted to live as a citizen on the
Foundation planet of Trantor?  Was
Herbert advocating large sandworms
as his preferred form of mass transit?  
Did
Burgess go out tolchocking with
his droogs?  Hardly! But Heinlein’s
narrative voice is so powerful and
insinuating, readers are tempted to read his fictions as
manifestos for a better way of life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in
Stranger in a Strange Land.
The hero of the tale, Valentine Michael Smith, is a human who
was abandoned as an infant on Mars and raised by Martians. He
returns to Earth as a young man, where he is immediately
institutionalized and isolated by a hostile government. According
to a quirk in international and inter-galactic law, Smith controls
the wealth left behind by the first expeditionary party that visited
the Red Planet, of which he is sole survivor. This includes rights
to a valuable patent, which may be worth hundreds of millions of
dollars.

But Smith is as innocent as a babe in the Martian woods, and
only the intervention of a group of new-found friends prevents
him from handing over these rights. With the help of journalist
Ben Caxton, nurse Gillian Boardman and lawyer Jubal Harshaw,
among others, Smith is sprung from his hospital internment and
assisted in securing his fabulous wealth. We have seen this plot
twist before—for example, in serious fiction such as Dostoevsky’s
The Idiot or its popular film equivalent Forrest Gump: the naïve
but good-hearted simpleton overcomes the scheming and
obstacles of an indifferent or hostile society.

This part of the story might have made for a reasonably
interesting novel in its own right. But Heinlein is merely warming
up for his main act. Once Valentine Michael Smith is rich and free
to reach for all the gusto he can, he sets up a free love
organization—sort of a cross between Amway, a swingers party
and a UFO cult. I’m not sure what wavelengths Heinlein was
tapping into when he wrote this novel in the 1950s and early
1960s—after all Esalen would not be founded until the year after
the novel was published, bra-burning wouldn’t kick in for another
seven years, and the Summer of Love was not even the glimmer
of a wisp of a dream. But our author was clearly wired into the
impending social changes that would sweep the country in the
aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.

To some degree, Heinlein helped pave the way. And he certainly
contributed to the jargon and concepts of the time. He gave us
the word “grok” (a Martian term meaning to understand in a deep
and thorough way)—a veritable gift to all later Scrabble players
and crossword puzzle constructors. He anticipated the water bed,
an essential accoutrement for all those under the sway of flower
power. He invented the water sharing ritual fifteen years before
Perrier opened up its first US office. Yes, he may have been old
enough to join AARP, but Heinlein knew more about the essence
of the Sixties generation than any of their parents were able to
grok.

But for all its anticipation of the future, Heinlein is not without his
debt to the past.
Stranger in a Strange Land often reads like a
pulp fiction novel, especially whenever Jubal Harshaw is on the
scene. Harshaw talks like he has just strolled into these pages
after being evicted from a bad Mickey Spillane novel. He keeps
spouting off comments such as “Kiss girls all you want to—it
beats the hell out of card games.” In the parlance of creative
writing workshops, this is known as hard-boiled prose. Heinlein is
a master of the style, so one can understand his reluctance to
experiment with other techniques; but it is a tremendous mis-
match with the subject matter of
Stranger in a Strange Land. At a
time when other authors who were shaping the sixties zeitgeist—
Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson—were also creating
fresh new ways of expressing themselves in prose, Heinlein was
still wedded to the writing conventions of the 1930s and 1940s.

Many of Heinlein’s most ardent fans are admirers of Harshaw,
who to some degree is a stand-in for the author in this story. But
for all his hard-boiled wisdom, Harshaw is one of the most
confusing characters in the annals of science fiction. At various
sections of the book, Harshaw is a lawyer, a doctor, a political
lobbyist, or a pulp fiction writer, depending on the circumstances.
He may be old and infirm, but he has a harem of women at his
beck and command—who cook, clean and know stenography.
What is this all about? In short, Harshaw is less a character than
some type of wish fulfillment on Heinlein’s part.

But we forgive Heinlein these excesses. Stranger in a Strange
Land is a magical, surprising book, and Michael Valentine Smith
is (in contrast to Harshaw) a fresh character type, unconstrained
by Raymond Chandler-esque precedents.  He is also
unconstrained by Freudian, Marxian, Jungian, religious, parental
or other "baggage" (may I use the 1960s term?).  As a result,
Smith is more than a character.  He is prototype of an alternative
personality structure.   The question of whether we can remake
the human personality from the ground up has been pondered by
Plato, Rousseau, Marx and many other great thinkers who
shaped Western thought. Fiction is another technique for
exploring this human capacity for reinvention—although few
writers have been as daring as Heinlein in embracing this
potential of storytelling. Such conceptual risk-taking more than
compensates for the formulaic aspects of
Stranger in a Strange
Land
and ensures that this book will continue to spur discussion
and debate in a way that few science fiction books of the 1960s—
or any era, for that matter—can match.

Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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A Clockwork Orange

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Childhood's End

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A Fall of Moondust

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2001: A Space Odyssey

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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Little, Big

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The Einstein Intersection

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Nova

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Ubik

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Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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Like Water for Chocolate

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To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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Neverwhere

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Burning Chrome

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Neuromancer

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The Magicians

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The Forever War

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Light

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Dune

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Practical Magic

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Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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Nine Hundred Grandmothers

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Conjure Wife

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Swords & Deviltry

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The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

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The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

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Magic for Beginners

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Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

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100 Years of Solitude

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Wittgenstein's Mistress

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Hell House

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What Dreams May Come

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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Some of Your Blood

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The Witches of Eastwick

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The Bear Comes Home

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal


Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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The New Canon
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Ted Gioia on Twitter

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