Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stranger In A Strange Land Turns 50

In 1961, Robert A. Heinlein received one of the most scathing reviews of his career. It was published by the New York Times.

My selection of this disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism was a frightful mistake. — Orville Prescott, 1961

It wasn't the first negative review the book would endure, just among the most famous. It might as well have been illustrated with a 1948 photograph of President Truman holding up a newspaper that erroneously screamed his opponent had won. Stranger In A Strange Land would become one of Heinlein's greatest triumphs.

The story of Valentine Michael Smith, an Earthling raised by Martians, is one of the most enduring in science fiction as social commentary. While our Earth hasn't advanced nearly as much as Heinlein might have hoped looking forward, plenty has happened for Earth in the Heinlein world.

It is set a few years ago, near the end of the 20th century. Space travel is simpler. The moon has been colonized. Mankind has endured World War III. But all of these details are merely a backdrop for Smith, with most of the story revolving around his various companions and an unnamed narrator filling in any major events, except one. The arrival of a boy raised by Martians.

The arrival of Valentine Michael Smith, an alien from Mars. 

Almost immediately following his arrival, Smith is met by the first frailty of humankind. Everyone has an agenda, and almost none of those agendas are in the best interest of Smith.

He is a prisoner, initially held in a hospital so he can become accustomed to the atmosphere and gravity of Earth. But then he is held as a precaution when the government decides it would be in their best interest to tap a scripted impostor rather than allow Smith to speak for himself.

These decisions eventually attract the attention and sympathies of nurse Gillian "Jill" Boardman and reporter Ben Caxton. While both have more self-serving interests for meeting Smith on the front end, those reasons dissipate as they become his rescuers, advocates, and friends.

Once Smith is discovered missing, Boardman enlists the help of Jubal Harshaw, a lawyer, doctor, and author who becomes a pivotal protagonist in the story. Although cynical at times, it is through Harshaw that Smith begins to understand the generalized concepts and constructs that make up the human way of life.

While Heinlein's principal interests — religion, politics, economics, and sexuality — are all present, he primarily uses Harshaw as a conversationalist on the importance of rugged individualism over the corruptible establishment. And it is because of these beliefs that Harshaw gains a moral and legal ground that Smith ought to be allowed to live his own life and not necessarily as the device of the government. And later, in a much different way, not a device of organized religion, at least not one that exists today.

The Martian who is remade into an Earthling. 

The transformation of Smith from a naive outsider to a mortal man in control over his own destiny is startling at times. Stranger In A Strange Land is humorous with its biting sarcasm, providing a unique perspective on things we take for granted. But as Smith evolves in his understanding, it can be painful to see his observations twisted into a different kind of corruption.

After tiring of various establishments, Smith does find some solace traveling with a carnival until he eventually decides to start his own religion as a means to mend what disappoints him about humans.

It is as a prophet, possibly using his considerable Martian powers to do it, that he tries to set things right with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, there is still so much he doesn't understand. And this simple fact provides a foreshadow of what is to come. Heinlein decides to test his creation with one of the worst aspects of human nature.

That test isn't the moral of the book. More exactly, Heinlein champions the argument that institutions are both useful and corruptible, capable of great accomplishments and atrocities (often committed while on the same path) in Stranger In A Strange Land.

And there are other ideologies and philosophies that are dissected in comparison too. Most of it is through the wit and wisdom of Harshaw, who some people speculate was a stand in for the author himself.

A bit about the man who wanted to write about a Martian. 

The amount of work, especially given Robert A. Heinlein's late start, startles some people. He wrote 32 novels and almost 60 short stories. He has had 16 collections published and assumed no less than five pseudonyms. He also edited an anthology of other writers and scripted one screenplay of his own work.

While Heinlein was the first to classify himself as a liberal, it is difficult to see how his definition might fit the more prevalent one today. His work was frequently underscored by themes of individualism and self-determination. It was equally important to him that people chose to be empathetic and supportive, but never forced to it.

Originally, Heinlein became a writer to pay the bills after his discharge from the Navy. His life in the military, although stopped short after developing pulmonary tuberculosis, was a great influence in his life, second only to being an amateur astronomtuer raised in the Bible Belt.

Today, he is more of an influencer than someone who was influenced. Stranger In A Strange Land, alone, has been referenced in a near countless bodies of work. References include six songs, ranging from Jefferson Airplane to Iron Maiden; three televisions series; and two books, including Arthur C. Clarke in 3001:The Final Odyssey. Grok, on its own, has been used dozens of times and is included in some dictionaries.

Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein Groks 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Few books or people have made such a long-lasting and far-reaching impact. The Heinlein Society continues to pay it forward on behalf of the late author. While I personally have other favorites, Stranger In A Strange Land had one of the most interesting runs of any book in Heinlein's career.

The novel, which would not be published in full until 1991, overcame heavy editing (more than 25 percent of it was cut for space and controversy) and tremendously negative reviews before becoming a counterculture favorite, Hugo award winner, and his best selling book by 1963.

You can find Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein on Amazon or look for the book at Barnes & Noble. Stranger In A Strange Land is also available on iBooks and iTunes carries an unabridged audio version. While Christopher Hurt is a fine narrator, the quality of the recording dates it. Years ago, it was rumored to be in development as a movie, but those plans never came to fruition (supposedly after a script review).
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