by Robert A. Heinlein
Captain van Tromp decided that it was time to throw a tantrum. “This man Smith-This ‘man!’ Can’t you see that he is not?”
“Smith … is … not … a … man.”
“Huh? Explain yourself, Captain.”
“Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a man. He thinks like a Martian, feels like a Martian. He’s been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us-they don’t even have sex. He’s a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment… ” (p 7)
I decided at the beginning of this year (2011) that I had to expand my library and to not only line my bookshelves with classics and potentials alike but then take the time to actually read them. I scoured the internet looking for lists of must read books before ordering two dozen or so and then procrastinating enough to write a list of which order to read them in and how long I believed it would take me to read each book. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein was at the top of my, and many others’, list and I set aside one whole day to devour its contents. Surfice to say I didn’t go to bed until late (or early when you think about it) and turned the last page with satisfaction, licking my lips as if savouring a tall icy glass of orange juice (or perhaps that should be water in theme with the novel.)
Like Ray Bradbury’s science fiction story Leviathan 99, Stranger in a Strange Land takes the bare bones of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” stories and places it within a science fiction framework.
The novel follows the story of a young Mowgli-like man, Valentine Michael “Mike” Smith who was born of human parents and raised on Mars by Martians, reintegrating into a society that is completely foreign to him and has him struggling to “grok”. The first woman he ever meets is a nurse, Gillian “Jill” Boardman who smuggles him out from under the thumb of the government and becomes his “water brother,” a bond closer than blood.They are taken in by Jubal Harshaw, a doctor, attorney, writer, agnostic and rebel, who takes on the role of father and water brother to defend Mike’s human and Martian rights (apparently through a somewhat stupid law he owns the entire planet of Mars.) Though we only ever get glimpses of the Martians, we learn that they have three legs, the novel takes place mainly on Earth. The Martians play a pivotal role throughout the book as Heinlein looks at sexuality, family, religion, politics and a dozen other hot topics through the lens of Mike, commenting on the human condition in a way that will always be relevant no matter the century you read it.
Published in 1961, the book has the delicious flavour of something slightly out of step with my own reality not because of its nature as science fiction but because of when it was written. The language is slightly old fashioned, not hugely noticeable or overly distracting, and there are themes that were touched on that made me question whether Heinlein was ironically commenting on the social times of the early 60’s or if he seriously believed it himself. One example of this is the role the female characters play throughout the novel. The three secretaries of Jubal Harshaw are depicted as strong, dependent women with a certain amount of power and control in the household especially when they dump their boss in the pool after he criticises their cooking. Yet beneath it all is a level of patronisation that slightly ruffled my inner feminist.
During the “family picnic” (p 214) that occurs after the public conference Dr. Mahmoud notes “that these women did not chatter, did not intrude into sober talk of men, but were quick with food and drink in warm hospitality” (p 214) and it seemed that it was the woman’s job to nurse, cook and clean house and could not possibly be included in and contribute to “men talk.” As the novel progressed, it became clearer to me that Heinlein was voicing Mahmoud’s thoughts as a devout Muslim, using the character as a means of contrast yet the underlying attitude is still there. The final few chapters seemed to level the playing field between men and women and indeed it does seem to be a key issue that Heinlein addresses, emphasising and praising the bipolarity of the human race. At times the plot slowed down a little as characters discussed complex issues such as God and our own morality, but I didn’t particularly mind.
Despite the novel’s flaws, I enjoyed this book immensely and it gave me a lot to think about and hopefully I will grok in the fullness of time. It is a must read for anyone interested in science fiction and the human condition, which frankly should be everyone.
Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. Ace Books, New York. 2003. ISBN 978-0-441-79034-0