Reading Robert Heinlein in 2017 – Stranger in a Strange Land
About 30 years ago, I read The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. It was my first adventure outside of kids’ books, and the first Robert Heinlein story I ever read. I think I was with my Dad at a supermarket when we picked up the paperback off a rack. That book started my Heinlein phase, which didn’t end until I’d read almost 30 other Heinlein books.
Some of the subject material went over my head. Some of the stories stuck with me and influenced my writing. Others were just okay.
I never finished Stranger in a Strange Land. When talking to other Heinlein fans at conventions, I kept this fact secret. I was embarrassed. This is probably Heinlein’s most famous book. It won the 1962 Hugo. It gave us the word “grok.” I read almost all of his books. How could I have left that one out?
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to correct this omission. I downloaded the audio book and I chewed through it slowly. I wanted to savor it because in many ways, I was going back in time. I was going back to a reflection of the 60’s, when Heinlein wrote the book. I was also going back to when I was much younger, and the only thing I was reading was Heinlein paperbacks.
Here, then, are my observations.
The Casual Misogyny
The first thing that hit me as I listened to the book was that women did not have an equal place in the world. Jill Boardman is constantly called by pet names. The women are often admonished as if they are children rather than as adults. Several male characters throughout the book, including Jubal Harshaw, describe the role of women in society, and it isn’t flattering.
To Heinlein’s credit, the female protagonists aren’t wilting flowers. They display strength in personality. They eventually express their own sexuality and appetites on par with their male counterparts. But even within the views of Jill and Michael, there is a “truth” that Jill realizes: it is natural for men to need to look at women, and it is natural for women to flaunt and be seen.
I chalked up the inequality of the sexes as being a byproduct of being written in the early 60’s. A time full of dames and broads. Given that context, the story is quite progressive.
Jubal Harshaw, The Pro From Dover
Jubal Harshaw is a bigger than life character. Both a doctor and a lawyer, no one gets one over on Jubal Harshaw. Throughout the story, he outmaneuvers world leaders, police forces, and religious zealots. He is the only one that fully groks without learning Martian first. Michael values Jubal Harshaw’s word above all others.
Again, this seems like a trope from the era. That is, authors from that time seemed to inject in their heroes over-the-top qualities that make them unbelievable.
My first attempts at writing fiction featured a character named Arthur Kane that was also over-the-top. He was rich, super smart, knew karate, and was a mechanical genius. Even though I hadn’t finished Strange in a Strange Land before I started writing, I feel like this type of writing was present in the other Heinlein books I’d read. His influence on my early writing is clear.
I found the exploration of religion extremely interesting. I saw the Fosterites with their hedonism, commercialism, and political and military influence as an exaggerated version of today’s Christian right. When Michael talks about initiates in his church, he refers to them as marks. Indeed, everyone that attends a church in the book is made out to be a dupe getting suckered by carnies. When it comes to church in Stranger in a Strange Land, the game is always rigged.
Once people have made it far enough into Michael’s church, they realize that it isn’t a church at all. They become part of the community and they’re no longer treated like suckers. Their enlightenment is that every creature that can understand, that can grok, is God. Thou art God.
Interestingly enough, Jubal Harshaw, the patron saint of Michael’s church, the figure that Michael claims to be capable of grokking fully even without learning Martian, is an atheist. He is the last to join Michael’s home, and he never gives up his agnostic views.
It’s also interesting that the Christ-like figure of Michael is brought to an ultimate conclusion as a martyr. Having delivered his message and done what he needed to do in a corporeal body, he discorporated.
In Stranger in a Strange Land, all religions are true. And none of them are. I don’t believe Heinlein intended to give us any answers. I believe he just tried to make people think and discuss. However, if he was projecting his own philosophy anywhere, I’d guess it was through the pragmatic viewpoint of Jubal Harshaw.
Left Versus Right
Just as Heinlein can’t avoid bringing bits of his culture into his writing, I can’t avoid bringing bits of my own into it when reading. Consequently, I saw reflections of our present day in the pages of Stranger in a Strange Land.
All of the protagonists lean so far left that their homes describe perfect socialist utopias. In Jubal Harshaw’s home, people work for Jubal, but they’re treated as family. They eat together. They play together. While sex is not quite as free as it is in Michael’s home, it isn’t discouraged.
Michael’s home goes even further. Money and possessions and clothing are things that are used outside the home. The relationships are polygamous. There is no place for jealousy. All are equal, for all are God. Michael is described as a first among equals and is given reverence, but only to a point.
The protagonists are definitely bleeding heart lefty liberals, with their free love and socialist living. And in the context of the story, taken to the ultimate conclusion, they are superior and closer to natural order. They have control of their bodies. They are happy. They move with purpose. They need not fear death, because they are spiritual, enlightened beings.
Who are the antagonists, then? The Fosterites, certainly. And as I said before, they’re very much Tea Party right wingers taken to the extreme. They seek money and power. They borrow scripture from Christianity without actually living lives that follow that religion. And they are intolerant of any other faith or way of life. They are destructively evangelical.
Joseph Douglas and his police forces are antagonists for a while. I believe the police are even described as “S.S. troupes.” though I might be mistaken as a fault of listening rather than reading.
In the end, it’s the police state influenced by the Fosterites that closes in on Michael and his home. As he is being killed, the news media keeps cutting to commercials. The media is unemotional in broadcasting the gruesome destruction of someone preaching love and hope. They continue to smile while that’s going on, peddling products with commercial glee.
I don’t want to go too much into the reflections I see with present day reality because some of my conclusions aren’t particularly flattering. I don’t mind offending people, but it’s not what I’m setting out to do in this post.
I enjoyed Strainger in a Strange Land. If for no other reason, the nostalgia from reading a Robert Heinlein story was fantastic. Beyond that, I liked picking out (or perhaps guessing at) the world Heinlein lived in when he wrote the book. He set out to write a story that would make people think and get them talking. I think he succeeded.
If you have not read it before, I recommend it. But don’t go in lightly. Be prepared for some viewpoints that would not survive the world we live in today.