(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
By Robert A. Heinlein
Book #66 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Conceptualized in the early 1950s, but not written and published until 1961 (supposedly so that "society could catch up with it," according to the author), Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is a classic example of a science-fiction (or SF) novel acting as a premonition to its real-world times, only moderately successful when it first came out but eventually a must-read touchstone among the hippies of the Countercultural Revolution a decade later. It starts with the first-ever manned mission to Mars, which because of its length was crewed only by couples, which ended tragically with the unexplained deaths of all on board; but when a second team finally arrives twenty years later, they discover that one of these couples had secretly had a baby, one Valentine Michael Smith, and that the lone survivor was raised by the insanely unhumanlike native Martians as one of their own, guaranteeing his re-introduction to the human race being as awkward as Tarzan being returned to Greystoke Manor.
And in fact, surprisingly the entire first half of this long novel is dedicated merely to the complicated legal questions that have arisen by Smith's appearance, including what powers he exactly has to grant property and mining rights to individual nations or even to commercial interests, cleverly reflecting the real debates that were going on at the time over these same questions in regards to the Soviet/US race to the Moon. And so this is how the gentle, confused man-child eventually becomes friends first with the feisty nurse Gillian Boardman at the hospital where he's being kept; then her sometimes lover, brash journalist Ben Caxton; and then Caxton's friend and one of the most memorable characters in all of modern American literature -- lawyer, doctor, curmudgeon, millionaire hack author, angry libertarian, proud sexist, sculpture collector, Poconos-mansion-owning octogenarian Jubal Harshaw*, who eventually invites the whole party to an extended stay at his secluded Austin-Powersesque compound (including a household staff straight out of a James Bond parody -- three beautiful women who also happen to be experts at office management, cooking, engine repair, high diving and more). And indeed, there's a good reason that it turns out to be such a complex battle to get Smith away from the draconian "protection" of the US government; because hey, it turns out that such "psychic abilities" as mind-reading and telekinesis are actually ho-hum scientific principles, as easily accomplished when you know what you're doing as solving a hard math problem is, just that no human had been smart enough to "crack the code" until Smith was basically raised from birth with the knowledge by the evolutionally superior Martians, skills that the US Army are awfully anxious to learn themselves.
It's when the action switches to this compound, then, that the much more famous second half begins; because with Smith being the curious, inquisitive soul that he is, of course the first thing he wants to do once gaining his "freedom" is to tramp across the country vagabond-style, exploring as much as he can about human life and sampling a wide variety of traditional and mystical religions, trying to find something that can adequately explain the curiously hippie-like belief system the Martians adhere to, and especially the all-important concept in their culture of "grokking" (not quite the simple act of understanding something, not quite religious revelation, not quite a profound connection between two living creatures, but a sort of combo of them all, impossible to fully understand unless you can actually speak Martian yourself). And indeed, this is exactly what Smith ends up doing, is creating his own religion (the Church of All Worlds) dedicated to teaching humans to speak Martian so that they can fully grok this new, enlightened way of living, which apparently also includes a nudist lifestyle and lots and lots of hot group sex...or, er, communal free love, I mean. (Man, those Martians are some real swingers.) Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with most of the other religions of the world, including the suspiciously Scientologist-like "Fosterites" who Heinlein also explores in depth in the book's second half, leading to an easily anticipated martyr-like death for our perpetually misunderstood hero; but not before Smith has a chance to let his followers know that what he's really done is kickstart the next step of human evolution, and that those who refuse to learn the new ways will eventually become as obsolete and then extinct as the Neanderthals are to us.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, it won the prestigious Hugo Award the year it came out, with Heinlein himself the very first winner of the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America (in fact, when people refer to the "Big Three" SF authors of the 1960s, Heinlein is one of them, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke); plus the Heinlein estate claims with some authority that this is the biggest selling SF novel of all time, with it certainly undeniable how much of an influence it's had on the culture since, including the introduction into the general lexicon not only of "grokking" but the phrase "Thou art God"**. And that's because, fans claim, Stranger in a Strange Land is a perfect example of genre fiction as metaphor, of a fantastical story that actually helps guide us in our everyday lives; that its perfect combination of humor, drama, action and philosophy preaches important lessons about self-determination, loving your neighbor (in all sorts of ways), and the facile nature of so many traditional religions, to say nothing of fringe cults that prey on the weak-minded. A landmark publication in the history of Libertarianism (and with Heinlein in general the originator of the "Libertarians in SPAAAAAACE!" trope now so common in science-fiction), fans say that its lessons of thinking for yourself and rejecting bureaucratic BS couldn't be more timely, the rare book that can be positively cited by both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement; the fact that it almost single-handedly pushed the entire SF industry into mainstream respectability is mere icing on the cake, simply an external sign of just how important this novel is.
The argument against:
Ahem. "Oh, are you freaking kidding me, you stupid grokking hippie trash?" That's an attitude you heard from a lot of people in the years after this book first came out; and while the vitriol has calmed down some in the 51 years since, it still remains the most effective argument against it, that this silly ode to long-hair orgies and Stickin' It To The Man isn't nearly as well-written or as important as its fans claim, and that it mostly has the reputation it does merely because Heinlein was damned lucky to have put it out right at the exact moment in history when mainstream society was most clamoring for a story like this (an accusation we've heard before in this essay series, don't forget). And this didn't get any better at all, they claim, even after Heinlein's widow in 1991 managed to get over 60,000 words from the original manuscript put back into the official bookstore version, after originally being cut in the early '60s for being "too scandalous;" because almost all of this cut material happens to be from the novel's infuriatingly repetitive and digressive second half, with literally hundreds of pages in the modern edition now dedicated to dated, rambling explanations of this group's adherence to free love, public nudity, water-based sharing rituals, and the importance of being "one with the universe" (that is, when you're not violently raging against the commies, capitalists, and other SOBs who are trying to steal away all your personal liberties -- oops, sorry, Heinlein apologists, did I just poke a hole in your precious little peacenik logic? Sorry about that!). And besides, say his critics, Heinlein was a cantankerous sexist and military booster who may or may not have been a fan of certain ideas commonly associated with fascism (but see Starship Troopers for a lot more on that), so you're officially forgiven for not buying into his luvey-duvey New Age charlatanism.
So for those who aren't familiar already with the fine points of SF history, perhaps it's best to start with the following to understand my thoughts today about Stranger in a Strange Land -- that between the early days of this genre, when it was considered good for not much more than empty kiddie crap, and our own post-Star Wars age when we just take it for granted that a genre project can have millions of fans and generate billions of dollars, there was a perfect storm in the 1950s and '60s (aka "Mid-Century Modernism") when an obsession with rationality and philosophy, a weariness over dogma-fueled wars, the explosive birth of the Electronic Age, and the sudden maturing of American literature all came together in a glorious mess in the world of science-fiction, a "coming of age" moment in which the genre was suddenly the single hottest thing in the entirety of the arts; and Heinlein had a huge role in helping to make this happen, demonstrably the very first genre author in history to get published regularly in conservative, mainstream, middle-class publications like The Saturday Evening Post, and also one of the first people in history to write SF stories where the fantastical science was simply a given, the stories themselves exploring the more underlying human-interest subjects that would naturally come with such innovations (now known as "social science fiction," and again not reaching its true apex until the Countercultural Era a decade later).
So for Heinlein to put something as shocking and subversive as this out in the Kennedy years, after having a following of millions for his generally suburban-safe post-WW2 "juvenilia," was very much like the Beatles putting out "Sgt. Pepper" a mere three years later; a game-changer, in other words, not just a new project but a literal gauntlet that forced other writers to catch up, a line in the sand that served as an easy litmus test in those years to determine whether someone could "dig it" or not. And indeed, reading it for the first time a half-century later, this is still a very funny, thought-provoking and above all highly entertaining novel, full of intelligence and wit and great surprises; and sure, its critics have a point, that the second half does get bogged down occasionally with Heinlein's love for pontification (plus overly detailed descriptions of hippie orgies), but in an era that gave us Walden Two and Atlas Shrugged, it's important that we be more forgiving of this than we would with a contemporary novel, and understand that overblown philosophical treaties disguised as genre actioners are actually one of the most charming things about Mid-Century Modernist literature in general. Granted, this book inspired a lot of awfulness after the fact, not least of which is the entire trope of "Brilliantly Advanced Space Alien Who Acts Like Sweet Guileless Mentally Challenged Man Child Merely Because He Doesn't Yet Understand The Dirty Ways Of Our Flawed World" (see E.T., Starman, K-PAX, The Man Who Fell to Earth, ad nauseum); but in general, this is exactly as groundbreaking and still inspirational as its fans claim, and I have no hesitation today in declaring it a literary classic that everyone should read at least once before they die, a title that I'm convinced is just going to become more and more important as the years continue. It comes strongly recommended to one and all, as long as you approach it with a little patience and forgiveness, just as you should with all Mid-Century Modernist genre novels.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)
*And hey, yeah, just how autobiographical is good ol' Jubal? He sure looks and talks like Heinlein, after all; and in fact many have argued that the main character in this novel is not Smith but rather Harshaw himself, and that the entire Martian premise is just a thinly veiled excuse for Heinlein to essentially rant for several hundred pages on the subjects of women's lib, artists who receive state money, out-of-control central governments, and how much he hates each and every one of them. But on the other hand, genre editor and Heinlein friend David G. Hartwell has said before that Harshaw was based on mystery author and "Perry Mason" creator Erle Stanley Gardner, who like Jubal was a prickly former lawyer who got filthy rich off an endless series of hacky pulp novels.
**And speaking of its impact on the real world, here's an amazing piece of trivia I came across that didn't fit well into the main essay: that a year after the book first came out, a man who now goes by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart started a very real church modeled after Smith's fictional one, which like the novel adhered to a strict policy of hedonism and Do What You Want. And they're still in operation!