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A Martian Named Smith
on June 19, 2009
There is no question that Robert Anson Heinlein is one of the Fathers of Science Fiction. There is also no question that STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is his most famous work, having been called "the most famous science fiction novel ever written." Is it his best? Perhaps not. But it is a ground breaking classic, one that I enjoy reading again and again.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is the story of Valentine Michael Smith (Mike), a male born of human parents on the first Earth colony ship to Mars. Literally born as the ship landed on Mars, Mike's parents and the rest of the crew died, and Mike was raised by Martians. 25 years later, a second Earth colony ship lands on Mars, and discovers Mike, the native inhabitants of Mars, and a host of unanswered questions. Mike returns to Earth, and STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is the detailed chronicle of his introduction to, interaction with, and transformation of human culture.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND was Heinlein's first truly adult science fiction novel, and he took on some pretty heady topics. Politics, religion, sex, equality, and the concept of a truly un-human culture (which happened to be superior), to name a few. Heinlein wove these themes into STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, each of which contributed to his idealistic vision of a perfect world.He intermixed shock value, logic, and plain good storytelling to get his points across, and I think he did so quite wonderfully.
1. Religion. Heinlein was not an atheist, as some have claimed. He did believe in a higher power; what he did not have any use for was organized religion. He believed in faith. If you had faith, true faith, then the trappings of religion were unnecessary and superfluous. They just did not matter. The Church of All Worlds in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND was set up to show that no matter what the religious trapping were, it was faith that really mattered. He also created a religion where happiness and self-belief were the main drivers, rather than fire, brimstone, and fear. Makes great sense to me.
2. Sex. Contrary to popular belief, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND did not promote promiscuity or free love. What Heinlein did was to create a world where people were open about sex, where it was enjoyable and exciting, but with it came great responsibility. In this world, sex wasn't hidden, secret, or naughty; rather it was honest and pure and fun. People who could develop this utopian attitude became happier, healthier, less jealous, more caring, and, yes, more sexual. Responsibility to partners, offspring, and an entire extended family became the norm. In his own way, by exploring sexuality, Heinlein was exploring and redefining the meaning of family. He was also trying to define sex as a miraculous union, and to show that humans should treat it as the miracle of bonding and "growing closer" that it is.
3. Equality. Before the sexual revolution and equality for women, Heinlein clearly believed in equality of the sexes, equality of the races, equality of faiths...basically the equality of all humans. Yes, he felt women should be treated with respect and reverence and be protected and nurtured because they gave birth and perpetuated the species, but he clearly believed that they were intelligent and capable. He also believed that women had sexual needs equal to those of men and had the right to pursue those needs.
4. Politics. In STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, Heinlein clearly had little use for government, politics, or politicians. He believed that government in general was a necessary evil, but preferred that it be kept small and out of his business. He didn't care what it was based on or what guided it - astrology was the ridiculous example used in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND - as long as it left him alone. Works for me. He also had little use for entitlements, and expected human beings to work for what they received. Again, works for me.
5. Un-Human, Superior Culture. Heinlein did a remarkable and revolutionary thing when he created the Martian culture of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. The Martians of this novel are clearly not humanoids from another planet. They do not think like humans, act like humans, look like humans, reproduce like human, live like humans, or do anything like we do here on the planet Earth. There is nothing remotely recognizable about these Martians; they are completely alien. We can't them, and they can't understand us. They are older, more advanced, and can perceive the universe around them in ways that humans do not. But humans can, if properly taught, learn some of the things that Martians do. What a marvelous concept.
In 1962 the original version of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND won the Hugo Award for the Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. After Heinlein's death in 1988, his wife Virginia discovered the original uncut manuscript and arranged to have it published in 1991. It is interesting to read the two books side by side, to see the differences, and to compare them. I enjoy both versions very much, and am still not sure which is my favorite. Whatever version you choose, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. Whether you have read it before or not, whether you love it or not, you will find it to be an interesting and thought-provoking read.