Saturday, October 10, 2009

1962 Hugo – STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein’s most famous novel and a classic of 60s counterculture. I was shocked to learn that this book hails from the early 60s, since it feels so much like the ’68 and ’69 of Jesus Christ Superstar, Yippies, and Woodstock. Apparently, it didn’t crossover to become a mainstream hit until around that time. I’m pretty sure this is the only science fiction book to rate a mention in a Billy Joel song (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”).

Stranger in a Strange Land is a big shift from the militaristic action of Starship Troopers, so it’s interesting to learn that Heinlein started Stranger first. Stranger tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, orphaned as a baby during a failed expedition to Mars and subsequently raised by Martians until he is retrieved by a second expedition two decades later.

Smith returns with a whole host of Martian ideas, especially from Martian religion, and he begins to share these ideas with a few lost souls on Earth. Smith is brilliant and has fantastic psychic powers. He also believes in the spiritual oneness of the entire universe and introduces the idea of “grokking” something, or knowing it fully, intimately, and empathetically (“I grok Spock” was a common graffiti and t-shirt by the late-60s/early-70s).

Smith teams up with an eccentric and wealthy man named Jubal Harshaw, and eventually comes into conflict with Fundamentalist Christianity. He also learns of humanity’s self-hatred (he doesn’t understand the human sense of humor until a slapstick scene convinces him that all laughter is at the expense of others) and decides to change things by founding his own religion, the Church of All Worlds. He gathers a group of apostles, but he’s eventually martyred for his unorthodox beliefs.

This novel also really launches what I call the “dirty old man” phase of Heinlein’s career, as there are always a few nubile women around to teach Smith about human sexuality (though it’s not as explicit as his work from the 80s. Also, I read the uncut version; the published version was probably tamer). The Church of All Worlds’ key beliefs include free love and group sex alongside non-violence and cannibalism.

Stranger is a dramatic, and somewhat dated (if I haven’t conveyed this already, it’s very 60s) take on the human condition. Because it has such a clear and unapologetic point of view, it can be frustrating. If you’re willing to keep an open mind though (and that is sort of the point of the book – and, really, the whole point of science fiction), it’s very well-written, insightful, and entertaining. I read it in high school, and it’s been one of my favorite science fiction novels ever since then.

Grade: A

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