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Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A Heinlein
Putnam, 414pp. available in many formats and various prices these days
Published: July 1961

Since I haven’t read this in a while, and as it has always been one of my favorites, I thought I’d give it a whirl and put down my thoughts.

This was written in 1961. So lots of drinking and lots of cigarettes. The things that Heinlein upgraded to the future are obvious things like air cars and lift tubes, “stereo tanks” (large screen TVs of a sort.) The ability to get to Mars via the Lyle Drive. The moon is inhabited.

But typewriters are still used, cameras need lenses changed on them, phones are called “squawk boxes” but they certainly are not small and are not mobile. No computers, per se.

If you have never read this: fundamentally the story is about a human baby born on Mars to human parents who then were killed (woman had baby with another crew member; husband finds out; kills mother, biological father and kills himself).

Martians (along with the surviving crew members) raise the orphaned Michael Valentine Smith.

Who eventually returns to Earth as a young man, with the remaining crew. Michael’s years with the Martians have given him some unusual abilities.

Earth realizes he is the sole owner of the faster-than-light drive, the Lyle Drive, owns most of Lunar Enterprises stock on a busily occupied Moon (this through his dead parents), and for all intents and purposes is the sole ruler/ambassador from Mars.

He’s a very wealthy political hotcake and everyone wants a bite. He is kept in isolation. He speaks little English and does not really know much about being human.

A kind nurse at Bethesda, Gillian, realizes he’s getting damn close to being locked away and experimented on, so comes up with a way to get him out of the hospital. Her boyfriend is a journalist who told her the best legal eagle was a crotchety ol’ recluse named Jubal Harshaw, so she takes him to Jubal’s place in the Poconos for protection. Harshaw is also a medical doctor.

Harshaw lives in splendid isolation in the Poconos on a big estate with three secretaries and a couple of handymen. Dorcas, Anne and Miriam take turns being the secretaries. When Harshaw shouts out “Front!” one of them shows up to take dictation…usually for the sappy writing Harshaw does to bring in the cash. He writes columns and short stories for a plethora of publications. The set-up is very old-fashioned. The women cook, too. But the men do, occasionally.

But it helps a lot that the women are all incredibly smart and snarky and very opinionated. But Jubal (and the men around them) still call them: honey, little one and child. Terms of endearment…but still.

When Michael Valentine Smith comes into his own, fascinated by a current carnival-like religion run by the Fosterites and their ability to pull people in, he decides to take it one step further. He goes on the road with Jill joining tacky side shows and eventually playing Vegas to really get a grasp of basic human nature while doing magic shows. Mike “groks” the marks out there. Us. The unwashed hordes and what will pull them in.

“Grok” is an all-purpose Martian word that means you understand, fundamentally. Mike establishes that sharing water is a big deal (as Mars has so very little of it). So drinking a glass of water with him or anyone that has shared with him automatically makes you a water brother and a member of the inner circle. Mike sets about establishing his own religion with all the bells and whistles, mightily influenced by the template presented by the Fosterites. His basic tenet is “Thou Art God.”

What still remains fascinating to me are the conversations between various characters throughout the book. What makes people tick; politics, finances, shilling, religion…and the relations between the sexes. Mike’s “groking” encourages “growing closer” in the form of copulating as often as is wanted. This is a sexually happy group! Think about it: how radical THIS was published in 1961…YEARS before the sexual revolution of the late Sixties.

However, someone does comment that rape is frequently because the woman “asked” for it. Though men do initiate sexual encounters in Michael’s group, they are mostly started off by the women.  Heinlein could not shed all his prejudices, he does try—but there are NO people of color or Asians in this book. He does, however have a very close friend, and in Mike’s inner circle, one of the crew members of the Martian ship named Dr. Mahmoud who is Muslim.

Gays are briefly mention as being sort of broken or misguided, he does not go on and on about it.

The book still fascinates, in its “datedness.” The ending is wild as Mike gives himself up to a rabid crowd of unbelievers and suffers the expected fate of proselytizing souls throughout history and becomes a martyr.

Trust me; this is just the very tip of the iceberg of this novel. It really is worth re-reading. I always enjoyed crotchety ol’ Jubal Harshaw and the ethereal Michael Valentine Smith (who, while I was reading this, years ago, everyone thought David Bowie would have been perfect to star as the Martian in a film).

These days, sadly they would probably overdo the sex…but handled judiciously, this would still make a fascinating movie. ~~~ Sue Martin

For reviews of other titles by Robert Heinlein click here

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