Stranger in a Strange Land starts out in 1960’s cheese-style but evolves to read like Dostoevsky…, if Dostoevsky had been alive for that painfully confused decade between the ignorant and intolerant past and the self-absorbed, yet more worldly future. That decade was like an adolescent, striving to define itself through new experiences, yet not self-aware enough to shake all of those ingrained, deep-rooted beliefs that had shaped prior generations.
Or, maybe that’s just Heinlein, demonstrating his enlightenment through his characters, but missing some of those cobwebby corners of old-fashioned machismo.
I compare Heinlein to Dostoevsky because, like Dostoevsky, Heinlein’s stories aren’t just stories. For both writers, the story is just the backdrop for the author to expound on all things philosophical. You get a sense from both writers that they aren’t really sure of their own convictions (which is likely feigned), so their characters represent varying viewpoints on a spectrum of issues and explore those viewpoints throughout the story. In Stranger, not many events occur, yet Heinlein explores a variety of issues, including male/female relations, organized religion and atheism, politics, monogamy, sex, and family.
What’s funny to me is that, aside from all of the issues he spends time on, the most driving philosophical issues in the entire story were:
1. the ethics and implications of removing a human being from it’s adoptive, alien culture, and
2. the implications of introducing our society to more powerful alien intelligences,– those who have mastered telekinesis and ESP to a point where they can manipulate human behavior and vanish people out of existence with their minds.
But, to my disappointment, neither issue is explicitly addressed, (although you can argue that they are, considering the falsifiably happy ending). Maybe because by 1962, those issues had already been explored in SF/F and Heinlein wanted to directly cover more taboo ground? I really don’t know, but I expected a completely different story. (I mean, people disappeared. Were those disappearances never investigated? Where was Dragnet?)
And onward with the Dostoevsky comparison…
The main character of Stranger, Michael Valentine Smith, is much like Alexei (Alyosha) from The Brother’s Karamazov. Both men are young, intelligent, curious, and sensitive. Although they are outsiders of their own culture (Alyosha is a novice monk in 19th century Russia, and Michael is a human from Mars in 1960’s America), they are portrayed as the heroes of the story, shaped by their grumpy old father figures, yet shining with optimism and compassion. We see both young men mature as the story progresses, and that maturity affects the people around them. The two men share messages of hope and love at the end of both stories.
Ultimately, though, Stranger in a Strange Land, is really about a sheltered human teen discovering sex as he grows up. And, because he is a particularly exceptional teenage boy, with Martian powers and charismatic pull (as well as loads of dough and important friends), he gets all the sex he wants and eventually starts his own sex cult that is based on a combination of Martian teachings and the pleasures of sex. His cult attracts beautiful women who love to share him and share themselves with others, including other women, although the men don’t dare explore that wayward sort of sexuality with other men. (We’re talking sexy taboos here– not craziness!)
It is such a blindly hypocritical view of sex, yet Heinlein never even winks at it. All that professing about the beauty of the polarity of men and (multiple) women, I almost expected Mike’s cult to start chanting, “It’s Adam and Eve, and Anna and Eve, but not Adam and Steve, although Steve can join in– but not with Adam!” Can you preach about free-love and open-sex and bigamy and polyamory, and not even invite the possibility of gay male love into your polyamorous sex cult? C’mon, Bob.
Besides that, I still feel icky from all the potential STD’s that must be floating around that disgusting “nest,” Regardless of how powerful that Martian boy is at sterilizing his people from disease, that place must be filthy. And how is this not rape? At a few points in the story, characters hint that they suspect Micheal can control other people’s emotions. How far do his manipulations go? Is it a Martian-style roofie? If he can control the sniffles and genital warts outbreaks among his followers, is it too far-reaching to assume that he can also control a woman’s willingness to get sexy with multiple partners, and without feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable?
Have all the free-love you want, but let’s make sure it’s consensually consensual.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is an engaging read, but it could have been so much more, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. The women are total twits, the guys are total asses, and that speaks more for the author than anything else.
Heinlein just isn’t my guy.