Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert Heinlein, 1961

The crew of the first mission to Mars consisted of four married couples who disappeared without a trace. Many years later, a second mission discovers that one of the women had given birth to a child who had been raised by the red planet's native inhabitants. This man, human by birth but alien by breeding, is loaded onto a ship called the Champion, which returns to Earth. And it comes right down and it lands on the ground and out comes the Man from Mars. And you try to run, but he's got a gun, and he shoots you dead, and he eats your head.

Okay, that last part was actually Blondie lyrics but it's pretty accurate anyway. What actually happens is that he is initially locked up in a top-secret government hospital, then abducted by a nurse at the hospital at the behest of the investigative reporter she's dating. She takes him to the estate of the reporter's friend, an eccentric author slash doctor slash lawyer who becomes a father figure to the Man from Mars. The latter turns out to be capable of performing miracles, and after he learns about the ways of humans he brings his Martian perspective to the world as the leader of a new religion.

I liked this a lot better after they added music and called it Tommy. I mean, yeah, the storyline was still an embarrassing relic, but some of those songs were pretty good.

Stranger in a Strange Land sucks. This is one of those science fiction books that get held up as actual literature, and it's just totally not. A while back I was poking around and found that a bunch of "literary" science fiction writers had collaborated on an anthology that broke narrative down into six categories: plot, character, style, setting, point of view, and theme. Stranger in a Strange Land fails in most of those categories:

Plot: Yet another Christ story. Could I please never ever read one of these again? Thanks!

Character: This is the sort of book whose idea of characterization is to give three interchangeable secretaries different-colored hair. One character, Jill — the second- or third-most important character in the book! — is a complete cipher. (Wrote one commentator: "At any time it would not surprise me for her to unscrew her foot and stick it in her ear — she is capable of anything.")

Style: The narration is not so bad, but the dialogue is atrocious. To an extent this goes back to character — no one has a unique voice except for the Man from Mars, who doesn't start sounding like everyone else until midway though the book. The others' dialogue sounds as if they're reading off note cards the author scribbled down watching a bad hard-boiled detective movie. "I've been a worthless, no-good parasite." "Everybody knows that." "Never mind the flattery." Virtually every page is like this.

Setting: This is set in a satirical future full of wacky world news, churches that deliver homilies via slot machines, and carpets made of bioengineered grass. But wait — what's the premise again? In theory, at least, it's a variation of the old saying, "If a man from Mars came down to Earth and saw {a football game, a church service, someone walking a dog, etc.}, he would think we were crazy." The whole point is that something that looks totally normal to us appears bizarre when viewed through the eyes of someone unaccustomed to our ways. It is therefore crucial that the Man from Mars actually be viewing things that look totally normal to us. If he looks at things that seem like wacky exaggerations to us, that undermines the entire purpose of the exercise!

That brings us to point of view and theme. The themes are not difficult to tease out, since the book is basically a matter of the author rattling off his views on an assortment of topics. (As one of this year's Lyttle Lytton winners put it, "A tall, handsome figure enters — it's ME. ME: 'I have ninety minutes and lots of unpopular opinions, so let's get started.'") But that's not exactly how it works; there's a Hegelian or at least faux-Hegelian thing going on, as the book is a showcase for the unpopular opinions of two characters with distinct points of view:

  • Jubal Harshaw, lawyer, doctor, scientist, hugely popular author and self-made zillionaire. Much of the book consists of him opining on subjects ranging from Rodin's scuplture to the existence of the PhD degree. Since he is a curmudgeonly libertarian, many of his rants are about such topics as the evil of altruism, the perfection of market forces in determining the value of art, and "laissez faire" as the ideal supreme moral law.

  • V. Michael Smith, Man from Mars. Much of the book consists of him reacting to things in unusual ways (treating the offer of a glass of water as a lifelong sacred bond, expressing shock that people on Earth don't eat the corpses of the recently dead, and so forth). Eventually he starts a religion based on the principles of pantheism and swinging: "everyone is God" is the chief article of faith, and "fuck everyone you can" is the supreme moral law.

It might seem as though a synthesis between these two would be unlikely, and indeed when Smith's cult selects Harshaw as its patron saint and brings him into the community it's more than a little like Grover Norquist at Hedonism II. But it's not actually as unlikely as all that; the counterculture is not uniformly socialist and has always had a strong libertarian/anarchist stripe to it. On the flip side, the economic right has always had a hedonistic bent — its fundamental principle is that my yacht is more important than your leukemia treatments — and only its alliance with social conservatives makes sexual libertinism seem like an odd fit. And while the 700 Club and the Club for Growth may agree about "dominion over the earth," in other respects it's been an uneasy partnership and is now showing signs that it's beginning to fracture. So it's not the swinging that seems out of place here: it's the pantheism. How does the principle that everyone is God reconcile with libertarian egoism? The key is not to take "everyone is God" as implying that everyone is to be treated with respect; in Stranger, nothing could be further from the truth. Harshaw and Smith, "justifiably contemptuous of lesser opinion," are agreed that vast swaths of humanity are worthless — "I grok they are chumps," Smith says — and should simply be eliminated. Harshaw, unable to do anything to wipe out his inferiors, retreats from society and builds a little world where he's the boss — indeed, in what would read as a cruel parody of libertarianism in almost any other book, Harshaw's entire household is on his payroll. The omnipotent Smith takes it a step further, building a movement designed to find the worthy among the "marks" and then replace the dominant culture. (Pretty standard practice for the right: demand your rights be respected when you lack power, then attempt to crush the opposition when you've got it.)

So. Say you have an idea that you want to get across. You decide that rather than write a persuasive essay, you will attempt to convey your idea through a work of fiction. Say your idea is "pie is tasty." If you're like Heinlein, here is your dramatization of this idea:

Jubal Harshaw, lawyer, doctor, scientist, hugely popular author and self-made zillionaire, walked into the room, surrounded by his many powerful friends and harem of nubiles. "Pie is tasty," he said.

I just finished teaching my spring class on logical reasoning. We wrapped things up with a review session in which I reminded my students to be on the lookout for ad hominem attacks and appeals to authority. Remember, I cautioned them, while you undoubtedly know that attacking an idea by tearing down the character of the person supporting it is a logical fallacy, equally problematic is defending an idea by building up the character of the person supporting it. I didn't bother to tell them not to try to support their ideas by putting them into the mouths of fictitious geriatric Mary Sues, but that's because they're trying to be lawyers and not hack sci-fi writers. Rhetorical bankruptcy aside, making up a character, saying he's awesome, and then sticking your monologues into his mouth is also anti-dramatic. If fiction is your chosen vehicle, shouldn't you illustrate your ideas rather than simply articulating them? Well, Heinlein tries. But it comes out like this:

Michael Smith, divine creature in human form, presented his followers with slices of pie. "Pie is tasty," he said. His followers began chewing and swallowing the pie with gusto. "Delicious!" one cried. "Mmmm-mmmm!" another agreed.

And there you have it! Point dramatized! Problem solved, yes? Well, no. See, this could just as easily read like so:

Michael Smith, divine creature in human form, presented his followers with bowls of broken glass. "Broken glass is tasty," he said. His followers began chewing and swallowing the broken glass with gusto. "Delicious!" one cried. "Mmmm-mmmm!" another agreed. "And my tongue, throat and esophagus aren't getting lacerated in the least!"

And in fact it is the latter example that is closer to what we actually get in Stranger. I've always wondered about this sort of thing. I remember that in college someone had me read a book called Illusions by Richard Bach of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame. This was yet another book with a messiah figure in it whose message was "you can do anything you want to do," including flying around like Superman, if only you can, like, tune in and stop being so repressed, maaaaan. From what I've read Bach may actually believe this, though the fact that he's still alive suggests that he hasn't tried jumping off any cliffs to test his theory. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Say all he's after is a simple carpe diem message, that by telling a story about a flying man he's just trying to tell all the accountants out there that if they free their minds they can go be cowboys in Wyoming if they want. If so, I would argue that he has chosen one of the worst possible ways to go about it. Because when you're trying to sell something, be it a philosophy or a tube of toothpaste, hyperbole isn't artistic license: it's false advertising. Tell me a story about a man who adopts a philosophy and reaps plausible benefits, and maybe I'll consider it. Tell me a story about a man who adopts a philosophy and thereby gains the ability to fly, and I'll assume your philosophy has just as little real-world credibility as reports of a flying man would. Actually, I'll assume it has less, because you've resorted to such a ridiculous ploy.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, those who join Smith's cult and adopt his worldview gain telepathy, telekinesis, and all sorts of other miraculous powers. Oh, and they magically become beautiful. And spend all day having sex with other beautiful people. It's enough to make you wonder how many hands Heinlein was typing with. Interestingly, though, Heinlein does have Harshaw make a claim that could plausibly be construed as having real-world applicability: since, as Smith says, "money making is a simple trick, once you grok," then the laws of economics ensure that the worthy (ie, rich) will prosper while the unworthy (ie, poor) will die off. It's an interesting way of dealing with the objection that Harshaw and Smith are only capable of putting their philosophies into action because they are both staggeringly wealthy. Think that a society with no taxes and no benefits will spell misery for you because you're poor? Become a libertarian and the money will flow right in! And if not, then, well, guess you weren't worthy. Chump.

So to sum up: in good writing, the themes are the principles that underlie and animate the story. They're not the articulated substance of the story. In Stranger in a Strange Land, they are. So it is no surprise that this book is very bad.

However, it's also not surprising that it has so many fans. I mention this point from Frederic Jameson's "Reification and Utopia" so often that I should probably make it a standard part of these writeups, but here goes: a text may be an utter failure as literature and still be a very successful fantasy delivery system. A few years back I wrote about the X-Men and touched upon one of the reasons Chris Claremont's version became so popular back in the early 1980s: say you're a geeky teenager, maybe one with sexual identity issues, an outcast at your school, rejected by your family... and here's this world where the misunderstood outcasts are special, and live together as a surrogate family in a mansion, and are there for each other in tough times... what could be a more appealing fantasy? Now imagine that you're a loner, think you're more than a little smarter than everyone else, and hate having to follow society's stupid rules... and then here's this world where people like you are acknowledged as superior — as God, in fact — and you gain magical powers and have unlimited wealth and sleep with a different beautiful woman every night. Correction: beautiful girl. Which brings me to...

Many have commented on the fact that until relatively recently it was standard practice in the US to refer to adult human males and females as "men" and "girls," respectively. Now, sure, it's not as if the word "girl" is no longer applied to adult women. But nowadays, when this happens, adult men are simultaneously referred to as "boys" or at least "guys." What's weird about the "men and girls" thing is not the word "girl" per se — it's the imbalance. Men and women, guys and girls, dudes and chicks, Captains and Tennilles: choose any pair you like, but don't mix and match. To speak of "men and girls" is to imply that males mature but females do not.

Batman tries out for a role in Stranger
This holds true in Stranger in a Strange Land — men regularly refer to grown women as "little girl," though that is eminently tolerable compared to another common form of address in the book, "pretty feets." Men also frequently threaten to spank grown women — like, really alarmingly frequently, like "what the fuck is your problem" frequently. And there's more! An excerpt: "He had been shocked at Miriam's disrespect toward her master — then recognized it: the liberty permitted cats and favorite children in the privacy of the home." Miriam is not a cat, is not a child, and is not a slave, but it seems that in Heinlein's world, she is all three by virtue of the fact that she is a woman. But the real jaw-dropper comes when Heinlein explains the Martian lifecycle. The idea of a boisterous juvenile phase "full of bounce and mindless energy" followed by a quiet adult phase, a "rich life of the mind," was nothing new — the same thing is a big plot point in A Wind in the Door, which I read in fifth grade — but then right there on page 90 there's this: "Martian nymphs were female, all adults were male." Just think of the implications of that for a moment. Men and girls indeed.

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