tek's rating:

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein (pub. 1961)
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Caution: spoilers! (Like, seriously, I'm giving a ton of plot details, here, but I'm leaving out way more than I'm including. And even the things I do mention are way more fun and interesting to read in the book, so I'm not sure I'm really spoiling anything. At least, I'm not spoiling the pleasure of reading the book. Still, it's only fair to warn you that you may feel spoiled by some of the things I say. I just don't know how to explain anything about the book without saying as much as I do.)

This came out 14 years before I was born, and it's rather a classic of the genre, so I've always wanted to read it. I finally began in early November 2013, and if I'd read the same amount every day that I did the first day, I could have finished in a week. But ultimately, I finished in late December, so a bit under two months, which is still way faster than I usually read books. The version I read was published in 1991, and it is the original version written by Heinlein... about 60,000 words longer than the version that had previously been printed, thirty years earlier. I've never read the shorter version, and I don't think I ever will, but I believe this is considered by many to be better, even if the original published version stood as a classic before much of anyone in the world ever had a chance to read the original original version. I should also mention that the book made famous a fictional word, "grok," which is something I think I first became aware of in the 80s, when looking through a catalog of Star Trek merchandise, some of which was imprinted with "I grok Spock." At the time, I had no idea where the word came from or exactly what it meant, but I always supposed it meant something like "understand" or "like." In fact, it does mean to understand, in a very deep way, and sort of "to be one with," which perhaps not coincidentally sounds a lot like a Vulcan mind-meld. (I mean, maybe whoever first said "I grok Spock" was thinking about mind-melds and their similarity to grokking.) I also want to mention that it reminds me of "arryze," an alien word I made up for my own book, probably in 1997 or 98, long before I ever learned where the word "grok" came from or what it meant. And now, on with the review.

Part One: His Maculate Origin

I want to mention that I don't know exactly when the book is set, but it must be sometime in the early 21st century. Of course there were still forty years left in the 20th century when the book was published, so any number of technological and societal developments had to be predicted by Heinlein, things that we now know either did or didn't happen in the real world. That's pretty common to works of science fiction, of course, at least those set in the near future. So, at some point prior to the main setting of the story, humans visited Mars. However, contact was lost with the first ship sent to the planet, the Envoy, which never returned. Twenty-five years later, a second ship, the Champion, was sent, and the crew discovered that Mars was inhabited by an alien race. They also found a single survivor from the Envoy, a young man whom they called Valentine Michael Smith, who had been born to two members of the Envoy's crew, and raised by Martians. The crew of the Champion now brings Smith back to Earth.

At first, Smith is fairly frail, because of Earth's different gravity and atmosphere and all. He also doesn't understand much English, and of course he understands nothing of human culture. He's kept in isolation in a hospital, and not allowed visitors, especially not female visitors. Even most of the hospital staff aren't allowed into his room. Of course, the public is terribly interested in the Man from Mars, so there are plenty of people who would like to gain access, to make money off his story. But, due to circumstances I won't get into, a nurse named Jill Boardman does get into Smith's room, and talks to him, and though he does grasp that she's a woman, he's still not sure how she's different from a man. (I guess Martians don't have sex, though the issue of gender is a bit unclear, and while the book doesn't describe the physical appearance of Martians, it does say that the appearances of individual Martians differ far more than the appearances of individual humans. During her visit, Jill shares a glass of water with Smith, which makes them "water brothers," because of a Martian tradition Jill doesn't understand at the time. But it establishes a bond of vital importance to later events.

Anyway, Jill has a friend, a newspaper journalist named Ben Caxton... actually, he's more of an occasional romantic interest than a friend, though they seem to have an open relationship. And, uh, before I go any further in my review, I want to mention that throughout the book, but especially early on, there are things that seem rather sexist to me, both in the way men talk to women and in the way women are portrayed as thinking. I mean, there are things that simply wouldn't be tolerated by most of today's women, but generally speaking, the women in the book not only tolerate it, they seem to like it. They might be more offended if men didn't act the way they do. However, there are also plenty of things in the book that show that even if some women like being seen as sex objects, they can also be intelligent and capable individuals, and treated as such by some of the same men who objectify them. So the book seems oddly sexist and feminist, at the same time. (Not that I'm suggesting these attitudes are necessarily mutually exclusive; obviously people of either gender can be sexual and still have other facets to their lives, I'm just saying it's possible for a woman's sexuality to be valued by herself and by others without... I don't know, making it sound like it's her primary function, I guess.) But then, the book doesn't just describe women in ways I disagree with, but men as well. Partly this is a problem I have when reading almost anything written several decades ago, and partly it may just be because I myself am atypical, with my Asperger's and social anxiety and all. (More on this later.)

Anyway, Ben would like Jill to get him in to see Smith, or at least, he gets her to plant an audio recorder in Smith's room. Ben's worried by the fact that, because of various laws Smith himself couldn't possibly be aware of or understand, Smith is technically the owner of the planet Mars, as well as being rich from some bit of technology invented by one of the Envoy's crew members before the original mission to Mars. And so he may have any number of enemies, including the government of Earth itself. And Ben particularly distrusts Secretary General Joseph Douglas, of the World Federation of Free States. And, uh... lots of stuff happens, including a televised interview with Smith, which Jill and Ben watch, and she insists the man being interviewed isn't really Smith, even though he looks a lot like him. Which leads Ben to investigate the matter, himself, along with a Fair Witness (a person who only observes, while on duty, mentally records every detail of an event, and forms no assumptions or opinions about what he or she sees, so their word can be trusted implicitly, when reporting on the incident later). After that investigation, Ben disappears, and Jill gets worried. She ends up smuggling Smith out of the hospital, and takes him to Ben's place. But men come looking for them, and Smith... makes them disappear.

Part Two: His Preposterous Heritage

Jill takes Smith to the private estate of a man Ben had mentioned who can be trusted, Jubal Harshaw, a wealthy old man who has been both a doctor and a lawyer, though now he just writes popular fiction. Living with Jubal are various employees of his, including a trio of secretaries, Anne, Miriam, and Dorcas. Uh, I can't think of anything to say about the latter two, but Anne happens to be a Fair Witness, so she's somewhat more important. Jubal himself often seems to me to be somewhat sexist, though while he may appreciate the looks of his secretaries, he'd never consider acting inappropriately with them. And if he speaks inappropriately, well, he tends to do that with everyone equally, regardless of gender. He's basically a cantankerous old codger, but we soon enough learn that underneath that, he has a good heart, and is loved by his staff. He's also very droll, and intelligent, and has some very enlightened views about lots of things. And throughout the book, I get to like him quite a bit as a character, even if there are still some things about him I don't entirely like. Anyway, Smith- who from this point on we'll call Mike- becomes water brothers with pretty much everyone in Jubal's household. And he grows much more physically fit than when he first came to Earth. And he begins reading a lot, and learning as much as he can about the world, but there's still much that he doesn't grok. Which is okay, because Martians have a very relaxed attitude about time. They're content to wait as long as it takes to fully understand something. And... Jubal learns that Mike can make things disappear just with his mind, like he did the men with guns who'd been looking for him at Ben's place. Of course, Jubal and Jill have to make him understand that doing that is not okay, even when he groks a "wrongness" in people. (He groks a greater wrongness in guns, so he can simply make them disappear, instead of the people using them.) Though throughout the book, he does sometimes make people disappear, which is something I never managed to accept as okay, even if the people he disappeared were wrong, and even if the people who had become Mike's family did accept it, themselves. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There are any number of abilities Mike has- such as telekinesis and telepathy and regulating pretty much all of his biological processes that are normally autonomic- which he learned from the Martians, things he thinks are very simple, and has a hard time believing Terrans can't do. But there are also things we find simple that he has trouble with, such as tying shoes or laughing, so I guess it evens out. Still, for most things, he's a pretty quick study. And he can teach the things he knows to Terrans, as well as teaching the Martian language. Mike also has to learn about Terran religions, which are very different from what Martians believe. In fact, Martians don't have anything that would really seem like religion to us. What they have are the Old Ones- Martians who have discorporated (died), but who remain a part of Martian society just as much as the living. So, the living can ask the Old Ones anything they wish to know, and whatever the Old Ones say will be accepted as absolute truth. Although the Old Ones take a great deal of time, possibly centuries, contemplating things, such as art, or whether to destroy another planet. (They sent Mike to Earth, without his fully understanding at the time, in order to learn about the planet so they could decide whether it should be destroyed. Though it would take centuries to reach such a decision, and their reasons for doing so would be unlike any Terran concept of a reason to destroy an entire civilization.) Anyway, the main religion Mike learns about is the Church of the New Revelation, commonly known as the Fosterites (after the church's late founder, now known as Archangel Foster), but um... I should say more about that later.

Lots of stuff happens, including some trouble for Jubal, but he ultimately controls the situation and manages to force certain people in the government to "find" Ben Caxton, and return him. Of course, it doesn't seem as if the people who had taken him wanted Secretary General Douglas to know what they'd done, so there's a cover story created to explain his disappearance. But the important thing is Ben's safe, now. And later, there's a big government conference that Mike attends, with Jubal speaking on his behalf. Jubal managed to arrange things in such a way that Mike will be safe from any potential enemies, with help from Douglas (who gets quite a bit in return), but I don't want to spoil how all that goes down. I'll just say Jubal is one hell of a lawyer and a master manipulator. Um... I should also say that Ben became another water brother of Mike's, and that Mike had already become water brothers with the crew of the Champion when they were first bringing him to Earth. We meet the crew, but the only one I found at all memorable was Dr. Mahmoud, who was the first to begin learning the Martian language from Mike. And, um, he's a Muslim. And I don't think his first name was ever mentioned, but everyone calls him by the nickname "Stinky." (I feel like that should be considered offensive, but Stinky takes no offense, and everyone is friendly with him, and I have no idea how he came by the nickname, so whatever.) Anyway, any water brother of Mike's is by extension a water brother of each other, so by this point there's getting to be a fairly sizable family, with Jubal as the father figure.

Part Three: His Eccentric Education

Uh, so... there's a lot Mike has to continue learning about. Like sex and sexual attraction, which he doesn't grok. And about money. And, as I said before, religion. He goes to a Fosterite service, with Jubal and Jill. They meet a member of the church named Dawn Ardent, who'll be more important to the story later on. And they meet the current Supreme Bishop, a man named Digby, who had replaced Foster upon his death. And, later, Jubal has a great deal to say about religion in general, all of it very interesting. Really, pretty much any subject he talks about throughout the book is interesting, even if a lot of readers could easily be offended by some of it. I don't recall ever feeling that way, but I'm not so easily offended. To be honest, I think Jubal is a great deal like a Fair Witness himself; he may have strong opinions on some matters, but I don't think he ever says anything that isn't true, and he wouldn't dream of suggesting that the conclusions he reaches based on those truths are any more valid than the very different conclusions others draw. Even if others may draw conclusions so different that they cannot see the things he says as being true at all. Meanwhile, Mike does a fair amount of pondering things, himself, and eventually comes to his own conclusions about what is meant by the very un-Martian concept "God." Or rather, he manages to reconcile the human word "God" with much simpler Martian concepts that we wouldn't recognize as religion. And finally, Mike loses his virginity. The book doesn't specify to whom exactly, but it doesn't really matter, because he'll eventually be with pretty much every female in the book. (I'll talk a bit later about how uncomfortable I am with the sexuality in the book, but at least I can say I'm glad there aren't actually any sex scenes, per se.)

And... I need to mention that, a few times in the book there will be scenes involving Foster, who as I mentioned is dead, and one or two other dead people. So, um, the "afterlife" isn't quite the same for humans as it is for Martians, but obviously our spirits do go on, in their own way. And those scenes reminded me a great deal of Parke Godwin's book Waiting for the Galactic Bus, which I read a year or so before I read this. Now that I've read "Stranger," I find it unlikely that Godwin's book wasn't to some degree inspired by these scenes, but... that's just speculation, on my part. I have no idea, really.

Anyway, after awhile, Mike and Jill leave Jubal's place to see some of the world. By this point, Mike is much more knowledgeable, groks a lot more about human culture than he used to, but there's still a lot he needs to experience for himself. So, the two of them take odd jobs in various places, though mainly what's mentioned is a carnival, where they were performers. And they meet a tattooed snake-handler (and Fosterite) named Patty Paiwonski, who becomes a good friend to them, and explains some things about the nature of the Fosterite church. And of course, lots of other stuff happens. Mike continues to learn about sexuality- even after having experienced sex and enjoyed it, it took awhile for him to grok the sexual desire people feel just from looking at people (or pictures of people). And, uh, once he understands, he seems to understand more than most Terrans do, that such things aren't inherently "naughty" or anything like that. Which all leads to... the book imparting some very 1960s kind of ideas... but again, I should speak more of that later. On an unrelated note, Mike also finally learns to laugh, though his ideas about what makes things funny may seem a bit skewed, even dark. I'm not saying he's wrong, but I don't think he's completely right, either. Though I guess it all ties into the decision he comes to, to start his own church.

Part Four: His Scandalous Career

So, Mike went about earning some degrees in theology and whatnot, and then founded the Church of All Worlds, much to Jubal's dismay. Ben visits Jubal to talk about Mike's church, after having briefly visited it himself. And as a side issue, they discuss art, which is rather interesting. And they talk about things like sex and money and the fact that Mike's church is teaching the Martian language to its members. (It's necessary for people to think in Martian in order to communicate or even understand some of the concepts underlying the ultimate purpose of the church, as well as to learn some of the miraculous tricks Mike can do, which I mentioned earlier. And the ultimate purpose seems to be partly to eliminate pointless suffering caused by society's mores, and partly to remake the world in such a way that either the Martians would choose not to destroy it, or that it would be impossible for them to do so if they chose to.) Patty and Dawn are members of the church, now. And so is Stinky. And Jill, obviously, and Duke (one of Jubal's former employees). And various new characters. Anyway, the church is set up with nine "circles" for various levels of membership, depending on just how much each person has learned, or whatever. Though of course Mike's water brothers are automatically ninth circle, even if they know less than some newer members in outer circles. But some new characters have also become water brothers. And, um... well, the church is all very "free love"- like I said, 60s concepts. In fact I think this book is in some part responsible for the 60s becoming what it did, though Heinlein said he couldn't have published it until the time was right... before that, society's mores wouldn't have allowed it. So maybe the changing world made it possible for this book to come out, but the book coming out definitely helped push the world farther along the course it was already on.

Though I did mention sex before Mike ever founded his church. I was already uncomfortable with the way it was presented, but then, I've always been uncomfortable with the way a lot of people look at sex now, in the real world. I suppose sexual mores have changed dramatically not just since the 60s, but throughout all of human existence, from culture to culture. There have been times and places people were incredibly open and uninhibited about it, and times and places when they've been ridiculously inhibited. (I myself am in many ways ridiculously inhibited and prudish- I very much doubt I'll ever lose my virginity, and I would rather die than have more than one sexual partner in my lifetime. I certainly couldn't have sex without first being more profoundly in love with someone than most people are even capable of comprehending. But at the same time, there are plenty of people who do have sex, and have possibly had more than one partner, who are in many ways more prudish than I am. So it's confusing.) Ben's own attitude about Mike's church is rather prudish, but Jubal, as always, has some interesting things to say on that subject, and Ben's attitude eventually changes. (But then, his attitude toward sex in general was always more open than mine.) And, um... gosh, I'm not sure what to say. The book presents some interesting ideas about how society's unnatural sense of "morality" leads to all sorts of jealousy and suffering and hate and whatnot, I guess. In recent years I've heard people talk about how monogamy is unnatural, as if they were saying something new. I'm sure it wasn't even a new idea when this book was written. But my own feeling is that you can't call any attitude about sex either natural or unnatural- with a few obvious exceptions, such as rape and molestation- for humanity as a whole, but rather try to understand that what's natural and healthy for one person isn't so for everyone. I believe many people are damaged to some degree by trying- and often failing- to conform to society's rules, when they'd be better off living much more the way Mike's church is set up. But I also believe there are people, like me, for whom that lifestyle would be far more damaging. Of course, Mike's church treats sex as a "growing closer," which is just one part of getting to fully "grok" each other, and therefore truly love each other. And that, you can truly love any number of people, not just sexually but personally. And once again, I don't argue that that's not true for some people. I'm sure it could be. But it couldn't be for me, and probably a great many others. So... I have mixed feelings about the whole sexual aspect of the book as a whole, and the church in particular. I definitely believe society needed to change its attitudes, because it was certainly too repressed, forcing people into unnatural ways of living and thinking and feeling. Judging those who lived differently far too harshly. ("The Scarlet Letter" comes to mind.) But, that said, it's possible to go too far in the other direction. American society today is nowhere near as uninhibited as the counterculture of the 1960s were (not that I was there; I wasn't born until 1975, so I can only rely on historical accounts, or rather mostly the entertainment industry's accounts of that era). But it's also nowhere near as inhibited as society was before the 60s. As uncomfortable as I often am with the present level of openness about sex, I definitely think it's preferable to either the 60s or the more puritanical past. It would be nice, however, if people could understand that what's right for some isn't right for all, and understand that that goes both ways. I think Mike's church was simply attempting to impose on society an opposite extreme, which in many ways would be just as unhealthy as the extreme it was trying to change.

Oh, incidentally, I don't even remember what part or parts of the book mentioned homosexuality, but it was mentioned... and I believe I thought that the attitude the author conveyed about it was perhaps less harsh than one might expect for the era that was coming to a close at that time, but still far less accepting than I would find acceptable. (But then, that's true of a lot of people's present attitudes on the subject.) Anyway, it's of no real importance to the story at hand, which is perhaps unfortunate... but the book's bloody well long enough as it is, and I probably would have gotten really pissed at the way it would have been handled if it was a bigger part of the story. Anyway....

Part Five: His Happy Destiny

Um... I guess I really don't want to say anything much about this part. There's some trouble for Mike's church, but nothing he and his followers weren't expecting and prepared for. And Jubal finally visits them. And, you know, stuff happens. Some of it I like, some of it I don't. But I quite like how it ends. So... overall, I'll just say it's a damn good book, full of lots of interesting ideas on various subjects, some of which I agree with, and some I don't. And it's quite amusing, a lot of the time. And I guess Jubal Harshaw has become one of my favorite literary characters. And ooh, I learned that the Poconos (where Jubal lives) is in Pennsylvania. Somehow, I always thought it was in the tropics, or something. And I learned that it's a mountain range. Learning is fun, even when it makes me feel stupid! I guess. And... I'm just really glad to have finally read the book. And finished writing this review, which I was procrastinating about, but... hey, when on Mars, do as the Martians do, I guess....

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(Image taken from Amazon.com)