Valentine Michael Smith is a human being, born to two of the first people to visit Mars. Although his parents – and the rest of the mission – were killed, Smith was brought up on Mars, and, essentially, was a Martian in all his thoughts and feelings. Some years later, he was brought back to Earth by a second mission, and of course found it a completely alien culture, seeing everything with Martian eyes.
The book tells us about Mike (as he becomes known) as he is rescued from hospital by a nurse, Jill Boardman, after her friend Ben Caxton, a news reporter, alerts her to the fact that ‘The Man from Mars’ is being held a virtual prisoner for various reasons to do with his vast wealth (unknowingly inherited from his natural and legal parents) and a legal fiction which states that he “owns” Mars, with all its attendant potential real estate. Jill manages to get Mike to a safe haven of the house of Jubal Harshaw, a doctor, lawyer and writer, who has enough fame and legal clout to protect Mike from baleful outside influences by striking a deal with the Secretary-General of the World Federation. Under Jubal’s and Jill’s teaching, Mike gradually learns about being human, later leaving the house and studying Earth’s ways in a travelling carnival, in the Army, in a casino in Las Vegas, and so on. Mike never learns what it is to be completely human, but gathers around him a group of people – men and women – to whom he teaches the secrets of bodily health, telekinesis, and other such arcane knowledge, which are common knowledge on Mars.
It’s a long book, but entertaining, particularly in the conversations Mike and some of the other characters have with Jubal, in particular: most of the narrative is dialogue. Heinlein is particularly interested in faith, religion, morals and philosophy, and the main narrative is interspersed with scenes of angelic interaction.
Heinlein originally wrote the book between 1950 and 1960 – though the original version was cut down significantly (due to length) for publication in 1961 – and its time of composition shows in the appallingly sexist attitudes towards women in the book (though to be fair to Heinlein, there are a lot of women characters), a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards homosexuality (at least by today’s standards) and his assumption of the existence of life (and sentient, civilised life at that) on Mars.
I am surprised to read that the book was used as a feminist text at one point, but am not entirely convinced by that. Yes, the several women characters achieve Mike’s “water-brotherhood” along with the men, and their community at the end of the book is intellectually equal; but Heinlein assumed that even in the future, a sexist culture would still exist – the women are secretaries (Anne, Dorcas and Miriam), nurses (Jill), strippers or carnival performers (Dawn and Patty) or frustrated wives (Ruth). Smith’s mother is the only feminist role model, being a genius engineer, but she dies before the action of the novel even begins. So Heinlein’s future world is very similar to the times in which he was writing, in terms of its social mores, even if he could envisage technological advances. Still, it is refreshing to read a sci-fi novel which does have such a plethora of women in leading roles, and Jill in particular (and Anne, later) are admirable women.
The book is set, judging by the comments made in the text about Jubal’s age and experience, some time in the late 20th century, and in common with many sci-fi writers of the time, Heinlein vastly overestimated mankind’s desire to establish colonies on the Moon and Mars (and ability to manufacture fast space travel), as well as assuming a World War 3 and consequent amalgamation of the world’s countries into one state.
Although probably classified as science fiction, Stranger In A Strange Land is not really that, but an examination of what it means to be human, as seen from the standpoint of one who is genetically human but culturally alien; and how humanity might change. I’m not sure whether the realisation that many characters are ‘inhabited’ by angels during their lifetime adds to or detracts from Heinlein’s overall thesis – I think it weakens it, but other readers may not agree.
The snippets of Martian culture given in the book through Mike’s recollections of it, and Heinlein’s authorial interjections, are interesting, in that it is an authentically alien culture. So many alien worlds seem to be just variations of human cultures that it’s refreshing to read about one that isn’t (even if there isn’t much detail given, and its location on Mars is not believable).
Still, it’s an entertaining and enjoyable book, even if the revised version (the one Heinlein originally wrote) is a long one.