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Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein (1961)

Though this fascinating and controversial novel begins on Mars, the vast majority of the story is set on earth and concerns terrestrial pre-occupations such as sex and religion, and yet despite the largely earth-bound setting, Mars and Martians remain at the heart of the story, mirroring back an avalanche of ideas on the human condition, both the sacred and profane.

For those familiar with the work of Rudyard Kipling, the story begins in somewhat familiar fashion, and apparently was inspired by Heinlein's then wife Ginny, who suggested a science fiction twist on the Jungle Book stories. This was in 1949, but it was not actually until 1961 and after a number of false starts that Heinlein was to finish the mowgli-like tale of a human raised by Martians. As the sole unexpected progeny of a first disastrous Martian expedition, Valentine Michael (Mike) Smith is returned to earth 25 years later as a young man with no concept of what it is to be human. Mike is basically Martian, and not only has an entirely Martian philosophy to life, but some seriously superhuman abilities.

Heinlein sets up this portion of the story with considerable style, dropping his neophyte hero into an alien world of politics and business, for by a twist of the law, Mike may just technically own the entire planet Mars, lock stock and barrel. Confronted by those who would attempt to cheat him of this inheritance, he is badly in need of some friends and protectors, and finds these in the shape of several wildly differing characters. Gillian (Jill) Boardman is a nurse at the hospital where Mike is incarcerated, and after a chance meeting with the technically incommunicado man from Mars, becomes increasingly interested in his plight, especially when it becomes clear the authorities are peddling a fake man from mars on the television news.

Convinced by her hard-nosed reporter friend Ben Caxton that Mike is in danger, she helps him break out of hospital and the pair flee to an uncertain sanctuary with Doctor Jubal Harshaw. Harshaw is a rather Orson Welles like character (he would have been ideal in the role had a movie occurred) and presides over a chaotic estate in which he effects to be master of his castle, but is actually somewhat under the thumb of a bevy of attractive young secretaries. Harshaw is a famous doctor, writer and lawyer, and basically a brass and opinionated raconteur who has retreated behind the walls of his house and wants little to do with the real world, having spent a lifetime fighting a system he sees as largely implacable and corrupt. The arrival of Mike throws a spanner in the works for Jubal, and he is forced (only slightly reluctantly) out of his self imposed semi retirement.

It is while living with Jubal, that Mike begins his quest to "grok" the human condition. Grok is a basically untranslatable Martian term but it is a measure of the novel's impact that the word has sufficient gravitas to be defined in several dictionaries. For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it as "to understand profoundly through intuition or empathy." That's about as close as you can get to a definition, and as is readily stated in the novel, you really have to have grown up Martian to truly Grok the word. Heinlein writes a wonderfully convoluted tale, creating an incredibly rich weave from the many threads that run through the story. For instance, he creates a legal history upon which Mike's claim to be defacto owner of Mars (and incidentally much of the moon) is based, and this further allows him to touch on the moral ambiguity of laying claim to an already inhabited planet; shades of settlers encroaching on the land of native American Indians. Indeed, the entire book is a minefield of social commentary and discussion, much of it as muddled as it is profound.

The muddle is in fact one of the charms of the book. The characters grow and evolve significantly as the story progresses, and Mike is not the only one to learn what it is to be human, though the conclusions will not be to everyones liking. It has been suggested that Jubal is in effect Heinlein, and I think this is an accurate interpretation, but equally every character in the book is in an agony of indecision and flux, and as such are used liberally by the author to sound out his ideas. It must be significant that Heinlein started working on the novel when he was in his early 40's and finished it in his mid 50's. As such, it reads often like a mid life crisis. For instance, his musings on the fundamentals of religion and relationships veer sharply from chapter to chapter and betray some seemingly deep-seated insecurities. Sexuality (and equality of the sexes) in particular is a preoccupation of the novel.

When Ben Caxton is presented with an opportunity to engage in a tryst with Mike and Jill, he flees in horror and confusion, and again one can't help but think this is mirroring some inner demons at work in the mind of Heinlein. That by the end of the novel, Mike has founded a commune of free thinking and free loving disciples speaks volumes, though if Heinlein manages to throw off most of his shackles, he can't quite divorce himself from one particular prejudice of his times. To his credit, he tries very hard to present his female characters in an enlightened manner, giving them power and intelligence, but beneath the surface lurks an old fashioned male chauvinist and as such he can't seem to help building them up only to knock them down again. He never has his male characters be blatantly unpleasant to the women, but the patronising attitude is often demeaning in the extreme and what is written as jovial banter often reads as a fetish with physical (not violent) domination.

In conclusion, Stranger in a Strange Land is a great flawed American novel. The prose is certainly dated in a rather charming way, and the plot gets lost toward the middle in navel inspecting introspection, but there are moments throughout that will shock and antagonise the reader, which is certainly the mark of a powerful author at work. The ending is a touch bizarre, and the last page in particular should have been ripped out at the editorial stage leaving behind a far more satisfying ending, but this is part and parcel of the passion this novel engenders, and so in a way this flaw, like all the others, can be forgiven and perhaps even groked in the fullness of time.

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See also

Books

1912
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess Of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A former American soldier is transported to Mars and finds himself caught up in war and adventure.

1938
Out of the Silent Planet by C S Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet by C S Lewis. A proffessor is kidnapped to a Mars of breathtaking beauty and deeply spiritual importance.

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