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Remembering Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Russell Blackford


May 12, 2009

For a generation of science fiction fans who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) was a book that changed lives: a huge, bizarre, magical, loosely-knit satire of nearly everything. It recounts the adventures of Valentine Michael Smith (or Mike), a young man who is born on Mars and raised by the Martians, before being brought to a wacky near-future Earth. He is befriended by wise old Jubal Harshaw, the novel’s authorial spokesman or ‘Heinlein figure’ (though he is presented as much older than Heinlein actually was at the time). Jubal becomes Mike’s mentor and protector, then eventually something more like a disciple.

Stranger became a cult classic, with an audience far beyond science fiction’s usual reach prior to the Star Wars era. It celebrated the human body (the characters seem to be nude as often as not), advocated open sexual relationships and laughed at politics, jealousy, organized religion and moral convention.

Though it fitted neatly into the hippie ethos of the later 1960s, Stranger has never entirely fallen out of fashion; it retains a leading place in the science fiction canon, and continues to attract critical discussion and new readers. An ‘original uncut’ version was published in 1991. According to Virginia Heinlein’s preface, ‘The earlier edition contained a few words over 160,000, while this one runs around 220,000 words.’ Fans and literary critics debate the relative merits of the more leisurely ‘original’ and the relatively taut, but sometimes more obscure, version published 30 years before. Speaking for myself, I wish that Heinlein had been able to produce a definitive author’s cut with the best material from both.

The book’s detractors point to its apparent diffuseness and other oddities, but much of this can be justified in Stranger itself (though perhaps not so much in some of the more blatantly self-indulgent works that came later). Most importantly, it should not be read as a traditional novel with tight plotting, realistic characters and lifelike dialogue. It is more like a Menippean satire or an ‘anatomy’.

Leaving aside an ambiguous remark by Heinlein himself (he once referred to Stranger as ‘a Cabellesque satire of sex and religion’), I’m not sure who first pointed this out, though it’s possible that I hold that honour. I made the point in a paper that I delivered in 1985, at that year’s World Science Fiction Convention, Aussiecon 2: ‘The Nest of the Discorporator: or, Rereading Stranger in a Strange Land’. This was published in the same year, in the proceedings volume for the convention’s academic track. There, I saw Stranger as resembling a Menippean satire, and hence as not requiring a conventional novel’s approach to consistent characterization.

I remain convinced that this is correct. Stranger has some of the characteristics of a monomyth, some of those of an encyclopaedia, and a tendency to include diverse literary and sub-literary forms (outlandish news reports, bad but amusing verse, Socratic dialogue, fable and philosophy). These are held together by a loose, though clearly apparent, overall structure, by a pattern of dominant references and images, and by an obsessive interest in the various topics that are satirized.

Read the rest at normblog.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.


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