I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. After the head-banging trainwreck of last week’s supplementary edition, it is highly appropriate that we slow down this week and take a leisurely tour of a fairly familiar planet Earth as seen by the original Martian Boy. Please fasten your seat belts and keep all hands and legs inside the vehicle as we embark on sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein
published in 1961
uncut version published 1991
Valentine Michael Smith: the Man from Mars. Born to human parents, he was raised by Martians in a Martian nest, and sees the Universe through Martian eyes. Earth is an alarming place for a being raised on Mars, just as Mike’s Martian attitudes shock and alarm ordinary Earthlings. But as Michael struggles to unite these two very different paradigms, he and those willing to grok with him discover a better way to be human.
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
This was my second re-read of THP, about six years after the first read as a senior in high school. I’d forgotten how much I love this book. I must apologize for the crap summary above; it’s really hard to do this book justice!
And I adore this cover. It’s not the original edition, but it’s just so…evocative. Of what, I’m not entirely sure, but I could just stare at it for hours. The light, and the color, and the movement…the feeling of sinking and rising at the same time…
Anyway. Back to the actual text.
There are two version of Stranger floating around; the original version from 1961, which was cut down from Heinlein’s original manuscript, and the uncut version which was published in 1991, after Heinlein’s death. I’ve only read the uncut version, so I can’t compare the two, but the uncut version is pretty damn awesome in my opinion.
Gods, I love this book! It’s so hard for me to describe it. I don’t agree with everything that Heinlein seems to be saying with it, or with the way he frames all of his characters, but I do agree with the majority of it. And even the parts I find challenging are good challenging, as in ‘it’s a little uncomfortable having my assumptions questioned’ (as opposed to ‘reading this makes me want to throw up’).
This book is…healing. I don’t know how much sense that makes, but there are certain books that you can just fall into and feel warm and secure and loved. Books that are nurturing, welcoming, protective, good for the soul. Healing. Which is, I imagine, rather like what being a water-brother in a Martian nest must feel like. All of your barriers and defenses and facades are stripped away, but that’s okay because you don’t need them. You can let your inner squishy vulnerable bits float free, unguarded, to soak up the nourishing energy of the book. You can grok.
I’m probably not making a lot of sense to most of you (Hi, FBI!), but anyone who has a comfort book (or twelve) will know what I’m saying. I hope.
I love Michael’s way of looking at the world – the goal is to know, so that you may cherish, so that you may grok, so that you may be one with the Universe and its inhabitants. It’s quite an agreeable philosophy for a pantheist like me. (Also a much warmer way of expressing Freud’s ‘Oceanic feeling’)
I also love the statement “Thou art God.” It carries with it the idea of looking for the sacred (or devine, or good, or whatever positive term you prefer) of everyone and every thing. But it also conveys, I think, a sense of personal responsibility. If thou art God, and thou, and thou, than I am God as well. The sacred is in me, and I have a responsibility to cherish and nurture it, to be my best self and find the best selves of those around me.
It’s probably not surprising that there is now a real Church of All Worlds, inspired in part by the fictional Church of All Worlds founded by Michael in Stranger. While I’ve never been interested enough to investigate the real-life CAW, I think it’s pretty clear that the messages of Stranger resonate strongly with me on a spiritual level.
And now…the social equality review. Just because I love a book to death, that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from scrutiny.
Race: erm…better than most? Dr. Mahmoud is a Brit, but ancestry clearly not European (and he’s Muslim). Mention of other surnames that imply some racial diversity, but all the main characters and most of the others (at least the ones given physical descriptions) are white.
Gender/Sexuality: Sex-positive! Women no longer gatekeepers! Well – ish. We are going to completely ignore the character – the female character – who says, “Ninety percent of the time, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” Because STFU, Heinlein. And in spite of the general sex-positivity and intelligent women who are in many ways equal to men – holy heteronormative gender binary, Feminist Batwoman! Today’s headline: Men Are This Way Women Are That Way, Bobby Heinlein Insists. This dichotomy also manifests itself in a sort of comfortable paternalism, which is a little irksome but doesn’t seem to actually deprive anybody of their rights. I also think the characters are all a little too happy with the way the nest turns into a harem – okay, it’s technically a group marriage, with everybody being married to everyone else (or at least every man being married to every woman; it’s not entirely clear), but it tends to feel like a harem, especially given that some of the women start to ‘think’ themselves into looking like each other (WTF?). For me, this is highlighted by the fact that, when Mike leaves at the end of the book, neither Jill nor Patty nor Dawn take over as leader of the nest, despite the fact that all three women are his nominal 2ICs. Instead, that honor gets passed to Jubal, who has only been a member of the nest for a few days! And Jubal and Duke are the only ones who get to participate in the most meaningful Martian ritual with(?) Michael. (I’m trying so hard not to spoil things…)
Disabled/Other-abled: There are some problem as with They’d Rather Be Right – members of the nest gain the ability to ‘think’ their bodies into perfection (or to desired state) – which implies that there is a desired state.
This book is not perfect. It is a product of its time, even though it is so much ahead of it. But it is still a very, very, very good book, and I am sure I will find new meaning in it every time I read it. THIS is what a Hugo-winner should be.
OVERALL RANKING: 10 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).