Thursday, November 1, 2007

Review - Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert Heinlein
1962 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Free love! (That one's for the Google hits.) You can tell we've hit the 1960's with the Hugo winning novels when the sex, drugs, and rock and roll start showing up. Okay, there's not a lot of rock and roll in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and not that much in the way of drugs either but there's a hell of a lot of indiscriminate sex going on. In the end isn't that what really counts?

Stranger is about Michael Valentine Smith who is the only survivor of an attempt to colonize Mars. He is the son of two members of the mission and was born on Mars. When the rest of colony died Mike was taken in by the native Martians who teach him the ways of peace, love, and harmony (as well as shoving people out of the universe) before handing him off to the next group of colonists that arrive. Due to a quirk in Earth's laws Mike owns all of Mars on top of another massive fortune and the government wants to use him. Mike, who knows nothing of Earth, falls in with a sexy nurse and curmudgeony author who help him establish a life on Earth.

Mike follows the innocent abroad plot, wandering the earth and learning about humanity, until he decides that he needs to make Earth more like Mars. He then creates a cult which he uses to spread Martian teachings before meeting the ultimate fate of all messianic characters. (I've been avoiding spoilers in these books descriptions, but he's a Christ-figure; if you don't know how that story ends then you haven't been paying attention to the past thousand years of western literature.)

A lot of Stranger has to do with Martian philosophy which consist of fairly generic beliefs that no one would disagree with on the broad principle but the details are things that start wars. The Martians, for example, believe in pacifism unless of course they don't like the other person in which case it's okay to wipe them from existence. A great deal of attention is paid to the use of water; someone sharing a drink with Mike is enough that he considers them to be part of himself from that point on. And then there's the sex.

Part of Mike's philosophy is that giving yourself is important and that expresses itself as having lots of sex with as many partners as possible and those partners having indiscriminate sex as well. It's the free love promise of the hippie movement except more effective since Mike and the people he chooses for his inner circle manage to push out any of the relationship entanglements that arise in real life.

In fairness I should point out that the characters involved in the cult in the book claim that some of these are not true but the observed behavior contradicts their claims. Their church is very cult like if you compare it against other real-world cults and set aside the attachments you form over the course of reading the book. Using the identifying characteristics list from the Cult Information Center you can see how it matches up. I have seen definitions of cults that are slightly different from this list before (such as the FBI's criteria which had seven requirements when I read it) but the list features most of the important aspects:

1. It uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members.

While coercion is not used to recruit the behavior of characters afterward do make it appear that some brainwashing is involved. One technique that is explicitly stated in the novel and is used in many cults is the idea of secret teachings that are only available to people who advance in standing in the cult.

2. It forms an elitist totalitarian society.

They live in a compound that is completely controlled by Mike and look down on the lowly humans who just don't get their ideal Martian ways. I think this one is covered pretty explicitly.

3. Its founder leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.

Mike set up the whole thing, they certainly hang on every statement Mike makes as absolute truth, he could hardly be any more messianic if he was nailed to a tree, and the whole thing is built on his perfect charisma. Again it's self-evident.

4. It believes 'the end justifies the means' in order to solicit funds recruit people.

They break quite a few laws for the sake of getting their message out; sounds like justification to me.

5. Its wealth does not benefit its members or society.

Now this one I can't directly justify since their communal living doesn't really allow for it one way or the other.

So even if you don't think that the group at the end of the novel isn't a cult it's very hard to argue that they're not extremely cult-like. I found their vision of remaking Earth into Mars philosophically and suppressing anyone who was different from them (fascist hippies?) to be rather disturbing even if Heinlein didn't intend it to be.

An expanded version of Stranger in a Strange Land has been available for about fifteen years now which I have not read. My personal feelings on novel expansions like that are that they tend to not be very good and I avoid them. The original work is a classic and was edited to allow the book to flow smoothly. Adding back text that had been removed tends to make a book like one of those bloated monsters that authors who become to big for editors to control release. The version released in the sixties was the version that gained the attention and acclaim and that's what I would advise someone who has not read the book before to get.

The growth of Michael Valentine Smith throughout Stranger in a Strange Land makes it a powerful novel even if I didn't like where it ended. You don't have to look hard to see how Stranger in a Strange Land impacted the culture of the 1960's and for that reason alone I'd recommend reading it. But even if it didn't there's still a great story there and it's well worth examining.