Flawed yet Insightful: Heinlein’s Response to his Era in Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is heralded as a science fiction classic. The winner of several science fiction awards, Heinlein’s novel explores the spiritual journey of Valentine Michael Smith, a Martian who is brought to Earth and taught the ways of humans. Through his journey, Mike, as he is endearingly called, learns about sex, religion, and politics, among many other social institutions, and notices the flaws in the human way of thinking. He introduces humans to the Martian set of beliefs, a set of beliefs that seem to align the 1960’s counterculture movement. That is a testament to Heinlein’s brilliance, and yet, despite being described as an award-winning masterpiece, there are a lot of flaws to Strange in a Strange Land, most noticeably in its plot structure. While Heinlein’s novel ends up exploring Mike’s spirituality and maturity, it starts off as a novel of political intrigue and conspiracy, and these two plotlines are never joined in a fluid manner. To wit, Strange in a Strange Land is a classic for its masterful embodiment of the 1960’s counterculture, from its glorification of sex and sin to its criticism of politics and traditional religious institutions, yet it is flawed in its disjointed plot, quick solutions to complicated issues in the plot, and its long and meandering dialogue between characters.

The element of Stranger in a Strange Land that most embodies the spirit of the counterculture movement is the glorification of sex, not because all the youth of the 1960’s were promiscuous but because this glorification implies a freedom of expression that mirrored that of youth of the counterculture movement. Heinlein’s novel does not depict sex as something sinful, despite the fact that religion plays heavily into the narrative. Rather, sex is shown as something beautiful that should be explored and used to form greater connections with one another. In Mike’s church, for example, one can have sex with whomever they wished, male or female, single or not, alone with another person or as a big group. Mike best summarizes Heinlein’s views on sex when he says, “Male-femaleness is the greatest gift we have—romantic physical love may be unique to this planet. If it is, the universe is a poorer place than it could be” (419). He then goes on to describe the union formed through sex as “a lovely, perfect thing,” (420). This is a complete contrast to how the society that Heinlein lives in views sex. In the 1960’s, sex was something that was extremely suppressed, meant to only be shared between married couples, so for Heinlein to introduce the idea of shamelessly having sex in order to have a deeper connection with someone, even if you were not necessarily married (or ever going to be married) was revolutionary. It was the kind of forward and progressive thinking that is expected in science fiction novels. Because science fiction novels are so unlike the real world, they can depict such radical ideas without consequence; additionally, this aspect of the genre puts science fiction in the perfect position to be a means by which authors can make social commentary on the real world, a fact that Heinlein takes great advantage of.

A strong emphasis on social commentary and satire that Heinlein adds to Stranger in a Strange Land is the other brilliant aspect of his work. The novel is filled with criticism of social institutions on Earth, including politics. The process of satirizing the society Heinlein lives in is facilitated by the Mike character. For a time, Mike is observing Earth through an objective, almost academic, point of view as he tries to learn everything he can about humans. The lens of an objective outsider provides the perfect channel for Heinlein to poke fun at the flawed institutions that are so widely accepted by humans. Take the institution of politics, for example. The political system has always been extremely flawed, and yet it is such a huge part of day-to-day life. Political agents cannot be taken at face value. This is best depicted in Chapter 9, which is in the point of view of Joseph Douglas and his wife, Agnes. In this chapter, it is revealed that Douglas, the most powerful man in the world, lets his wife make most of the political decisions. For example, it was Agnes who suggested they have a fake Man from Mars to talk to the press, and yet, when Douglas brings up that the failed plan was her idea, she said, “I did not [come up with it]. And don’t contradict me” (73). Douglas, who seems so powerful, is not very powerful at all and is actually very subservient to his wife, even worrying at times about being a disappointment to her. To add more Heinlein’s satirical commentary on the hidden workings of politics is the fact that most of Agnes’s political decisions are made based on one of the least factual approaches possible, astrology. When Mike goes missing, Agnes goes to visit an astrologist who tells her that the “absence of young Smith is a necessity…The important thing is to take no drastic action” (79). Heinlein’s purpose in using the astrology example is to show that even the political leaders who seem so wise and powerful may not actually be acting on the best sources of information. The public believes that they are acting for the common good, but sometimes those figures that people admire are not really making the decisions and sometimes those decisions are made without a lot of evidence that they will actually work. Politicians are often hoping and praying, like the rest of America, that their decisions do not become catastrophic.

Tying this back to the counterculture movement, Heinlein’s use of satire emulates the youth’s attitude toward questioning the status quo. The youth are the first to realize that the traditional way of thinking is flawed, and people should be asking questions of the institutions that are so readily accepted. Heinlein’s brilliance is that he channels that questioning attitude and presents it in a way that makes not just the youth question their society but anyone who reads his novel. There is no arguing that Heinlein has a great mind for so creatively pointing out the flaws in society. As a social commentator and satirist, Heinlein is phenomenal. As a storyteller and novelist, he is not as proficient. Take the plot structure, for example. For much of part one, Stranger in a Strange Land seems like it will be a story of political intrigue. There are elements of politicians trying to trick Mike and there is a kidnapping aspect to it. The level of suspense is high, and it seems like the novel will make a thrilling read at the time. And then, come part two, all of this suspense falls apart and the novel becomes more philosophical with the introduction of Jubal. The true plot of the novel is slowly revealed to be a coming-of-age story for Mike, a journey through his exploration of spirituality. The main conflict of the novel is brought up by Jubal in Chapter 12 when he says, “We have a personality untouched by the psychotic taboos of our tribe—and you [Jill] want to turn him into a copy of every fourth-rate conformist in this frightened land!” (105). Much of this novel focuses on the debate as to whether Mike should be taught human customs or allowed to form his own opinions on the human way of life, and yet, it would have made a much better novel had it centered on the political conspiracy. Another flaw also comes with the introduction of Jubal, for Jubal engages in long philosophical conversations with the other characters that are extremely difficult to follow and make readers lose a lot of interest in the story. Such complicated dialogue was probably not the best choice for a science fiction novel, when part of the genre is primarily geared toward escapism of the horrors of society. Lastly, the final criticism of Heinlein’s work is the quick and easy solution to plotlines the Heinlein uses, namely Mike’s ability to discorporate any challenging plotlines. People come to kidnap him and Jill, and they vanish into thin air. Men with guns come to Jubal’s house and he makes their guns disappear. Whereas some may see this as a show of Mike’s power, this is also an easy remedy for plotlines that would have been intriguing if they had been allowed to play out all the way through.

Despite all the flaws with his storytelling methods, there is still no denying that Heinlein is a creative genius. Even though Stranger in a Strange Land was not an effective novel in all aspects, Heinlein managed to make commentary on society and clearly express the attitudes of a movement with an amount of detail that many other writers would not be able to do. Had Heinlein decided to use another means through which to satirize society, it probably would have been more effective, enjoyable, and easier to understand, but the concept itself is still genius and is still deserving of the acclaim that Heinlein and his novel received. Stranger in a Strange Land is considered one of the most famous science fiction novels ever written and deservedly so because there has not been and probably will never be a science fiction novel quite like it ever again.

The Dilemma of Control in Their Eyes were Watching God and Stranger in a Strange Land

The institution of marriage has changed over the last century from a patriarchal control construct to a more open organization. The books Their Eyes were Watching God and Stranger in a Strange Land both attack the institution of traditional marriage and present alternatives. This paper will discuss the ways in which these books present critiques of the traditional marriage model, especially the aspects of control and jealousy. Both books depict profound cultural paradigm shifts that eschew the ownership model of marriage in favor of a romantic partnership. Despite the similarities of their preoccupations, Heinlein and Hurston take radically different approaches to the post-patriarchal marriage.

Recent news stories about gay marriage have highlighted the fact that Americans are extremely concerned with the shape of the nuclear family. Both sides frame the debate in terms of preserving the family unit. One side considers gay marriage to be an affront to the traditional family and the first step to total dissolution of the family as a viable institution. The other side argues that gay marriage represents merely a variation, similar to previously forbidden familial bonds including interracial marriages and single parent households. Neither side is arguing on behalf of a radical reconfiguration of the nuclear family; however, the popularity of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Stranger in a Strange Land is partially rooted in the direct challenges to the traditional family with its implicit system of control in which terms like “head of the household” meant something beyond a tax deduction.

A traditional patriarchal marriage meant control. The man controlled his wife and his family. The familial stability was based upon this influence and domination. A marriage that was not based upon these controls was considered suspicious. Men were supposed to control their wives whom were considered child-like in the social order. “Aristotle defined Man as a “rational animal”, and by that he really meant men, not human beings. Unlike Plato, he saw women as less able to reason, hence less “human” and more “animal”. In Europe, well into the twentieth century, women were generally seen as somehow intellectually deficient” (Turner). The 20th century witnessed a radical reevaluation of this institution and the values of romance and mutual respect superseded the previous values of patriarchal control. The value of stability remained important, yet the definition of stability became less concrete and more fluid. In the absence of an objective perspective, the ability for a family to function as a unit must find models that are not in the control and possession model.

Both Stranger in a Strange Land and Their Eyes were Watching God depict the way that the traditional views of marriage were challenged and reconfigured in the 20th century. These books not only reflect their eras but their individual authors. Their Eyes were Watching God was written in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston, an African American woman who was one of the most talented artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Richard Wright dismissed the novel with: “The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy” (23). Robert Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961. It won the Hugo and became a cult classic as well as the basis for sixties counterculture experiments such as communes. Both novels found their major audiences in the 1970s and 1980s as challenges to the traditional nuclear family became extremely significant to national dialogues.

One of the novelties of Their Eyes Were Watching God is the fact that Zora Neale Hurston depicts a self-contained African American community that does not interact with the white majority. The racist framework in which black men and women were controlled by systematic racism remains in the background leaving a story primarily concerned about gender relations. Janie’s grandmother and mother are raped by a slave owner and a school teacher respectively. When the mother disappears into alcoholism, Janie’s grandmother Nanny attempts to protect Janie from her own sexuality by forcing her to marry Logan Killicks. As far as Nanny is concerned, all gender relations involve control and possession. Nanny thinks that if Janie is not controlled by a stable man like Killicks, she will become like her mother – controlled by either an abusive man or a series of men.

Logan expects Janie to provide farmhand services. “If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside…you done been spoilt rotten” (32). For Logan, controlling Janie is the basis of marriage. As far as Logan is concerned, he owns Janie. Janie does not want to be dominated by Logan and her decision to abandon him for the seemingly more romantic Joe Starks communicates her value system which defines marriage as a relationship about love and companionship.

Although Janie’s values are correct, her choice in men turns out to be misguided. In the second marriage, Janie learns that Jody Starks is the kind of man that her grandmother tried to save her from. Starks is an industrious man who builds a general store in Eatonville; however, he does not see Janie as an individual. For Joe, Janie is a possession that he has won. Jody wants Janie to be the submissive wife. Due to her romanticism, she spends years attempting to conform to that role to preserve the ideal of the marriage. Interestingly enough, it takes her almost twenty years to lose her illusions. Yet, her very public emasculation of Jody quickly leads to his death.

In light of Killicks and Jody, Tea Cake is the culmination of Janie’s youthful romantic beliefs. Despite her disappointments, she never gives up on her romantic perspective. Like Jody, Tea Cake is a man that Janie chooses for herself. However, Janie chooses Tea Cake as a mature woman who has won enough self-possession to choose a man that will not assume the dominatnt role. With Tea Cake, there is also a controlling aspect to the relationship, but it is a mutual control. Both Janie and Tea Cake have fits of jealousy. Tea Cake even hits Janie in a passage that has a surprisingly blasé perspective on domestic violence. However, rather than stifle passion, the struggle for control enhances it: “They wrestled on until they were doped with their own fumes and emanations; till their clothes had been torn away till he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body” (162). The ideal marriage for Janie is not a marriage without control; rather it is a marriage in which Tea Cake and Janie maintain a constant tension that combines passion and jealousy. The text represents their struggle as ideal. Janie and Tea Cake are both jealous and they have absorbed the traditional marriage values of ownership from society, but Tea Cake does not believe that he owns Janie like her first two husbands assumed they owned her.

By contrast, Stranger in a Strange Land provides a direct challenge to institutional marriage that endorses polygamy. Despite the heteronormative nature of the book, many characters reconfigure their marriages and vocally advocate an elimination of nuclear family structure. The jealous passion that Janie and Tea Cake exemplify is considered a problem that needs to be eliminated by the Heinlein characters. Marriage is not the only target for Heinlein’s characters. All social obligations are heavily scrutinized. In the final chapters, Jubal learns about the alternate family that Smith has set up with his “water brothers.” When one of the characters, Sam, mentions oral contraceptive to Dr. Jubal, he continues with a dismissal of the medical profession:

“What happens to that big industry – and to the shrill threats of moralists – when a female can conceive only when she elects to as an act of volition, when also she is immune to disease, cares only for the approval of her own sort…and has her orientation so changes that she desires intercourse with the whole-heartedness that Cleopatra never dreamed of – but any male who tried to rape her would die so quickly, if she so grokked, that he wouldn’t know what hit him? When women are free of guilt and fear – but invulnerable other than by decisions of self?” (487)

Hurston was reconfiguring that family unit in a romantic passionate setting. By contrast, Heinein’s characters are proposing a social order that is free of the nuclear family and all of its influence, control and possessiveness. In another scene, a couple that has had an unhappy marriage talk about how much they love each other in the absence of the traditional bonds of marriage. They still have a relationship but their lack of a mutually exclusive obligation renders their marriage null which pleases both spouses, who would rather freely be each other’s fifth or sixth choice rather than their contractually obligated first and exclusive choice. There are several caveats to this system, including the fact that Smith is killed by an angry mob. Also note that Heinlein is primarily concerned with how liberated women will engage in more sex as opposed to careers or politics. However, the sexual nature of the liberation may highlight the original teenage boy audiences for 1960s science fiction rather than any agenda.

Even though the non-nuclear family that Heinlein proposes in Stranger had some popularity in fringe groups, it has rarely been put forth as a viable alternative to the nuclear family. One exception is Dr. Deborah Taj Anapol who proposed a combo family in which “three to eight adults, of any mutually agreeable age and gender mix, form a marriage-type partnership. Possibly they incorporate or form a family trust, since there is no legal means of marriage for more than two people in the United States” (Anapol). This group marriage might work, but it is currently not the most popular model.

In conclusion, the traditional family has been challenged throughout the twentieth century in many ways. Regardless of where people are on the political spectrum, few would endorse a marriage that is exclusively about one (male) partner control the (female) spouse. Their Eyes were Watching God, in which a woman leaves her husband in search of a passionate love affair, and Stranger in a Strange Land, which provided the inspiration for several polyamorous relationships speak directly to this cultural shift. In many cases, these challenges found audiences due to the system of control and possession in the traditional nuclear family structure and the quest to find something radically different. Although the prevailing cultural norms favor a marriage as depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God (perhaps without the punch in the face), the Stranger in a Strange Land model is not without its adherents. As long as humans attempt to form familial units, these books and books like them which question and put forth alternatives to the traditional family and the structure of control will be represent significant contributors to the discussion.

Works Cited

Anapol, Deborah Taj. “The Future of the Family and the Fate of our Children.” Love Without Limits. March 2012.

Heinlein, Robert. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Ace Trade. (October 1, 1991).

Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins. 2000.

Turner, Robin. “Male Logic and Women’s Intuition.” 1997. Reprinted in A Meeting of Minds: A Brief Rhetoric for Writers and Readers. (Longman, 2004).

Wright, Richard. “Review: Their Eyes were Watching God.” For The New Masses. October 5, 1937.