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.
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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 […]