Monday, August 6, 2007

Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" (novel): An overhyped satire!

Quote from the novel titled Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert HeinleinFirst half of the book is quite readable, sometimes outstanding. Some very funny scenes when the hero is part of the scene; a tired but readable government conspiracy, when he is not.

Second part is a bore. A bad religious cult is dissected; a good one is founded advocating utopia. Except that good one also advocates killing of people in which the hero detects "wrongness"! Apart from advocating communal marriage & sex - an idea that might have been scandalous in 1960s & probably accounts for its fame (notoriety?).

I could sometimes identify with Heinlein's philosophy, but very often, his own thoughts are muddled. Occasionally, he comments on things he doesn't understand. But worst part is long religious & philosophical discourses that go on & on. Among these discourses are some quotations that might be worth pondering over, depending on your mood & inclination.

There are places, particularly in later half, that have a writing style very similar to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Particularly when preparing ground for a major scene, or when describing social impact of an action.

In the end, I came back dissatisfied - in a way reminiscent of Clarke's "Childhood's End". Both books are heavily hyped by publishers, but don't quite live up to it.

Names in the story are supposed to have meaning. But I guess you need a background in Christianity to appreciate them. For me, they were just sounds.

Story summary.
Valentine Michael Smith aka Mike is a child born on Mars to parents that were part of an early exploration mission aboard spaceship "Envoy". And he is the only survivor; all mission members died.

Mars is inhibited by an intelligent race that predates humans as intelligent species by half a million years. These extremely long lived aliens are not quite benign - for art's sake, they destroyed the fifth planet, once inhabited by intelligent beings; they had turned it into asteroid belt it is now - eons back. Earth is not safe. But all this will become known to humans much later in the story.

Mike was raised by aliens till about 25 years of age. And he learned some really amazing things from them - including telepathy, destroying arbitrary material including people without obvious weapons, moving things without touching them, ... Aliens actually appear in this story to provide this superman; no other role for them except hints of future aggression.

A second mission to Mars, aboard spaceship "Champion", finds this boy who considers himself Martian rather than human, & is ordered by Martian "Old Ones" to accompany the human explorers on return journey. It will be revealed slowly that he was sent as a spy - to learn things human.

On earth, Mike has a huge inheritance. His mom, Dr. Mary Jane Lyle Smith, had invented "Lyle Drive" that now powers all spacecraft, & has been effectively under government control in absence of heirs. His dad also left substantial property. And through a contractual deed, all crew members left their property to survivors - now Mike alone. But even more importantly, through a precedent set by "Larkin Decision" with reference to colonization of moon, Mike is now legally the sovereign owner of Mars - never mind the local Martians; human colonizers can legally acquire property there only at his pleasure.

All this property has set bells ringing in the government of the "World Federation of Free States" (aka "Federation") - a kind of semi "world government" comprising apparently of former NATO nations including US, & many other nations too, including Pakistan. Government CEO, Secretory General Joseph Edgerton Douglas, is a worried man, & will go to any extent to get control of Mike's property.

Hence begins the tale of adventure, government power misuse, & thankfully, humor.

This part of the story ends with Mike's escape from government captivity, in Bethesda Medical Center, with the help of nurse Gillian Boardman aka Jill, & prompted by well meaning newspaper reporter & Jill's boyfriend Ben Caxton. Eventually Jill & Mike will find safe shelter at the home of Dr Jubal E Harshaw, an eccentric old millionaire, a friend of Ben, a medical doctor, & a story writer. But Ben will be captured by cops & held illegally & without charge.

Mike quickly recovers at Jubal's place, shows some of his magical powers, Jubal cracks a deal with Douglas that takes the government monkey off Mike's back without compromising his inheritance; Ben is freed as part of the deal.

Then begins the second part; it could have used a lot of editing. Mike discovers the world with Jill. First we are introduced to "Archangel Foster Tabernacle of the New Revelation", a commercial religious cult of the kind that pop up every week somewhere in India - nothing new here; its followers are called Fosterites. Mike kills the head of the cult in circumstances that are not explained - without any impact on either cult or Mike.

Then there are adventures of Mike & Jill - doing odd jobs. Eventually, Mike founds his own cult, "Church of All Worlds, Inc". A commune sold as church whose key highlight is communal marriage & free sex. Explained purpose is to eventually transfer the alien knowledge Mike has learned to followers - to help humans live in peace.

End of the story is Mike's voluntary death by public lynching - to a cause I could not understand. Perhaps Heinlein wanted to evoke the emotions of Jesus's killing. To me, this act felt unnecessary.


  1. Idea of being able to perform impossible feats if you are trained in alien ways of thinking is central to the plot of the classic "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett.
  2. The idea of "grokking" in this story - completely understanding something in all its ramifications - is also found in Ted Chiang's "Story Of Your Life". Also shared is the idea of a language unlike any human language that makes such understanding possible.
  3. Somewhere in the middle, the book also makes an insignificant reference to Clarks's "Nine Billion Names of God" in passing.
  4. Mike's cult adopts ancient Sanskrit phrase "Aham Brahmasmi" (I am God) as its official greeting (normally “Thou art God!”, but sometimes literal English translation). They use it in the sense that God comprises of all sentient beings - something often preached in India without understanding. Am not sure of the context or meaning of the Sanskrit phrase in Indian philosophy (they taught it in school, but I wasn't paying attention).
  5. This story share a very minor plot detail with "Ordeal in Space": That story also has Mars inhabited with intelligent natives, & the few characteristics described of those natives generally match those in Stranger.
  6. In this story, Mike can make people or things disappear by just thinking about them. A less magical technology for making people or things vanish, by accident, is found in Arthur Clarke's "Travel by Wire!" (1937) - published over 2 decades before Stranger.
Other significant characters.
  1. Captain Willem van Tromp - Captain of spaceship "Champion" that brought Mike back.
  2. Dr Sven Nelson - Part of "Champion" crew, & doctor who cared for Mike on return trip.
  3. Doctor Mahmoud - A "semantics" expert on board "Champion".
  4. Madame Alexandra Vesant - astrologer adviser to Secretary General's wife, & later a disciple of Mike.
  5. Anne, Miriam, Dorcas, Larry, Dukes - part of Jubal's household. First three are secretaries; Dukes is the man who can fix any machine; Larry is kind of majordomo.
  6. Patty - First disciple of Mike's cult, & a significant driver.
Fact sheet.
Stranger in a Strange Land (uncut version), novel, review
Author: Robert A Heinlein
First published: 1961 in 160 thousand words; republished posthumously in 1991 as uncut version with some 220 thousand words.
Awards: Hugo 1962
Rating: B
Hugo Award winner in novel category in 1962

See also.
  1. All Hugo Award stories.
  2. All stories with religion as a theme.
Note: Moved here from original location on Aug 6, 2007. Reason.