As part of an ongoing effort to relive my youth during the wild and wonderful sixties, I recently downloaded Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land to Kindle. I tried to rekindle, so to speak, the excitement that groundbreaking novel once aroused among many of my peers. Back then it seemed to tap into our youthful need to believe that a total transformation of society was possible.
Heinlein’s book wasn’t the easy read by the light of the lava lamp that I thought I remembered. I was surprised at how messy and complicated it was. Apparently, I never made a serious effort to comprehend it the first time. I owned a paperback copy which passed back and forth rather secretly between friends, as if it were a subversive document. I must have skipped the heavy themes and focused on the cool parts. A religion based on free love spoke to the wannabe hippie in me. The mantra “Thou art God” was a more empowering philosophy than any known religion offered.
How well has the book aged? I still think the mantra is good. The recognition of every other human being as divine would be a fine development for mankind. Other than that, the book let me down as a cultural document and a guide for living. The hero, Valentine Michael Smith, a human born on Mars and brought back to earth, doesn’t make a believable Messiah. His teachings are inaccessible to ordinary humans. To follow him, they had to transform themselves into Martians.
Smith resembles Jesus Christ in obvious ways. They both die at the hands of people who feel threatened by them. Their murderers are forgiven on the spot since they “know not what they do.” But Smith’s followers don’t grieve, and that is what’s inhuman about them. Christians can’t help grieving for their Messiah. They need to believe that he rose again, or isn’t really dead, or will return. Smith will never return in the flesh, but his followers take it in unearthly stride. That’s what keeps the book in the realm of science fiction. Heinlein was a master of that genre. But I wonder: did he intend this book to be more?