What I am reading: Stranger in a Strange Land
(Well, re-reading really)
My memory is foggy, but I think this is the book that someone tossed at me in my sophomore year of high school. Written by Robert Heinlein, and originally published in 1961, it is one of the “must reads” in the SciFi genre.
The premise is fairly simple. A manned expedition to Mars meets with tragedy, and the only survivor was an infant born shortly on their arrival. Orphaned, he was raised by the Martians as a (strange) martian. When a follow-on mission arrived, they expected to not find any survivors, but instead found the child, now in his late teens (early 20’s? It is never mentioned how old he was directly), who has never had contact with his race. The story of Valentine Michael Smith, the first interplanetary bastard.
They bring him back, and a wild ride begins. He is early on involved with some intrigue and political interplay, but is soon spirited away to the compound of one of the central figures, a cantankerous old man named Jubal Harshaw.
From there, many formative episodes are lined up in short order to integrate him into humanity, but, like the boy who was raised by wolves, the integration is never quite complete. Indeed, the introduction to the concept of ‘religion’ is through a cult like church called the Fosterites (after their founder, whose name was Foster). Preaching a gospel of be happy, don’t worry, and all will be good. The services include interesting dance, and other traditions that you would not associate with “church”.
Michael takes from this a “badness”, but senses that at a deep level the concept of god is “goodness”. The martian in him leads him to declare that “Thou art God”, that is me, you, the blade of grass, my greyhounds etc. Every entity has some element of god in it, and by learning the Martian language, you can learn to control both your body as well as physical things around you.
Of course, the established religions view this with disdain, and run the “nest” (as the church is called) out on a rail. The ultimate confrontation is where the Fosterite congregations whip up a mob mentality, and Michael takes their abuse, violence and even gunfire in a calm, peaceful manner, uttering as his last breath a “Thou art God” to the grashopper by his head as he expired (discorporated in the parlance)
I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I first read it in high school, and have re-read it a few times over the years. It started me on a quest to read and enjoy SciFi, and I have relished in it. When the book was written originally, it had some 320K words. The editors in 1960 thought that was too long, ans asked for 70K words to be edited out. That was the official version until Heinlein’s widow discovered the original manuscript, and had it re-published. The extra words do much t help the story, and I am glad to have read both versions.
The other thing this story did was cause me to look at religion from the outside. I was not brought up in a family that went to church, and apart from tagging along a few times with neighbors, I had little exposure to organized religion. The theology of Michael and the Fosterites was intriguing, from an intellectual point of view. I got the impression (many years later) that the Fosterites was a swipe against L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Perhaps, perhaps not (what I have learned about scientology gives me the creeps.)
If you are a fan of science fiction, and haven’t read this, I highly recommend it. If you aren’t a fan, but are interested in the genre, this is actually a very readable book that will entertain on many levels.