Reader in a Strange Land: Struggling with Heinlein’s classic. Part 1

I sat in front of the cart of books, looking for one to claim as my Summer Reading Club prize at my local library. A big, blue spine caught my eye: Stranger in a Strange Land. Although I’ve been a fan of Science Fiction most of my life, I have never read Heinlein’s classic. Maybe it was time. I eased a copy off the packed cart, told the librarian I had made my choice, and headed home to check it out at long last.

            It did not prove the engrossing summer venture I expected. Oh, it was well-written and even mostly interesting. It was also frequently frustrating and endlessly irritating. I kept glancing at other books on my reading pile, beckoning me to spend my all-too-limited reading time with them instead. I resisted their temptations, pushed on with this acknowledged classic, pushed back against those jarring aspects, tried to work out what was going on with the novel and what was not working for me.

            In brief, Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, The Man from Mars. Mike is the sole survivor of the first manned mission to Mars, born on Mars and, after his parents die, raised by Martians. He discovered by the second human expedition to Mars and brought “home” to Earth. Mike is, however, a Martian in a human body, who must learn to function in human society. Along the way, he teaches humans to be Martians, to live in tight sharing and bonding and total understanding of each other. (And also develop powerful telekinesis.)

            Since the story involves interplanetary travel and human colonization of space, it is obviously set in the future. (The date is never specified, but the few clues in the book suggest mid to late 21st century, roughly a hundred years or more from when it was written in the late 1950s.) But the more I read, the less futuristic the future felt. The more I read, the more I felt like I was reading a story set in the 1950s, and more specifically 1950s America.

Most obviously, the technology was mostly mid-20th century. While there is some future tech, it is limited to items need for the plot, like space travel to Mars, or items with just advanced enough to feel futuristic. People sometimes travel by self-flying cabs, which record their trips on tape. Secretaries take dictation on stenography machines. Everyone watches stereo-vision, which seems to be television with another name.

            Gender roles are 1950s. Women are nurses and secretaries, men are lawyers and leaders and scientists; men and women socialize together, but when time comes to discuss important matters, the women slip out of the room so the men can talk and make important decisions amongst themselves.

            Even minor things like clothing are straight from the 1950s: men wear suits and ties and hats, women wear dresses and heels, nurses pin white caps to their hair.

            Where was the future?

At first I thought all this was unconscious, an example of how we take the everyday stuff of life so much for granted. Perhaps Heinlein just never noticed how much of his present he was putting into the world of the novel. That was a disappointing thought. Surely one of the grand masters of SF would think about the fact that societies change. I kept reading. More and more of the Heinlein’s present crept in, while the future faded from view. I even hit a screed against modern art and a call to return to good-old representational painting.

            Even Heinlein’s approach to sex, which plays a major role in the later part of the story, is bounded by the 1950s. Martian society is built around deep, intimate bonds between members of a group called water bonds. Mike discovers that sex is the way to achieve this bonding among humans, and so sex plays an important part in his efforts to remake human society. A main theme of the novel centers around advocating for sex as a way of building connections between people. The novel’s willingness to discuss and examine sex is one of its defining features, one of the reasons it was seen as so ground-breaking in its time. And, to be clear, the novel features many discussions about the nature and purpose of sex, not actual, graphic descriptions. While many characters are clearly having sex, it all happens “off-stage.” Characters engage in lengthy discussions about how ideas of sexual morality are constructed by society and imposed on people by the moral judgments of a few, that true sex should be freed from these artificial restraints. Yet even here, the novel keeps to the mid-century ideas of what is acceptable. Within Mike’s band of disciples, sex is very clearly limited to heterosexual acts. The band is composed of men and women, all are equal, all share the same “water bond,” men with women and men with men (and, presumably, women with women, but that doesn’t come up much since the important characters are all men.) So men should be sharing in sex with other men, as well as with women. How else do they create the intimacy with one another their community demands? Heinlein, however, makes it very clear that does not happen. Characters who condemn society’s moral judgments also discount the possibility of men having sex with men. So even within his “revolutionary” attack on conventional morality, Heinlein is bound by the conventional morality of his day, so much so that he does not even seem to notice the contradiction in his ideas: sex is for everybody without limits, as long as they are heterosexual couples.

            As I continued to struggle with all this, I finally realized that I had been approaching the book all wrong. Heinlein wasn’t writing about the future at all; he was writing about his present. Oh, if you want to write about a man from Mars, obviously the story has to be set in the future, so he put in just enough futuristic elements to make the premise work. But this isn’t a novel about the far future. It is about the near future. It is about the coming sexual revolution of the 1960s, but as anticipated and envisioned from Heinlein’s 1950s.

            In the end, pushing back against my frustration was worth the irritation; the effort to keep working at the novel paid off. Had I given up on it early on, as I was so tempted to do, I would have dismissed it as a disappointly out-of-date “classic.” Instead, I ultimately discovered      a fascinating trip back in time. The Strange Land of the novel is mid-20th century America, which I found to be more alien to me than the future.

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