Strange God in a Strange Land: Struggling with Heinlein’s Classic, part 2

In my previous post (Reader in a Strange Land), I discussed Robert Heinlein’s classic SF novel Stranger in a Strange Land and how I struggled with the novel’s view of the future until I realized that it is really a view of the past. But even as I worked through that difficulty, I wrestled with another problem as well.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, “The Man from Mars.” Smith is the sole survivor of the first manned mission to Mars, actually the son of two of the crew of that mission who was born on Mars. After his parents died, however, he was raised by Martians. Members of the second mission to Mars discover him and bring him “home” to Earth, where everything is strange to him. Not only does Smith have no experience or even knowledge of Earth and human society, he has spent his life with Martians, who differ from humans in many significant ways. Smith is really a Martian in a human body at this point, with Martian outlooks and thinking processes, as well as vast Martian mental powers. The novel first follows the political machinations that Smith’s arrival sets off among factions of Earth men. Once those plots are all settled and dealt with, the novel then goes on to follow Smith’s efforts to change human society to match the ideals of Mars.

And it is in this second section that I hit the other problem I had with the book.

Smith is possessed with vast Martian powers. The most dramatic is a form of telekinesis. That is, he can make things go away. Any thing. A pencil. A gun. Someone’s clothes. A person. A whole lot of people. Basically, whenever there is a problem, he can make it go away. Anyone who threatens him goes away. Anything inconvenient goes away. (It is not entirely clear where these things and people go – at first it is explained as going into some other dimension beyond our three, whatever that means. Later, however, some of the people Smith sent away show up in what is clearly a satire of heaven, suggesting that they died when sent away.) Plus, Smith possesses on an extremely charismatic personality; he is extremely likeable and can easily convince anybody to listen to and accept his ideas. Add on to this the fact that in the first part of the book, he inherits the rights to one of the largest fortunes on Earth, and we end up with a character who can basically do anything he wants.

As I read, I kept waiting for Smith to run into a problem he couldn’t just make go away. He never did. He simply continued to work towards his goal unimpeded. People who try to stop him (for example, by arresting him, or threatening him) just go away. Friends who disagree with his efforts to remake society have a conversation with him and are immediately convinced he is right. None of his followers have second thoughts; no one turns against him; no one betrays with him. Towards the end of the book elements of society (clearly made out to be ultra-conservative bigots) rise up against him. For a moment, it looks like a moment of difficulty as his main temple is attacked and burned, Smith is arrested and thrown in prison. But none of that matters. He anticipated the whole thing, got all of his followers to safety, moved the church underground, made piles of riot police and prison guards just go away and then walked out of the jail.

It is all very effective. And easy. And boring.

It is the same problem that the writers of the Justice League of America comics faced back in the 60s and 70s, back when Superman was part of the group. If Superman is part of the team, what do you need Green Arrow and Plastic Man for? Anything they can do, Superman can do better. When the villain shows up, the team springs into action and, well, watches Superman take care of the situation. Not a very interesting story. So the writers had to keep inventing reasons for Superman to be away – off exploring space, saving some distant galactic empire, suffering from yet another bout of kryptonite poisoning.

In European folk tales, the Devil often shows up as a character. God almost never does. It seems odd that evil gets lots of time on stage and good rarely does. (And, to be clear, the Devil is always the villain of the story.) But then, the Devil, though powerful, is not ALL powerful. The Devil can be beaten if the hero is clever or bold or brave enough. But no one beats God. God is ALL powerful and can do whatever he wants. God makes for a boring story. Just like Valentine Michael Smith.

A story needs conflict. A story needs dramatic tension. Heroes need to face difficulties and the plausible threat of defeat. By the end of Stranger in a Strange Land, I was actively rooting for someone, anyone to take down Smith. I wanted Smith to struggle. Frankly, I wanted smug, superior, ALL powerful Smith to fail. I suspect that is not the response Heinlein intended. But if he wanted me to root for Smith, he should not have made him so divinely perfect, unbeatable, and boring.

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