Tuesday, August 25, 2009

217. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

History: Published in 1961, it has been called the most famous science fiction book ever. The late-1960s counterculture, popularized by the hippie movement, was influenced by its themes of individual liberty, self-responsibility, sexual freedom and the influence of organized religion on human culture and government, and adopted the book as something of a manifesto. In 1968 Tim Zell and others formed a neopagan religious organization called the Church of All Worlds, loosely modeled after the religion founded by the primary characters in the novel, but Heinlein had no other connection to the project.
Plot: Valentine Michael Smith is the son of two of the eight astronauts of an ill-fated first human expedition to the planet Mars. Orphaned when the crew died, Smith is raised in the culture of the native inhabitants of the planet, beings whose minds live in another world. After the arrival of a second expedition to the planet some twenty years later, Smith is taken "home" to Earth, where he is consigned to Bethesda Naval Hospital. However, he is effectively imprisoned. Nurse Gillian Borgman slips past the guards to get a peek at Smith, and in doing so inadvertently becomes his first female "water brother" by sharing a glass of water with him. That night, Jill has a date with Ben, a journalist who is trying to get a story on the Man from Mars which is top secret. The next day, Ben tries to get more information about Mike, and disappears. Gillian, sensing danger helps Mike escape. They escape to Jubel Harshaws residence, who finds out that Mike can levitate, read minds, and make things and people disappear. Jubel attempts to explain the world to Mike, including sex and religion. Mike is naïve, basically good and anxious to explore the world. Now free to travel, Smith becomes a celebrity, and is feted by elite of Earth. During his stay with Harshaw, Smith is invited by Bishop Digby, the leader of the Fosterites, to visit their temple. Fosterites train squadrons of teenagers and young adults, the Spirit-in-Action League, to physically attack other religions, newspapers, etc., who fail to respect their version of the truth. Ironically, the Fosterites, along with all other religions, turn out to be true agents of divine forces. Smith is taken to a Fosterite service and introduced to Bishop Digby, whom Smith apparently kills for reasons never fully explained. He then starts a Martian-influenced "Church of All Worlds," which teaches its members how to rise above suffering, such as "pain and sickness and hunger and fighting." However, parts of the religion, such as group sex, communal living, and ritual cannibalism, make Smith's church a target for enemies following more conventional religions. Eventually a Mike allows himself to be brutally killed by a mob. Harshaw attempts suicide by overdose; Mike returns as a voice in Jubal's head and both helps Harshaw vomit the pills and causes him to realize that Mike's sacrifice was only of the body, not of the soul. Smith is explicitly portrayed as a modern Prometheus, and implicitly as a messianic figure; in the ending of the book, one interpretation is that he is in reality the archangel Michael, who has assumed human form. The book ends with Mike promoted to another plane of existence, similar to Heaven. The original Rev. Foster appoints Rev. Digby as Mike's assistant.
Review: This one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. It was funny, almost how ridiculous it seemed. However, I get what the author is trying to say – about religion, sex, competition, and the basic inhumanity in the way we treat eachother. The first part of the novel read more like a sci-fi adventure, but suddenly it just got too weird and kind of lost me, especially when Mike became the leader of a cult.
Opening Line: “Once upon a time there was martian named Valentine Michael Smith.”
Closing Line: “Mike pushed back his halo and got to work; he could see a lot of changes he wanted to make.”
Quotes: “Thou art God”
“I grok that you don’t grok how we share water.”
Rating: Weird.

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