I recently read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. It was a very interesting read, mostly because many of the concepts introduced in it felt so familiar to my own beliefs and things that I have already thought about. I wish I had read this book sooner, it would probably have introduced me to a lot of these ideas earlier than my stumbling across them.
Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith (“Mike”), a human born on Mars when a first mission was sent there and never returned. Years later when another mission to Mars takes place they find Mike on the planet, living among the Martians and having no idea of the human world or how it works. Think of the stories of babies growing up with wolves, thinking they are wolves and acting like wolves when they are found.
Mike is brought back to Earth and becomes ridiculously rich due to an inheritance type of situation (not really important). One of the most interesting things for me in the book is watching Mike’s transformation. He goes from a thin, uncertain shell of a human being, having no idea what the heck is going on and going into Withdrawal (or near-Widthdrawal) upon being offered a glass of water or coming in contact with something new, transforms into an athletically-built reading machine who reminded me a lot of a puppy trying to please, and then transforms into a dominant (but still innocent) leader of a movement that teaches “Thou art God” and gets everyone to “grow closer” together via the symbolic sharing of water and sex.
My favorite stage of both Mike’s transformation and the story itself was the second - the stage where Mike is “maturing” and reaching his physical peak while gaining knowledge about the human world and coming closer to grokking it. In this part of the story Mike and Jill (the nurse who helped him escape from the government) reside at the house of Jubal Harshaw (a cranky old man who is filthy rich and kind at heart) with his other residents (three secretaries and a couple of other employees). Some of the things Mike had said in this and the earlier stages of his development really pull at the heartstrings and he really does remind me of a puppy who’s trying to please everyone and grasp the world. There is more action and less conceptual essay-type writing in these parts.
Toward the last part of the book, when Mike is transformed into a great teacher of the Martian language and a revolutionary way of life and gains his own followers, you see less of Mike himself and more of Jill’s, Ben’s, and Jubal’s inner rambling about the concepts of Mike’s teachings. They are interesting, but I would rather have had them explained to me through action rather than essays. Mike is talked about a lot but seldom comes into the actual scene (being in withdrawal for the majority of the time while working on the Martian dictionary). I felt much less connection and empathy with Mike here, which was a big disappointment as I absolutely loved the character in the earlier stages of the book.
Nevertheless (spoiler ahead) I did get a tiny bit teary when Mike was being stoned to death and after his subsequent Discorporation. And I definitely felt anger toward his followers, who were watching the scene on TV and were happy and even excited as Mike died. I guess I, like Jubal, just did not grok fully enough to be able to cherish Mike’s death. Logically I know that he did not die, but having him disappear from this world, especially in that kind of brutal fashion, was upsetting. And I have to say - I like Mike’s teachings and all, but I would not boil him up into a stew and eat him to grok and cherish him after his death.
Mike’s teachings of “Thou art God”, of the only sin being that which we percieve as sinful, of jealousy being an unnecessary emotion, of how to rise above suffering and most importantly of the weight of our world being on our shoulders and our shoulders alone as opposed to an all-powerful entity that is separate from us, all ring true for me. I’m not sure I’m ready to grok all of them fully yet (specifically the concept of jealousy being a useless emotion. Logically I recognize that, but you can’t decide to not feel something through logic alone). As Mike would say - I am only an egg.
I Googled the Church of All Worlds, which was the name of Mike’s church in the book. In reality this was never supposed to be a religion at all, nor a church in the traditional sense. Mike only called it a “church” for legal reasons, to gain the same legal benefits as churches/religions do in that world. I was unfortunately not suprised to find that the Church of All Worlds actually exists, started a long time ago by a fan of the book. Don’t get me wrong - it’s not that I don’t think Mike’s teachings are worthy of being explored in real life. However, I think that taking the book and trying to recreate the movement, claiming to have full grokking of what Valentine Michael Smith was teaching, and then sticking it into the real world is a mistake. First of all, the “real life” COA are claiming to be a religion. Yes, this is what Mike did for legal reasons in Stranger in a Strange Land, but I’m afraid that people in the real world might actually try to pass it off as something of a religious nature. This would be a huge mistake. Second, I think that the only way these people could teach Mike’s message is if they lived on Mars and were taught by the Martians, which obviously can’t happen. Many of Mike’s teachings in the book can be valid in the real world, but to try to model a real world religion after a piece of fiction is, in my opinion, misguided. After a bit more reading it looks like the real COA has distanced itself from the Stranger in a Strange Land COA in pretty much everything but the name.
Stranger in a Strange Land is not going to be my favorite book, but it’s certainly one of those books I wish I had read sooner and one of the books that I would consider to be essential reading for myself. I would rate it a solid 4 out of 5, if only for Mike’s mid-book personality and the concepts being introduced in the story. This was not what I would call a “gripping” read for me. Most of the time I was not hungrily turning pages, unable to put the book down. Instead it was a more patient reading experience. Which is a funny coincidence, because one of Mike’s core attributes and teachings is infinite patience and never hurrying.