Religion and sexuality are two of the most difficult subjects to engage as a writer. Regardless of the writer’s intentions, someone is going to be deeply offended or challenged, probably both. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land seeks to both offend and challenge. Heinlein uses the eponymous stranger to stand on a soap box and examine humanity’s penchant for ideology and sexual repression. Clearly a product of its time, the novel does not hold up as well on the speculative fiction front. On the psychological front, the novel can and does retain an impactful message for humans to examine their own foibles.
The story centers around Valentine Michael Smith, a human born on Mars and raised by Martians after the deaths of the entire crew of the first manned mission to the red planet. By being indoctrinated to a completely alien mindset, Heinlein uses Michael to examine first the interpersonal relationships that define humans, such as friendship and trust, and then to examine the larger cultural constructs that define society, such as property and religion. There is a strong tie to Bedouin desert culture in Michael’s water-sharing (which makes sense considering the complete lack of ready water on Mars). Sharing water becomes a symbol throughout the novel for the sharing of minds (and eventually bodies). But Michael (whose name translates to “who is like God”) is not the only main character of this novel. Instead, Michael is merely the catalyst for changes to human society that would be inevitable were it ever discovered that life exists beyond the third planet of the Sol system.
The second main character is Jubal Harshaw: a writer, misanthrope, amateur anarchist, and moral center of the story. It is Jubal’s (whose name translates to “father of all”) insistence that Michael interact with others and the world that set the stage for the second half of the novel. The novel’s structure can be considered gospel-like, with the heading for each section an allusion to a Christ-like rise and inevitable fall. The Judeo-Christian allusions are rampant throughout the novel, with Jubal reluctantly taking on the role of Yahweh to Michael’s role of Yeshua. Jubal also allows Heinlein to spent copious amounts of pages (too many, in fact) espousing his beliefs on every subject from sexual taboos to political necessities. While reading the diatribes of Jubal, I kept getting the suspicion that I was reading the mind of Heinlein.
Unfortunately, the other characters are not really given much to do, except fall unconvincingly into a pseudo-harmonious idea of plurality of marriage and partnerships. The closest thing to a third main character is Gillian Boardman, called Jill frequently through the novel. She serves a function of providing Michael with an earthly education, particularly the nuances of human’s puritanical social mores. Her transformation into a follower/lover of Michael is inevitable from the first meeting between the characters but it is filled with sweetness (at times). Unfortunately, she is also given some truly atrocious things to say about female sexuality, particularly when it comes to who is to blame when a rape occurs.
This underhanded treatment of women is a recurrent theme throughout the novel and one that I find most distasteful. The idea of non-monogamous sexuality is not unfamiliar to me but in the novel such things are almost always discussed by men and women are given little to do except acquiesce willingly. While Jubal has a certain roguish good-nature to him, he is surrounded by nubile female secretaries in an edenic home. While he receives grief from them for his brashness and solipsism, it is mostly in the form of a subservient back-talk without any real teeth. The only other major female characters are depicted as shrewish manipulators (in the case of Agnes Douglas) and/or effective con artists (such as Madame Vessant).
Then there is the religious angle, which takes up the entirety of the second half of the novel. As I read through the encounters with the Fosterite religion (a Christian denomination of some power that encourages gambling, sexual freedom, and debauchery as long as it’s done with the church’s controls in place) and the encounters with Fosterites such as Patty Paiwonski, I wasn’t sure if Heinlein was creating caricatures or real characters of devout faith. In the end, when Michael creates his Church of All Worlds, he openly admits to using religious trappings and iconography to trap the “marks” (the masses) into his ideology. Heinlein’s uses this second half of the novel in an attempt to expose his ideas of the rigged nature of organized religion (through the Fosterites political power and approved brands of purchasable commodities) and the esotericism inherent in mystery cults such as Christianity.
More than anything, Stranger in a Strange Land is meant to be incendiary novel, by the author’s own admission. The story itself is secondary to the author’s desire to trample over the social mores and taboos of his time and adjust them ever so slightly. The fact that much of the philosophy of the story was adopted by neo-pagans (such as the real-life Church of All Worlds) shows that Heinlein was able to tap into some dissatisfaction with the status quo of religion and sexuality. For all its faults, Stranger is a dynamic story that one should be read, if for no other reason than to challenge the social and cultural norms one is indoctrinated with from an early age.