Saturday, 15 July 2017

Stranger in a Strange Land - New Wave Science Fiction Classic

In the history of science fiction series, we are looking at the New Wave which took off in the 1960s and 70s. Many authors prominent earlier continued to be successful by adapting their style. For example Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), and Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves (1972). Over the next three weeks we are going to look at the plot outlines of these books.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land is a 1961 science fiction novel by American author Robert A Heinlein. It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians. The novel explores his interaction with—and eventual transformation of—Earth culture. In 2012, the US Library of Congress named it one of 88 "Books that Shaped America".


The title "Stranger in a Strange Land" is an allusion to the phrase in Exodus 2:22. According to Heinlein, the novel's working title was The Heretic.

In 1991, three years after Heinlein's death, his widow, Virginia Heinlein, arranged to have the original uncut manuscript published. Critics disagree about which version is superior, though Heinlein preferred the original manuscript and described the heavily edited version as "telegraphese".

The story focuses on a human raised on Mars and his adaptation to, and understanding of, humans and their culture. A manned expedition is mounted to visit the planet Mars, but all contact is lost after landing. A second expedition 25 years later finds a single survivor, Valentine Michael Smith. Smith was born on the spacecraft and was raised entirely by the Martians. He is ordered by the Martians to accompany the returning expedition.

Because Smith is unaccustomed to the conditions on Earth, he is confined at Bethesda Hospital, where having never seen a human female, he is attended by male staff only. Seeing this restriction as a challenge, Nurse Gillian Boardman eludes the guards and goes in to see Smith. Gillian conveys Smith to Jubal Harshaw, a famous author who is also a physician and a lawyer.

Smith demonstrates psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence, coupled with a childlike naïveté. When Harshaw tries to explain religion to him, Smith understands the concept of God only as "one who groks", meaning to understand so completely that it becomes part of you. This should be the aim of everyone. This leads him to express the Martian concept of life as the phrase "Thou art God", although he knows this is a bad translation. Many other human concepts such as war, clothing, and jealousy are strange to him, while the idea of an afterlife is a fact he takes for granted because Martian society is directed by "Old Ones", the spirits of Martians who have "discorporated". It is also customary for loved ones and friends to eat the bodies of the dead, in a rite similar to Holy Communion. Eventually, Harshaw arranges freedom for Smith and recognition that human law, which would have granted ownership of Mars to Smith, has no applicability to a planet already inhabited by intelligent life.

Still inexhaustibly wealthy, and now free to travel, Smith becomes a celebrity and is feted by the Earth's elite. He investigates many religions, including the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, a populist megachurch wherein sexuality, gambling, alcohol consumption, and similar activities are allowed, even encouraged, and only considered "sinning" when not under church auspices.

Eventually, Smith starts a Martian-influenced "Church of All Worlds" combining elements of the Fosterite cult (especially the sexual aspects) with Western esotericism, whose members learn the Martian language and thus acquire psychokinetic abilities.

Smith is killed by a mob raised against him by the Fosterites. From the afterlife, he speaks briefly to grief-stricken Jubal, to dissuade him from suicide. Having consumed a small portion of Smith's remains in keeping with Martian custom, Jubal and some of the Church members return to Jubal's home to regroup and prepare for their new evangelical role founding congregations. Meanwhile, Smith re-appears in the afterlife to replace the Fosterites' eponymous founder, amid hints that Smith was an incarnation of the Archangel Michael.

[adapted from Wikipedia and other online sources]




Ann Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz

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