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Stranger and Stranger - Unbeliever's Land
...The continuing chronicles...
unbeliever64
unbeliever64
Stranger and Stranger
My first LJ Book Report.  :)

...And it's way too damn long.

A brief summary of Stranger in a Strange Land, for those of you who haven't read it:

A ship is sent to Mars carrying four married couples, to try and start a Martian colony.  The colony is not heard from again.  25 years later, a second, faster ship is sent to see what happened.  It returns with news that the original colonists were all dead, but that two of them had born a son, Valentine Michael Smith, who had been brought up and raised by native Martians.  "Mike", who thinks and speaks in Martian and has never before seen another human, is returned to Earth.  And Hilarious Hijinks Ensue!

Well, not exactly.

I confess, I've always liked the first half of the book -- where Mike is "only an egg" and is shy, sweet and trying to learn about his native species -- more than the second half, where Mike suddenly becomes an extrovert, joins a carnival, then forms a cult and dies a martyr.  The first time I read this book, I felt like I could have WRITTEN the first half (it appealed to my personality so much).  But I would never have then taken the direction Heinlein took.

Maybe age (and the corresponding increase in cynicism) has something to do with it, but this time through, the second half wasn't as jarring as I remember it being previously.  I got more from Mike's observations of humanity, and found myself more focussed on the details, this time around.

This may be the first time I've read Stranger since moving to Oregon and consciously self-identifying as an atheist/humanist.  (Certainly, I had been skeptical of religion for some time prior, but hadn't really labelled myself or considered what that meant.)  So this is the first time I've really thought about Stranger from that standpoint.

Mike's (and Jubal's) negative take on religion certainly agrees with my overall perspective.  (Though Jubal then has to ruin it by insisting that the idea of life coming about by chance is equally ridiculous -- hadn't Heinlein ever heard of natural selection?)

Mike's insistance that "Thou art God"/"I am God"/"Anything that groks is God" has a nice humanist ring to it.  And the free love/water brotherhood aspects of Mike's teachings certainly appeal (especially within the context of the world Mike sets up, where disease is magically eliminated, pregnancy can only occur by conscious choice, and there is an infinite supply of money).

But other aspects of the story don't jibe so well with a humanist viewpoint.

In particular, I just can't make myself accept casual killing as part of Mike's utopian vision.  Yes, Mike explains that "you can't REALLY kill someone" (since people appear to become angels -- complete with halos -- when they die, and can apparantly choose to be reincarnated at will).  But since that's ONE story premise I simply can't accept (telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation, OK -- but not angels), I can't accept killing as the moral equivalent of "taking someone out of the game for roughhousing" either.

[Oddly, a favorite fantasy series of mine, Steven Brust's Jhereg books, is about an assassin in a world where reincarnation is a known fact -- and the killing doesn't bother me a bit there.  I suspect this is because A) Vlad (the assassin) isn't as utterly casual about killing as Mike is, and B) unlike Jhereg, Stranger is presented as a utopia, on a more-or-less realistic Earth.]

And don't even get me started on my other serious issue with Mike's little paradise -- cannibalism.  (At least in the uncut version of the book, there are two places where our characters CLAIM to be engaging in cannibalism -- and given Martian matter-of-factness about the subject, I'm not quite sure if we're supposed to believe the characters are joking...)

What really struck me in this reading was just how much Mike's "Church of All Worlds" resembles literally every other cult -- or perhaps it should be, "how much every cult in the last 45 years has come to resemble Mike's church", given how long ago this book was written.
  • One central, unquestioned authority figure -- check.
  • All the women want to have sex with the leader and bear his children -- check.
  • Chanting of seemingly nonsensical mantras and assumption of superiority over the unconverted -- check.
  • Unconventional views of the supernatural -- check.
  • Perceived persecution by the outside world -- check.
  • Casual killing of uncooperative authority figures -- check.
(I suppose they don't collect guns -- but with the power to simply vanish anyone giving you trouble, who needs to?)

Overall, I very much enjoy Stranger as a story, and as a set of observations of the human condition.  Given the magical abilities that enable it to exist, I would love to be part of Mike's Nest.

But the sad fact is, reality doesn't work that way...  and without the magic, Mike's Nest falls apart and turns into Just Another Cult.

Wow.  Maybe I am getting too old and cynical to properly enjoy this book...


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Current Emotional State: mellow mellow

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