Review of Stranger In A Strange Land (The Uncut Version), by Robert A. Heinlein
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/29/05
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land is one of those books I’ve had on my need to read list for nearly twenty years. The problem is I’ve never been a big sci fi fan, at least in terms of writing. Due to the power of image over word sci fi is the one genre where the nostrum of the film never equaling the book is untrue. The prime example of this is 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Arthur C. Clarke’s book, while arguably great, pales to Stanley Kubrick’s film, even though both works evolved collectively.
The novel has been hailed not only for its tale, but being a sort of guide to the 1960s morés, written by a notoriously politically conservative figure in Heinlein. Published in 1961 the story is about a human raised on Mars who becomes a Messianic figure, yet unlike the Christ myth the novel never quite makes certain whether its Messiah is good or evil.
Here’s a synopsis: in the near future the Envoy becomes the first ship on Mars with human passengers- four married couples. It abruptly loses contact with Earth, a Third World War ensues and twenty-five years pass before another Earth expedition- the Champion- makes it to the Red Planet. It turns out there was one survivor from the Envoy- the child of an adulterous union who was raised by the Martians as one of them. He is Valentine Michael Smith- or Mike. While human in appearance he is alien in outlook. The scenes of his return to Earth, adjustment to higher gravity and human media, seem very realistic and well done. He quickly becomes a ward of the world government because global law decrees him a sovereign nation and the lawful ‘owner’ of Mars- making him potentially the richest, most powerful human in history. Yet, Mike is child-like and a pawn of the world government led by Secretary General Joseph Douglas. He elicits sympathy from his nurse- Jill Boardman- and her reporter boyfriend Ben Caxton, who plot to smuggle him out of government control. Before they can be successful Ben ‘disappears’ (at government behest) and Jill- bonded with Mike by water-sharing (becoming his water brother)- effects the escape alone.
He makes it to the estate of Jubal Harshaw- a sybaritic fop and guru dilettante who is a famed author, after accidentally killing two government pursuers through thought alone. There, Jubal quickly becomes Mike’s next water-brother, learns much of human ways, teaches them of grokking- understanding through the literal and metaphoric acts of consumption, as well as displaying the power of the mind via telekinesis and telepathy. Mike also acquaints with Jubal’s assistants- Duke and Larry- and his beautiful secretaries, Anne, Miriam, and Dorcas. Some of the best parts of the book are the conversations between Mike and the others- probing each other for information and philosophically dueling. Eventually Mike is discovered and only a personal plea from Jubal to Douglas staves off their arrest, and possible bloodshed were Mike to sense danger to his friends. Yet, Mike is sort of sold down the river by Jubal- his political import diminished as part of the deal for his freedom.
Yet, the government is not his only problem- a bizarre hedonist cult called the Fosterites has an interest in Mike, seeking to ally him with them would be a coup, but it’s not to be. Mike and the Fosterite head, Digby, clash and Mike accidentally ‘disappears’ him. He goes underground with Jill to escape both the cult and the authorities. A series of semi-comic escapades ensues until another Fosterite they meet at a carnival decrees Mike to be the new Fosterite prophet. Mike, growing more deluded in his superhuman nature, founds a new church- the Church Of All Worlds. Many Fosterites join him and they lead a life of nudity and group sex. Ben Caxton, released after the deal between Jubal and Douglas was struck, goes to investigate the cult, but soon joins them in an attempt to win back Jill’s love.
Jubal, meanwhile, worries of Mike’s selling out and his growing vilification in popular culture. He goes to warn Mike of possible consequences, and is revered as Mike’s father. Yet, outside the hotel the cult has chartered, an angry lynch mob is out for blood, sensing Mike is an Anti-Christ. Naïvely, Mike meets them naked and embracing love, is murdered and ascends to Heaven where he meets up with Foster and Digby. His cult soldiers on and the Martians who raised him abandon plans to wipe out humanity when they realize their laconic nature has allowed humanity to surpass them.
Overall, the tale is a good one, but the first half or two thirds far surpasses the ending. Whereas real dilemmas of the soul are explored early on the novel descends into an unwitting parody. Mike seemingly shows no growth on the exterior but his actions, often offstage, suggest he’s a manipulative con man who bought his own lies- starting with the power of the Martian Old Ones who raised him. While many critics apparently saw Mike as a Messiah or false Messiah, few saw him as a willful manipulator. Perhaps this is because the book I read was approximately two hundred and twenty thousand words long while the original version was one hundred and sixty thousand words long. Colleagues and online searches tell me that there was no reduction of narrative tropes, only an expansion of passages to illuminate motives, etc.
Regardless, pre- or post-1960s, there is a simplemindedness to the approach of the novel’s second half, even as it has elements of the real, but more importantly it makes a potentially great novel merely a good one. Had the novel focused more on the political intrigue and the philosophical matters at hand it would have been better. While the Martian Old Ones are spoken of in vaunted terms we see it turns out they have little bite. A focus on them, rather than the Fosterites, would have lent more insight into Mike, his motives, and the human dilemma he presents. Heinlein is good at presenting individuals but not so good at larger purviews. When Jill tells Michael that women are to blame for ninety percent of rapes she reflects a strong individual view, but one that has not aged well. She is a strong 1950s woman living in the future. In a sense, it could be argued that she is as much a stranger in a strange land as Mike is.
In fact, Jill and Jubal spend more time on stage than Mike does, and Jubal could also be seen as the stranger of the title. After all, he is a devout and fierce individualist in a world filled with cults and bureaucracies, and by novel’s end it is he, not Jill nor Mike, that is still a stranger, still tilting against the windmills. He honestly believes in his own free will, which Mike, Jill, and the Fosterites misinterpret as a pandeistic urge, ‘Thou art God!’ Mike, by contrast, readily abandons his Martian beliefs for human ones, even as he claims to merely find a congress between them. Either way, his character tends to preach too much.
But, let me get back to the difference between the original and the uncut versions. There’s an essay called Stranger vs. Stranger by a G.E. Rule that compares the two versions. Heinlein’s original publisher, Putnam, refused to publish the two hundred and twenty thousand word version, and Heinlein himself edited out the sixty thousand words. Both Rule and Heinlein contended that Heinlein’s authorial voice was lost in the cuts. Having recently cut about one hundred and eighty thousand words out of my four book memoir series I know the pros and cons of tight editing. While I lost some naturalness of speech, I ridded them of much unnecessary redundancies, and my authorial voice became stronger, more declarative, if a bit less colloquial.
Let me just give two of several instances Rule gives:
...an interplanetary trip made by humans had to be made in free-fall orbits--from Terra to Mars, two hundred-fifty-eight Terran days, the same for return, plus four hundred fifty-five days waiting at Mars while the planets crawled back into positions for the return orbit.
...any interplanetary trip made by humans necessarily had to be made in weary free-fall orbits, doubly tangent semi-ellipses--from Terra to Mars, two hundred-fifty-eight days, the same for the return journey, plus four hundred fifty-five days waiting at Mars while the two planets crawled slowly back into relative positions which would permit shaping the doubly-tangent orbit--a total of almost three Earth years.
Here’s his comment:
is a good argument for the ‘middle-ground’ theory. While on the whole I
prefer the Uncut version of this passage, a solid case can be made for trimming
parts of it. Perhaps the removal of the phrase containing the second
I agree. The idea that all editing is bad is as bad as the notion that editing assaults artistic integrity.
"Hold it," Harshaw said hastily. "Masculine speech forms do include the feminine, when you are speaking in general --but not when you are talking about a particular person."
"Eh? You say that when you want to ask a favor, Mike. What is it?"
"Hold it," Harshaw said hastily. "The trouble is with the English language, not with you. Masculine speech forms do include the feminine, when you are speaking in general--but not when you are talking about a particular person."
"Eh? You usually say that when you want to ask a favor, Mike. What is it this time? Speak up."
Here’s his comment:
Harshaw, Unbound! Jubal is a wordy, folksy kind of guy. Remember, this is a
combination of author/lawyer we’re talking about. The AOP versions of
Jubal’s speech patterns show evidence of the ‘telegraphese’ RAH mentions
in a letter to his agent. The Uncut versions are much more natural to the ear,
and much more likely to be the way Jubal actually talks. Jubal was always a
great character, but he didn’t come fully alive for me until I read the Uncut.
This, however, is not a good comment. Many people speak directly. This is not an example of bad editing, rather personal preference. However, given that Rule states that most cuts were in this fashion I have to say I think the originally published version would have been superior. Dialogue is not Heinlein’s strength- in fact, it seems that sci fi, in general, is at its worst when trying to predict the lingo and cadences of futurespeak, if only a few decades ahead. Imagine how Heinlein would deal with hip hop!Still, the book is a very good read, an example of a good idea and solid narrative leading to excellence. A little more realistic characterization, and a trimming of some excess tropes would have made it a great book. The single most obvious example would have been the fleshing out of Mike’s motives- not all, but some. On the other hand it could be argued that the whole of the book, much like Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe Of Heaven, is a fantasy- the only question is whether it’s Mike’s, Jubal’s, or the Old Ones’ fantasy. In that case Mike’s blandness is the vicissitude of dream- strange, but a land we all know.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 5/05 Hackwriters website.]
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