“He’s ignorant to six decimal places.” – Jubal Harshaw
“Faith! What a dirty Anglo-Saxon monosyllable – Jill, how does it happen that you didn’t mention that one when you were teaching me the words not to use in polite company?” – Michael Valentine Smith
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange land was billed, on the cover of the 25th anniversary complete edition I borrowed at the library, as a classic of the Free Love era. It’s easy to see why.
The tale is an examination of the life of Michael Valentine Smith. Smith was the child conceived and born on the first space flight from Earth to Mars. Only this known to no one until, more than two decades later, Earth sends a second spacecraft to the red planet. There, the pilgrims find Michael, the only survivor of the first voyage, a human raised as a Martian with no Terran influences. The Martians send Michael back with part of the Earth crew, to see his “home planet.”
Michael goes from an Earthling who doesn’t understand bathtubs and has never seen a female to the leader of a powerful, controversial cult. His powers allow him to make matter – such as guns and the humans holding them – disappear. He can move items – briefly working as a carnival magician – and can speak telepathically with others. He uses these gifts to teach other humans how to attain them under the guise of a neo-religion, taking only the most advanced and open to the top of the “church’s” nine levels. It is a matter of both knowledge and being connected to the universe that will allow humans to manipulate the world as Michael does.
Plus, free love. Lots of it. Anywhere, anytime. To the discomfort of several characters, at least initially. And the key to enlightenment is openness at all levels, whether it is in the pursuit of expanding your intellect or your sex life is irrelevant.
Grok it? Stranger in a Strange Land is much broader, has greater depth than I’m making it sound like, but you can see the hippie overtones. Heinlein makes a compelling case for how Michael chooses to live his life, and how he spreads his gifts to others. He also takes square aim at government corruption, predicts the ridiculousness of cable news decades before its existence, mocks the frailty of religion while simultaneously admiring it, even taken a few shots at his own craft.
The only downside is it does get a bit talky, with a number of characters giving monologues, particularly Michael and his human mentor, doctor-novelist-lawyer-rebel Jubal Harshaw. Stranger in a Strange Land reminds me a lot of Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction in that regard. If you’re a fan and you’re into it, like I was in both cases, you gobble it down. But if you’re not a big reader or really into, I could see how that verbosity might drag the story down.