Stranger in a Strange Land is the Catcher in the Rye of SFS

Is Stranger in a Stranger Land by Robert Heinlein the Catcher in the Rye for the science-fiction set? Yes, I think you could say that about the 1962 Hugo winner in one important sense.

When author J.D. Salinger died this past Wednesday, I must confess it was convenient for me (if not for him), because it got people talking about his most famous novel. The Catcher in the Rye occupies an interesting position in the literary landscape: It's inarguably a classic, and inarguably a popular classic at that — a book that a lot of people have not only heard of but read, and that has touched them on a real emotional level. But for all that, it's also a book many of those same people are sort of embarrassed of.

Catcher in the Rye is famous as a book that means so much when you read it as a young person — your mileage may vary, of course, but that's what it's famous as, nonetheless. It's full of confusion and anger and easily bruised cynicism, and other adolescent emotions, and climaxes in a kind of sublime but immature optimism. It's a story that carries you away — or has carried many of us away, anyway — when you're somewhere between, say, 15 and 20, but leaves you feeling a little foolish the older you get, especially because of the tendency among allegedly cooler, smarter people to dismiss it or scorn it.

Stranger in a Strange Land does not trade in the same kind of emotional content — it's a much more detached book, except right at the end — but I think it suffers from the same kind of treatment as Catcher. At least, when it came up last weekend while I was out with some of the io9 powers that be, they were mild groans all around, and admissions that while, yes, it was certainly an important part of the canon, well, still. And that was certainly not the first time I've encountered such a reaction to it.

For the record, I don't want to give the impression that anyone from io9 said anything derogatory about the book, because they didn't — there was just some eye-rolling. Which I get. For one thing, it's Heinlein, and even his most die-hard fans ought to agree that he's earned his share of eye rolls. And for another thing, Stranger really is a hokey book.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the Catcher in the Rye of SFS

In case anyone reading this hasn't read it, the story goes as follows: The first manned mission to Mars, consisting of four heterosexual couples, radios back that it has arrived on the planet and then is never heard from again. Years later, the second manned mission to Mars discovers that the fourth planet is inhabited by a native species, that two members of the first mission had a child before dying, and that the odd, inscrutable Martians have raised the kid as one of their own. The astronauts bring the young man, Valentine Michael Smith, back to Earth, where his presence shakes things up, to say the least. The first problem is that the world government wants to control him because he's the heir to an unearthly fortune. The bigger issue is that Michael's Martian heritage has given him a very different outlook on life from most of humanity's, as well as some godlike abilities.

Martians think differently than we do, in large part because they live much longer and because they don't really die — they just lose their bodies and evolve into what they call Old Ones. The upshot of this is that they're not in a hurry, and so instead of deciding anything quickly, they think about it long and carefully and from every possible angle — they grok it, to use their word.

To get an idea of the impact Stranger in a Strange Land and Heinlein had, consider that "grok" is listed in most modern dictionaries, from the OED to Webster's. (By comparison, "orc" still isn't in my Webster's 11th Collegiate, despite having been coined and popularized a quarter century earlier.) But it was not so much the idea of grokking that resonated with readers as what it leads to in the story. As Michael teaches his Earthling friends to grok and to think like Martians, their human patterns of thought fall away, freeing them from shame and guilt and jealousy and repression. Naturally, this leads to nudism and group sex.

And because it's Heinlein, the group sex is warm and touchy-feely, but ultimately just as heterosexist and chauvinistic as a Penthouse Forum letter. Beyond that concern, there's the fact that successfully applying Michael's philosophies seems absolutely unrealistic outside of the world of fiction. It's easy to gloss over these problems with the book, though, especially if you're young and reading it for the first time, because so much of the setup and philosophy is not just appealing but logical, if highly idealized, in the abstract. It's only upon a more critical reexamination that one sees that gosh, maybe the stuff that sounded so wise and deep isn't so pat; maybe it's so overly simplified as to be a little ridiculous.

And I think that it's the feeling of having been taken in so hard, and then finding out that what you thought was brilliant might be kinda silly, that leaves people rolling their eyes at and dismissive of Stranger in a Strange Land. Or just the fact of all the SF that came along later that grapples with sexuality and morality in a much more complex way.

Likewise, there are plenty of works out there that deal with much more sophisticated issues than The Catcher in the Rye does. And we have this tendency to rank works that are more complex or more sophisticated as better than those that are simpler. I get why — if it works, a more complex piece of art by definition took more skill to pull off than a simpler piece.

But if we stop and grok it, that's not a judgment about the merits of the pieces of art — it's a judgment about the ability of the artist. A more complicated piece of art isn't better than a simpler piece; rather, it was created by a better* artist — maybe even the same artist who created the simpler piece, at an earlier time.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the Catcher in the Rye of SFS

The other reason to avoid classifying more complex works of art as "better" is that "better" is a relative term, dependent on the audience. For a lot of people, it makes much more sense to start with Stranger in a Strange Land's broad handling of, say, polyamory than to dive into Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren; when you're coming to grips with new ideas, you don't want nuance so much as explication. More to the point, it's difficult to imagine works like Dhalgren and the headier, more provocative SF that came later ever getting published at all without a more accessible book like Stranger to break ground for them.

Finally, I'd argue that Stranger in a Strange Land is actually a very solid novel in its own right, enough so that it doesn't deserve qualifications like "good — for what it is," or "groundbreaking — for its time." After all, it will be a long time before its fundamental ideas aren't groundbreaking for and wouldn't be useful to much of the Earth's population.

Some other thoughts, in brief:

  • Interesting that Michael's teachings would have effectively prevented the circumstances of his conception and abandonment to the Martians.
  • If you need to choose between reading the original book and the unabridged version published in 1991, go with the original. I read the 1991 version first, a little more than ten years ago, and I think it must be mostly padding, because all the big stuff I remember is in the original.
  • I could see Stranger as an HBO miniseries, set in a sort of weird retro future, where people have flying cars but still use film projectors and there's no Internet.
  • The story starts reasonably strong, and then gets very strong, hitting its high point, in my opinion, with Michael's big televised conference with the Secretary-General. It drags a little after that — too much philosophizing, not enough conflict — but I couldn't imagine it having been written any other way.
  • I was IMing with Braak the other day, and he summed up the whole point of the book as succinctly as I've ever heard:

  • me: yeah, but what I like is that it's not the relativism that I think gets associated with Buddhism so much — "everything is OK"; you can grok a wrongness in something. you just have to grok it all before you know for sure.

    Chris: Right it's just that there's more and different things that are okay than we think there are. And it's the thinking that makes most things wrong, not the thing itself.

  • This is a funny book. There's a lot of dopey Heinleinian banter, too (dude was like the Aaron Sorkin of his day), but I LOLed more times than I have yet while reading for this column.

On that note, there's a bit that I think gives the lie to the notion — I think implicitly held by a lot of people, including myself until recently — that Heinlein was a sort of oblivious doof, 100 percent committed to the ideas he espoused in his writings, instead of just throwing them out there as fodder for discussion. In the final pages of the book — SPOILER ALERT — Mike's water-brothers, adhering to the Martian tradition of cannibalism as recycling, are eating his body:

Duke dipped out a little in the spoon, tasted it. "Needs a little salt."

"Yes, Mike always did need a little seasoning." Jubal took the spoon and tasted the broth. Duke was correct; the flavor was sweet and could have used salt.

Yet another reason to give Stranger in a Strange Land more credit than it gets from some quarters — it's meant to be taken with a grain of salt.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, from 1963.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.

*"Better" here being synonymous with "more skilled," although I can see good arguments for distinguishing between the two.

(Thanks, Lauren, for compiling this awesome gallery of Stranger in a Strange Land covers.)