Sunday, May 13, 2012

Science Fiction: Stranger in the Strange Land

Valentine Michael Smith (Mike) was born on Mars to two members of the first expedition from Earth. He was also the only survivor and was brought up by members of an ancient Martian civilization. Twenty Years later, he is found by the second expedition and brought back to an Earth that is to him a completely alien culture and often terrifying, with a telepathic link to the Martians so that they can study Earth and decide whether it is a threat or not.

Hidden by the government, partly for his own sake and partly because they are afraid of him, he is helped to escape by Jill Boardman, the first woman he has ever seen, and they end up taking refuge at the home of writer Jubal Harshow. After learning enough about human culture to get by, Mike decided to form his own church based on his own brand of Martian philosophy, which involves nudity, copious free love, individual responsibility and a message of peace.

There are long diatribes against ineffectual government, organized religion and many of America's contemporary values. These are, in effect, the personal views of the author, Robert A. Heinlein, and at the beginning of the 1960's were so shocking that the publisher cut the book by about 60,000 words. The unexpurgated version was published by his widow some years after his death.

The book is of its era, and was very influential in some hippie circles over the following years. But bearing that in mind, many of the questions it raises about society, politics and belief are relevant today. Heinlein's attitude towards women, and some of the slang, have dated, but this book is still an enthralling story from the discovery of the young man to the inevitable conclusion.

About the author

Depending on who you ask, science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) was either a conservative, a fascist, or a left-wing hippie.
But to those who knew him best -- and to those who read any of his 47 books -- Heinlein was a libertarian who glorified individualism, progress, honor, and responsibility. In fact, the opined: "The man was as libertarian as they come." In the American Spectator (February 10, 2004), Colby Cosh wrote: "If you wish to trace the sources of the libertarian strain in 20th-century American thought, you must include the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein."

Heinlein's novels feature characters who revolt against oppressive government (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, 1966), fight aliens who steal their autonomy (The Puppet Masters, 1951), and spout libertarian philosophy (Time Enough for Love, 1973).

 Robert A Heinlein (1907 - 1988)

In Time Enough for Love, Heinlein best summed up his view of the world when he wrote: "The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire." Heinlein left no doubt about which side of that divide he favored. (If there was any doubt, it ended when he described himself to fellow science-fiction writer Alfred Bester as "a hard-headed radical, a pragmatic libertarian.")
A graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Heinlein published his first science fiction story in 1939, and went on to write dozens of classic science fiction novels, including Tunnel in the Sky (1955), Glory Road (1963), I Will Fear No Evil (1970), Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985). In 2004, Heinlein's first novel, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (originally written in 1938), was posthumously published.

Heinlein has always been a favorite of libertarian readers: Five of his novels have been honored with the Hall of Fame Award for Classic Novel of Liberty from the Libertarian Futurist Society: Time Enough for Love, Methuselah's Children (1958), Red Planet (1949), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

In the Libertarian Party's monthly newspaper, LP News, Laissez Faire Books editor Jim Powell named The Moon is a Harsh Mistress one of the 20 best introductory books about libertarianism. In 2003, Heinlein was named one of the past three decade's "35 Heroes of Liberty" by Reason magazine. Heinlein is also credited with coining the popular libertarian phrase, "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch," commonly abbreviated to TANSTAAFL.

-- Bill Winter

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