The International Writers Magazine: Review
In A Strange Land (The Uncut Version),
by Robert A. Heinlein
Robert Heinleins Stranger
In A Strange Land is one of those books Ive had on my
need to read list for nearly twenty years. The problem is Ive
never been a big sci -fi fan, at least in terms of writing. Do
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. Clarkes book, while arguably great, pales to Stanley
Kubricks 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.
Heres 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
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 Mikes 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 Jubals 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 its 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 Jills love.
Jubal, meanwhile, worries of Mikes selling out and his
growing vilification in popular culture. He goes to warn Mike of possible
consequences, and is revered as Mikes 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
hes 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 ecetera.
Regardless, pre-or post-1960s, there is a simplemindedness to
the approach of the novels 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 1950's 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 novels 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. Theres an essay called Stranger vs. Stranger
by a G.E. Rule that compares the two versions. Heinleins 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 Heinleins 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.
Heres his comment:
This one 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 doubly-tangent reference.
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."
Heres his comment:
Jubal Harshaw, Unbound! Jubal is a wordy, folksy kind of guy.
Remember, this is a combination of author/lawyer were talking
about. The AOP versions of Jubals 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 didnt 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 Heinleins 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 good book.
The single most obvious example would have been the fleshing out of
Mikes motives- not all, but some. On the other hand it could be
argued that the whole of the book, much like Ursula LeGuins The
Lathe Of Heaven, is a fantasy- the only question is whether its
Mikes, Jubals, or the Old Ones fantasy. In that case
Mikes blandness is the vicissitude of dream - strange, but a land
we all know.
© Dan Schnieder May 2005
all rights reserved