Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein takes the themes portrayed in the book and directly criticizes the Western Culture. As Heinlein said, "My purpose in this book was to examine every major axiom of western culture, to question each axiom, throw doubt on it" (Jelliffe 161). These axioms are where feels the Western Culture fails and so he uses the themes to criticize humans of the Western Culture by pointing out these faults. The themes of the story portray this by having Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians, come to earth to teach his knowledge which contradict what the Western Culture feels to be true. "Stranger is a strong-minded work of culture criticism, no doubt about it (Stover 58)." The themes that Heinlein uses are those of religion, sex, and love to make his point of where the Western Culture fails as a whole. Heinlein's writing of his novels after 1961 when he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, has changed the genre of science-fiction, because he not only wrote about strange worlds and crazy adventures, but Heinlein also tried to include criticism and a message to the reader in his novels to explain problems that he felt humans have. This became Heinlein's writing style after 1957 when he reached the age of 50 and was on the top of science-fiction. Because science-fiction was considered to be for kids, Heinlein began to write more for adult audiences by adding the real problems and criticism into his novel (Drucolli 210). "The publication of Stranger in a Strange Land marked drastic shift in Heinlein's writing, at least in social criticism and controversial subject matter" (Drucolli 227). "As he had done immediately before World War II, Heinlein helped to reshape (with Stranger) the genre and make it more significant and valuable then it had been" (Drucolli 211). This has been a large step for science-fiction, having substance rather than just entertainment value. Having been one of the most famous science fiction books for this reason, "Billy Joel saw fit to mention the title in his 1989 Top-40 hit about history, 'We Didn't Start the Fire'" (Ager). In Stranger, Heinlein's point that he tries to make is that of the Western Culture and where it fails. "One says that Heinlein examined many of the common assumptions by which Americans lived and then wrote a novel presenting the other side of each" (Drucolli 226).
"No communicant to a currently established religion is likely to think it anything but blasphemous, but its dominant subject is religion" (Atheling 227). Religion is in no doubt one of the most important themes in the story. Heinlein uses it to throw doubt on what the Western Culture depicts as religion. Smith does not understand religion because of the many contradictions each religion has on another. He does not understand how groups of people can believe one religion to be true and how a group can believe a totally different religion true at the same time. Because of his innocence, Smith doesn't understand the concept of lying and therefore is confused at how all the religions can be true at the same time. Smith conquers his doubts by creating his own religion, which is more a school and cult more than a religion. He "forms a 'religion', or movement, which includes instruction in the Martian language and these same telepathic powers....His followers gather in communes or "nests"- ten or fifteen people living together in a close knit, sexually free-flowing, family relationship" (Rose 226).
"The ugly side of this reading was illustrated by the strange case of Charles
Manson, self-appointed Messiah of Southern California, who apparently
found in this book, as in the Beatles' song, Helter Skelter, a cornerstone of
his own religion of love and hate that culminated in Tate-La Bianca
murders of 1969" (Samuelson 167).
Charles Manson used Stranger as a kind of "Bible". Like Smith in the Book, he kept "nests" for his family and was sexually free-flowing. Heinlein's response to events like these where people have used Stranger as a bible is "I would never undertake to be a `Prophet,' handing out neatly packaged answers to lazy minds....anyone who takes that book as answers is cheating himself. It is an invitation to think--not to believe" (Ager). Family is a more important part of Smith's religion then it ever has been for many religions in the world. The concepts of family are important in his religion as a source of love and trust. "In his religion, "Smith is the messiah (or perhaps only the prophet), and the main task of the novel is to show it as sane, desirable, and exalting" (Atheling 228). As the "Messiah", Smith teaches the human race to practice Martian rituals such as "water-sharing". In Western religions there is little of "growing closer" between members, but in Smiths religion the essence is the growing togetherness of its members. One way that he expresses togetherness is by practicing "water-sharing." This practice that Smith teaches his followers is a growing closer which represents the Martian form of love.
However little religion can be seen, religion is one of the themes of J.R.R. Tolkien's book Fellowship of the Rings. The story of the trilogy Lord of the Rings is that of good verses evil. Unlike Heinlein, Tolkien is not criticizing a specific culture, but in fact is criticizing the evil that appears in the world we all live in. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter he stated that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision....the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism" (Bruckner 162).
Another important theme Heinlein uses to criticize humans of the Western Culture is the theme of sex. Stranger "was also the first work of that genre (sci-fi) to deal openly with sex" (Stover 53). Heinlein uses sex to show how humans can "grow closer." Just like the Martian "water-sharing", sex is used as a bond of love and trust. "Heinlein is concerned with exposing and undermining stifling sexual mores" (Cansler 227). Smith teaches that sex should by free-flowing and has many partners during the course of the story. Americans believe sex to be a private activity, but in Stranger in a Strange Land group sex is encouraged (Drucolli 226). Each of these partners is a member of his cult or religion. "As a prerequisite to sex, in Stranger in a Strange Land, marriage is irrelevant. Officially, Americans believe in couples limiting their sexual activity to one another," (Drucolli 226) but in Stranger, "sexual promiscuity is the norm" (Drucolli 226). The Western Culture would have it that sex is something to be feared, and as a result does not openly and freely talk about sex and tends not to commit openly to sexual topics.
There are many people who have told someone that they have "loved" them. However, many times this has been a synthetic love. In the story of Stranger, Michael does not understand the concept of love for a long time, it is not something they had on Mars, so he could not grasp right away. However as time went on Mike started to understand what love was. In fact, Heinlein named the protagonist of the story Valentine Michael Smith as symbolism. "Valentine for love, Smith for commonality: his name spells out the idea of universal amity" (Stover 56). He begins to understand love after "growing closer" with his friends after discovering sex and using the "water sharing" ceremony to become a water brother of these people who are close to him. As a result, Smith learned what it was to care for someone through his own experiences with that person. His religion is "a religion of love" (Samuelson 167). Sex also is a result of this love, or rather is one of the processes of creating this love. No where in Western Culture is there stronger bonds of love between people than there is with Valentine Michael Smith and his "water brothers." Heinlein uses the theme of love because he believes there should be more of it in the true world that he lives in. During the time period the book was written in, segregation was becoming a large topic in the United States again. Just before Heinlein wrote the book, in 1955, "Rosa Parks was arrested for disobeying the Montgomery, Alabama law that required her to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Her bold action helped to stimulate protests against inequality" ("Civil Rights"). Events like these in the period before the book was written are some that inspired Heinlein to write a book about love rather than hate. Like the revolts against desegregation by the white people of the south, Heinlein ends the book in the revolt against Smith because the ideas are too new, and people are unsure of change. In both cases, it was the idea of love shot down by the idea of hate, and the uncertainty of new ideas.
Heinlein has used Stranger in a Strange Land to disagree with the ideas of the Western Culture. He has used religion and sex as a way to grow stronger in love which he feels there should be more of. He has written the book to express important morals that humans should follow in order to "grow closer" to one another. Those who read the book for entertainment only may be disappointed because the book contains criticism against the western culture, full of hate, synthetic love, and fear of sex. Heinlein has also shown people through Stranger how and where we lack in the aspect of growing closer. "Through Mike's unspoiled, unbiased eyes, we see how strange our world really is" (Hull 255).
Ager, Beth. “Stranger in a Strange Land.” http://www.wegrokit.com/siasl.htm. December 19, 1998.
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“Civil Rights.” Encarta 95. CD-ROM. Funk & Wagnall’s, 1994.
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