Authority, responsibility and a “man from Mars”: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a 1987 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here is an Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, inducted into the 1987 Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

By William H. Stoddard
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land wasn’t just a best seller, and the book that made publishers take science fiction seriously as a commercial proposition; it was a major influence on the hippie movement, the counterculture more generally, and neo-pagan and New Age thought.

Given all this, it seemed paradoxical to some readers that Heinlein was also the author of Starship Troopers,with its praise of military service and especially, as Heinlein said, of the “poor bloody infantry” — the foot-soldiers who stood between their native planets and the desolation of war. Heinlein himself saw no such paradox; he said, in fact, that the two books reflected the same ethical and political ideas.

What did these two seemingly disparate works have in common? At the deepest level, the answer is “a sort of libertarianism”: not advocacy of the free market, or of specific constitutional arrangements, or of constitutional goverment as such (though such ideas appear in Heinlein’s other works), but a basic ethical principle.

That principle, stated explicitly in Starship Troopers, is that authority and responsibility must balance in a workable social system; as a Spanish proverb has it, “‘Take what you like,’ said God; ‘take it – and pay for it.”

The same concept is expressed in Stranger in a Strange Land in one of its most famous sayings, “Thou art God.” Its central character, Valentine Michael Smith, attains full enlightenment when he grasps that it is he who must choose what to do, and be responsible for it.

And in the end, he assumes responsibility by going out to face a lynch mob and die, just as, according to Heinlein, Juan Rico, the protagonist of Starship Troopers, is going out to die at the end of that novel.

Whether Stranger in a Strange Land is actually science fiction might seem more debatable, despite its authorship and its Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Certainly its protagonist was raised on Mars, a child of the first human expedition there; but the physical nature of Mars is relatively unimportant to the story, especially after the opening chapters, and the nature of the spacecraft that took his parents there is even less important.

Smith is a “man from Mars” in a more metaphorical sense: an outside observer able to comment on human peculiarities without sharing them, like Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms or the Sirian and Saturn of Voltaire’s Micromégas.

In The Martian Named Smith, William H. Patterson Jr. and Andrew Thornton describe it as a Menippean satire, a work that uses the fantastic as a vehicle for social commentary. (On the other hand, a case can be made that Gulliver’s Travels, a classic Menippean satire, is the first major English work of science fiction, with its elaborate satire on the Royal Society, among other things.)

On the other hand, it does have one essentially speculative scientific concept, founded on an actual scientific theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the impact of language on cognition, on self-awareness, and on human capabilities.

Heinlein explores this in theoretical terms through discussions between Smith’s mentor, Jubal Harshaw, and a Near Eastern semanticist, Dr. Mahmoud, who explains that despite the profound differences between Arabic and English, compared with Martian they might as well be the same language (rather as Whorf wrote about the contrast between Native American languages and “standard average European” in a series of essays published by MIT Press that Heinlein might very well have read).

In Heinlein’s story, learning Martian doesn’t just influence the way people think, or even the way they perceive the world, but gives them extraordinary powers. This kind of linguistic speculation is no less science-fictional than astronomical or biological speculation; similar explorations of the psychological and cultural effects of language can be found in works by other authors such as Jack Vance and Samuel R. Delaney.

And on yet another hand, making science fiction a vehicle for social commentary and criticism has an honorable history. Many Eastern European authors did likewise, during the era of Soviet repression; so did dystopian authors such as Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell; and so did American science fiction writers of the 1950s.

Such commentary, in Heinlein’s case, very much reflected his individualistic perspective and ‘question-authority’ spirit, a cultural force that spread widely through the 1960s and helped shape the modern libertarian movement.

Even if a work does not present explicitly libertarian ideas, libertarians can sympathize with the quest for freedom to express dissident views.

And Heinlein took full advantage of that freedom, in a way that had not been possible before him – though he seems to have been troubled by people who thought he was presenting a new orthodoxy rather than asking questions.

Note: Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), a mentor to several generations of younger sf writers and libertarians, ultimately became the author most recognized by the Prometheus Awards, with a record seven awards as of 2020.

Robert Heinlein (Creative Commons license)

Other works inducted into the Hall of Fame include his bestselling Hugo-winning novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (in 1983, one of the first two inductees along with Ayn Rand’s Anthem), the novel Red Planet (in 1996), the novel Methuselah’s Children (in 1997), the novel Time Enough for Love (in 1998), the story Requiem (in 2003) and the story Coventry (in 2017.)

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, the other 1986 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* Other Prometheus winners:  For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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