My Favorite Agnostic

I could have called this post “My Favorite Martian” but I believe that title has already been taken.  And besides, Valentine Michael Smith, or just plain “Mike”, the Man from Mars in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land wasn’t my favorite character in the book.  His agnostic Earthly father figure, Dr. Jubal Harshaw, was.

I’ve seen this book in bookstores since I was a kid hanging out in the science fiction section but never had a clue as to what it was about.  Last summer, a friend recommended Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I read it and enjoyed it enough to read another of his novels this summer.  I’ve also heard good things about Starship Troopers (the novel, not the movie).

For the book to be published in 1961, Heinlein had to cut around 60,000 words.  My understanding is that the publishers simply didn’t want the book to be as long as it was; it didn’t have anything to do with the subject matter.  In 1990, the novel was published as Heinlein originally wanted it published.  With that publication, Kurt Vonnegut wrote an interesting review of the uncut version in the New York Times.  The version of the novel that I read included those 60,000 words.

I have to admit that the novel itself was a little bizarre for my tastes.  Mike technically is not a Martian, he is a human born on Mars and raised by Martians.  Actual Martian creatures are discussed but never given a concrete description.  A human expedition brings Mike back to Earth as an adult; however, he seems more a child until he learns earthly ways.  He still maintains his Martian “powers”.

Harshaw, an attorney and doctor, rescues him from the world government and brings Mike back to his household to tutor him.  His household includes several adult employees who all take a liking to Mike.  Harshaw reminds me of Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf  although with significantly more compassion.  He’s extremely knowledgable in art, philosophy, history, religion and literature and enjoys debating ideas from all of these fields with his employees, whom he treats as both his children and friends.  He’s comfortable with doubt if he cannot come to a hard and fast conclusion.  He’d rather live with doubt than come up with a pat answer that somehow doesn’t ring true.   He’s not afraid of tough questions that cannot be immediately answered.

As Mike finishes his human education, he moves into the world to spread the Martian “gospel” in the form of a circus cult commune.  According to Vonnegut’s article, Heinlein’s wife indicated that he considered monotheism and monogomy to be our society’s “sacred cows”.  This strange Martian cult throws both of these “cows” out the window.  Many of Harshaw’s employees join the cult to his disappointment.  Ultimately, Harshaw lives with them physically but never quite gives in to their beliefs emotionally, mentally or spiritually.

The novel uses a device that I sometimes find annoying:  to enjoy the story, the author feels the reader must be familiar with religious, historical and philosophical ideas that are not necessarily known to the average reader; therefore, the author gives mini lectures and writes mini essays through “conversation” among characters to bring the reader up to speed.  If the author wants to inform the reader, he could give a lecture or write an essay.  Including it in a novel seems awkward.  This device could possibly be why Heinlein hasn’t gotten his due from the literary critics Vonnegut refers to in his review.

I enjoyed the ideas that Heinlein throws out in this novel, I’m just not sure I agree with his conclusions.  I prefer Harshaw’s ability to live without a conclusion if a “real” one doesn’t seem to exist.


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