22 The Intellectual Martian Society of “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein

Ethan Ross

I’m an alum of the Ohio State University, having graduated from the School of Environment and Natural Resources in 2020 with a Bachelors of Science. A second-generation Buckeye, I enjoy reading in my free time, especially the works of author Robert Heinlein, whose novel Stranger in a Strange Land concerns itself with American religious revivals and the importance of clean water, which made it a strong subject for my chapter.

Holistic Thinking for Environmental Balance

In 1961, the accomplished science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein shared his latest work with the world. In the fashion of a fairytale, Stranger in a Strange Land begins “Once upon a time,” and goes on to describe the fantastic culture of Mars and its impact on human society. The timing of its publication in the early 1960s allowed for a short digestion period, so that it was ripe in the mind of the counterculture in the latter half of the decade. Themes of religious reform, free love, and a oneness with the cosmos permeate the book, and coincidentally rose to popularity during this time. The alignment of the novel with the counterculture cannot be understated: in 1967, the Freak Scene recorded a song entitled “Grok!,” an homage to the word coined by Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, and a year later the Byrds referenced water brotherhood in their song “Triad.” The verb “grok” even found its way into the vernacular of the counterculture (Blackmore, 1995). Messages about the sanctity of clean water and the positive potential of religion reached tens of millions, securing the legacy of Stranger in a Strange Land as one of the books which shaped religious and environmental values in the United States (Library of Congress, 2012).

One remarkable aspect of Stranger in a Strange Land (henceforth Stranger) is that it is a science fiction novel which has achieved some literary reverence. In fact, it was the first work of science fiction to find a place on the New York Times best-seller list. Where most great literary works spotlight a locale, Stranger poses global implications and questions the place of humanity in the universe (Vonnegut, 1990). The focus on human problems is intentionally trivialized, as Heinlein frequently begins chapters with an impersonal, newsreel-like rundown of the bizarre political and social entanglements of a near-future Earth. In contrast, he takes great care to detail the abstract yet logical aesthetic questions which puzzle the neighboring Martians.

Book cover of Stranger in a Strange Land, used with permission from Penguin Random House.

The novel is set on Earth following World War Three, which concluded with the establishment of a world government. The unified Earth sends a spaceship to Mars in hopes of colonizing the red planet, but the mission is never heard from after landfall. Twenty-five years later, a second expedition lands on Mars and recovers one single human survivor: a young man named Valentine Michael Smith, “the Man from Mars,” raised by Martians. As a child of Martian culture, the social mores of humanity are completely foreign to Smith.

The society of Mars is described by Heinlein repeatedly as Apollonian, meanwhile Earth is referred to as Dionysian. For example, one character says, “even the Zuni culture would be called ‘Dionysian’ on Mars. […] I’ve been talking steadily with Mike. That boy was raised in an extremely Apollonian culture […]” Presumably Heinlein derives this language from Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), an essay on the role of Apollonian and Dionysian ideals in tragedy. The Olympian god Apollo embodies truth, reason, and self-restraint, among many other things, while Dionysus is known for wine, religious ecstasy, and sex. Nietzsche writes that the dichotomy of Apollo and Dionysus does not demand mutual exclusivity. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. This mirrors the arguments set forth a century later by Richard Baer in Our Need to Control (1976). To paraphrase, Baer defines intellectus as intuitive, passive receptivity to information, and ratio as searching and examination, definition, and drawing conclusions. Baer critiques the domination and overall glorification of ratio in the university setting. This is best exemplified in our use of the scientific method as a means of acquiring power over the world. Baer calls for a renewed emphasis on intellectus in learning, which may be characterized as knowledge for enjoyment, compared to the use of knowledge as power he sees in ratio. This approach is perfectly embodied by the Martians, who understand the universe through deep, patient contemplation, or “grokking.”

Another passage describes Martian society: “it was not possible to express as separate ideas in the Martian tongue the human concepts: ‘religion,’ ‘philosophy,’ and ‘science’ […]” (Heinlein, 1961). Heinlein imagines a holistic cultural perspective where these three fields exist in complete interdependence as a gestalt. This is consistent with the Nietzschean view of Apollo and Dionysus as two sides of the same coin, and agrees with the vision of Baer, who wrote, “[…] we must move from a conception of mind as solely ratio to a more comprehensive one that includes intellectus.”

Passages describing thousands of years of consideration on the part of the Martians demonstrate their profoundly intellectual culture. For instance, they destroyed the fifth planet orbiting the sun thousands of years ago—but only after millennia of grokking. The wild quirk of the Martians is that they can only bring themselves to hate something by first identifying and sympathizing with it. Therefore, it is appropriate to equate their Apollonian culture with intellectus, while the hungry, diseased, Dionysian Earthlings embody ratio. However, the Man from Mars does not pick a side in the novel. After encountering the religions of Earth, including a radical Christian sect satirizing certain American churches, Smith founds his own church which combines the water-worship and grokking of Mars with the sexual fervor of Earth. We are shown that among Martians, sex lacks the pleasure and unity of the Dionysian version practiced frequently by humans. This results in a Nietzschean merger Baer might be proud to witness, wherein grokking reintroduces intuitive, passive understanding to human culture.

The mantra of the small church founded by Smith is “Thou art god,” a brief meditation on oneness with all creation. The theme of creation spirituality is evident even in the title Stranger in a Strange Land, a direct quote from Exodus 2:22 describing the birth of Gershom the son of Moses. The Book of Exodus tells about Moses leading the Jews through the desert, and contains strong imagery surrounding creation spirituality and theophany, both of which form the theological foundation of Stranger. In fact, the story of the Man from Mars runs in parallel to that of Moses: the biblical hero was sent by God to Egypt to free the his people (the Israelites) from slavery; Valentine Michael Smith journeys to Earth to free his people (humans) from a self-imposed slavery of the mind. At the climax of the Exodus, after journeying through the desert, Moses and the Jews reach Mount Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments in an instance of theophany, or the appearance of God. In the outdoor educational journal Taproot, Gregory Hitzhusen (2007) describes the survival of the Israelites through divine assistance: “God constantly provided for the Israelites during the Exodus in the desert, saving them from their oppressors and providing them with […] water to drink” (p. 9). At the center of Martian culture is water-sharing, perhaps due to the overall dryness of their home world, but certainly an allusion to Exodus by Heinlein.

When Smith comes to Earth, he offers water to those he groks are good, and convinces them of the truth behind “Thou art god,” the closest approximation of the Martian outlook he can express in English. Furthermore, his presence on Earth is suggested to be an incarnation of the Archangel Michael, carrying out a holy duty not unlike Moses. Through the offering of water and endowment of divine law, his character is essentially a theophany espousing creation spirituality, although such a philosophy was unlikely known by name to Heinlein at the time of his writing Stranger. Nonetheless, this is evidence of a growing environmental consciousness in America which Heinlein noticed and reinforced.

Relativism, and its cousins fallibilism and skepticism, also achieved a controversial position in public thought in the twentieth century (Gowans, 2004), and allowed Heinlein to create bizarre scenes set in the afterlife, where all faiths are revealed to be true simultaneously, in co-existence with each other. Relativism is defined by Allen Wood (2002) in his essay collection Unsettling Obligations as a denial of absolute truth; the holding that all truth is relative to the person who believes it. He goes on to define fallibilism as the possibility than any of our beliefs could be totally mistaken. These outlooks permeated the counterculture of the 1960s in the form of open-mindedness towards other cultures and religions. This is plain to hear in the pop music of the time: the Beatles incorporated Indian modes into their songwriting; Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones picked up the sitar; Babatunde Olatunji, who toured with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., recorded his Drums of Passion, popularizing African percussion in the west (Perciaccante, 2003). The times were ideologically ripe for a novel that similarly pushed against boundaries, one which challenged the status quo.

Wood discusses a metaphor of a mountain. Imagine two people ascending opposite sides of the mountain. One side is forested and the other side is rocky. Either person would be justified in surmising the rest of the mountain resembles their side, but both would be incorrect. Wood treats this as a metaphor for religion, wherein each creed truthfully represents the side of God it experiences, but any claim of absolute truth is false. It follows that every religion is limited and fallible. Although the Wood definition of fallibilism arrived four decades later, it is startlingly consistent with Heinlein’s depictions of the afterlife. In his novel, the afterlives envisioned by the major religions await their respective followers, and the holy figures of every faith mingle. It is even hinted that each of these “faces of the mountain,” so to speak, share a summit.

Although the metaphor of the mountain is charming because it places all religions on equal footing and suggests there is truth to be found in each creed, it is problematic on closer examination. The metaphor is presented from the perspective of an onlooker watching the faithful scale the mountain. This onlooker holds privileged information, observant of the entire mountain and those climbing it, but there is no justification for this privilege. Furthermore, there is no barrier preventing the mountain climbers from circumnavigating the mountain and learning about its other sides. To translate this metaphor into reality: the mountain metaphor suggests the faithful are blindly committed to their doctrines with no hopes of conversion, meanwhile the onlooker sees how pathetic their efforts to scale the mountain are. In truth, there is nothing stopping anyone from learning about other worldviews, and there probably is no informed onlooker.

As problematic as the metaphor of the mountain may be, Heinlein makes it work. Instead of describing an onlooker with privileged information, Heinlein introduces the onlooker as a complete blank slate, foreign to all the religions and views of Earth. The condescension of the onlooker is erased and replaced with honest, childlike curiosity.

While learning about the culture of Earth, the Man from Mars encounters the young Church of the New Revelation, whose followers are called Fosterites after its founder. The church is a parody of some churches founded in America that practice snake handling and speaking in tongues—Dionysian customs, no doubt. The Man from Mars, who possesses superpowers thanks to his Martian heritage, senses a “wrongness” when the bishop of the church corners him and attempts conversion. (The Man from Mars is a celebrity—it would be lucrative to have him as a follower.) He vanishes the bishop, killing him painlessly. This leads to the first scene set in the afterlife. The bishop reaches heaven bitter about being done-in prematurely and meets the founder of his religion, now an archangel. Two pieces of dialogue from the Archangel Foster exemplify Heinlein’s fallibilistic afterlife:

Foster consoling the deceased bishop: “You can submit a requisition for a miracle if you want to make a bloody fool of yourself. But, I’m telling you, it’ll be turned down—you simply don’t understand the System yet. The Martians have their own setup, different from ours, and as long as they need [Smith], we can’t touch him. They run their own show their own way—the Universe has variety, something for everybody—a fact you field workers often miss.”

Foster encouraging the deceased bishop to get to work: “Now look, there’s work to be done and lots of it—before you can expect to be promoted again. The Boss wants performance, not gripes. If you need a Day off to get your nerve back, duck over to the Muslim Paradise and take it. Otherwise, straighten your halo, square your wings, and dig in.”

As the founder of a Christian sect, Archangel Foster recognizes the validity of other faiths, even suggests their equality when he says the Universe has “something for everybody.” He mentions the unnamed “setup” of the Martians, and how he and the bishop are unable to interfere with their plans. In a show of humor, he even tells the deceased bishop to take a day off for a vacation in the Muslim Paradise. Finally, he alludes to a capitalized Boss, suggesting that there is a showrunner, the metaphorical mountaintop. This demonstrates the element of truth found in every religion, but also their limited nature. Heinlein’s vision of the afterlife is a pleasant one in which anyone might find comfort, to the chagrin of ministries he felt tried to monopolize truth.

It would not be pretentious to say Stranger influenced American views on religion, especially considering a Church of All Worlds was founded in the 1960s, lifting the name and practices of Heinlein’s fictional religion (April, ND). However, the scope of Heinlein’s writing is not restricted to fringe beliefs. It has found a place in mainstream religions as well. The Rabbi Arthur Waskow, author of numerous books and director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, has not been shy about the influence of Stranger on his own views, and some of the practices he encourages echo the religion founded by the Man from Mars. In the chapter “What is Eco-Kosher?” from his book This Sacred Earth (2004), Waskow calls for a new sexual ethic which allows consenting adults of any sexual orientation to be together so long as there is no coercion or attacks on other relationships. This is contrary to traditional Jewish views which, he writes, prohibited homosexuality, as well as sex outside of a woman’s most fertile time frame. Sex was strictly for the purpose of reproduction. Much like Waskow’s ideal, the followers of the Man from Mars are sexually liberated and strongly resist the jealousy which would otherwise destroy their relationships. However, it is worth noting that Heinlein held a conflicting view on homosexuality. In one passage he simply says homosexuals are misguided, and that is unfortunately the first and final mention of homosexuality in Stranger. Here we can see that, while Heinlein and Waskow held similar convictions about sexual reform, their views diverged when it came to homosexuality. Furthermore, Heinlein writes about polyamory, endorsing it in a fictional context but not necessarily in reality. It is unknown to this author whether Waskow would approve of polyamorous relationships. Evidently, Waskow and Heinlein both sought to explore and challenge the sexual status quo, but not along the same lines.

Writing in 2005 about an overnight teach-in at the University of Michigan, Waskow says, “Students had broken through the ‘conventional’ definition of what ‘knowledge’ was, and how a university was supposed to run […] The nearest English word is ‘grok’ — which isn’t English at all, it’s from the High Martian in Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land.” Here again we see traces of Martian intellectus in the form of knowledge as leisure. The overnight teach-in described by Waskow was a voluntary twelve-hour experience, and he claimed that by the end, students walked out far more knowledgeable about their government, and their minds had changed about the way a university ought to work. While the liberal, progressive Waskow does not necessarily represent mainstream Jewish views, and more conservative Jewish perspectives might be at odds with him, his work on ethical issues within Jewish thought have pushed boundaries akin to how Heinlein’s writing sought to challenge the reader.

Robert A. Heinlein at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention, provided courtesy of Wikipedia and used under creative commons.

Heinlein was aware of the diffusion of his work through the counterculture (Blackmore, 1995), and saw some religious movements co-opt his fiction. He was uncomfortable with this fact. He had written Stranger as entertainment, intended only to encourage free thought in the reader (Nicholls, 1990); it was never meant to be followed like a sacred text. Nonetheless, it has been taken as truth rather than metaphor since its publication, for better or worse. This is perhaps due to his compelling ability as a writer. He saw a set of beliefs suspended in the cultural solution around him, and their crystallization in the novel is the largest contributor to its reception as guidelines for a new society. At any rate, it has been acknowledged as a highly influential work even by the United States government. It was included on a list of the eighty-eight books which shaped America by the Library of Congress (2012). The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, whose 1963 book Cat’s Cradle held similar convictions about religious reform, praised Stranger for rising above a singular locale, and concerning itself with the station of humanity in the universe.

Through the influence Stranger in a Strange Land exerted on religious revivals in America, its glorification of clean water, and overall theme of creation spirituality, it is appropriate to say the novel helped to shape both religious and environmental values in the United States, especially as they relate to each other. In fact, it deeply impacted the author of this essay. I was not particularly religious growing up, and I am ashamed to say I looked at religion with unjustified cynicism during my high school years. However, Stranger in a Strange Land convinced me of the potential for religion to unite people, and that one’s relationship with God and the Universe does not necessitate a middleman. I later became aware of the rigorous work and education carried out by religious communities in the name of environmental stewardship, which is admirable. I have grown to respect faiths even if I fail to grok them.



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