Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



3. 1960-1961

    In 1960, for the first time since World War II, Robert Heinlein published no fiction.  In 1961, he published Stranger in a Strange Land, by a good margin his longest book, and a heavily sexual, metaphysical, thoroughly annoying piece of work.  It, like Starship Troopers, won the Hugo award as the best science fiction novel of its year.
    Several years ago, I was asked to write about Stranger in a Strange Land but declined because I disliked the book too much to take the page-by-page notes necessary to discuss a story of its complexity.  At the time I wasn't any too sure how much of my dislike was because the book was every bit as annoying to me as it was meant to be, and how much was because the book was badly flawed.  The first of these is a reaction a critic can't afford.
    The book is flawed.  It seems to me that Heinlein tells not one, but three stories in this book, and that they do not fit together.  There is an adventure story, there is the founding of a new religion, and there is a satire.  Potentially the strongest of these is the satire.  According to the jacket copy, Heinlein's purpose in writing Strange in a Strange Land "was to examine every major axiom of Western culture, to question each axiom, throw doubt on it -- and, if possible -- to make the antithesis of each axiom appear a possible and perhaps desirable thing -- rather than unthinkable."  If that was Heinlein's purpose, I don't think he succeeded.  His satire becomes drowned in the other two stories.

    In a future year (unspecified, but 1980 as a guess from internal evidence) an expedition of four married couples is sent to Mars and never heard of again.  Twenty-five years later a second expedition finds a lone survivor, Valentine Michael Smith, illegitimate offspring of the ship's pilot and Mary Jane Lyle Smith, atomics engineer and inventor of the "Lyle Drive," which powers all modern ships.  The young man has been raised by Martians and thinks of himself as one.  The Martians think of him as something of an idiot, though by human standards he is quite bright.
    Young Smith is heir to his mother's fortune (considerable), his mother's husband's fortune (considerable), his true father's fortune (considerable), and the considerable fortunes of every other member of the first expedition.  He also has a pretty good claim under human law of being the sole owner of Mars.  As soon as he is brought back to Earth, he is salted away in a hospital and kept incommunicado.  An actor is brought in to impersonate him in a television interview.
    Ben Caxton, an administration-baiting columnist, begins to think it possible that Smith may be considered dispensable and either killed or kept out of the way in a hospital for the rest of his life, so he and a nurse friend, Jill Boardman, contrive to break Smith out and spirit him away to the protection of a man who is too prominent to be steam-rollered.  This man is Jubal Harshaw -- doctor, lawyer, and writer of popular trash.
    Harshaw takes them in because he feels in the mood for a good scrap, and then in his own elderly, cantankerous, individualistic way settles things so that a very prominent, powerful person -- the Secretary General of the Federation, no less -- has to worry about the disposition of Smith's financial affairs.  This removes Smith from his position as pawn in a power struggle and leaves him free to enjoy himself.
    Through the story so far, Mike Smith has been learning more and more of what humans are like and what they do, but his understanding is incomplete.  Jubal has three beautiful young secretaries, one of whom, which one we are never sure, initiates Mike into sex.  Soon after his independence, he and Jill Boardman leave Jubal's home to travel, Mike working thereafter at a number of jobs.  While on this extended trip, he sees monkeys in a zoo picking on one another, and thereupon, according to Heinlein, understands humanity, and incidentally decides to found a new religion.
    Ben Caxton goes to visit Mike's temple, becomes shocked at the gang shagging that goes on there (Mike likes sex and has made it an important part of his religion) and leaves hurriedly.  Jubal, who explains everything to everybody in the book, explains to Ben:  1) when you go into somebody's home you have to accept the way they do things, and 2) you're just jealous because Jill is sleeping around.  Ben goes back and tries again and finds that he likes it this time.
    Finally even old Jubal goes to take a look. He likes it all, too. 
    Mike, by choice, then allows himself to be martyred by an angry crowd.  We have, however, good reason to believe that his religion will prevail.
    The story does have its moments.  At one point there is a very bright television commercial advertising a contraceptive (Wise Girl Malthusian Lozenges).  There is the idea of Fair Witnesses, people trained in objective witnessing and hired to do it.  There are the Fosterites, a religious group, who use salesmanship, slot machines, temple dancing, sex, and temple saloons, and sell their own products:

    "Always look for that happy, holy seal-of-approval with Bishop Digby's smiling face on it.  Don't let a sinner palm off on you something 'just as good.'  Our sponsors support us; they deserve your support."
    Moreover, they use strong-arm techniques to crush opposition and forcefully assist certain brethren who leave wills in favor of the church to attain Heaven sooner than they might have otherwise.
    As an interesting sidelight:  At the 1962 World Science Fiction Convention, Theodore Sturgeon told of a time when he had run out of ideas and Heinlein came to his rescue with twenty-six story ideas and a check.  Sturgeon used a number of the ideas, giving credit to Heinlein indirectly by including characters sporting one or another of Heinlein's pen names.  One of the stories, entitled "And Now the News. . ."* was about a man whose overconcern for the daily news drove him crazy.  Heinlein includes that idea here in passing:
    "Remind me," Jubal told her, "to write an article on the compulsive reading of news.  The theme will be that most neuroses can be traced to the unhealthy habit of wallowing in the troubles of five billion strangers."
    The adventure story lies in the first half of the book:  spiriting Mike to safety and winning him his freedom and inheritance.  The satire lies in showing how men look to a Martian.  The third story is the founding of Mike's religion.
    Unfortunately, founding a religion is not all there is.  I've left out Mike's Martian-trained ability to do almost anything.  James Blish puts it like this:
    He can control his metabolism to the point where any outside observer would judge him dead; he can read minds; he is a telekinetic; he can throw objects (or people) permanently away into the fourth dimension by a pure effort of will, so easily that he uses the stunt often simply to undress; he practices astral projection as easily as he undresses, on one occasion leaving his body on the bottom of a swimming pool while he disposes of about thirty-five cops and almost as many heavily armored helicopters; he can heaI his own wounds almost instantly; he can mentally analyze inanimate matter, well enough to know instantly that a corpse he has just encountered died by poisoning years ago; levitation, crepitation, intermittent claudication, you name it, he's got it -- and besides, he's awfully good in bed.**
    Mike's ability to do almost anything and the similar abilities of the followers of his religion make his religion right by definition, as Heinlein's government of veterans in Starship Troopers was right by definition, and hence trivial.
    If you grant the story's premises, the religion cannot be argued with, just as, if I were to write a story in which Heaven was only open to string savers and mud eaters and actually made things come out that way, my religion would be beyond argument.  You can't argue with facts, and Heinlein has made the rightness of his religion a fact.
    As nearly as I can tell, however, the story's premises are not true:  there are no Martians of the sort Heinlein writes of, and no super powers are available to those who think proper Martian thoughts.  And without these anyone who attempts to practice the book's religion (which includes mass sexual relations) is headed for trouble.  In other words, the religion has no point for anybody.
    Both story and religion, it seems to me, would be much sharper without the rather silly things that Smith is capable of doing.  Smith's education and enlightenment should be central but they aren't -- instead, Smith's ability to control the length of his haircut by thinking is central, and that has no importance whatsoever.
    Those capable of accepting Mike's religion (an ability inborn in one person in a hundred) and developing super powers are God, the only God there is, so it seems.  Since they are God, they continue to be God after death -- the book calls death "discorporation."  They run the universe they have invented (how, why, and from where, like so much of all this, are unanswered) and for no good reason wear wings and halos.  This construction of things seems to render all human action in the story completely irrelevant, but let that go.  It also seems pretty foolish as story material, but let that go, too.
    Heinlein's concern with his religion is so great, unfortunately, that he lets all character development go hang.  Mike Smith is lessened by his super powers.  (And considering that Heinlein demonstrates his awareness of the meaning of names in this book, it is no accident that Smith's names are "Valentine" -- for its sexual connotation in our culture, not its explicit meaning -- and "Michael," meaning "who is like God.")  Jubal Harshaw, too, is lessened by his super powers -- doctor, lawyer, etc.; his multiple training seems a gratuitous gift from Heinlein without reason or explanation.  He redeems himself somewhat by his crusty nature, but I find him suspect.  He is too pat.
    Some of the minor characters have life at the beginning of the story and then lose it, overcome by the flood of talk that engulfs the last half of the novel.  Which secretary sleeps with Mike his first time out?  They are so lacking in definition that it is impossible to tell.  Jill Boardman supposedly loves Ben Caxton, but won't sleep with him.  She will, however, go off around the country with Mike on a sleep-in basis.  Why?  I can't say.  At any time it would not surprise me for her to unscrew her foot and stick it in her ear -- she is capable of anything.  Ben Caxton's motivations are equally unclear.
    Those parts of the satire and the religion that can be applied to human beings in a normal situation -- and that is the only kind of satire that has any meaning -- are sharp enough to cut.  It is almost impossible to read Stranger in a Strange Land without bleeding a little, which is, of course, a very good reason for reading it.  It may also be the reason that it has sold the least well of any of Heinlein's third period novels.***   If this is so, it is too bad, because for all that I am disappointed in the book, for all that it is imbalanced, Stranger in a Strange Land is worthy of respect.

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*Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dec. 1956.  [ Back ]
**The Issue at Hand, p. 69.  [ Back ]
***Perhaps no longer true, in view of the hippie vogue for Stranger.  [ Back ]

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee