In 1961 Robert A. Heinlein created the unforgettable character of Valentine Michael Smith. My daughter, who is about the same age as I was when I first read Stranger in A Strange Land, gave me the new uncut version with 60K words that were edited out of the original as a Christmas present. It was a delight traveling old and familiar roads again, discovering new details and meeting with characters still fresh in their novelty.
Much of what resonated when I read the book as a teenager in the late 70’s still resonates. Maybe it’s the genre itself that allows a free and easy hand with certain subjects. You get the sense that Heinlein is having fun with his treatment of televangelist and commercialism. His painting of the old, wise, and crotchety Jubal is as an endearing and enduring figure in Science Fiction as is Issac Asimov’s Hari Seldon.
The sociopolitical world of today is no less messed up now than it was when Heinlein wrote the book – some would say worse in many respects. But the point and poignancy of the book is not in the science fiction portrayal of an outer world, a world of of technological marvels and descriptions of mind bending kinesthetic powers, but rather a portrayal of an inner world where an individual who was raised by other-worldly creatures at birth is then re-introduced into human society. The awkward struggle to develop an emotional rapport with his own kind is what drives the novel and deals with the question of what it means to be human. When Michael Smith is set upon by an overwhelming need to curl up within himself and withdraw, to fully “grok” what was experienced you can relate on some level.
With the increased frenetic economic activity and the barrage of information it seems more difficult to wait for something in its “fullness of time.” You sense the “wrongness” but seem incapable of counter acting it. The home as a “Nest,” analogous to that of a bird, a habitat where a “Nestling,” has a chance to progress at his own tempo, developing into a fully formed and moral human being, seems strange in an era of foreclosures and the struggle to make a mortgage payment.
The book reminded me that there was a time not long ago when the impulse for self-awareness and understanding – an “enfolding” a “sharing of water” in Valentine Michael Smith’s terms – moved many young readers to see the world around them somewhat differently than their parents. I hope it continues to do so.