Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlein
Michael Valentine Smith
Mike is physically just like every human: two arms, two legs, a heart—you know, the works. The only difference between him and any other human is that he was born on Mars and raised by Martians. But what a difference it makes. Separated from anything resembling traditional human knowledge or customs, Mike grows up to essentially become a Martian in a human's body. What does that mean? Let's find out.
Mike's Martian mind grants him a different view of the universe than most humans'. You might think this means he sees different constellations in the stars and has listened to music that's never been available on iTunes. While that's probably true, it also means he has powers that we think of as impossible, like telekinesis, the ability to shape his body as needed, and telepathy.
Wait, what? Yep, in Stranger in a Strange Land, the Martians' understanding of the universe gives them superpowers that no human (except Mike, of course) can have. But there's always a tradeoff. Things we consider commonplace, like laughter, don't exist on Mars either. So, in a way, laughter is a superpower on Mars. We can't imagine what crime you'd fight with that superpower, but at least you still get to be super.
The Man with the Martian Mind
But the differences between Man and Martian run deeper than superpowers. Mike's utter alien mind means he must learn how to be a human once he arrives on Earth. He must learn to tie his shoes and kiss a girl and read a book (not at the same time, mind you—he's not that super). As Jubal notes, from a human perspective, "Mike has never tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" (17.284).
More problematic though is when his Martian cultural training conflicts with the norms of human society. For example, with the exception of a few beaches here or there, public nudity is generally frowned upon in human society, but on Mars clothes are less of an issue—though skin cancer might be more of one.
Likewise, if a Martian groks a wrongness in someone or something, it may remove the thing from existence lickity split. No questions asked. On Earth, removing a person from existence could put a damper on the evening meal.
Man + Martian = Mike
Through the course of the novel, Mike begins to blend together his Martian upbringing with what he has learned about being human, creating something that is neither Martian nor Man but completely unique. This unique culture leads him to create Mike's Church of All Worlds, where he blends Martian and human customs together.
He takes the showmanship of a carnival magician, blends it with the nudism and communal living of Mars, throws in a healthy helping of human sexual practices, and covers the entire thing in the Martian language and framework of a human religion. Philosophically, Mike teaches against the human traits of hate, jealousy, and falsehood (which are utterly unMartian) but promotes the human qualities of love and laughter. The end result is a church that challenges both Martian and human customs in the same way Mike as a person, an individual, challenges each.
Blessed are the Grokked
But maybe more important than Mike's inner journey is the way Mike's character relates to the other characters in the story. Everybody in the novel who comes into contact with this guy must wrestle in some way with his Martian mind. For example, Duke has a hard time dealing with Mike's cannibalism, stating, "Okay, so I'm from Kansas. Never was any cannibalism in Kansas" (13.4). Well, hey, if there's no cannibalism in Kansas, then we know that's the rule.
Bottom line: humans can't seem to pick up what Mike is putting down—their closed-minded ways don't make it easy on the Martian. Even the free-thinking Jubal has trouble grokking Mike's ideas on God and spirituality.
As much as they love the guy, many characters still try to change Mike to suit their human needs. For example, Jill teaches him how to wear clothes and is criticized by Jubal, who says she is trying "to turn him into a copy of every fourth-rate conformist in this frightened land" (12.11). Apparently wearing clothes is conformist. Who knew?
It Takes Two to Tango
By trying to teach Mike human customs, these humans are likewise taught Martian customs. In the end, Duke, Jubal, Jill, and others are forced to reconsider and question their own cultural and social heritage. They begin to adopt Martin customs and ideals at the same time Mike adopts human ones. Influence is a two-way street.
Don't think you're off the assimilation hook. After all, the way characters struggle to grasp Mike's Martian ways reflects on the way the reader—yep, that's you—struggles to grasp them as well. Just like these characters, we as readers have to put away our deeply ingrained customs and beliefs and try to consider things from Mike's perspective. Sure, we may not go and accept everything as whole hog as Duke, but the fun is in the challenge.
Chew on This
It's hard enough to do a character analysis of a human, but throw some Martian into the mix and things just get messy. There's a whole boatload of things about Mike that we haven't addressed—say, the whole he's-a-prophet thing? (Check out "What's Up With the Title?" for much more on that.)
So, instead, we'll give you some questions to ponder:
- In the game of humans vs. Martians, who do you think changes whom more?
- Are these changes for the better? Think about the end of the novel—what really changes?
- What if Mike's worldview didn't come with superpowers? Would it be less awesome? More convincing?
- And don't forget to have a little self-reflection. What customs and beliefs does Mike as a character force you to think about?
Remember, no wrong answers here. Just new thoughts.Timeline