A Martian Named Smith: Book Review

The Martian Named Smith: Book Review

by Jane Davitt ©2001

originally appeared in The Heinlein Journal Issue No. 9 (July 2001)

There are as many opinions about Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ as there are words in the book – and it’s quite a long book. However, most of the opinions have one thing in common and that is the labeling of the book as ‘science fiction’ with all critical judgments being circumscribed by the parameters of this sub set of fiction. William Patterson and Andrew Thornton have decided to take a less trodden path and in so doing have given us a fresh perspective on a book, four decades old, that is still capable of producing controversy and muddled thinking amongst readers and reviewers.

Their book, ‘The Martian Named Smith, Critical Perspectives On Robert A Heinlein’s ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’’ does not shift Stranger completely from its foundation in science fiction – in fact the book begins with a brief resume of the origins of the genre and Heinlein’s place within that genre- but it nudges it so that whilst one corner is still amongst that familiar territory, the other corners are resting in the lands of fairy tales, myth and satire.

Taking their knowledge of Heinlein’s influences as a guide, they have explored each of these fresh woods and revealed a book within a book. Rife with references, rich with resonance, this is a whole new ‘Stranger’. Those readers who practically know the book (both versions) by heart may feel chagrin at their blindness in overlooking some or all of these layers of meaning. They should not. The scholarship that allowed Heinlein to place those clues to his intent within the text was of a high order. The unraveling of some of those clues (and it is probable that, exhaustive though ‘Martian’ seems to be there is still more to discover) is in itself a monumental task that few readers could have matched and no other reviewer seems to have attempted in such detail.

Even though it may have been beyond most of us to recognize, collate and interpret the references in Stranger, once they are pointed out to us we can join the authors on their lofty viewpoint and see ‘Stranger’ from a new angle. It is a fascinating journey to that viewpoint but it is not always an easy one. Patterson and Thornton’s book is intended for students as well as those who read Heinlein for pleasure and it is a text book that declines to spoon feed its readers. Each chapter ends with a list of challenging questions and suggested reading pertaining to the material that has gone before. How deeply the reader wishes to delve into the source material is of course a matter of personal preference. Some may feel out of their depth, others may feel inspired. As Patterson and Thornton comment,

‘Tracing his ideas is a complex and sometimes difficult process which often leaves us stranded in unfamiliar territory, unrecognizably different from the familiar pattern of academic citations and in an intellectual landscape lush with diversity.’ (vii)

They add, ‘confusing this may be, but it is a rewarding confusion.’ (viii)

It is indeed and ‘Martian’ does its best to untangle the confusion with exposition, definition and an almost clinical excision of the sticky web woven by earlier analysts to trap an unwary reader.

The book is divided into five parts in a deliberate echoing of the structure of ‘Stranger’; indeed, the parts are given the same names as Heinlein chose; ‘His Maculate Origin’, ‘His Preposterous Heritage’ etc. The very title of Patterson and Thornton’s book is modeled on an early working title for ‘Stranger’ – ‘A Martian Named Smith’. Within this framework the authors look closely at the requirements of the literary forms chosen by Heinlein to make his point and show how ‘Stranger’ expertly merges them to produce a cohesive whole.

Themes and sub themes abound in ‘Stranger’ and Patterson and Thornton touch on them all; the one on one identification with the story of Jesus, the discussions of money and art, Fair Witnesses and sensational media headlines….disparate elements on the surface but all part of the strange land which might not seem so strange to current readers as it was to the first generation that learned how to grok.

It is not surprising that earlier reviewers and critics of this book have declared it to be deficient in plot, wandering and diffuse. They have been judging it as a science fiction book rather than a satire and a divine comedy. Using in part the guidelines set out in Northrup Frye’s 1957 book, ‘Anatomy of Criticism’, the authors show how ‘Stranger’ is not merely satirical in parts (easily observed) but an authentic satire and that,

‘Using an intellectual idea to organize the satire means that the writer is free to dispense with linearity and plot.’ (29)

They describe in detail the use of irony and note that,

‘Irony is not intended to deceive, but to illuminate, to assist the reader in transcending his local and parochial values.’ (34)

This is of course what Heinlein was trying to do in ‘Stranger’. He was not giving a blueprint for a new way of life – how could he when no such thing as a Korzybskian style mathematical Martian language exists? No, instead he was exposing the hypocrisy of the way his culture viewed sex and religion and was asking the reader to take a look around him with eyes wide open. Those who rushed off to create Nests of their own were missing the point. Those who denounced the book for creating an unworkable religion were equally beguiled into a false assumption by Heinlein’s words.

The multiplicity of sources is hammered home when Patterson and Thornton point out that the doctrines of the Church of All Worlds is derived entirely from Ouspensky’s 1920 book, ‘Tertium Organum’, itself a study in part of the idea of Nietzsche’s superman. Layer upon layer….

‘Thus, a single conversation unfolds to an astonishing richness of references that shape the whole of the book – Benedict, Korzybski, Whorf, Nietzsche, Ouspensky.’ (121)

This may explain why some reviewers of the book seem to flounder when they tackle its complexities. The penultimate stages of ‘Martian’, with ‘Stranger’s’ credentials firmly nailed to the mast, take a cool look at those critics who have gone before; Blish, Panshin, Slusser and Stover amongst others. What the authors have to say will undoubtedly not please everyone; they gore as many sacred cows as ‘Stranger’ itself was supposed to have done but the book would not be complete without a review of contemporary and later thoughts on this influential book.

Finally, we are given a seemingly exhaustive, yet ultimately tantalizingly incomplete discussion on the meaning of the names in ‘Stranger’, fraught with significance and integral to an understanding of the author’s intent. An explanation is given for all the major names but it seems that the true significance of some is yet to be deciphered.

For those who might query the continuing relevance of a book published (if not written) over forty years ago and linked in many minds with the hippies of the 1960’s, the authors have this to say as they bring their tour of a tour de force to a close,

‘There is no likelihood that it will date and become irrelevant, for it addresses hypocrisy, which is with us ever.’ (172)

Read this book, then, armed with insight, read ‘Stranger’ again…for the first time.

Jane Davitt

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