One of my favorite books of all time is “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein. I have read this book probably once a year since I first read it shortly after the invention of the printing press. Like most speculative fiction it tells an improbable tale that allows us to see our humanness in a different way. In this case, it is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born of human parents on Mars but raised in the way of the Martians when his parents die. When years later is repatriated to earth the story recounts his way of learning the ways of humanity and judging them under the constructs he learned from the Martians.
Written in 1961, the book became the guidebook for the baby boomers throughout the turbulent 60’s and ‘70s as it questioned everything from human sexuality to politics, from religion to mysticism. Some of my favorite quotes from the book are.
- There was one field in which man was unsurpassed; he showed unlimited ingenuity in devising bigger and more efficient ways to kill off, enslave, harass, and in all ways make an unbearable nuisance of himself to himself. Man was his own grimmest joke on himself. The very bedrock of humor was— “Man is the animal who laughs,”
- Thou art God’. It’s not a message of cheer and hope. It’s a defiance – and an unafraid, unabashed assumption of personal responsibility.”
- My dear, religion is a null area in the law. A church can do anything any organization can do—and has no restrictions. It pays no taxes, need not publish records, is effectively immune to search, inspection, or control—and a church is anything that calls itself a church. Attempts have been made to distinguish between ‘real’ religions entitled to immunities, and ‘cults.’ It can’t be done, short of establishing a state religion . . . a cure worse than the disease.”
One of the charms of the book is that we see the world through the eyes of an innocent. Someone who seeing the world afresh and with no indoctrination to the culture he finds himself living incumbent with the prejudices he brings from the society in which he was raised. And in many ways that is the way I feel when I am here in Brazil. I am a Stranger in a Strange Land here. After all:
• They have monkeys in trees instead of squirrels.
• Supermarkets are rugby scrums as opposed to more civilized social outings.
• Bureaucracy so dense that it would stop bullets.
To name just a few.
But it occurred to me, aren’t we all Strangers in a Strange Land these days. Covid 19 has turned our world upside down. Consider this:
• Seeing people, even those you know and love, from a distance closer than 6 feet instills fear not intimacy.
• Home delivery of food has become future planning instead of a spur of the moment decision.
• Working from home has become a sentence as opposed to being a blessing.
To name just a few.
And then of course is this President’s response to the threat of Covid 19. In the past, we could have expected a reasoned, scientific approach to encroaching dangers. These days watching the President of the United States is an out of body experience where I feel no longer connected to this reality. A Stranger in a Strange Land. Think about it.
• He tells people to maintain social distancing while being on a crowded stage where people are actually touching.
• He promotes gut feelings instead of science.
• He yells at reporters who ask him softball questions designed to reassure the American People.
• He puts political agenda over country.
But as Robert Heinlein wrote in Stranger.
“government is a living organism. Like every living thing its prime characteristic is a blind, unreasoned instinct to survive. You hit it, it will fight back.”
Or as Kurt Vonnegut said “And so it goes.”
But why am I talking about Robert A. Heinlein today? One of the ways I have been self medicating these past few weeks is doing something that I often do, re reading some of his books as not only are they written well but they bring me back to the simpler time of boyhood when days were far simpler. The other night I was on Amazon looking to download one of his books to my Kindle when a near miracle happened.
32 years after his death his estate is releasing a new novel titled “The Pursuit of the Pankera” a companion novel to “The Number of the Beast.”
Oh Joy! Something to wile away some of the quarantined time and will provide a break from Netflix brain. And reading a new novel by Robert Heinlein so long after I wept about his death definitely makes me feel like a Stranger in a Strange Land.