Monday, May 14, 2007

Cosmic Halitosis

I'm a sucker for science-fiction, in all its myriad expressions, not least of all when it tackles spiritual themes: I think the genre is specially outfitted to be the ideal sounding board for spiritual inquiry. Take as exemplar Robert A Heinlein's famous Mohammed-as-Martian novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.

In this terrific story, he proposes not so much the second coming of Christ as the arrival of another in a series of holy prophets; Valentine Michael Smith, first human born on what we call the planet Mars, is the latest "Mohammedan" to visit our planet, which is to say that, like the prophet Mohammed, this is not the manifestation of the son of God, as Christ was, but rather one of the sons of God, a line of (apparently) masculine prophets with news for the world.

You should read the book. Heinlein very seriously takes on human belief in its most profound dimensions, and delivers a very sober appraisal. His satire is fiendishly subtle, as if the author wishes to provoke the less-openminded of his readers into an intellectual wrestling match, one at which they will invariably find themselves outflanked and outmanuevered. So be it, this is the privilege of the artist: he is presenting his view. Personally, I find it an important one.

Valentine Michael Smith, over the course of the novel, reaches a key understanding of our race. In doing so, he grasps a conclusion that I found to be intensely Christian. He is talking to his dearest friend and "water brother", Jubal Harshaw, about the optimism with which he embarked his project of a new church. Having believed that eventually all humans would come around to his side, Smith reaches this conclusion: "Humans aren't Martians."

He continues, "I made this mistake again and again -corrected myself... and still made it. What works for Martians does not necessarily work for humans. Oh, the conceptual logic which can be stated only in Martian does work for both races. The logic is invariant..." (here, Smith is talking about love) "but the data are different. So the results are different.

"I couldn't see why, when people were hungry, some of them didn't volunteer to be butchered so the rest could eat... on Mars this is obvious -and an honor. I couldn't understand why babies were so prized. On Mars our two little girls would be dumped outdoors, to live or die -and nine out of ten die their first season. My logic was right but I misread the data: here babies do not compete but adults do; on Mars adults never compete, they've been weeded out as babies. But one way or another, competing and weeding takes place... or a race goes downhill."

Smith reaches his key understanding of humanity: "But whether or not I was wrong in trying to take the competition out at both ends, I have lately begun to grok that the human race won't let me, no matter what."

What he "groks" -a Martian term undefinable in human terms, but roughly meaning to shed philosophical inhibition- is a rare insight, one that Heinlein achieves at the end of great striving through the mysteries of our race. Valentine Michael Smith realises that humanity doesn't want to be saved; the human race wishes to go on being human, not to live against its own instincts. What's crucial, though, is that Smith doesn't then proceed to give up all hope. No, instead he flies into the face of this brutal insight, and strives, as he feels all people should, against morbid reality.

At the end, his friend gives him good advice: "If you've got the truth, you can demonstrate it. Talking doesn't prove it. Show people."

At the end he unmistakably fulfills the prophet role, though more in the vein, I would argue, of Christ than of Mohammed -of Buddha, Blavatsky, Crowley or whomever: Smith believes, in the end, that there is a state of grace all around us that must be recognised. His fateful choice to put his life in the hands of that grace is a distinctly beautiful one, one that goes contrary to our socialised tendencies yet arrives from the core of being.


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Geoffrey S. DeWeese said...


In high school I took "science fiction as liturature" for my english class. I thus missed out on the "classic" and such, but read some interesting sci-fi. Our teacher had an interesting grading system. If you wanted a C, then do x, if you wanted B, then do y and if an A, then z. Z was a report comparing the messiah aspects of Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Now, supposedly SciFi was for people who didn't really like "liturature" but I can certainly agree that scifi can present questions and issues in such a unique and different way that the genre is very important. I can't remember too much of the plot of Stranger, but it was an interesting report to compare the two novels.