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Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert A. Heinlein

Important Quotations Explained


Key Facts

"It is later than you think" could not be expressed in Martian—nor could "Haste makes waste," though for a different reason: the first notion was inconceivable while the latter was an unexpressed Martian basic, as unnecessary as telling a fish to bathe. But "As it was in the Beginning, is now and ever shall be" was so Martian in mood that it could be translated more easily than "two plus two makes four"—which was not a truism on Mars.

Heinlein frames most of didactic and expository elements of the prose within conversations between characters, and tends to reserve the omniscient narrative voice for dry reportage of facts. But occasionally, as in this quote from Chapter VIII, the narration offers lessons in Martian and human culture alike. This quote is an early exploration of the differences between the mindsets of the two planets' cultures. Learning to bridge the gap between the two cultures will form the key challenge for Mike throughout the novel.

Rather than giving us a full, in-depth portrait of Martian thought processes, the narration instead illustrates Martian philosophy obliquely with examples of the difficulty of translation. The fact that our most basic mathematics do not translate suggests that the Martian understanding of math and sciences operate at a higher level than our own, which will be borne out by Mike's mental ability to make objects and people disappear. For example, two plus two need not be four if, like Mike, one seems to have access to more than the three physical dimensions we humans know. "As it was in the Beginning, is now and ever shall be" is a quote from the Bible, and the fact that it translates easily to Martian foreshadows Mike's attraction to Earthling religion as a bridge between his Martian learning and his human roots.

Around a minor G-type star toward one edge of a medium-sized galaxy planets swung as they had for billions of years, under a modified inverse square law that shaped space. Four were big enough, as planets go, to be noticeable; the rest were pebbles, concealed in the fiery skirts of the primary or lost in the black reaches of space. All, as is always the case, were infected with that oddity of distorted entropy called life; on the third and fourth planets surface temperatures cycled around the freezing point of hydrogen monoxide; in consequence they had developed life forms similar enough to permit a degree of social contact.

This quote, which begins Chapter XI, is a prime example of the cosmic viewpoint that the narration shifts into throughout the novel, typically at the beginnings of chapters. The "third" and "fourth" planets around the "minor G-type star" referred to here are Earth and Mars rotating around the sun. The fact that the narrator does not refer to them by their familiar names implies that the narrative perspective is that not of an ordinary human being, but of a consciousness with infinite vision, able to watch over so many planets that the Earth and our solar system do not stand out as particularly special. The fact that life is referred to dismissively as "that oddity of distorted entropy" implies that the consciousness that narrates is even broader than that of any living creature; the implication is that we are being shown the universe from outside the universe, from a God's perspective.

["]You don't have any feeling for what makes a chump a chump. A real magician can make the marks open their mouths by picking a quarter out of the air. That levitation you do—I've never seen it done before, but the marks don't warm to it. No psychology. Now take me, I can't even pick a quarter out of the air. I got no act—except the one that counts. I know marks. I know what he hungers for, even if he don't. That's showmanship, son, whether you're a politician, a preacher pounding a pulpit—or a magician. Find out what the chumps want and you can leave half your props in your trunk."

This speech from the carnival owner who employs Mike and Jill as magicians comes in Chapter XXVI as he explains why he is firing them. Mike, as "Dr. Apollo" (Apollo is the Greek word for Mars), has been using his telekinetic powers to perform genuine feats of levitation and disappearance, but, in spite of the fact that his tricks are real, the audience has been unimpressed. The carnival owner here gives Mike a lesson in human psychology. The public, whom he refers to derisively as "chumps" and "marks," are not interested in what one has to sell, but rather how one chooses to sell it. This lesson becomes be a cornerstone of Mike's strategy in organizing the Church of All Worlds. Mike keeps in mind that the profound truths that he has to offer, just like his magic tricks, will not sell themselves to the public. The carnival owner foreshadows Mike's future career as a religious guru by mentioning that politicians and preachers require the same sales skills as carnies.

["]His idea is that whenever you encounter any other grokking thing—man, woman, or stray cat…you are meeting your 'other end.' The universe is a thing we whipped up among us and agreed to forget the gag."

Jubal looked sour. "Solipsism and pantheism. Together they explain anything. Cancel out any inconvenient fact, reconcile all theories, include any facts or delusions you like. But it's cotton candy, all taste and no substance—as unsatisfactory as solving a story by saying: '—then the little boy fell out of bed and woke up.'"

This fragment of conversation between Ben and Jubal comes in Chapter XXXI when Ben recounts his experience seeing Mike preach at his temple. Ben recapitulates Mike's notion that all beings and things in the universe are extensions of one singular consciousness, which the Martians think of as "grokking" and humans posit as "God."

Although Jubal loves Mike and believes that Mike's intentions are good, he is highly suspicious of organized religion. Believing that every individual must pursue his or her own path through life, Jubal resents the idea that any self- promoting avatar, even Mike, can offer simple but substantive answers. Jubal attempts to debunk Mike's teaching as a combination of solipsism, one's belief that he or she is the primary consciousness in the universe, and pantheism, the belief that God is omnipresent and takes many different forms, that is designed to disallow any logical argument. Jubal suggests that Mike is trying to flatter people by telling them that they are Gods, but that any happiness that a follower of Mike's might derive from this philosophy would be illusory, based on an acceptance of faulty logic rather than any true learning experience. Jubal's considered skepticism here means that his acceptance of Mike's church at the end of the novel comes not because he is a "chump" or "mark" drawn in by Mike's salesmanship, but because he comes to recognize the legitimately profound wisdom behind Mike's teachings.

The sky held scattered clouds; at that instant the sun came out from behind one and a shaft of light hit him.

His clothes vanished. He stood before them, a golden youth, clothed only in beauty—beauty that made Jubal's heart ache, thinking that Michelangelo in his ancient years would have climbed down from his high scaffolding to record it for generations unborn. Mike said gently, "Look at me. I am a son of man."

The scene cut for a ten-second plug, a line of can-can dancers singing[.]

In Chapter XXXVII, Mike steps outside of the hotel in which he is staying to martyr himself to the angry mob that has assembled. Although Mike's wish to teach the world a lesson by accepting his own murder with grace is heartfelt and deep, he nonetheless performs as if he is an actor in a scene. Mike has learned from his experience in the carnival, and from the Fosterites, that it is inherent to human beings to want their lessons to be couched in salesmanship and showmanship. The narration in this scene observes Mike's followers watching his martyrdom on a "stereo tank" (a futuristic television), so we see Mike's performance as a show. Mike uses his telekinetic powers to create an impressive lighting effect as he is about to be killed, and to strikingly vanish his own clothing. Mike speaks a carefully scripted line, and then the stereo tank cuts to a commercial. Heinlein satirically lambasts the crassness of the media, who sell products as Mike is about to be murdered. This scene also demonstrates that Mike understands the media and understands humanity's attachment to entertainment. Mike designs his own death not as a protest against crass media, but as his own crass media event, to reach the maximum number of people.

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Apollo =/= Mars

by Brags753, July 10, 2013

The summary incorrectly states that Apollo is the Greek "word" for Mars. Actually, Ares is the Greek name for the god known as Mars in Latin.

Apollo is one of the few classical gods known by nearly the same name in Greek and Latin. In English, he is called Apollo in both contexts.

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