Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

The Lost Book Club: Stranger in a Strange Land

When I set out to read the books that appear on ABC’s Lost, I started with the books that were either shown onscreen or directly referenced. I will make exceptions, however, for books I always inteded to read anyway and so it was with Robert Heinlein’s 1961 classic Stranger in a Strange Land.

I feel that I truly grok the fullness of Heinlein’s sci-fi tale about Michael Valentine Smith, a human who was raised on Mars by Martians and returned to Earth to grok the humans. Along the way Mike Smith (what a great name for a Martian) teaches humans about growing-closer through water sharing and he teaches them the importance of grokking.

Smith winds up starting a free-love cult that would have made many a hippy proud, and I can see why this book was so popular in the counterculture of the late ’60s, even lending the word grok to the hippy lexicon. Heinlein’s Smith teaches Martian ways to humans and takes the best thing humans have for creating happiness (sex, baby) and mixes them with the best of Martian culture (grokking, happiness, spiritual completion, mind reading, teleportation, immortality, cannibalism) making many an enemy among Earth’s politicians and megachurches along the way.

This is a book that requires a pretty serious suspension of disbelief, not just to swallow the Martian angle, but also the notion of humans being able to truly put aside all jealousy and selfishness in order to be happy. Most of the characters are thin and the book seems more than anything an outlet for Heinlein to ponder and argue with himself about social values, art, liberty, and religion. If you like a sort of wacky, semi-lighthearted philosophical novel with a sci-fi background, you’ll probably enjoy this. I did.

As to its status as a sci-fi classic, I suspect it makes so many of those kinds of lists not so much on its own merits as because of the way that it was picked up and embraced by the 1960s counterculture a few years after its publication. It’s one of those rare books where the author seems to have gotten ahead of the zeitgeist just enough to already be there waiting when the rest of the world caught up with him.

The connection to Lost comes in the title of the of the ninth episode of the third season, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The episode is about Jack. The flashbacks find him in Phuket, Thailand, where he is, yes, a stranger in a strange land. On the island, Jack is still being held by the Others, but by the end of the episode, he seems to have joined them. We also learn that the tattoo Jack acquired in Phuket was gotten in violation of some mysterious taboos and says, “He walks among us, but he is not one of us.” In every way, we see Jack as stranger in strange lands.

We knew that though. The most interesting connection between Heinlein’s novel and Lost is in what it suggests about the Others. Minus the cannibalism and sex, the Others seem to have a quasi-religious cult based on attaining happiness, spiritual completion and possibly, teleportation, mind reading, projection and immortality. No wonder they seem so happy on the island.

Lost, as it it wont to do, turns the dynamic on its head, when the stranger in a strange land is not the man bringing the new and better way to live to humanity, but rather Jack, who seems to represent everything the Others are trying to escape in the real world. The question, then, becomes, will Jack drink the Kool-Aide? Based on the end of last week’s episode (“Par Avion”) it looks like he might have, making him no different from Heinlein’s Ben Caxton, the earthly cynic who joined Mike Smith’s Church of All Worlds and within forty-eight hours found a better way to live.

Of course, the title may have nothing to do with Heinlein’s book, Instead, it could be a reference to the Iron Maiden song, which is found on their Somewhere in Time album. That’s interesting enough when you consider that lately Lost has been playing up the question of whether or not the Oceanic 815 surviviors are lost somewhere in time. Some of the lyrics, which seem to tell of an Arctic explorer losing his way and dying, also bear a striking resemblance to certain issues of Lost:

Night and day I scan horizon sea and sky
My spirit wanders endlessly
Until the day will dawn and friends from home discover why
Hear me calling rescue me
Set me free, set me free
Lost in this place and leave no trace

Stranger in a strange land
Land of ice and snow
Trapped inside this prison
Lost and far from home

Strange how often a show about a tropical island has so many references to things Arctic, but there it is. The lyrics also speak of being gone for 100 years. I don’t know if we should start a Lost listening list, but the music and songs featured on the show are probably as meaningful as the books.

The last connection is biblical. “Stranger in a strange land” is a quote from that classic book about escape, Exodus 2:22: “And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Lost also references the Bible quite a bit, and this could be another instance of that.

So there it is: Stranger in a Strange Land, be it book, Bible or Iron Maiden tune, there are as many clues and suggestions as one cares to find.

For further reading:

For an index of all my Lost book posts, click here.

6 Comments

  1. My husband is watching ‘Lost’ right now – he’s the fan of the show, but I’m the fan of the Heinlein book. It’s interesting to hear about Stranger from someone reading it for the first time in 2007. When it was new, the concepts were dazzling.

    Back in August, I was tagged for a book meme, and Stranger in a Strange Land was one of my choices, along with Michener’s Hawaii… you may not have read Heinlein until now, James, but as a Michener scholar, I’ll bet you’ve read Hawaii:)

    Annie the Garden Blogger

  2. Annie, I when I read it I kept trying to imagine what it would have been like to have read it then, whenever I put myself in that place, I found myself more impressed.

    I’ll have to check out your book meme post sometime. And, shamed to say, I haven’t read Hawaii, but I’ve always intended to. If it would appear on Lost, perhaps that would push it to the front of my stack :).

  3. I don’t know if you have been to this blog, but their Thursday discussion of Lost is always worth checking out. I enjoy reading this guys reviews almost as much as I enjoy watching the show.

    http://mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/2007/03/lost-thursdays-season-3-ep-13-man-from.html

  4. Thanks, Mark. I checked it out. Good stuff.

  5. As much as I enjoy this thread of yours, I want to know which book you’re reading next. In my ideal never-never-land, I might even get the time to read it before you post your review. A girl can dream, right?

  6. Jessica, Next up is Carrie by Steven King. I used to list the next book in line, but I seem to have been forgetting lately. After that will (probably) be Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov.

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