"Junior, you arenít shaping up too angelically": Queerness in Heinleinís Stranger in a Strange Land

By Allyn Howey

Robert A. Heinlein at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City.

Robert A. Heinlein at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City.
Photo by David Dyer-Bennet

From the day Robert Heinlein sent the manuscript for his Stranger in a Strange Land to his agent, Lurton Blassingame, the novel was destined to make ripples in the American consciousness.

October 21, 1960: Lurton Blassingame to Robert A. Heinlein

Dear Water-Brother,

I greatly admire your courage and also your intellectual virility that enables you to open up new areas of the literary globe (Grumbles from the Grave p. 262).

While Stranger did not become an immediate hit with readers (sales for the novel did not pick up until several years after its initial publication in 1961), the novel won Heinlein his third Hugo Science Fiction Achievement Award in 1962. From the very first, Stranger was intended to be a queer text of sorts; Heinlein once stated that his purpose in writing the novel

was to examine every major axiom of Western culture, to question each axiom, throw doubt on it—and, if possible, to make the antithesis of each axiom appear a possible and perhaps desirable thing—rather than unthinkable.[1]

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In thinking about Stranger as a queer text, it is important to recognize the broad, ever-expanding meaning of the term "queer" itself. While some still think of queer as a slur, it has been adopted by those who practice and study any non-heteronormative sexualities as a sort of catch-all which can be used to describe those sexualities, or individuals who practice those sexualities. In her article "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," Gayle S. Rubin gives a more specific definition of what might be deemed "heteronormative" versus "queer" sex acts in what she calls "the sex hierarchy":

The charmed circle The outer limits
Good, Normal, Natural, Blessed Sexuality Bad, Abnormal, Unnatural, Damned Sexuality
Heterosexual Homosexual
Married Unmarried (or, "In Sin")
Monogamous Promiscuous (or, "Non-Monogamous")
Procreative Non-procreative
Non-commercial Commercial
In Pairs Alone or in Groups
In a relationship Casual
Same generation Cross-generational
In private In public
No pornography Pornography
Bodies only With manufactured objects
Vanilla Sadomasochistic

(Abelove, Barale, Halperin p. 13)

So, if the restrictions of "the charmed circle" denote what we think of as heteronormative sex, then any sexuality or sexual practice that falls outside of that circle is potentially queer. (This would have been even more true for readers in the '60s than it is for us today).

It is also important, however, to keep in mind that "queer" can be used as a verb as well as a noun. While it can be argued that Stranger lacks many elements that would tie it to "queerness" as we think of the term today (the omission/dismissal of homosexuality in the novel is of course the primary example), the key to Stranger's queerness can be found in Heinlein's stated purpose for writing. Much of the behavior of Heinlein's characters would indeed have been considered transgressive to the audience of the 1960s: this is undoubtedly the reason Stranger became known as the unofficial bible of the "free love" counterculture. However, the true queerness of the text lies in the author's ability to recognize the social construction of sexuality, and effectively posit that it is the very existence of these constructs which "queers" non-normative practices such as those of Rubin's "outer limits."

Queerness in this regard manifests itself in several different major themes, which are foregrounded not only by Heinlein's somewhat radical (for 1961) views of human sexuality, but almost more importantly through his interrogation of social constructionism throughout the novel. Often these views appear in the form of monologues made by Jubal Harshaw, Heinlein's alter-ego and his voice box in the text. Early in the novel, Harshaw reveals his constructionist ethos in a conversation with Duke, his permanent handyman. Duke is offended by the Man from Mars' discussion of the ritual cannibalism that takes place on Mars, where the living eat the flesh of those who have passed away in order to "grok" with (understand/merge/appreciate) their dead brother. Jubal attempts to explain to Duke that Mike's belief in cannibalism is no different than Duke's belief that cannibalism is evil: both are morally neutral societal indoctrinations.

"Never mind what they think in Kansas; Mike uses values taught him on Mars."

"I'll take Kansas."

"Well," admitted Jubal, "so will I. But it is not free choice for me, nor you—nor Mike. It is almost impossible to shake off one's earliest training. Duke, can you get it through your skull that if you had been brought up by Martians, you would have the same attitude toward eating and being eaten that Mike has?" (Stranger p. 125).

Although this conversation is not a direct discussion of gender or sexuality, Harshaw's attitude regarding societal conditioning clearly aligns him/Heinlein with feminist constructionists such as Toril Moi, who argue for the definition of "'femininity' as a set of culturally defined characteristics," (Kemp and Squires p. 246) where "femininity" is the term used for the expected female gender. Heinlein's constructionism is further revealed in Harshaw's witty remark that he could be susceptible to "delusions of gender" (Stranger p. 240).

In recognizing the power of societal indoctrination in governing human behavior, Harshaw/Heinlein become virtually immune to the force which Rubin terms "sex negativity:"

Western cultures generally consider sex to be a dangerous, destructive, negative force . . . Such notions have now acquired a life of their own and no longer depend solely on religion for their perseverance (Abelove, Barale, Halperin p. 11).

Admitting to his own constructed biases, Harshaw nevertheless maintains that what might be termed "deviant" sexuality is not necessarily ethically objectionable:

"Public displays of rut I find distasteful—but this reflects my early indoctrination. A large part of mankind do not share my taste; the orgy has a very wide history. But 'shocking'? My dear sir, I am shocked only by that which offends me ethically."

"You think this is just a matter of taste?"

"Nothing more" (Stranger p. 361).

Harshaw, then, becomes a queer figure, as he has the ability to distinguish between ethics and his own socially-constructed biases: he is the one character in the novel who consistently sees that sexual practices are not inherently queer, but are in fact queered by societal indoctrination. This logical, if rare, outlook is one that is adopted by the other characters in the novel, including Mike (the Man from Mars), thus creating a truly "queer" setting: one in which sex negativity is not a factor.

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Social constructionism is a queer aspect of the novel that does not manifest itself as a major theme, but nonetheless permeates the text as an assumed constant. For this reason, it may not come as a shock to a modern reader (as it was to Heinlein's wife, Virginia) that Stranger was considered a feminist text:

November 10, 1970: Virginia Heinlein to Lurton Blassingame

Believe this if you can—Stranger is on the Women's Lib reading list! (Grumbles from the Grave p. 279)

The same qualities that make Stranger a feminist document (or at least one valuable to feminism in the '60s) also foreground Stranger's queerness, one that is perhaps more overtly defined by the behavior of the characters in the novel. It is important, however, to look at this behavior not as queer in and of itself (although much of it is queer), but for the fluidity of sexuality and sexual identification which these behaviors represent. To that end, perhaps the most urgent theme to explore is one that presents itself through its own absence: homosexuality.

"It's Not a Pansy Gesture": Same-Sex Desire

Heinlein has often been criticized by readers for being homophobic, specifically in reference to his treatment of homosexuality in Stranger, and indeed, this aspect of sexuality, one which in modern terms is central to the idea of queerness, is largely omitted, or looked down upon by characters in the text. The longest discussion of homosexuality in the text is a consideration by Jill, a straight woman, whose naÔvetť Harshaw criticizes more than once in the text. While this does not discount the homophobic assumptions, it is important to note that Heinlein places the entire passage within parentheses: this is meant to be Jill's private thoughts. In reference to male homosexuals, "Jill suspected that Mike would grok a 'wrongness' in the poor in-betweeners, anyhow—they would never be offered water" (Stranger p. 303). Jill also conflates homosexual object-choice and gender deviance: "fortunately, Mike's male water-brothers were very masculine, just as his others were very female women" (Stranger p. 303). These statements reveal, if not Heinlein's, then at least Jill's ignorance in regards to homosexuality, an ignorance for which Jill is not, in the course of the text, reprimanded by Harshaw as she is on other issues.

It is difficult to state with certainty that the homophobia displayed in this passage and the absence of homosexual sex in the novel is merely Heinlein's attempt to make his characters reflective of the values of his time. However, since much of the queerness of the text is the result of the author's ability to queer the societal norms of his era—to throw doubt on axioms of Western culture—it is important to contextualize his treatment of homosexuality in Stranger. In defense of the idea that Heinlein is merely playing to the prejudices of his era, he was known to be a shrewd businessman—he wrote for a living, and wrote first and foremost for profit. In his essay, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction," Heinlein set forth his personal "rules for writing:"

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

That two of the five rules speak to the importance of profiting from one's writing is clear evidence that Heinlein would have been hesitant to write on a topic he felt would repel readers; this idea is supported in the novel by Harshaw's declaration that what he wants from his writing is "praise from the customer, given in cash because I've reached him—or I don't want anything" (Stranger p. 326). Furthermore, Heinlein's post-Stranger work—which was known for being more experimental, since his success with Stranger virtually placed him beyond the interference of editors—contains many more direct dealings with "deviant" sexualities, such as homosexuality and even incest. In his 1973 novel Time Enough for Love, two lab technicians who have been dressed in gender-concealing suits decide to go home together after a hard day's work:

"What would you say to 'Seven Hours of Ecstasy'?"

There was a short pause which felt long. The Master Chief Technician said, "Colleague, what sex are you?"

"Does it matter?"

"I suppose not. I accept" (Time Enough for Love p. 39).

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While it is important to understand Heinlein's relationship to transgressive sexualities in a larger context, same-sex desire (if not sex) in Stranger itself does mark a transgressive, and decidedly queer stance in regards to same-sex, platonic relationships. While there does not appear to be any exclusively homosexual sex in the novel, there is a good deal of same-sex romantic kissing, as well as group sex which would seem to require some elements of same-sex desire. Sexuality, for the characters in Stranger, is a spiritual thing (as will be discussed in greater detail later) and among water-brothers there is no taboo against same-sex kissing. After Mike and Jill's newfound water-brother, Patty, gives them her prized, blessed copy of the New Revelation Bible,

Jill jumped up. "We'll share it. It's ours now—all of us." She kissed her.

Mike tapped her shoulder. "Greedy little brother. My turn."

"I'll always be greedy, that way" (Stranger p. 296).

So, Jill's kissing her female water-brother appears to be much more than a matter of protocol, but an expression of water-brotherhood that both participants enjoy. We are disavowed of the idea that Jill might be capable of same-sex desire outside the bounds of water-brotherhood, however, as Jill later observes that "to have discovered in herself Lesbian tendencies would have been too much" (Stranger p. 307). Insofar as such a vague statement helps form an idea of Jill's sexuality, it seems clear that same-sex desire is almost an expected part of entering into water-brotherhood with someone of the same sex: romantic, sexual behavior (if not intercourse) with water-brothers is always an accepted—even expected—behavior. Similarly, later in the novel, Ben Caxton discusses his experience in the "Nest" of his water-brothers. When he describes the Nest to Harshaw, including the wide range of accepted sexual behavior, Harshaw says

"I would expect men to kiss men."

Ben looked sheepish. "I held out on you. But it's not a pansy gesture" (Stranger p. 365).

Ben's assertion that "it's not a pansy gesture" supports the notion that, while same-sex desire is a normal behavior between water-brothers, it is not considered to be indicative of what we think of today as a person's overall "sexual preference" or "sexual orientation." This is why Jill can "be greedy" about kissing Patty, and yet not consider herself to have "Lesbian tendencies," and Ben can state with surety that, in the Nest, men kissing men is "not a pansy gesture." This qualification may seem to be homophobic in and of itself. However, the text suggests that water-brothers, once they have fully joined the "nest" where they live and interact only with other water-brothers, have no sexuality at all outside of that which they practice with their brethren in the nest:

"I had no slightest wish to attempt this miracle with anyone I did not already cherish and trust—Jubal, I am physically unable even to attempt to love with a female who has not shared water with me. And this runs all through the Nest. Psychic impotence—unless spirits blend as flesh blends" (Stranger p. 420).

In this case, the characters' unwillingness to define themselves as homosexual despite their same-sex desire within the Nest seems to be part of a larger unwillingness to define any sexuality that is not between water-brothers. This idea, then, can not be said to be the text dismissing homosexuality as a valid form of human sexual expression or experience, but its embracing sexuality as an element in any human relationship. Stranger is not failing to live up to the label of queer because it dismisses homosexuality, but is in fact queering "platonic" friendships by making sexuality a normal and accepted part of human intimacy, no matter the sexes of those who are becoming intimate.

Interestingly, Heinlein's queerness in this regard is the result of his "normalizing" same-sex desires. This is a process that Heinlein applies to many "deviant" sexualities in the course of the novel, largely through the same means as with homosexuality: by placing "deviant" sexuality in the context of a loving relationship between all of the water-brothers in the Nest, and a part of the characters' spiritualities.

"She's the spiritual sort; she thinks with her gonads": Spirituality and Sex

Even before the reader is introduced to Mike's Church of All Worlds, the institution Mike and his water-brothers use to "recruit" new water-brothers to join the Nest, Heinlein raises the notion of sexuality as a facet, even the foundation for, spirituality. One of the first human institutions with which Mike becomes familiar is the Fosterite Church, a sect of Christianity whose slogan is "Get Happy!" Mike, Harshaw, and Jill's visit to the Fosterite Tabernacle reveals a large gambling-hall with multiple bars, and a boisterous, sexually-charged form of worship. The Fosterites have no doctrine against sexuality, as Mike finds out when Bishop Boone introduces him to Dawn Ardent:

"She's the highest paid peeler in all Baja California, that's who. Works under an irised spotlight and by the time she's down to her shoes, the light is just on her face and you really can't see anything else. Very effective. Highly spiritual" (Stranger p. 248).

This reference is the first in the novel that ties sexuality directly with spirituality—the idea that a strip show could be "highly spiritual" is one that was likely completely foreign to audiences of the sixties, since it seems to go against all of the "early indoctrination" that Harshaw believes holds such great weight with so much of humanity. The Bishop's use of the term "very effective" is interesting in this context as well, implying that Dawn's strip show is an "effective" method of spiritual enlightenment/worship. Harshaw also sees the Fosterite's endorsement of sexuality as "effective" in attracting worshippers:

"[Archbishop Digby] knows what people want. Happiness. The world has suffered a long century of guilt and fear—now Digby tells them that they have nothing to fear, this life or hereafter, and that God commands them to be happy" (Stranger p. 256).

Harshaw is skeptical as to how spiritually effective it is for a church to endorse sexuality; he sees it as a practical gesture good for expanding the religion. Indeed, Mike will manipulate sexuality in the same manner later in the novel. Mike's Church of All Worlds is essentially an elaborate setup to help people reach the spiritual and educational level required to join Mike's Nest of water-brothers. This involves not only a devotion to the Martian notions of individual responsibility ("Thou art God") and the communal lifestyle of water-brotherhood in the Nest, but a firm grasp of the Martian language necessary to fully understand these concepts. Mike conducts general sermons, and draws in "marks" by performing small "miracles" using his telekinetic powers. As the members move up in the ranks of the Church, sex becomes a spiritual draw, just as miracles are used with non-members. At an initiation ceremony for highly-ranked members to be promoted to the next rank, Ben Caxton

saw Mike put his arms around the first woman in line . . . turned to follow Patricia and failed to see the candidate's robe vanish as Mike kissed her—did not see Jill kiss the first male candidate . . . and his robe vanished (Stranger p. 344).

Just as, in the Church of All Worlds, spirituality is imbued with sexuality, the two concepts become inseparable to water-brothers in the Nest. As water-brothers, the members of the Nest frequently engage in intercourse with one another—and because all of the Nest members are water-brothers to each other in a sort of group marriage, sexuality is not limited to monogamous couples. In fact, the sex enjoyed by water-brothers is incredibly queer by Rubin's standards, falling into five of her deviant "outer limits" categories: "unmarried" (in sin), "non-procreative," "in public," "promiscuous" (non-monogamous), and "in groups." The real queerness of their sexualities, however, is not in their failure to conform to accepted societal standards of what sex should be; rather, as with same-sex desire in the previous section, that such practices are normalized and sanctioned by the water-brothers' spirituality. In fact, their spirituality blatantly negates the "deviance" of all of these categories: the sex is not really "in sin" if one considers that the Nest is the equivalent of a group marriage; similarly, such a notion would seem to negate the deviant quality of group sex, since all the participants would be members of the marriage. By the same token, the relationship is not "promiscuous" (though it is polygamous), since the "marriage" itself involves more than two people. Additionally, Harshaw himself would deny the notion that sex among the water-brothers occurs "in public" merely because it may occur in a common area of the Nest:

"This group was a plural marriage—a group theogamy, to be technical. Therefore whatever took place . . . was not public but private. 'Ain't nobody here but us gods'—so how could anyone be offended?" (Stranger p. 362).

Even the deviance of "non-procreative" sex is negated by the notion that sex is an expression of one's spirituality. If the Church of All Worlds, in contrast to the monolithic Western church, declares that the primary purpose for sex is not the "quickening of eggs" as Mike would call it, but a vehicle for "growing closer," then non-procreative sex becomes the norm instead of a deviation. Just as in the Fosterite church Dawn Ardent's sexuality is considered "highly spiritual," within the nest, sexuality is a potent form of worship in which the members celebrate themselves and the pleasures of their own bodies as gods, rather than as humans driven by primal urges to procreate.

Thus, the spirituality involved in the characters' sexuality has the effect of normalizing their behavior. Under the auspices of the Church of All Worlds, sex and sexuality that would usually be considered deviant and wrong become normal, healthy, and acceptable. Once again, the queerness of the text lies not merely in all of the "queer" sex that the characters are having, but in the author's ability to envision a setting in which that sex is not queer.

"He could see a lot of changes he wanted to make": Conclusion

In the end, it is not that the behavior of Heinlein's characters falls largely into Rubin's "outer limits" that makes the text queer; the queerness of the text lies in the author's ability to perceive of a reality in which Rubin's circle can be restructured. Perhaps "normalization" is not the most accurate term to describe what Heinlein does with the sexuality of his characters, since the reality in which the Nest operates co-exists within a world that accepts a narrow range of sexual behaviors—a world with sexual prejudices that reflect those of our time as well as Heinlein's. In the novel, it is not that Mike endorses a brand of "free love" that causes him to become known as "the antichrist"—the Fosterites' God-sanctioned love is palatable to society. What society finds unacceptable is the personal empowerment that accompanies the Church of All Worlds' sexual revolution. Mike's credo "Thou art God" grants each individual the responsibility to enlighten him- or herself, and implies that the sharing of physical pleasure through sex is the root of human spirituality, not merely a divinely-sanctioned diversion. The sexuality of Mike and his water-brothers is more than a good time—it is a way to intensify their relationships with each other and celebrate their own bodies and beings, thus reaffirming their own divinity.

By the standards of the Church of All Worlds, none of the sexual behavior of its members could be termed queer. The queerness of Heinlein's vision lies in his ability—particularly in 1960—to see that human sexuality is not inherently queer or normal, but that the arbitrary standards of Western society queer non-traditional sexualities.

Footnote

[1] From the flap copy of the first edition of the Putnam first edition: Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1961.

Works Cited

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York, NY: Penguin, 1987.

---. Time Enough For Love. New York, NY: Putnam, 1988.

---. "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction." Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Eds. of Analog and Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1991. 5-11.

---. Grumbles from the Grave. Ed. Virginia Heinlein. New York: Random House, Inc., 1990.

Moi, Toril. "Feminist, Female, Feminine." Feminisms. Eds. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 246-250.

Rubin, Gayle S. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993. 3-44.

Works Consulted

Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York, NY: St. Martin's, 1995.

D'Emilio, John. "Capitalism and Gay Identity." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993. 467-476.

Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

Reginald, R. Contemporary Science Fiction Authors. New York: Arno, 1974.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.


Allyn Howey is a graduate of the English program at Temple University in her home city of Philadelphia. She is primarily a poet looking for publishers, though she also suffers from an acute enjoyment of Cold War science fiction. Her email address is allyn.howey@gmail.com and her blog is "Post Meridian" (http://postmeridian.blogspot.com).