As I get older, I’m increasingly aware of my good fortune. In particular, I’m grateful to have so few sexual hang-ups. It’s obvious that for many people, sexuality is fraught with guilt, shame, discomfort and fear. Somehow I managed to escape most of these issues.
For me, sex has almost always been a positive experience, ranging from simple fun to life-changing transcendence. I’ve had a wide range of erotic adventures, a rich sexual history which I can (and do) mine in my stories. I also find that I’m attracted to individuals across the gender spectrum, and aroused by a dizzying variety of kinks and quirks. Oh, and despite the fact that I’ve been married for decades, I don’t think I’m fundamentally monogamous.
I grew up in a pretty liberal family, where sex wasn’t condemned or forbidden, but at the same time, it wasn’t exactly a common topic of conversation. So where did I get my attitudes? Why am I so comfortable, relatively speaking, with sex? (I might also ask why I’m so fascinated by it….)
Recently, I got a reminder, when I re-read Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land.
I first encountered this novel when I was twelve or thirteen, just past puberty and drenched with hormones. I was primed for sexual themes. I devoured the book, sharing it with a geeky guy who was my first real boyfriend (though not my first lover). Heinlein’s tale had an incredible impact on my developing sexuality.
In case you’re not familiar with the novel, the “Stranger” of the title is a young man named Valentine Michael Smith, illegitimate son of two brilliant members of the doomed first expedition to Mars. When his parents and the rest of the crew perish, Smith is adopted and raised by the native inhabitants of Mars. Twenty-some years later, a second expedition brings him back to Earth, where he must try to reconcile his Martian upbringing with the demands and dangers of a bewildering and utterly alien new environment. Various powers on Earth want to exploit, control and even eliminate him, but he’s rescued by his nurse Jill and brought to sanctuary in the Poconos mansion of the venerable Jubal Harshaw, LL.B., M.D., Sc.D, bon vivant, popular author and contrarian.
Jubal succeeds in neutralizing the immediate threats to Mike’s life and freedom. Meanwhile, he and the other members of his unconventional establishment (including a captivating blonde, a buxom brunette and a perky red head, who function as his secretaries) discover that the Man from Mars has extraordinary abilities acquired during his education. He can manipulate time and space, including his own body; he can read the minds of people he trusts; he can recognize lies but is himself incapable of falsehood.
Adapting a Martian ritual, Mike “shares water” with Jill, Jubal and the other individuals who gather around him. Initially this involves a literal use of water, which is scarce and precious on Mars. Eventually, water sharing evolves into deeper communion, often involving sex – a joining of both bodies and minds. Martians biology and culture offers nothing remotely like human sexuality. Mike recognizes the unique power of sex, to bind, nurture, heal pain and gladden the heart. Meanwhile his human partners discover that sex with the Man from Mars involves an entirely different plane of experience, ecstatically pleasurable as well as spiritually uplifting.
The community that starts at Jubal’s home evolves into an extended polyamorous family of “water brothers”. At thirteen, I found this concept thrilling and seductive. Love, sex, trust, emotional support, pleasure, oneness, transcendence, all linked. Physical and spiritual connection, shared freely, without guilt or shame or jealousy. Though I was still a virgin, this resonated so strongly that I felt it had to be right and true.
I trace many of my feelings and attitudes about sex to that early reading. I still subscribe to this view of sex as sacrament.
What about now, though? Would Mike’s story still inspire me? When I saw a copy of the “uncut version” at my local used bookstore, I had to find out whether I’d react to the book the same way, after five and a half decades on earth.
Of course, it’s always risky to re-read a beloved book many years later. All too often, I find that the magic has fled, that the excitement kindled by that first reading reflected only my naiveté. I was amazed and delighted to find that Stranger in a Strange Land, first published in 1961, holds up very well in the twenty first century. That’s quite surprising for science fiction. Modern society is not all that different from what Heinlein imagined – the same greed and hunger for power, the same silly fads, the same religious cults, the same suspicions about people who are “alien”. In fact, I think I appreciate Jubal’s character more on this reading, having reached the status of curmudgeon myself.
And the water sharing? If anything, I found the sexual philosophy of the book more compelling on this read, though perhaps less novel. When I read SIASL as a teen, I accepted its message based on intuition. Now I can testify to its truth from personal experience.
The one thing I noticed that was missing in Mike’s world is same-sex coupling. It would seem a natural extension, but I guess that would have been too radical for a sixties author to contemplate. On the other, the book doesn’t explicitly rule out homoerotic interactions. Water sharing eventually morphs into a group ritual, an orgy (at least implied) where everyone is mentally connected with everyone else. Who’s to say the physical connections aren’t comprehensive as well?
Or am I reading my own philosophy and preferences into the tale?
In any case, this re-reading confirmed my long-time conviction that SIASL made fundamental contributions to my sexual development. I’m thrilled and grateful.
Without Valentine Michael Smith, there might never have been a Lisabet Sarai.