Thursday, 11 August 2022

When swords were mightier than words

This week (as loosely promised last week), I’ve got a big announcement to make. But first, once again, I must apologise for the tardiness of recent posts. Lots of readers have been sending me messages to ask me stuff, and I haven’t been able to tell them anything solid, mostly because of circumstances beyond my control, but at last the dam is starting to break.

To begin with, I can today tell the world about a new contract I’ve signed to write a whole new series of books for Canelo. It’s a very different venture, this one, and a radical new direction for me!

So new in fact – in professional terms, that is – that once I embark on it, you might call me a stranger in a strange land. And entirely by coincidence (honest!), that happens to be the name of the book I’ll be reviewing today, Robert Heinlein’s astonishing work of high concept science-fiction, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.

I’m aware that was rather a weak link, by the way, but suffice to say that SIASL was Heinlein’s masterwork, a true futuristic epic, and in my new venture, I’m also entering the world of the epic novel (though not the future, the past), so there is a kind of connection between the two.

As always, if you want to go straight to the book review, shoot on down to the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s post. But remember, there’s this other massive development to talk about first …

A new direction

It’s probably a secret to many readers of this blog, mainly because it deals primarily with ‘dark fiction’, but I have an abiding love of historical novels. And by that, I don’t mean historical romance or historical mystery. I mean historical action, preferably set around dramatic true events of the past. Epic adventures from the days when swords spoke louder than words.

The novels of Ben Kane, Bernard Cornwell, David Gilman, Conn Iggulden, Matthew Harffy, Christian Cameron, Angus Donald and many others, fill my shelves. What’s more, my interest covers a huge spectrum, from the Ancient World right up to our most recent international conflicts. 

It’s not just out-and-out military stuff, though. 

I’m equally fascinated by the intrigues of kings and their courtiers, the madness of emperors, the heroism of knights, the untamed spirit of the Vikings … all of these writers I’ve named specialise in these fields, and I’ve long yearned to have a crack at this exhilarating stuff myself. So, in the end, I did.

Throughout the pandemic, I was busy writing on spec. A load of new stuff has poured out of my keyboard, including a big historical actioner called WOLFHEAD, which is set in England at the cross-over point between the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. 

It follows the adventures of Cerdic of Wulfbury, a young English earl who loses everything during the blood-drenched fury of Harald Hardraada’s invasion of Northumbria in 1066, but who’s determined to win it all back despite the chaos and brutality of the ensuing Norman Conquest.

I’m now proud to announce that the book has been bought by Canelo, who’ll be bringing it out in paperback and ebook, as written by ‘PW Finch’, next April.

They’ve also, and this is the really cool bit, commissioned a further two novels from me, not exactly follow-ups but also set in the early medieval period, and occurring during tumultuous but true historical events.

I consider this an unbelievably exciting development in my career, but one minor question remains: whether or not I should include news and updates about this new line of novels on this blog?

WALKING IN THE DARK is primarily concerned with dark fiction, and a lot of my historical writing will be very dark indeed, but it won’t be Dark Fiction per se. So, do I include it on here simply because it’s written by me, or do I start an entirely new blog dedicated to the ages of swords and chivalry?

At present, I genuinely don’t know (so all answers will be given grateful consideration).


And now onto something radically different. My bread and butter, you might say. The book series that first got me into mass-market publication.

The DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novels have been by far my most successful book series to date, and back in 2018, with KISS OF DEATH, I left them on something of a cliff-hanger. The intention was always to write and publish a follow-up very quickly, but many things have got in the way, not least Covid, on/off lockdowns, a change of publisher, a new deal to write standalone crime thrillers for Orion, etc. However, while Heck has been nowhere near the bookshelves of late, he’s never been far from my thoughts.

Or my laptop.

I’m happy to announce that the next Heck novel is already written. As I say, I managed to use lockdown to get well ahead on my actual writing, but finding a publication slot for it has proved complex. I’m very hopeful that now at last there are movements on this front too, and that we’ll be able to make an announcement on this as well, very soon in the near future.

All those to whom this comes as welcome news, keep checking in, because I’ll post result news as things progress.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Robert Heinlein (1961)

About a century into the future, the manned Earthship Envoy is lost while attempting to land on Mars and all communications from its handpicked crew cease. As World War III is just about to break out on Earth, no further missions to the Red Planet are possible for another 25 years, at the end of which the spacecraft Champion makes the same journey and this time lands successfully. The crew of the Champion, including the Arabic scholar and astronaut, ‘Stinky’ Mahmoud, make contact with the Martian race (who are fantastically indifferent to humanity), and are surprised to learn that a new-born child survived the crash of the Envoy, a child that has now grown to adulthood under the care and governance of the Martians.

For reasons uncertain to the crew of the Champion, the child-turned-man is ordered by his adopted parents to return to Earth with his own people, who name him Valentine Michael Smith.

He arrives on an Earth he doesn’t know, but which is also very different from the one that existed when his own parents set out on the first expedition. Individual countries are now demilitarised, having been replaced by a Federation of Free Nations, and there is a single World Government, which guarantees peace and stability. However, there is also a dark side to this new order. Organised religions now wield huge political power, the most sinister of them the massively influential Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, while the government itself is autocratic and, if necessary, can call on a force of highly trained and ultra ruthless troops, the Special Service, known somewhat appropriately as the SS.

Childlike and disoriented, the seemingly helpless Smith is at first incarcerated in the military medical facility, Bethesda Hospital, in Maryland. As he understands nothing about gender, because it doesn’t exist on Mars, Smith is treated only by male staff. But an independent-minded nurse, Jill Boardman, considers this a challenge and when she tricks her way into his private apartment, shares a glass of water with him, unaware at the time that this makes her his ‘water brother’, a deep and important relationship on Mars where water is a rare but crucial resource.

Strangely affected by the meeting with Smith, Jill later describes it to her on/off boyfriend, Ben Caxton, an investigative journalist, who advises her that, as sole heir to the crew of the Envoy, Smith is already extraordinarily rich, but thanks to some legal precedents set during Earth’s colonisation of the Moon, he might also be the lawful owner of Mars, which would not just make him the wealthiest man in the world by some margin, it would put him at the centre of a political storm of epic proportions, which could likely endanger his life. Jill is worried enough by this to bug Smith’s hospital room, while Caxton writes news stories designed to embarrass the World Government into releasing the captive.

However, Caxton is arrested by the SS, and in a panic, Jill attempts to smuggle Smith out of the hospital. When the SS catch up with her too, Smith, with a curious sleight of hand, makes them all disappear. Jill is horrified to have witnessed what she assumes is mass murder, which in its turn sends Smith into a self-induced catatonic trance. With no other option, Jill takes Smith to Pennsylvania and the rural retreat of Jubal Harshaw, an old friend of Caxton’s and a retired physician and lawyer, who now makes his living as a writer and is regarded as one of the foremost thinkers of the age.

While staying at Harshaw’s pleasant but chaotic enclave, which he shares with various tough handymen and a trio of beautiful, super-intelligent secretaries, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas, Smith becomes more attuned to the patterns of life on Earth, and demonstrates genius-level intelligence and advanced telekinetic powers, all of which fascinate Harshaw but alarm him as well. In return, Smith is particularly intrigued by the human concepts of religion and God. Neither exist in the minds of Martians, but they are not impossible for him to understand as, on Mars, the afterlife is populated by the Old Ones, the souls of Martians who have died, or ‘discorporated’ as he refers to it, and who then adopt deity-like status. To Smith, the term ‘to grok’ means to be completely familiar with something in a deep and profound way, and so to him, God is ‘one who groks all things’, which means that God is all things. This leads him to coin the phrase whenever greeting friends, ‘thou art God,’ though he remains oblivious to the possibility that this may be misunderstood in a world where religious fanatics exert strenuous authority.

While Smith familiarises himself with (and becomes an expert in) all things human, and slowly but surely wins the hearts of Jill, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas, Harshaw fends off an assault by an SS snatch squad by contacting Joseph Douglas, Secretary General of the Federation of Free States, in the process managing to secure the release of Ben Caxton and establish that Smith is not the heir-apparent to Mars itself, making him politically unimportant and therefore much safer. As a final protective measure, Harshaw persuades Douglas to make himself the hugely wealthy Man from Mars’s official business advisor, a very lucrative position, which will render Smith all but untouchable.

Now a VIP, Smith is celebrated worldwide, and even invited to visit the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, the appeal of which is easy to see given that it encourages sex, drunkenness and gambling so long as they all occur on church premises and any money spent goes to the church itself. Despite the Fosterites’ obvious hypocrisy (their temples are more like casinos or brothels than places of worship), no one ever challenges them because bribery of politicians and policemen, and violence against dissenters, are also within church policy.

Unimpressed by this farrago, Smith, now with Jill as his adoring acolyte, goes on the road, performing tricks in a carnival, where he meets tattooed snake-handler and Fosterite loyalist, Patty Paiwonski (who after a steamy night of sex, also becomes his disciple), and visiting ‘girlie’ shows in which he convinces Jill to participate so that he might try and fathom the mystery of human lust. But none of this satisfies Smith as he looks for a way to make Martian sense of the strange world that is Earth. Eventually, still enthralled by the concepts of religion and faith, he uses his limitless wealth to create the Church of All Worlds, with himself, now much deluded about his own status, as the guru and messiah at its heart.

This new religion borrows heavily from the Fosterite cult, particularly the freedom to sexually experiment, but it is not interested in making money and proves hugely attractive to the masses because Smith calls on his psychic abilities to perform what appear to be real-life miracles. In due course all those he has met, including Miriam, Dorcas, Anne and even Ben Caxton, have been drawn in and become followers.

Only the arch-cynic Jubal Harshaw keeps one eye on the monolithic Fosterite power from which adherents are now defecting en masse, and worries that established leaders rarely appreciate it when newcomers chip away at their base …

It seems to me that fiction is filled with Christ allegories. What’s more, they range widely, from CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (to name two very obvious examples), and from The Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix to The Who’s rock opera, Tommy (to name two that are less so). But I doubt there’ve been any that are quite as in your face as Robert Heinlein’s philosophical sci-fi masterwork, Stranger in a Strange Land.

And yet, it isn’t a straightforward analogy.

You might consider that Heinlein, who by the norms of speculative authordom at the time was considered to be culturally and politically conservative, would be the obvious one to preach the Jesus story through the prism of science fiction. And at first glance, it looks as if he did just that, with Valentine Michael Smith the miracle-working prophet, Earth the desert in which he comes to realise his purpose, the SS the Romans, the Fosterite Chuch the Sanhedrin and Jubal Harshaw the Judas-like face of mankind, who later yearns to believe that he was in touch with the divine but will always be tortured by doubt.

So yes, when Robert Heinlein first penned his 220,000-word epic, it genuinely must have looked to many as if he was giving us a blow-by-blow re-run of the New Testament.

But as I say, there are problems with this thesis.

First of all, the society that Smith eventually creates is as unAmerican as you could have imagined at the time of the book’s publication, promoting communal living, nudism, free love and shared ownership of everything. It would certainly interest and influence the hippie movement (and indeed it did, including the Manson sect!), but the hippies weren’t around in 1961. What Heinlein was espousing was at the time a very revolutionary creed, so much so that if it had been allowed to, it would undoubtedly have caused offence to the real-life religious authorities of the era. It might even have been deemed sacrilegious and, despite it winning the Hugo Award and taking sci-fi for the first time ever into the New York Times best-seller lists, it was cut by 60,000 words before hitting the high street bookshops, and even then was quickly removed from schools, colleges and libraries.

Heinlein’s response to this was, first of all, that Stranger in a Strange Land had never been intended as a religious text, but that the idea had sprung originally from The Jungle Book, and secondly, that he wasn’t in the business of teaching anyone anything, but was simply posing a hatful of new ideas, which his readers could judge for themselves. “It’s an invitation to think,” he famously said, “not believe”. At no stage, did he state that Valentine Michael’s Smith’s proposed Heaven on Earth was possible or even desirable.

And maybe there are hints of this in the actual narrative. For much of the book, Smith remains an innocent, trying to learn his way through the complications and absurdities of a society that he had no notion even existed before his 25th birthday. But he has latent psychic powers, vastly more than the average human, and as he gradually becomes aware, has no hesitation in using them. Making members of the SS ‘disappear’, in other words killing them, might seem forgivable. But they aren’t the only group he reserves this punishment for. In other cases, he doesn’t always go the whole hog, but simply makes his opponents’ clothing disappear in public. He also spends time as a carney, where he learns cheap tricks and gimmicks, and later on during his ministry, retains something of the same aura: namely that he is a conjuror putting on a show, the superficial wonders of which mask his empty message and power-seeking nature.

Other reviewers have wondered if this is a flaw in the writing. Myself, I consider it deliberate.

For example, while it’s true that Smith’s lack of interest in monetary gain would definitely have rung a bell with ascetic Christians everywhere, in Stranger in a Strange Land it only comes about because he’s already flush with inexhaustible amounts of cash. So, it’s hardly laudable. And while he identifies the Fosterite Church as a glaring case of evangelical phoniness, he borrows several of its most popular elements – the cathartic use of group-sex being one – as a means to boost his own operation. It might be relevant that Heinlein’s original title for this novel was The Heretic.

For all these reasons, though Stranger in a Strange Land is regarded widely as a sci-fi classic, it remains divisive even now, 60 years after first publication. But that’s its strength. There is so much in this book to discuss that it cannot fail to stimulate lively minds.

It’s not perfect, though.

It was the unabridged version I read, which at 220,000 words is simply too long and drawn out, but I’ve heard similar said of the 160,000-word version. This is primarily because much of the run-time is occupied by philosophical discussion, usually when Jubal’s on the page, rather than actual action. Heinlein even had problems with this on publication. Puttnam, the book’s original publisher, considered that it was too much of a mammoth read for what it actually contained, and this also was given as a reason for the huge cuts the author was required to make.

In addition, and this is a point that could be made often about sci-fi writers of the golden age, while Heinlein’s cosmic vision was astonishing, there are many moments in the book that are clearly stuck in the 1950s. For example, his characters still smoke and drink lots of coffee. Crude slurs are used in reference to homosexuality (which otherwise barely rears its head), while the banter between men and women is laden with innuendo.

In fact, it’s this latter aspect of Stranger in a Strange Land that is most glaringly at odds with the author’s concept of a future Earth, especially in his examination of possible routes to a happier society.

Looking back on our own era of sexual liberation, we can see that it was never intended to create an age of objectification (even though it did), but in this novel at least, Robert Heinlein sees no grey area between the two. So, for example, we go from relatively innocuous anachronisms like nurses still wearing stockings under their uniforms and doctors referring to them with saucy nicknames, to the slightly more serious, such as the moment in the story where Jill Boardman opines that most women who are raped have instigated it themselves.

But it’s the continued eroticisation of female characters in this book that seems to jar the most. Though Jill Boardman, a strong, intelligent woman, previously earned her living as a highly-qualified nurse, when she’s on the road with Smith he uncovers a secret exhibitionistic side to her nature and encourages her appearance in strip shows. And though this could be seen as part of her preparation for life as a priestess in Smith’s temple, as her main role then will be to have sex with the new devotees, that itself is surely a questionable destiny. But Heinlein goes even further than this, Smith later using his telekinetic powers to reshape the already-delectable Jill and other female acolytes into literal love goddesses.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t offended by it, but I won’t pretend that I didn’t find all this a bit curious and at odds with the more thoughtful and introspective first half of the book.

Again though, could this have been Heinlein’s intention all along?

We’ve already discussed Valentine Michael Smith’s conman tendencies and when the mob finally descends on his Church of All Worlds, the sort of charges they level at him include running a prostitution racket and corruption of minors … even in the midst of the carnage is the author hitting us with some bitter truths about the glorious sin-free world we’ve been invited to imagine?

I suppose you just have to read it and draw your own conclusions. And despite it’s huge length, and despite what might sound like several reservations on my part, that won’t be a trial.

Heinlein focusses mostly on story and subtext(s), not bothering us with gluts of unnecessary scientific detail, though as usual he almost casually tosses in a variety of wonderful ideas. I especially liked the emergence of a strand of humanity who possess total recall, and who subsequently find employment not just as super-secretaries but as professional legal witnesses, while Smith’s Martian-taught ability to literally shut himself down, slip into voluntary catatonia so that he can take all the time he needs to work stuff out, is something I’ve never seen previously.

The novel is wordy by modern standards, but superbly written, as you’d expect – the author never puts a foot wrong technically – and peopled with characters so vivid that you can feel them in the room with you. Despite the widely ranging philosophy and deep and protracted investigations of human culture and society, it’s never over-heavy. The whole thing flows from the page, at no stage getting away from itself even though it runs to colossal length. But on top of that, there’s something mischievously joyful about it all. Heinlein might not have believed in the ‘free-money free-sex’ society he experiments with here, but he clearly liked the idea. And if he genuinely did, as some reviewers have suggested, set out to purposely slaughter all the sacred cows of 1950s America, he did it with a twinkle in his eye.

Ultimately, you’ve just got to read Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s so vast a project that no single review can cover every base in one go. And for this reason alone, it’s rightly earned its classic status. And if you don’t believe that, how many other sci-fi novels can you name that still cause heated arguments over half a century after publication and even went on to inspire the creation of a real-life religious movement (because the Church of All Worlds is now an actual thing)?

So, there you go. Don’t listen to me. Just read it, and as the late Robert Heinlein would have said, decide for yourself.

I’m not sure if it would ever be possible to do Stranger in a Strange Land justice on film or TV given how prevalent the sex and nudity, but I suppose the less-than-prudish 21st century would be the time to do it. It probably won’t happen, but in case anyone’s talking about it, here’s your cast, fellas:

Valentine Michael Smith – Brant Daugherty
Jill Boardman – Jennifer Lawrence
Ben Caxton – Cillian Murphy
Jubal Harshaw – Jon Voight
Dr ‘Stinky’ Mahmoud – Riz Ahmed
Patty Paiwonski – Rachael Harris
Joseph Douglas – JK Simmons
Anne – Emma Stone
Miriam – Zazie Beetz
Dorcas –Miranda Kerr

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