Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein

Vintage SciFi Header showing spaceship alien with ray-gun and space man

Three weeks into Vintage Science Fiction Month and I’ve only just realised I haven’t once linked to or credited its fabulous creator and host the Little Red Reviewer! (I am ashamed! Please forgive!) I lovelovelove this event because it always pushes me out of my comfort zone in some way.

 

Valentine Michael Smith was born on Mars and raised by Martians. He is brought to Earth as a young adult and he and humanity change each other in interesting ways. There is nothing unattractive to me about this blurb for Stranger in a Strange Land and this was all I knew about the novel before reading it.

 

So I’m about fifty pages in when I realise that this isn’t going to be the hefty, thinky tome I was worrying about. The blurb on the back of my 1985 edition claims that Stranger in a Strange Land is Heinlein’s “most important and significant novel to date”, which immediately made me nervous (I’ve an inferiority complex when it comes to reading smart books), but the initial dialogue between Jill and Ben was fun and nothing about the worldbuilding made me think that I wouldn’t understand what was going on.

On the other hand, I was straight away irritated by the sheer quantity of endearments that get thrown Jill’s way by any male character she comes into contact with (“pretty foots”, in particular, got right under my skin). The Wise Girl Malthusian Lozenges advertisement did nothing to improve my mood (“why risk losing his love and respect?”), even while I appreciated both the term ‘Malthusian Lozenges’ and Heinlein’s use of the word “mammalian” instead of something more titillating when describing the Wise Girl.

By the end of part two (His Preposterous Heritage) I was getting a little tired of all the talking. Particularly when the author/doctor/lawyer Jubal Harshaw got going. He might make his point in the first or second sentence, but he loves the sound of his own voice so much that he’ll continue for another couple of paragraphs. Ben was a know-it-all chatterbox too, but Jubal is a master chinwagger. Later in the book even Mike, our Man from Mars, proves to be just as smugly full of his own opinions. It’s not that what they’re talking about isn’t interesting, all the details surrounding Mike’s claim to both Mars and to an incalculable fortune would make a book in itself, and I enjoyed how Jubal solved these problems. I just think he could’ve talked a whole lot less while doing it.

From part three (His Eccentric Education) onwards I kind of lost the thread if things. I was still enjoying Heinlein’s writing style, but was becoming suspicious that there wasn’t actually going to be a plot. Where the first part of the novel uses Mike’s innocence to draw attention to some of the absurd aspects of human life, the second half, in which he starts his own church and becomes enthusiastically naked and free-lovin’, is absurd all on its own. The problem, for me, is that Heinlein’s future still contains too many sexual double standards. There is never any question of a woman saying “no” or “I’m not in the mood” in Mike’s Nest; (there is never any question of either gender saying “sex just isn’t my thing” either); older women think themselves young to remain attractive, but the grumpy old man Jubal doesn’t need to become young or handsome to get it on; and only one woman, in the entire book is described as plain and it’s the first and only thing said about her. Because appearance is the only thing that matters about a woman (??!!). In the first half of the book Mike doesn’t even realise that there is a difference between women and men, in the second half he sees anything other than heterosexuality as a “wrongness” – so while “thou art God” (male) and “thou art God” (female), “growing closer” is only acceptable with one of you.

I do see that my objections come from my place in time. I applauded the throwaway sentence in which we learned that Mike’s mother was the inventor of the Lyle Drive (and the reason for some of his vast fortune). It’s not like Heinlein couldn’t imagine women as something more than pretty faces and pleasing shapes. I question these aspects of the story because I want to read books in which women are given more to do – because as a woman, I know myself capable of more. And so I experience this clash between what I want from the story, and what Heinlein intended in telling it.

On the plus side, the humour kept me coming back even when the story got a bit weird. Heinlein’s got a kind of punchy, pacey style that drags you along even while that more reflective part of your brain is questioning what it’s just read. There’s a rhythm to a lot of the dialogue that gives the impression of a slick double act (particularly in the gentle ribbing of Jubal by his three young and attractive (bleurgh) assistants), and Mike’s interactions with the world remain funny until he gets smart and starts playing humanity at its own game. I like my satire over-easy, so I enjoyed that Heinlein kept it Horatian and didn’t go too dark or deep.

And I’d love to have seen the author explore the afterlife he created just a bit more. It was an odd thing to throw into the last third of the book and I don’t know what his intentions were in doing it, but discovering that Foster and Digby are angels, that there’s a Muslim Paradise too (suggesting that all afterlives are equally valid), and that Mike is, it turns out, the Archangel Michael had me in stitches. I might even be able to forgive Mike’s terribly Biblical death scene because of it.

 

So, an “important and significant” book? Published in 1961 only a year after the first commercial contraceptive pill had been released in the US, eight years before a person had set foot on the Moon and a full fifteen years before the Viking probes landed on Mars, I can see how some of its ideas caught the imagination. That it found a foothold in the public mind of the early Sixties doesn’t seem surprising now. It’s interesting (to me) that Heinlein tackled religion in his novel, and that it inspired the founding of an actual Church of All Worlds is both strange and fascinating. But I can’t go back and truly appreciate (fully grok) what it felt like to read it when it first came out, I can only react to it from here and now. And this isn’t an important or significant book for me. It was a fairly entertaining read, but it didn’t mean anything to me, it didn’t say something new, open my eyes, or put an unnamed feeling into words. It wasn’t something I couldn’t wait to pick up again, and it isn’t something I plan to reread. By all the criteria by which I personally judge a book, it failed and yet the fact remains that it has never been out of print in the sixty years since it first hit the market. It’s still talking to people.

 

“In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe.”

Robert A. Heinlein

 

Heinlein wrote so much that I’m not going to judge him on this one book, so tell me (please!) is there a book by him that you feel I should read?

31 thoughts on “Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein

  1. My review for this is coming on Thursday, and I mention a number of the same things (though I’m repeatedly editing mine because it just sounds like I’m dragging the book and not much else). Very much of its time, and that’s about the most polite way I can put it. Anyway, great review, again!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was worried that our reviews might clash as I remembered you were reading it too. Am looking forward to reading your thoughts.
      (I rewrote twice because I was so cross with it when I first finished that I just bitched for 1000 words). 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This has been exactly my issue. I got pretty snarky in it a couple of times, but they aren’t making itnin to the final edit. I will be calm and measured. With maybe just a tiny bit of frustration induced rage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not calm about this book. I can’t stand it, especially the endless preachy know-it-all lawyer character. I don’t understand its “classic” status. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is infinitely better and more interesting for me. This review is excellent and much more careful and restrained than I would be.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I did struggle to be as fair as I could.
        I will have to get my hands on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – thank you for the recommendation. 🙂

        Like

  3. I felt like you about it – I‘ve read it in 2013. It‘s more a reflection about the 1960s than SF; „to grok“ even made it into dictionaries!
    Novels from him which I liked far better were „The Moon is a Harsh Mistress“ (maybe his best work, 5 stars) and the military SF „Starship Troopers“. Those I can fully recommend!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I am not a fan of Heinlein’s adult SF, of which this is the Capital Ship (if his books were a fleet of starships). I really enjoyed his juvenile books and I also thoroughly enjoyed Starship Troopers, which seems to be a bridge between his juvie (it’s not even young adult) and his adult works.

    The couple of adult books of his that I read just seemed bitter and chockful of hating on religion. They also crossed the line into blasphemy, so I decided to just let that part of his catalog go.

    But if I were to recommend one book, and one book only, it would be Starship Troopers. VERY different from the brainless, action fluff movie.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. While the story is relatively the same (ie, giant bugs and space marines), at the same time it is completely different. If you read the first chapter or two and didn’t care for it then you probably wouldn’t like the rest of the book either.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. There have been just four (4) by Heinlein that I’ve read and reread:

    *Friday (my personal favorite and go-to book)
    *The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (enjoyable, if a bit whiplash inducing)
    *To Sail Beyond the Sunset (amusing and wonderful character-building)
    *The Puppet Masters (the unabridged version that came out in 1990, mainly because I like the political thriller genre)

    This is by no means his ‘top’ books, which I suppose would be “Stranger” and “Starship Troopers”, neither of which I’ve been able to get into. Make of all this what you will.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I appreciate your recommendations! None of the titles you mentioned are familiar, which I’m taking yo be a good sign. I won’t be reading Starship Troopers! 😆

      Like

  6. I’d recommend The Star Beast by Heinlein. It’s one of his juveniles, but it deals with some serious issues in a subtle way. Lots of good, snappy dialogue without as many of Heinlein’s signature speeches.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This wasn’t one of my favs way back when, and probably hasn’t stood the test of time either. Most of his work tends to be out of date, though some of his juveniles are still entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m interested to read some more of him before I decide if he’s for me or not, but I suspect, in the end, the time gap will remain a problem. We just don’t think this way anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. As far as memory serves me with this one (it’s been a few decades…) I do remember “Stranger” as a very wordy book indeed, and quite different from other Heinlein works I enjoyed: this one is placed, in my recollection, as one of the “weird” ones…
    For other recommendations I can happily join the chorus for “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” (my favorite), and add “The Door into Summer” and “Double Star”.
    Happy reading 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I haven’t read any Heinlein books but, if you haven’t watched it already, I think you’ll enjoy Overly Sarcastic Productions’ video on Stranger in a Strange Land. I found it really funny and I’d be interested to know what someone who’s read the book makes of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I seem to recall a longer edition of this one being issued in the 80’s or 90’s. Not sure if you got that one or not (I think it’s replaced the original version, but I can’t say for sure). I think the difference was that the longer version restored some of the talkier parts of the story.

    If you want to read some other Heinlein, I recommend Starship Troopers or Tunnel in the Sky. I find myself enjoying his juveniles a bit more. I’d also say that leave some of his works from the 80’s alone for a bit. I feel like they’re in vast need of a good editor and they do tend to stray into long philosophical passages mixed with reasons why Heinlein’s characters believe monogamy for men is overrated. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I read about a longer edition in the 90s. My copy was published in 1985, and i definitely didn’t need any more talking! 🤣
      Thank you for the recommendations and caution about his 80s stuff. Much appreciated. 😃

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s