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?