Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

  Summary (Amazon): Epic, ambitious and entertaining, Stranger in a Strange Land caused controversy and uproar when it was first published and is still topical and challenging today. Twenty-five years ago, the first manned mission to Mars was lost, and all hands presumed dead. But someone survived…Born on the doomed spaceship and raised by the Martians who saved his life, Valentine Michael Smith has never seen a human being until the day a second expedition to Mars discovers him. Upon his return to Earth, a young nurse named Jill Boardman sneaks into Smith’s hospital room and shares a glass of water with him, a simple act for her but a sacred ritual on Mars. Now, connected by an incredible bond, Smith, Jill and a writer named Jubal must fight to protect a right we all take for granted: the right to love.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: weird

Robert Heinlein is one of the most famous sci-fi writers of all time, and he was well-regarded in Among Others. I had never read any of his books, and this was one that was suggested (but not chosen) for book club this year, so I decided to read it on my own. Unfortunately I didn’t really like it in the end.

As an FYI, apparently this book has 2 versions–an “uncut” version that was released in 1991 and the original edited version that was released in 1961. I bought my copy from Ebay, and it was published in 1981 so thus was the original edited version of the book.

The underlying story drew me in. Sometime in the future (from 1961), we have colonized the moon and therefore moved on to Mars. A mission is sent to Mars with a variety of super high level scientists. Upon arrival, contact is lost. Years later, a second mission is sent, and find a single survivor–Valentine Michael Smith, a child born on Mars from two of the scientists–not two who were married. Due to the scandal, the other scientists kill each other. Michael is raised by Martians, who are only sort of described in the novel. This second mission of astronauts brings Michael back to Earth.

He is quarantined in a hospital and almost seems mentally handicapped. One of the nurses, Gillian “Jill” Boardman, sneaks in to see him (since he has never seen women, he is only looked after by men). She gives him water and they become “water brothers”. She tells her reporter friend, Ben Caxton, about the incident and he pieces together the reason that Smith is being held–he is potentially the owner of Mars. Ben convinces Jill to kidnap/rescue Smith, after a period of spying on him with listening devices, which she does by dressing him as a nurse. (This was funny to me because she dresses him as a 1961 nurse–in stockings which she tapes to his legs because she doesn’t have a garter belt for him. I don’t believe that nurses will revert from scrubs to stockings and garter belts between now and colonizing Mars.)

As Jill is breaking Smith out of the hospital, Ben is getting arrested. When she arrives at Ben’s house with Smith and he isn’t there, she decides to take Smith with her to a friend of Ben’s–Jubal Harshaw. Jubal is a jack of all trades it seems. He’s a lawyer-doctor-writer. He initially is against the idea but his curiosity gets the best of him, and he allows them to stay. While there, he and the others who live with him all become water brothers with Smith, who learns quickly about human culture (another thing about reading an old sci-fi. Heinlein didn’t foresee Internet. So Smith learns about humans by reading encyclopedias). He never fully understands though. He doesn’t get the idea of love or laughter. He also becomes obsessed with religion because he wants to know the truth about things like the “Old Ones” (Martians) do. He displays the fact that he can make objects disappear whether it be weapons, people, whatever. He is very upset though any time he has to get rid of people because in Martian culture, Martians choose when to discorporate and become “Old Ones” and their body is then ceremoniously eaten by the others.

At some point throughout this stay at Jubal’s, Caxton is rescued, and Jubal sorts out Smith’s political status. From there, Smith and Jill leave to explore humanity. They explore churches and various religions. They tour around doing stage shows, Smith of course making items disappear and levitate using his Martian skills. After a stint where Jill is a dancer in Las Vegas where she allows Smith to see how other men see her, he begins to understand humanity more fully (I guess. This whole sexuality thing struck me as really odd.)

Jill and Smith then form a “church” of sorts where they teach people essentially to be Martian. They communicate in Martian which allows them to communicate telepathically. They also don’t wear clothes except when they go outside, and Smith “steals” money from casinos to sustain them. (He just can telepathically control the machines so that he gets a payout. He finds gambling to be “wrongness” so he is hoping that he will bankrupt them.) Ben Caxton eventually stops by and then gets freaked out by it and goes to tell Jubal. Shortly thereafter, the church is destroyed, but luckily Smith teleports everyone to safety. Smith is arrested though, but he breaks himself and all the other nonviolent criminals out of jail. (The violent very bad criminals he gets rid of). Jubal is then convinced to visit and is treated like a god. (Smith considers Jubal to be the person who enlightened him and therefore helped him create this enlightenment.) This enlightenment of course also assumes that open sexuality frees people of jealousy. And that people should use sex for happiness rather than for procreation. Apparently when you’re enlightened, you choose when to make a child. Essentially all of the characters that have been introduced throughout the book already are part of this nest.

Smith is in a huge push to have all of the Martian language transcribed, and when he finishes, he finally joins Jubal. He has finally figured out that Martian and Human is not the same, and instead of trying to teach it, he decides that he needs to show it by going out to meet the mob of Fosterites (a religion who is suspected in the destruction of his nest because they think his ideas are immoral) and he is killed. No one is that upset about it because apparently only his human body is gone but his soul remains with them like the Old Ones. They relocate the Nest to Jubal’s to continue the Martian teaching.

Verdict: 3.5 stars (the .5 star added solely as a benefit of the doubt to its importance in history)

Maybe this book was great in 1961. Unfortunately I don’t know. I don’t think it has aged well though. It comes off to me as very dated. We have flying cars but we are still reading encyclopedias. I realize that the Internet would have been hard to predict, however, it still makes the book come off a little hokey. The main dislike of this book though was the treatment of women. I had heard that Heinlein was a “feminist” however, I don’t see that at all in this book. The women in the book are in the form of a nurse, and three secretaries who make up Jubal’s “harem”. There was even a quote in the book which said “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault”. No. In the meeting of head political figures in the book, none of them were women. And when Jill and Mike were enlightened during the show in Las Vegas, it came off very one-sided and sexist. It’s just hard for me to get behind this.

Another thing that is a product of the time it was written was that although there was only 1 gender in Martians, this Martian nest at the end, was very distinctly 2 gendered. If the book were written today, I think it would be only slightly scandalous for the enlightenment to be for everyone to be bi-sexual and essentially 1 gender.

In general, the writing in the book is good. However, something that is common from media (books and movies) from this era is a propensity to focus heavily on trivial unrelated details. This book does that regularly, and it really detracted from the overall read in my opinion. The other detraction was that later in the book, there are these weird cuts to scenes that are apparently in heaven. They add nothing and are completely confusing.

I would like to read another Heinlein to see whether it was just this specific book or him in general that I disliked.


Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review

4 responses to “Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

  1. I find him one of the most overrated of the “classic” SF authors. Stranger is intriguing due to its view of 60s counter culture etc. But…. his later works (post 1970) are bloated and indulgent — as he gained in fame he tended to have final say over what was published, as in, his editors didn’t edit and his works turned into massive indulgent rants… Perhaps something like Starship Troopers might intrigue you as it is a more concise vision — although, politically I find it rather off.

    • Starship Troopers is definitely on my list to read. I just thought the plot of Stranger was intriguing so that’s why I started with it. And I still do think the idea of the story is cool. I just wish the execution of the story had been (a lot) better. Which classic SF authors are your favorites?

      • I have hundreds of favorites 😉

        Suzy McKee Charnass
        Ursula Le Guin
        Michael Bishop
        George Alec Effinger
        Barry N. Malzberg
        etc. etc.

        I tend towards the more literary/dark/inventive SF of the late 60s and early 70s….

        If you’re curious, I have a list of my 250+ reviews organized by rating! haha 😉

  2. I will definitely check it out! I need to carve out so much more time to read!!

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