Book Review: Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

For my final Vintage Sci-fi Month review, I decided to tackle Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Timeless classic or dated doorstop? Read on to find out my thoughts.

This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

Stranger in a Strange Land tells the story of a man born on Mars – Valentine Michael Smith – who comes to Earth, and the inevitable furore that arises, whether from his worldview and cultural differences or from demonstrations of his incredible abilities. Heinlein uses this relatively straightforward concept to explore ideas around religion, sexuality, the media, and personal liberty, not to mention the rights of the individual and various other weighty themes.

It’s often said of Heinlein’s work, seemingly more than it is of that of his contemporaries, that it hasn’t aged well. Any recommendation of his work on forums and in comments sections is bound to feature this particular disclaimer, but it must be the mission of any reviewer to begin a book free of any prejudices – or at least, as much as is possible. Maintaining objectivity is paramount, and besides, “It was a different time.”

With all that being said, however, it’s still a struggle to read Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time now and not find problems with it pretty much straight away. The attitudes the male characters have towards women make them extremely difficult to connect with, as they frequently either infantilise or objectify the female characters. Heinlein also appears to be making a concession to diversity by including a Muslim character named Mahmoud, only to then saddle him with the nickname Stinky. No explanation is ever given for this, nor is it ever questioned by any of the characters, who happily run with it.

Male/male relationships also seem to be frowned upon, despite the permissive “free love” vibe that Michael instils amongst his followers; it’s hinted at that sexual relations between women are acceptable, but thanks to having Michael instructed in the ways of the world by characters who are homophobes, that’s as far as Heinlein’s prepared to go. In one later scene, main character Jill also blithely asserts that “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her own fault.” It would be surprising if there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t have a problem with this blatant victim blaming, whether it’s Heinlein’s own view or not.

The pace of this complete and uncut edition is also excruciatingly slow for the first two thirds or so. It’s practically a four-hundred-page long prologue, packed with legal wrangling which is extremely tedious to read – what rights does Michael have as a man from Mars, where will his money come from, etc. Much of these parts of the novel take place in Jubal’s house, which is soon revealed to be little more than a private lecture theatre. Because there is no hair that Jubal will not split, no possible question or statement that will not lead to him extemporising and expounding endlessly. By the tenth time another character responds to something he’s said with “Huh?” you will die a little inside, because you know he’s being given license to wax lyrical yet again. He’s a classic crotchety old man character, complaining about the young people around him with mostly good-natured affection – in smaller doses, in fact, he probably would have been more likeable. As it is though, any scene featuring him is annoyingly protracted thanks to his need to think out loud.

Onto the redeeming features then. Those chapters focusing on the satirising of organised religion are reasonably entertaining, even if the satire is laid on a little thick. The pace also picks up a lot towards the end, which is a blessed relief after four hundred pages of what is, essentially, waffle. That final third is certainly the better paced part of the novel, even if the ending fails to satisfy. The prose throughout also isn’t particularly testing, which does make it relatively readable – even if it is mainly made up of supposition and exposition packed monologues. Perhaps the highlight of these is a discussion on the work of Rodin, which manages to be entertaining and informative, despite feeling as if it comes almost out of nowhere.

It’s difficult to really recommend Stranger in a Strange Land. Even setting aside the more problematic attitudes of the time, the novel is incredibly bloated; I’m slightly curious to know what was cut for the originally published version (though not curious enough to read this story again). Hopefully, most of the occurrences of “Eh?” and “Huh?” were jettisoned, as they make the few interjections that occur within the innumerable lectures teeth-gratingly irritating, when they should be a blessed relief. In all honesty though, there are entire chapters which add nothing to the development of the characters or the plot, all of which could happily be excised from this self-indulgent, over-explained slog.

And don’t even get me started on “grok.”

Stranger in a Strange Land is published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton. You can buy your own copy, if you really want to, through this affiliate link.

Currently reading: Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
Currently listening: Annihilation Principle, Lȧȧz Rockit

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

  1. I have been very hesitant to pick up any of Heinlein’s books and I don’t know if I ever will because what you mentioned about the casual mysogyny, homophobic behavior and calling a Muslim character “Stinky” doesn’t look very promising to me… I know this novel is a product of its time but still, in the 60’s Le Guin published books that managed to aged well and to be extremely progressive, even to today’s standards.
    In any case, great review! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! Yeah, I know what you mean, when you look at people like Bradbury, Le Guin, Butler and lots of others, it’s not like they were filling their books with that kind of stuff. This made for a really weird reading experience, considering how progressive and egalitarian many of them seemed to be in their approaches.

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  2. Hey Ollie! Great review! Sorry about the delay in leaving a response but I was debating whether I could add anything meaningful to conversation. For the record, I am a real fan of Heinlein – I think he was a genius – but I do NOT like Stranger in a Strange Land. I certainly agree with the points you raised about the verbosity of the book and the chapters where nothing at all seemed to happen. You may be interested to note that when he cut the book down at the publisher’s request from 200K to 160K he did it by virtue of a very disciplined line edit which caused him a lot of pain & anguish, though undoubtedly made for a better book. I really think that it is hard for the modern reader to realise how ground-breaking a book Stranger was at the time (1961), not only in terms of its subject-matter, but also because it was the first scifi book to break out into mass readership/consciousness. By the time LeGuin had come to the fore (late 60s) and Butler (70s) there had been a tremendous sea change in publishing. The 60s was a cultural earthquake + the publishing industry responded accordingly. Heinlein was discussing stuff that no one else would touch in the early 60s. Obviously, that doesn’t mean one has to agree with him. I don’t agree with a lot of what Heinlein said. But I also find LeGuin utterly hilarious at times, even though she is flavour of the month at the moment, and took herself, and her views, so, so seriously. And people forget (or do not know) that Bradbury hardly touched on anything politically or culturally contentious in his stories. That wasn’t his thing. Bradbury was actually a right-wing Reaganite not that you would know it from his books. I think the trend for readers at the moment (of scifi) is to look forward. I have no problem with that. And I would certainly never argue that modern readers need to explore the whole scifi canon. Maybe Heinlein has had his day – except for old, white guys like me who grew up on his books.. That is probably the case. But I think what does concern me is the issue of what makes a writer or book ‘problematic’. I felt sad for George RR Martin when he was criticised by the likes of Jeannette Ng at the recent Hugo awards (I think!) for saying that modern scifi writers stand on the shoulders of giants when – in Jeannette Ng’s opinion – those giants were old, ‘racist’, ‘misogynist’ white guys. I am sure George RR Martin would have been totally confused by that criticism. He may not have realised that in much of modern literature, ‘purity of message’ seems to have replaced what I believe the novel is really meant to achieve: the examination of what it is to be human, and all that entails. Modern authors ought to remember that in 60 years time they may well be considered monsters themselves. It is interesting to note that Philip K. Dick disagreed vehemently with Heinlein politically but still considered him a great author, a great friend, and a great human being. It is a pity those times seem to have gone. I only make this point, not to disagree with your review of Stranger in a Strange Land, but to say that modern authors and readers should be very careful of labelling anyone as ‘problematic’ and that they should no longer be read. If so, then Steinbeck and Hemingway will have to be dumped, as would most everyone else in literary history. But then, as with Valentine Michael Smith, we are now living in a very strange world indeed….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Laurence! That point about Philip K. Dick is especially interesting, as it’s becoming increasingly obvious in the modern world that any kind of middle ground between opposing schools of thought is being eroded – not just in literature and the arts but in everything. It’s scary to see, and perhaps we could take some lessons from their friendship and learn to find common ground.

      I certainly take your point about purity of message too. I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen calls to “cancel” an author because something their character does is questionable or problematic. Some readers seem to have a very hard time separating art and artist.

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  3. Wow, you read the long version?! Kudos. I thought there was a lot of blathering in the original …

    So, yeah, Heinlein. Wow. Not what I was expecting. I’ve had a few recommendations for other titles by him to try, but I definitely need a breather after this one. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. SO MUCH BLATHERING. People tell me to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but even though I’ve read a few things written in a kind of vernacular style, I don’t know if I could hack it. Maybe, one day, but not for quite a while after this.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] In total in January, I completed eight prompts across both challenges. Unintentionally tackling perhaps the most daunting of the Spells & Spaceships challenges first, I earned the Big ‘un badge (a book over 600 pages) for reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as part of Vintage Sci-fi Month. While I might not have had the greatest time with this book, it at least earned me a badge. You can read my review here. […]

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  5. Interesting and very entertaining post Ollie! I read Stranger In a Strange Land I’m thinking 15 years ago. I was reading PKD and Heinlein during a period of my life that will remain forever hazy. I really strained to remember anything about this book while reading your review to no avail. Until you said GROK!!! That, I remember and now I will be grokking about grok while the grok factor only intensifies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading! Yeah, sometimes there’s just a word or phrase that can carry so much meaning and feeling along with it, reading it or hearing it can instantly transport you back to the experience of reading it for the first time. For me it’s probably “So it goes” from Slaughterhouse 5. I saw that written down in someone’s review of it and it hit me with some force.

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