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.
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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.