Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thou Art God: A Review of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land

Title: Stranger in a Strange Land
Author: Robert Heinlein
Edition: Ace Books (Paperback, 1991)
Pages: 525
How I Came by This Book: Ben from Dead End Follies suggested that I read this book in a comment on my review of Out of the Silent Planet. I obtained it from my library.

About the Author: Robert Anson Heinlein was an American novelist and science fiction writer. Often called "the dean of science fiction writers", he is one of the most popular, influential, and controversial authors of "hard science fiction". He set a high standard for science and engineering plausibility and helped to raise the genre's standards of literary quality. He was the first writer to break into mainstream, general magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, in the late 1940s, with unvarnished science fiction. He was among the first authors of bestselling, novel-length science fiction in the modern, mass-market era. (from Goodreads)

Synopsis: Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth's cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians. Ultimately, he confronts the fate reserved for all messiahs. (from

Review: This novel took me ages to read. And by ages, I mean weeks. It's not that it wasn't an enjoyable read or that it was too difficult or anything like that. I just never found time to read it outside of my job at the bookstore. In fact, I didn't make time to read anything the last few weeks. And for that I apologize.

Anyway, Stranger in a Strange Land was originally released in the 1960s as a much shorter book than the one that I read. As Virginia Heinlein states in her introduction to this edition of the book, "This book was so different from what was being sold to the general public, or to the science fiction reading public in 1961 when it was published, that the editors required some cutting and removal of a few scenes that might then have been offensive to public taste." I've never read the original version that was published, so I don't know which scenes they might be, but I can probably guess.

The story revolves around the Man from Mars, Valentine Michael Smith, born to human parents but raised by Martians and brought back to Earth as a young man. He has to learn how to be human and is helped along the way by newspaper columnist Ben Caxton, nurse Jill Boardman, writer/doctor/lawyer Jubal Harshaw, and a cast of strange and quirky characters who all coalesce around the Man from Mars as he changes from a naive but oddly talented man-Martian to a willing and able but hated Messiah.

There was a lot about this book that I liked: the characters were interesting, the dialogue was fascinating, the philosophical questions that were raised made me think. Heinlein often tells the story rather than showing it, which is a bit of a pet peeve for me, but he is a skilled writer who can spin a good yarn. The character development is mostly smooth and believable and the end result, though predictable, is satisfying. All-in-all, this was a good read and one that I would probably pick up again. HOWEVER...

There is a LOT of sexism, homophobia, and misogyny in this novel. Jill's comment about rape being the woman's fault "nine times out of ten" is just the tip of a very large iceberg. You might think that I'd accept the "He was from a different time" argument, but I won't. One of the things that bothers me about science fiction is that these authors are able to envision a world in which space travel is possible or where people can move things with their minds but not one where women are seen as equal and the LGBT community is accepted. Up until recent science fiction television shows like Caprica and Stargate Universe, there were pretty much no real gay or lesbian characters in sci fi. Heinlein's characters create a worldview in which jealousy doesn't exist and to love one is to love all and yet there is still rampant disdain for homosexuality and women. The followers of Michael's church are living in one big naked commune in the end and yet they still hold onto the prevailing attitudes of the day on some issues. Why challenge some notions and not others?

The book covers such topics as human sexuality, love, religion, human nature, and scores of other things that the world's religions and philosophies argue about. It may offend some in its treatment of religion, but for others it may be inspiring. For some it may have no effect at all. It will definitely make you think, however, about the things that you hold dear, the things that you think that you "grok".

I'm giving Stranger in a Strange Land 4 out of 5 Gabriels. It loses half a Gabriel for the sometimes tedious storytelling that could have been solved by showing not telling and it loses another half of a Gabriel for it's ideas on women and homosexuality. Definitely an interesting book, but sometimes it will make you want to throw it across the room.



  1. "One of the things that bothers me about science fiction is that these authors are able to envision a world in which space travel is possible or where people can move things with their minds but not one where women are seen as equal and the LGBT community is accepted." that is such a great point! Also, the rape 9 times out of 10 thing really bothers me! Different times, maybe, but rape apology, really! That just makes me feel sick.

    1. It's interesting that I read this book after all of the comments by Republican candidates about women and rape this past election season. I think my tolerance for "It was a different era" has really shrunk...and I didn't have much tolerance for that BS to begin with! Coming at this novel after months and months of BS from the GOP about rape, abortion, etc., just made me less able to enjoy certain parts of this book because of it's antiquated notions on women.