First, let me preface this review of Robart A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land by saying that I know this is a cult classic and my review may offend some die-hard Heinlein fans, if I have any readers who are die-hard Heinlein fans. So, let that be your warning.
The first sentence in my notes is “What an overrated book.” I read this novel long, long ago, and I vaguely remember thinking the first part was interesting but disliking the second part. Other than the barest outlines of the plot, that’s all I remembered. This time through, I liked the first part less and hated the second part.
Valentine Michael (Mike) Smith is the only survivor of the first manned mission to Mars. He was born on the mission to two of the astronauts and raised by Martians. Since that mission disappeared without a trace, no one knew he existed, so he is only discovered when a second mission goes to Mars. He is brought back as a young man, and political shenanigans ensue, especially when he turns out to be heir to a fortune. Besides these plot elements, the first portion of the novel deals, sometimes cleverly, with his adjustment to life on Earth. In the second part of the novel, he decides to start his own religion, which practices free love and teaches the psychic abilities he learned from the Martians.
The novel does not translate very well to the 21st century because of its blatant sexism and use of slang that I suspect was out of date when the book was published. The sexism is ironic in a way, because I believe that Heinlein would have thought his book was sexually liberating. Frankly, though, I don’t think that patting your female employees on the butt was considered liberated even in the early 1960’s.
Another criticism is that Heinlein appears to have no coherent vision of what a future world would be like. The novel reads as if he came up with a few ideas that he thought would be cool and interesting but not as if he sat down and imagined what fundamental changes might have taken place. For example, carpets are made of real grass, but he lacks the imagination to figure out that computers wouldn’t always need punch cards and we might not be using typewriters forever. As far as futuristic prescience is concerned, I would give a better grade to Jules Verne. My final point in this regard is that for a science fiction writer, he seems to know very little about science, and I mean the science that was known in his own time.
I think I could bear with these things because I generally have a rule not to judge a book on standards that are not of its own time. But the worst feature of the book for me was the hundreds of pontificating speeches made by Jubal Harshaw, a crusty author who I’m sure is meant to be Heinlein himself. Despite being presented in a conversation style, the speeches are pompous and pedantic and go on for pages and pages. Heinlein seems to be very proud of the ideas expressed and of the world Mike creates with his religion, but I think the environment in his church would give most people the creeps.
I made a good faith effort to finish the book, but I finally gave up less than 50 pages from the end. And if anyone says “grok” to me ever again, I’ll scream.