Stranger In A Strange Land

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Stranger in a Strange Land is a classic of early 1960s American science fiction, and a game-changer for the genre’s sexual politics, so long relegated to a weird ghetto of three-breasted Martian babes and earnest blondes defiled by tentacled monsters. It’s hard to overestimate this book’s influence: it was the catalyst for a neopagan religion, was adopted as a kind of manifesto for 60s counterculture, spawned a few neologisms, and accurately predicted the moral and religious trends of the decades to come, namely the birth of the evangelical corporate megachurch. It also, apparently, includes the first description of the waterbed, which did not yet exist in 1961.

As a side note, I’ve often read that Robert Heinlein is part of the holy trinity (“The Big Three”) of popular sci-fi authors, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asmiov, a commendation that I find, post-Foundation, to be absolutely ridiculous. Yes, he’s as wry with his social commentary as any sci-fi great should be, but he’s so obviously better, and patently sexier, than Asimov, who is a grand old bore, or Clarke, who has a nefarious tendency to keep the juicy stuff to his personal life. Of course, this is based on the reading of just one novel, one which made Heinlein an unlikely pied piper of hippie liberalism, when in reality his own views on the subject, although much-scrutinized, are definitely unclear, especially since he penned Starship Troopers, considered by many to be a fundamentally conservative novel, around the same time.

Anyway, the “stranger” of the title is actually a human man, and the “strange land” is Earth: not exactly an epic set-up for a book proclaimed to be, according to the cover of my edition, “the greatest science fiction fantasy of all time.” However, the man in question is Valentine Michael Smith, an orphaned human raised on Mars, by Martians, and returned to Earth in his mid-20s with all the psychic wisdom of his Martian forebears and absolutely no clue about human society, language, or mores — a kind of infant superman. Through the eyes of a creature who is biologically but not psychologically human, we see our most hallowed institutions — religion, money, monogamy, and the fear of death — as they perhaps really are, which is to say, absurd. His ignorance is almost psychedelic: he takes rapturous, baffled joy in swimming pools, considering the practice of bathing in water to be a religious experience of high merit. Mike is, culturally, a blank slate, but with his typically Martian sincerity, not to mention his abilities (telepathy, telekinesis, and the willing “discorporation” of self and enemies), he wields a strangely mystical authority, giving Heinlein a quasi-legitimate voice for guilt-free hippie grandstanding. With his combination of loving sincerity and transcendent force, the Martian named Smith “preaches” a universal message of spiritual polygamy, cosmic patience, non-mainstream family structures, and social libertarianism. Without the aura of outer space, he could just as easily be a religious messiah. In truth, he becomes one, and singlehandedly rewrites history.

Stranger is a lovely, powerful book, one which has no illusions about its intentions (broad, clever satire) nor a lick of self-consciousness: Heinlein, through the mouthpiece of Mike and other characters, namely Jubal Harshaw, a curmudgeonly bon-vivant with an appetite for long-winded speeches on everything from Rodin to cannibalism, lambasts his chosen targets without prudishness, and with commendable intellectual zeal. Sure, there’s some arguable stuff, like a brief, confused foray into homophobia and old-fashioned sexist patronizing, but it mostly reflects the time and the hesitant puritanism of some of the novels’ characters; surely, compared to most science fiction books dating from the early sixties, Heinlein is practically Betty Freidan.

On the whole, I found Stranger In A Strange Land both funny and thought-provoking, and in a way, reading it is like going back to the fountainhead of decades of liberal thought, making hippie counterculture seem fresh again — it did more to revise my opinions on polyamory than the entire “free love” movement. Of course, I’m not about to run off and join the Church Of All Worlds yet, but we would certainly not be remiss in adopting the worldview of Valentine Michael Smith, at least occasionally. In fact, it could be a formidable exercise for us all to wake up in the morning and approach everything in the world as a powerful Martian might: with sincerity, fascination, and one finger solidly squared on the “annihilate” button.

NEXT BOOK: NEBULA AWARD STORIES FOUR.

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4 Responses to Stranger In A Strange Land

  1. ritchey says:

    best book review ever. p.s. I loved this book too.

  2. Ricky Grove says:

    Great picture for the article. I found many of your comments thought provoking. You make me want to re-read this book. I remember it having a strong impact on me. Walter Tevis’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1963) covers much of the same territory, but in a more poetic and economical style.Really like your reading series. Thanks for posting.

  3. Bryan Walker says:

    Thank you for one of the most intelligent book reviews on Stranger in a Strange Land. I am 49 and just now reading this book and trying to “grok” it.I have been a fan of SF for 40 years but had only read Starship Troopers by Heinlein til now. This is so very different from most SF!

  4. Doctress Ju'ulia says:

    This is actually my least favorite of Heinlein’s stuff… which as I’ve gotten older realize is full of misogynist bullshit. It’s feels like a bait and switch the way he writes these female protags (like, Friday) and then knocks them all up- like he has to make some kind of a point. Urgh. Still, I like the whole polyamory theme throughout his stories (my teenage self was… interested), and the way he writes about food. :9

    He was my very first favorite sci-fi author, but I hadn’t gotten my hands on CJ Cherryh or William Gibson yet.

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