Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”: Book Review

Both because Stranger in a Strange Land was recommended to me by  many of my writer friends and because Heinlein is a prolific

Heinlein
Heinlein

author in the sci-fi field, I felt a certain obligation to read this 1950s text. Here’s my take on it.

As a prolific text

Heinlein is said to have put his hat in the ring with this story. He spent much time and energy piecing together the storyline and working on the social commentary and religious pieces. And every so often there was a sense of that playing out. Suggestions of Socialism or Communalism and a burgeoning understanding of meditation and self-realization and fully understanding the world perked my ears and got my social theory side excited. Then it fell over a cliff like a lemming in a rat race.

But, even with these spatterings of Communalism, the misogynistic comments and general feel of the story kept the sour taste in my mouth that lingered like bad milk. Many have tried to tell me that his womanizing ways were a sign of the time. And, to his credit, that is true. However, that does not excuse his disturbing take on the woman psyche. Everything from calling them children, to objectifying them, to flatly considering them stupid creatures, kept me on edge, pining for Atwood to come and rescue, and cleanse, my soul.

Worst of all, Heinlein falls pray to the same problem as Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. While trying to bring forth amazing ideas of social change and social engineering, he creates a John Galt sort of character that can do no wrong, doesn’t grow as a character, and comes off as an arrogant jerk who everyone should want to smack, not root for.

Jubal is John Galt. And Smith, the Man from Mars, is little more than Taggart. Many times it reads just as arrogant as Rand reads, and the writing, well, not much better.

Colonization

Nearly every Sci-Fi story is knee-deep in colonialism. Stranger in a Strange Land is no different. And I got SUPER excited on a number of points. Smith is the only “legitimate” “citizen” of Mars. Everyone else just showed up on the planet. Smith was born there. At least this is the argument given by Jubal and others.

There were so many opportunities for pulling from this. One, the idea that birth leads to right. If you were born here, you can stay; if you emigrated here, you have no right. Two, that by not being a “citizen” or dubbed so by the Legitimate force (the state) means you have no legal right to anything anywhere.

Then there was the idea that Smith was “not human” because he was born on Mars. Meaning, he was not Of Earth. He had no legitimacy on Earth, so he had no rights on Earth. But Heinlein only HINTS at this. Then there’s the inkling that being “Martian” means you’re not human…if you’re not human, what are you? What makes you human? What makes you Martian? Heinlein does almost nothing with this.

The Good

I feel a certain obligation to give some positive given the scathing review of such a popular text and a hugely popular writer.

As a simple Sci-Fi story, it’s pretty good. The “future” is not super futuristic, so it’s not hard to believe much of the story. TVs that double as telephones, flying cars, and colonization of Mars about wraps up the important science fiction part.

Apparently, in Sci-Fi there were few female characters and fewer female characters that did little more than pine for men. Not that Jill Boardman does little more than pine for Smith and Caxton (the obligatory love triangle for any “important” female character), but she was a fairly main character and was pivotal to Smith breaking out the State control…because she wanted him AND Caxton…the guy who she runs to immediately after the breakout.

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