As a busy professional, it can take me a long time to read a book. After five months, I finally finished Stranger in a Strange Land (referred to as SSL from here on) by Robert Heinlein.
I have this habit when I read of struggling with weaker parts of a novel and then setting it down for large periods of time a single page or two before it gets good again. I don’t know if that’s a personal fault or the fault of the author, but that is what happened with SSL. I got about 310 pages in, was bored, set it down for about a month, and then when I came back to it, the next page was vastly more exciting. That speaks to my overall feeling of the novel. I think it’s bloated. Heinlein could have lost about 150 pages of the middle third and had a more impactful novel.
SSL is billed in more recent copies as “The Most Popular Science Fiction Novel Ever Written” and that’s a stretch and a half. I mean, numbers-wise maybe that is the case because it has impacted society and is read by many. It is uncommon in that it reads as more mainstream than most science fiction. Like any novel, it is a product of its times. It is rampantly sexist and that aspect was the hardest for me to swallow. One of the central characters, Jubal Harshaw, is a blowhard who loves to hear himself talk (deliver philosophical posits for the reader) and loves himself even more. I hated him as a character, and I don’t know if that is Heinlein’s design. Knowing Heinlein I would expect that he expects the reader to love him.
But I digress. The novel does have a very interesting premise. A human named Valentine Michael Smith travels to Mars, is accepted and learns Martian cultural and social civilization, and then returns to Earth. On Earth he has to be retrained in the ways of human civilization. The novel does a very good job of taking Michael through quite the character evolution. I enjoyed that aspect immensely.
Since this is supposed to be spoiler-free, I’ll skip a review of the plot and go directly to thematic elements. If you don’t even want to hear about theme, stop reading.
SSL seems to be a pretty strong primer for the 60s. It was published in 1961. I don’t know if Heinlein got lucky and brought critical themes in right before the Revolution, or if he’s a genius. In reading the novel I constantly asked myself if SSL kickstarted a lot of the questioning that happened during that time.
The novel has three primary themes, in my mind. The first happens in a lot of science fiction: the identity of the self. Michael’s entire character arc focuses on this theme as he discusses with Jubal, Jill, and others what it means to re-establish his Earth culture while still maintaining his Martian influence. He acts on his character growth. I won’t say anything else to avoid spoilers.
The next theme is sexual liberation, which formed the backbone of hippie culture and is prominently discussed in SSL. Heinlein is clearly a big fan of the “elimination of jealousy through free love” including multiple partners, orgies, etc. The irony of his position is that it is also clearly homophobic. It breaks its own “code” in my mind, by acting as if sexual plurality is somehow spiritually freeing, so long as a “dude doesn’t touch another dude, because that’s crazy talk”. Heinlein is pretty heavy handed in emphasizing a distinction of male and female as being “the greatest thing since sliced bread” in our society, which seems contradictory to his “free love” message. I imagine that this theme got more than a few schools to ban SSL and comments about American culture, in particular the American view of sex and nudity in any form as perverse, are as true now as they were in 1961.
The last theme is a common one for Heinlein: the interrelationship between religion and society. He presents a pretty strong agnostic view here and I think that this is, for me, one of the strengths of the novel. Religion has always been a charged subject for human civilization (understatement). Although the message is agnostic, Heinlein is consistent in not indicting any specific religion or religion in general. One could argue that individual religions aren’t dismissable under true agnosticism.
Personally, as a free-thinking Christian, I thoroughly enjoyed the overarching message of “Thou art God” applied to everyone. That doesn’t run contrary to Protestantism, which views all people as “ministers”. As a scientist, I see no conflict between science and religion and the novel takes that position as well. It always amazes me how eager people are to “box in” an omnipotent God and then simultaneously invalidate human exploration and investigation. SSL argues pretty strongly against that approach to religion.
I enjoyed many of the concepts of Martian culture as well as the portrayal of Earth’s “future”. I grokked those things!
A good science fiction author discusses themes that are universal to humanity and are as accessible 50 years in the future as they are at the time of the writing. Heinlein has done that with SSL. He anticipated the 60s, which is no small feat. I disagree with the conservative politics that permeates most of his later life’s work (Starship Troopers, ahem).
So did I enjoy it? About half of it, yes. The middle half was tough to slog through and I think Heinlein produced a book that could have been edited down to really give it a punch. But, he didn’t. It won a Hugo, so I guess there is that. Would I recommend it? Yeah, probably. It is clearly a part of science fiction history and I think that the conversational writing-style and emphasis on character dialogue is perhaps more interesting than the third person perspective so common to most early science fiction. I think that if the reader thinks back on our cultural history, it is hard to imagine this novel not having had a huge impact on 60s counter-culture.