The story of Valentine Michael Smith, the first man from Mars to visit Earth, and his gradual humanisation - the perfect foil for Heinlein's views of Western culture.
The impact of Stranger in a Strange Land was considerable, leading many children of the 60's to set up households based on Michael's water-brother nests. Heinlein loved to pontificate through the mouths of his characters, so modern readers must be willing to overlook the occasional sour note ("Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault."). That aside, Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the master's best entertainments, provocative as he always loved to be. Can you grok it? --Brooks Peck --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
You see, in the beginning Michael is innocent and somewhat helpless. So he's powerless against his enemies and I naturally rooted for him. Then he slowly began to use his superhuman powers and I became even more absorbed and thrilled, watching him shake off his foes and emerge unscathed. Then he took asylum in a large secured residence with the evil government of the U.S. bent on capturing him and using him for their own ends. Could it get any better, I asked? This was five-star material.
Unfortunately, that's the climax of the story and it comes less than halfway through. The rest is supremely mediocre. Mike becomes a god on earth due to his invulnerability and wealth. What does he do with this status? He basically uses his powers to establish a large harem and teaches others how to do the same thing. The only interesting character in this whole charade is Jubal Harshaw, who probably represents Heinlein himself and his opinions on various matters of philosophy, sex, religion, etc. Two stars here.
Average: three and a half stars but I'm knocking it down to an even three due to the unsatisfying ending.
STRANGER hasn't aged well. Ostensibly set in the 21st century, it
reads like the 1950's. News commentators are "winchells" and
"lippmans" -- I recognize the names, but remember nothing else
about the originals; do you? The bad guys and minor characters are
purest cardboard. Women ("bims") have the "liberty permitted cats
and favorite children"; homosexuals are "poor in-betweeners". The
world beyond the USA is almost invisible.
Jubal Harshaw, the writer, patriarch and "father of all", is a self-
indulgent know-it-all given to long, hectoring speeches. The
women are quick to shed clothing and inhibitions, and couple with
any water-brother. They grow younger, more beautiful -- and more
exhibitionist -- as they learn Martian mind-control. Feh.
And yet, and yet .... STRANGER still works as a novel -- I reread it
pretty much at one go. The idea of a child raised from infancy by an
alien race ... Valentine Michael Smith's journey from innocence to
full humanity to New Messiah ... the cheerfully crass
commercialism of the Church of Foster ... the silly-but-serious
mysticism ... Heinlein, whatever his flaws, was a master story-
STRANGER was Heinlein's first crossover bestseller, becoming
something of a Sixties icon -- peace & love, y'know. Bits and pieces
were taken up in pop music and culture: "Discorporate, and you'll
be free", urged the Mothers of Invention. Grace Slick of the
Jefferson Airplane sang of "sister-lovers, water-brothers". The
ability to grok was briefly important, if mostly forgotten now.
Should you read, or reread, STRANGER? Mmmph. I don't regret
doing so, but the book stays pretty low in my mental ranking of
Heinlein novels. And if I were you, I'd hunt up the earlier edition --
the restored 70,000 words add little but bulk to the story.