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A fine yarn, but dated and self-indulgent.
on December 28, 2003
Heinlein conceived STRANGER in 1948, but didn't finish it until
1960. His editor asked him to cut it from 220,000 to 150,000 words; as
published it was 160,087. It was reissued from the original
manuscript in 1991, and I just got around to reading this "uncut"
edition. I first read STRANGER in the early sixties -- it's the only
"major" Heinlein I'd never reread (unless you count _To Sail the
Sunset Sea_ as major).
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.