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.
on November 20, 2003
Heinlein's "masterpiece" Stranger in a Strange Land starts off brilliantly. The first 100 pages or so comprise a well-paced absorbing thriller, and even up through the 200-page mark the story remains strong. And then the protagonist Valentine Michael Smith grows up and takes charge of his own life. And the whole novel falls flat on its face and remains thus for the remaining 250 pages.
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.
on August 30, 2003
I've heard it said that if you haven't read 'Stranger in a Strange Land' you really haven't read Robert Heinlein. I've read a number of his books, and his best in my mind is probably 'Starship Troopers'. But I'd never read this one, so decided to do so. Let me say that I agree with the general reviews I've seen on here. The first 1/2 of the book is a wonderful story about a boy raised among Martians, who develops some extraordinary powers and is then brought to Earth where he struggles to understand the human race. It had so many great things about it. Suspense, Humor, Action, etc. Jubal Harshaw (my favorite character in the book) was also one of the chief reasons to like this story.
The problem is that the book just dissolves after the first 1/2. When Michael Valentine Smith leaves Jubal's home, he goes through a number of incarnations, first as a carnival huckster, then finally ending up as a 'New Age' messiah. The similarities to the life of Jesus are inescapable. My problems with this aren't merely that I strongly disagree with Mr. Heinlein's philosophies that all religions are equally valid and that all of them are 'made up' to one degree or another, but instead my problem is that he spends the better part of the book writing endless philosophical dialogues that have nothing to do with anything other than trying to force his viewpoints down our throat.
I think that everyone has a right to their opinion, and I think that Mr. Heinlein certainly had the right to put his opinions in his own novel. I can further see why this book was so popular in the 60's (especially the 'Thou art God' line). But, for me, this really wasn't a novel as much as it was a philosophy book with a bit of story thrown in as vehicle to let the author tell you what he believed. It's fine that he did so, but I think the book suffers as a result.
The 3 stars are for the first 1/2 of the book. If he had kept the rest of the book like the first, he would easily have scored 5 stars from me. But, unfortunately, the last 1/2 of the book ruined the first.
on September 29, 2000
I know it's one of the classics, and supposedly one of the best sci-fi novels of all time, but I actually got so bored at parts of this book that I started skimming somewhere in the middle it.
The main problem for me was very simple: Michael Valentine Smith, the "Stranger" of the title, is not the main character of the book, and his experiences in the strange new land are not the focus of the book. While the plot certainly follows Valentine around, it is Jubal and his band of professional executive assistants that are the main characters, and Jubal's pontifications on religion, politics, etc., that seem to be the main focus. Unfortunately for me, I only found Valentine and his experiences interesting, and he, and they, only take center stage for about the last third of the novel. Jubal and his gang, and their lengthy discussions, on the other hand, I found to be very dull. Indeed it often seemed to me that Jubal and other members of his household, even the females, seemed to speak in exactly the same voice - which was exactly the same voice as the author's text that connects the dialogue - which leads to a very dull read. If Heinlein wished to write a series of essays on religion or politics, he should have done so. Instead he tried to make fictional characters get those ideas across without it sounding like essays, and it seems to me he failed, and ruined the characters in doing so.
Also, for all the noise you've heard about this being the quintessential novel of the hippy generation, it's only about the last third of the book (the portion where Valentine does finally take center stage) where there's really any free love, alternative religion, communal type living, etc. The sex, if even described at all, is very tame, and homosexuality, while hinted at at various times in the novel, still seems to get the typical 50's taboo placed upon it. Another disturbing thing about the novel is the inferior, dependent status that the women are given. Even by present day standards it seems ridiculous, but since the novel is set even farther into the future (was it around 2050? - I must have skimmed that part), it seems all that much worse (remember the yeoman bringing Kirk his coffee on Star Trek?). Possibly this just isn't the visionary novel it was pumped up to be.
on April 22, 2000
I first read this book when I was in high school, some 20 years ago. For some reason, I thought it was fascinating then, and decided to buy it to read to my two pre-teen daughters now. Boy, was that a mistake. Either the general quality of science fiction books has gone up in the past 20 years, or my taste has matured.
This book presents an adolescent, amateurish point of view (free love is good, business and money are bad, government and police are evil) that has been said a million times before. Maybe if you were 12 years old, this might sound fresh, but I doubt it (my daughters thought it was stale). In addition, the plot never really gets moving, since the author spends so much time just explaining this philosophy. If the philosophy were original or compelling, this would be okay -- but it isn't.
Valentine Michael Smith is a human who was raised on Mars, and brought to Earth. This allows Heinlein to criticize us Earthlings from a naive, disinterested perspective. Smith hooks up with a bunch of characters who are more stereotypical than believable (an omniscient writer-lawyer, a sexy nurse, a corrupt high priest), and tries to force some action. Unfortunately, not much happens (that is believable), and my daughters (and I) had to force ourselves to stay awake while reading this.
The jacket cover calls this the most important science fiction work of all time. Don't believe it.
on September 3, 2000
For anyone who who admires and appreciates the great SF writer Robert Heinlein for his earlier books (written beofre this one), "Stranger In a Strange Land " will be at least unexpected, probably bewildering and quite possibly unenjoyable. The book is a thorough departure from classics such as Starship Troopers and represents a black line drawn across RH;s writing career.Before "Stranger," few if any of his books were anything but good; after "Stranger," few of his books were anything but bad, at least for fans of classic Heinlein.
"Stranger's" free-love message did well with the '60s hippie culture, but if you're looking for another Starship Troopers or Glory Road, you're looking in the wrong place.
on February 8, 2004
I loved the first half of this book, in which plot and character rose to the fore. Great action sequences, terrific dialogue, and tons of suspense tricked me into thinking that this was a five star novel. Jubal Harshaw in particular was--and remains--one of the most richly realized characters in contemporary fiction. Alas, the novel quickly sags beneath the weight of its own socio-political and pseudoreligious philosophies. The plot thins, the action comes to a screeching halt, the characters flatten into cardboard, and the rest of the novel becomes so self-consciously preachy and churchy and utterly unsexy (despite the frequent nudity and bedhopping) that it lost all appeal to me. Less politics, more plot. I could grok that, anyday.
on July 19, 2004
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein is the story of a human, Valentine Michale smith, who was born and on raised on mars, and now on earth must come to understand the human race.
This is a wonderful classic that I cannot say enough good things about. It is captivating and quite exceptional. Full of philosophical, spiritual, social and religious ideas that are not only mind boggling but eye opening in many ways. This wonderful piece of literature delves deep into why humans act the way they do, and how society as a whole sees the world it has created.
I have very little complaints about this novel. I found some exceptionally sexist views in this book which were unsettling to me but not surprising for a book written in 1962. That is actually my only major complaint, and the passages in which this viewpoint seeps through are so short and so sparse that it did not detour me from reading the book. Oddly enough Heinlein seems to contradict himself in these viewpoints, he writes female characters that are Strong and would make any feminist proud, and then turns around and has them say something that contradicts that very character.
So overall this book was truly wonderful. Something I would suggest anyone and everyone read, simply because of the ideas expressed within it alone, if not for the wonderful writing and compelling story. (By the end of this book you will find need to incorporate the word "grok" into your daily vocabulary.)
on March 16, 2004
I've read 4 of RAH's books, 3 of them fiction. In order from best to worst, I would rank them:
1. Starship Troopers
2. Stranger in a Strange Land
3. Farnham's Freehold
I thought RAH did a great job in describing the culture shock awaiting Smith....after all, he was coming from a clairvoyant, telekinetic, asexual society apparently communal in nature to a society of individualists, polarized between men and women with no telepathic powers. It made me wonder how I would get along if I was sent to an Amazonian or Papua New Guinean tribe with no written language or advanced arithmetic. Smith's mentor of sorts is Jubal Harshaw, a sort of poorer Hugh Hefner who has a fenced in compound, a couple handymen and 3 beautiful secretaries living with him. (Being a red-blooded American male, RAH seems to have a rakish, chauvinistic streak running through his writings) As time goes by, Smith goes from a student of human nature to a teacher. As Smith learns more of human nature and becomes comfortable in society, he starts his own church, sort of a more communal/libertarian pantheism as opposed to authoritarian Christianity. Mention is made of pre-Christian Eskimo wife-swapping, and Christian mores in general are written off as uptight, outmoded or just burdensome. I can see where hippie communes, and free-love types took cues from this book. RAH's use of language and attempts to describe the sheer difference between humanity and Martian society are very successful, I think the protagonists' pontificating on free love and the beliefs of the Church of All Worlds is more workable on paper than in the real world.
on March 13, 2004
If you read "Grumbles from the Grave," you'll realize that Heinlein wanted to write this book for a long time. The way he tells it, he "had to wait for the public morals to change" before he could write it. I beg to differ. I just don't think RAH could carry it off well, which is why it sat on the shelf for so long.
SIASL is a story about cultural mores, and how they are subject to change. That aspect of the story, however, does not appear until the fourth and fifth parts. The first three sections describe the experiences of a human being, Valentine Michael Smith, who was raised by Martians and now finds himself in contact with other humans. Eventually, he "figures out" humanity and sets off to change us all for the better by using a mix of Martian and human beliefs.
Along the way, Heinlein (as narrator or through his characters) takes pot shots at organized religion, politics, art, academic degrees, astrology, and just about any other topic you'd care to name. His primary mouthpiece is Jubal Harshaw, a sybaritic lawyer-doctor(?) who manages to also write fiction, own a luxurious armed compound, and have three beautiful secretaries on staff. One would guess that this is how RAH would have loved to spend his retirement. The sections of the book where Harshaw appears are probably the most fun, but seem to be a long detour to get the reader where they are supposed to go.
Smith's commune became the basis for many later aspects of the hippie movement, including Charles Manson's "family," which shared water like good Martians should. That association might have tarnished the book's reputation. I am in agreement with Brian Aldiss' assessment that Smith's cult would be completely useless and degenerate without the Man from Mars' powers. Much of the history of 1960s bears this opinion out.
There are so many other books by Heinlein that can be read and savored. It's unfortunate that this is the one the that gets the most attention. It changes tone several times, becomes needlessly preachy, and tries to do too many things at once. It is not as unified as most Heinlein works. Therefore, this one gets a "thumbs down" from an otherwise devoted fan.