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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.
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on February 11, 2004
Stranger in a Strange Land is a compelling novel by Robert A. Heinlein. Although the story itself may not be as interesting as possible, it's captivating descriptions make it a must read for every Science Fiction lover. For example, instead of simply stating the grass is green, Heinlein describes how the grass feels, what texture it is, and what fragrance it gives off. This type of description, using all five senses, allows the reader to feel as if they could enter the plot and experience the feelings of each character.
Heinlein's interesting choice of characters, a nurse, martin and lawyer to name some, make it difficult to grasp the storyline at times, but the enthralling portrayal of events allows the reader to understand what is happening and what each character feels about it. Stranger in a Strange Land is different from many of Heinlein's other novels in the sense that it focus's on many controversial issues, free love for example. The innocence portrayed in the characters, especially the Martian, enlightens us about how we interact with each other today.
Stranger in a Strange Land is truly a one of a kind book and I guarantee you'll be enthralled after the first page. It's fascinating characters and captivating storyline will keep you turning page after page. Once you've read this book you'll never be the same again. Get your copy today!
- Laura Hecht-Felella
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on January 15, 2004
One of science fictions often overlooked values is the mirror it offers into not the future but the past. Looking at how authors write the future tells us a great deal, perhaps more, about the time that they lived then the time they are trying to create. Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" is a case in point. Ostensively about the 21st century it offers a facinating view into the 1960's, the era in which it was first published. The fact many tarred it as scandolous at its first appearence while at the same time the book was widely read gives us powerful insights into the counter culture revolution and the radical changes in values that we feel down to this very day. Moreover, "Stranger" opened the way for serious science fiction as social comentary, a debt for which all current writers in the genre owe Heinlein mightily.
Using as his voice Michael, the sole survivor of a mars mission on which he was born, Heinlein presents powerful if somewhat data critiques of western culture, from art, to religion, to sex, to government. Raised by martians, Michael is a stranger to earth's culture and therefore an outsider. Readers with an interest in Heinlein's evolution would enjoy comparing Michael with the author's other favorite voice, the undying Lazurus Long of Methusalah's Children as well as all his later works. The difference in tone is striking, as is the fact that the ultimate cynic and the ultimate innocent come to almost all of the same conclusions, though the former has a better sense of humor.
Readers may choose between two versions of the book, the one released in 1961 and a longer (an additional 50,000+) words that was released much later. Heinlein cut the material at his editors request and in my opinion the editor was right as the longer version drags and interfers with what is already ocassionally a slow story. Still, for those who like Heinlein this work cannot be missed.
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on December 19, 2003
Approaching its 40th anniversary, Heinlein's book remains controversial and thought provoking. This means that, all debate aside, it has stood (so far) the test of time.
While many reviewers point out that the message(s) thrust forward in the book are just a reflection of the flower generation of the 60s, these same reviewers forget that many of theose 60s issues remain debatable, unsolved and in due course with the times. I dont belong in that generation nor am I wishing to defend its causes but i do find that many of the ideas promoted in that decade are just as valuable today, and indeed, maybe even more so.

The story, a sci-fi epic about a martian who is taken back to earth as (basically) a prisoner only to be forced to escape and thus be given the chance to bring forth his ideas from his alien culture (pun intended here). Ideas, which include extreme (even for today's standards) sexual freedom and subversiveness, dissent and questioning of established institutions and a plethora of philosophical rebellions such as the meaning of love and friendship, the substance of community life and the reason we have "societies".
Heinlein doesnt only use the martian as a mouthpiece for his cause. Even more impressive and powerful is the irksome character of dr.Jubal who becomes initially the martian's protector, provides his hideout and uses his everpresent connections and intelligence to give the alien a setting where he can function on his own and take over the story. Jubal's frequent monologues which are disguised as answers in dialogue to various conversators are not only masterful and intimidating but reveal a very fresh sense of humor and keep you halting to think. I thought often that Jubal is the center stage of this story and he's the source of all provocation for the reader but as well as for the other members of the plot.
There are objections to Heinlein's views and some are indeed well founded. You will come upon puzzling misogynistic and also homophobic commentary. Having said that, i'd add that i find it hard to imagine from myself accepting such statements but Heinlein has an agenda that, hmm, demands seeing the sum of the thoughts, criticizing the mistakes, but nevertheless accepting the provocation of "Stranger in a strange land" for what it is: effective.
Other than that the sci-fi imagery of this book does seem dated in today's high-paced hi-tech world but there's few sci-fi novels from that or from even older eras that read convincingly on that level today.
Overall, it is not only a glimpse into the mindset of 4 decades ago but also a glimpse in matters that still remain unanswered today.
Highly reccommendable and highly controversial.
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on March 21, 2003
Not intending to be harsh, I did really enjoy this book and am glad I finally read it, but I'm having a hard time determing why this book has changed so many lives. Why do so many people list this book as the single book they would take with them if they were stranded on an island? The adaptive transformation of martian Michael Valentine Smith to his surroundings as the story progresses is fascinating, but the overall philosophy promoted is dated and flawed; dated in its representation of racial stereotypes and gender roles; flawed in that it only works by a select pseudo-religious group capitalizing on an outside world they consider to be "marks." Stylistically speaking, I think the plot of this book moved much in the same way as any of the books by Ayn Rand. This is certainly not to say that the authors promote the same ideals, only to say that the highly nuanced mapping of their plot, and the use of characters to embody simplified ideals is similar.
This is definitely a book to be read, especially as a guage for what good science fiction is capable of, and to understand it's cult status within the genre. I believe, however, that you can find better more subtle, thoughtful, and sensitive work out there by writers like Samuel Delany ("Trouble on Triton" springs to mind).
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on February 6, 2003
Much has been written about Heinlein's ideological purpose but for this review, I am going to ignore it and focus solely on the book, on merits. A caveat: keep in mind this book was published in the 1960s so adjust your time context accordingly.
The vanilla science fiction tool is to stage human encounters with aliens and then play out the interaction. In a twist, Heinlein has a pseudo-alien look at humans. Valentine Michael Smith (VMS), though human, has grown to adulthood in such alien circumstances as to be effectively an outsider with no experience of human beings or Earth. The circumstances of his growing up on Mars and learning his unusual abilities are glossed over in the book as they are but a device: the focus is humans as they appear to this star-child.
And childlike he is indeed, in the best sense of the word as he tries his level best to understand the human systems of religion, superstition, social customs and so on. You do not need to agree with Heinlein's views (some of which are pretty dated and annoying) to appreciate this look in the mirror. Just as a child's favorite question is "why?", so too VMS encounters human relationships, the seamier side of organized religion, the numerous taboos and fears of humanity and asks "why?". The enchanting part of this is that the "why?" is not judgmental but only an attempt to understand.
Sure, the book can be annoying at times when Heinlein gets carried away and the ending is in many ways a contradiction to the rest of the book. For all that, this is not a book to be missed. The best way to approach this book is neither as science fiction nor philosophy. Enjoy the story without reading between the lines, but do learn to ask "why?" yourself, just as VMS does.
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on February 4, 2003
I read this book after coming home from an exchange year abroad in Europe. To my mind, my experiences and cultural adjustment mirrored Valentine Michael Smith's, with the large exception that he went to Earth, while I went to Switzerland. Stranger in a Strange Land addresses society from a viewpoint outside, pointing out contradictions, oddities, and things to muse on. In my opinion, this stance makes the book valuable. It forces the reader to take a good look at himself and the place in which we live. Some people may accuse me of reading this book in a shallow manner; but I think that to portray it as a solely philosophical work is wrong and prevents the reader from appreciating its many other facets.
In terms of plot, I found that it dragged at the end, but this could be because I didn't read into Mike as a Christ figure. My favourite parts were his adaptation to Earth life, which are skillfully written; his innocence is charming yet heartbreaking. In this day and age when we are growing jaded and bored, this book was a fresh insight. I'd recommend it with The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
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on October 30, 2002
When I first read this book, I was fifteen years old, and while I didn't fully "grok" everything Heinlein was trying to say, the little bit that I understood left me captivated, and I've been re-reading the book ever since.
Now at 23, I can honestly say that, while some of the more politically minded passages in the book still escape my comprehension, the idea of grokking, an alien culture ultimately changing the environment around it, and the hope that there is more to life than just birth and death is still vibrant and feels me with hope, hope that a person who has no faith in any religion oftentimes feels lacking in.
Granted, the book is old-fashioned in its views on homosexuality, and on the issue of women's rights; some of the things Heinlein says makes me wonder if any feminists have had book burnings with this book top on the list. But I simply take it as his own personal views- I have no need to agree or let what he says influence my overall perception of what I believe he was trying to say. After all, an artist is not in charge of how people react to his work. You can read into this book whatever messages you think are there- all things considered, any and every view I've read is valid, whether I agreed or disagreed with those views.
Just don't hate it for the wrong reasons.
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on May 28, 2002
This novel is probably Heinlein's most famous work. It was first published in 1961 and I think this fact is significant. Sometimes, literature does not age well. Heinlein has written other novels (e.g. "Starship Troopers" was published in 1959; still highly relevant; read my review of it) that have aged much better than this, so you may want to read one or two of his other novels before you decide whether or not you like his work.
The novel is divided into four sections that have titles that remind me of a biography of a saint or some other sort of religious figure. Part 1 is called "His Maculate Origin." Part Two is called, "His Preposterous Heritage." Part Three is called, "His Eccentric Education." Part Four is called, "His Scandalous Career." Lastly, Part Five is called, "His Happy Destiny." This gives the reader some hint about where Heinlein is taking the story and as such is somewhat helpful.
I agree with another reviewer that the initial premise of the book is very interesting both as a plot device and as a story. Michael Valentine Smith (he is the "Stranger" in a strange land) is a human raised on Mars; he is biologically human but philosophically Martian. Native Martians are never physically described but there are some hints about how their society is set up. Due to some interesting legal decisions, it is discovered the Michael is heir to a vast fortune and that he is possibly the ruler of Mars. Initially, Michael finds human culture enormously difficult to understand. However, he manages to get some help. He carries out talks with the politicians and has his rights secured.
The ideas in the novel were no doubt very popular in the 1960�s. Michael stresses what might be called �free love�, pantheism (e.g. all his disciples create each other with the phrase "Thou Art God"), religious pluralism and an incredible optimism that heaven can be created on Earth. There is also a dose of Heinlein�s trademark libertarianism in some of Michael�s views. In part Four, Michael starts up a religious institution to teach people the Martian language and the Martian way of doing things. However, as other reviewers have said, by this point, the novel seems to degenerate into a soapbox for Heinlein to voice his ideas. The way that Heinlein argues for religious pluralism is extremely weak sophistry likewise for his arguments in favor of some sort of "new sexuality" where sex bonds all sorts of different people, with no apparent rules. There is no explicit homosexuality but the new sexual morality proposed would probably admit it.
Understanding the "message" of the novel is a little tricky. There are some valid observations about how religious institutions are founded and sustained. Indeed, the Fosterite Church strikes me as the ultimate American religion. It combines the "new" revelation (an idea that Mormonism and Jehovah�s Witnesses use), an overwhelming emphasis on �Happiness� and it is extremely emotional. While there was potential for examining how Earth would react to the discovery of an alien race, it is not really explored. I think the message that Heinlein intended to communicate in the novel is that love, brotherhood etc can create a utopia but established interests will always prevent it from forming.
I personally found "Starship Troopers" a more interesting novel; the next Heinlein novel I read will probably be, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." My overall impression is that this novel�s story starts out well but morphs into a soapbox and that it is overrated. Yet, keep in mind, it probably one of the most popular SF novels since World War 2 and most people have extremely polarized opinions about it.
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on May 22, 2002
A thrilling read with an intriguing main character in Valentine Michael as well as a great companion (Jubal) through whose intelligent, skeptical eyes I felt Heinlein was really telling and interpreting the narrative. Stranger has a sense of scope, as we see Michael transformed from a nearly helpless "babe" physically to a polished, mass-media darling preacher. The "high-minded" science fiction aspect is key to the novel as Heinlein uses his stranger and his attempts at understanding humanity to emphasize the flaws in our society. It never becomes overbearing or preachy, but the zealously hedonistic and somewhat smarmy society that results from following Michael's ideas seems as flawed as our own. I'm unsure if I'm to interpret Michael's world as the answer to our problems or simply a lifestyle with an alternative set.
Without turning this into a critique or a plot summary, it boils down to an interesting narrative, a few deeper meaning details (e.g. the scenes in heaven) that didn't really work for me, but in general a highly intelligent person engaging in skilled storytelling and sharing of his thoughts.
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