After my Ringworld foray, I was a bit wary of the other two classic sci-fi novels on my list. Finally, I plucked up my courage and dove into this book.
Stranger in a Strange Land starts off well. It appears to be a fun science-fiction story about a human raised among the Martians that returns to Earth and has a huge cultural shock while having to deal with all of Earth’s bureaucracy. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the Martian civilisation and bow it differs from ours, and the plots of the administration to make the protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, sign over his rights. Unfortunately, this part only lasts for the first couple of hundred pages or so.
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Once Valentine Michael Smith gets accustomed to Earth and its strange ways (or as the book says, once he groks Earth), he takes the logical next step of… starting a cult! Of course, this cult is the right one for Earth’s people, one which teaches them awesome mind powers that means work is unnecessary and also gets rid of jealousy and possessiveness. Everyone has sex with everyone else, except of course, homosexuality is utterly wrong. The highest value in his society is “growing closer” through sex, but men get closer with other men by encouraging the women that they have sex with to have sex with other men. (Presumably Michael’s amazing mind powers prevents sexually transmitted diseases, since he seems to be able to control his body utterly.) And in the end, after he sacrifices his physical form and his cult eats his flesh, he’s revealed to be an incarnation of the Archangel Michael!
Okay, so I thought this book was a bit absurd. I did think that it was going to be hard sci-fi, and in my opinion, it wasn’t (although I don’t think that’s what kept me from enjoying it.) Heinlein can write pretty well, as shown by the first part of the book, but the book ended up devolving into preachy philosophical monologues (all delivered by the men, while the women say “I understand now, dear! Can I get you some food?”) The character of Jubal seemed like a Mary Sue stand-in for Heinlein; he’s a writer who writes “bad pulp fiction” but knows that it is trash, but he’s also a doctor and a lawyer and the only person that understands Valentine Michael Smith.
Also, I’m usually very forgiving of old books being representative of the prevailing morals of their time, but still, this book is incredibly sexist. Like I said above, the men always need to explain things to the women, the women spend their days mostly in swimsuits (or later, naked), the women are always concerned about providing food to the men (or are rebuked with threats of “spanking”, all in good fun, of course.) There’s a disturbing statement about rape (“nine times out of ten, it’s the woman’s fault”) that’s said by a woman.
The homophobia was also a disappointment. For a story that preaches free love and “sex isn’t just about babies, it’s to grow closer to people” to be so acutely homophobic seemed like a huge cop-out. I’ve heard this book described as visionary for its message of sexual liberation and anti-bigotry, but then it’s homophobic! I would’ve forgiven it if the topic of homosexuality had not been addressed at all.
I’m glad I read it, though. It’s good to read books I absolutely don’t agree with, once in a while. And Heinlein is still a way better writer than Larry Niven.
This is book 18 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Putnam, 1961 | Buy the book