Classic SciFi reviews: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land


Here at ScienceThrillers.com, I review thrillers (fiction and occasionally nonfiction) with science or medicine in them.  Previously, I’ve discussed how SciThri is different from SciFi (read post What is a Science Thriller?).  In general, I’ve read very little science fiction in my life.  But that’s about to change.

I’m working my way through an arbitrary list of Science Fiction classics–the SF canon, as it were–and it is a delight.  First up: Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (which I will abbreviate as SSL for the rest of this review).

SSL was first published in 1961, but I read an “original, uncut version” from 2003 which contains 60,000 words cut from the first published edition.  (More on that later.)  Like other great SciFi novels, SSL isn’t about science or technology; it’s an exploration of what it means to be human.  Though it is set in the near future, it is a critique of contemporary human society.  And it’s a heck of a read.  Loved it.

The premise: Valentine Michael Smith is a human being born and raised as a Martian.  He encounters humans for the first time and is brought to earth around the age of 20.  Smith’s adventures and difficulties serve as a vehicle for author Heinlein to expose human prejudices, attitudes, values, and cultural standards to the judgement of a true outsider who is human only in bodily shape.

SSL is divided into five major sections; the first two comprise the first half of the book.  These chapters, which span Michael Valentine Smith’s origins as the Man from Mars through resolution of the book’s most important crisis, read like a thriller.  If the book had ended there–which it could have, had the author wished to do so–it would definitely have qualified as a sci-fi thriller: fast pace, imminent danger, high stakes, politics, spies, and more set against a mildly futuristic backdrop of global government, unmanned aerial taxi cabs, synthetic food, and the like.  Brilliantly written with great characters (especially the intellectual hedonist Jubal Harshaw), SciThri fans will enjoy this stuff.  The main intellectual focus is on government and how humans handle power.

The book changes dramatically with the start of part three, “His Eccentric Education”.  The Man from Mars grows up, and the story plunges ever deeper into an exploration of human religion and sexual morality.  The passages of exegesis and intellectual argument grow longer and more profound (pretty easy to see where the 60,000 words got cut in the first edition).  Action slows to a crawl.  If you find yourself losing interest, you might as well quit now as it doesn’t “improve”.

But I for one found the narrative utterly compelling.  Using Jubal as his voice, author Heinlein makes a daring foray into philosophy and utopianism, challenging every aspect of how humans structure their lives, but in particular focusing on sexuality.  I won’t go into the details here as Heinlein’s arguments are complex; you should read it yourself.  Note that there are NO sexually “graphic” scenes, but commonly-held beliefs about monogamy, desire, and chastity are thrown out the window.  (Interestingly, many of the ideas Heinlein promotes were also discussed in a June 2011 New York Times magazine article, “Infidelity will keep us together.”)

While Heinlein’s views of the proper role of human sexuality may be overtly shocking, his take on the nature of the Divine is even more heretical. Don’t read this if you have fundamentalist tendencies in any of the major world religions.  (Though one of Heinlein’s Muslim characters comes to an interesting accomodation between submitting to God’s will as is the dictate of his religion, and God as understood in the Martian sense.)

I’m not sure I found the ending satisfying, but Heinlein did manage to temper his utopian vision with a dose of reality and a prediction for the future that more or less makes sense.  (I was left with a number of questions about the angel sub-plot, which I think did not serve the story well.)

Bottom line: an intensely thought-provoking book, highly intelligent, extraordinarily controversial, never cheap or titillating.  Fantastic read (with a thriller structure) for at least the first half; maybe a bit too brainy later on for some readers.

Next on my SF reading list: Isaac Asimov’s I Robot, then Kurt Vonnegut, probably Cat’s Cradle.  Please tell me what book or author I should read after that to continue my classic SF education!

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