Granted, this is only my second “grown-up” Heinlein but just like Starship Troopers, it overwhelmed me with its depth, engaging (though somewhat sexist) characters and a range of ideas that feel as outlandish now as they must have when the novel was first published. Heinlein is utterly readable and I am getting quite infatuated with him as a gateway into science fiction.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
by Robert A. Heinlein
published: Putnam, 1961
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith.
Stranger in a Strange Landis the epic saga of an earthling, Valentine Michael Smith, born and educated on Mars, who arrives on our planet with psi powers—telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, telekinesis, teleportation, pyrolysis, and the ability to take control of the minds of others—and complete innocence regarding the mores of man. After his tutelage under a surrogate-father figure, Valentine begins his transformation into a messiah figure. His introduction into Earth society, together with his exceptional abilities, lead Valentine to become many things to many people: freak, scam artist, media commodity, searcher, free-love pioneer, neon evangelist, and martyr.Heinlein won his second Hugo award for this novel, sometimes called Heinlein’s earthly “divine comedy.”
Where to start? The arrival of Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from Mars, brings changes to Earth as we knew it. What starts almost like a thriller, with a handful of good guys trying to keep the clueless Martian out of the government’s hands (or worse, the hands of religious leaders) turns into a political and religous discussion of values. I would even go so far as to say that part one deals solely with introducing Mike and saving him from corrupt people, part two shows us his (to us) amazing abilities and how different he really is from Earth humans, parts three and four then deal with hiw own teachings and a whole new lifestyle. I won’t go into any details here, because if you want to know, you should really read the book. It’s worth it.
I absolutely loved some of the ideas in this book, not only the big ones that Mike teaches, but also little ones like Witnesses. These are specially trained people who when putting on their white coat, witness what they see – and only what they see. This struck me as particularly cool in a scene where Jubal Harshaw asks a Witness what color a house on a hill is painted. She answers – truthfully – that this side of the house is white. She can’t vouch for the rest of the house also being painted white because she can’t see it. Maybe that makes me weird but that was one of my favorite ideas in the entire book.
As characters go, my mind is split. Smith is lovable and annoying at once, starting out almost like a child – the ultimate stranger in a strange land, knowing nothing of our customs, of human behaviour that our children learn as babies. That said, Jubal Harshaw is awesome. That guy has so much cool in him, it’s unbelievable he doesn’t have his own novel. And he totally stole the show. For a long part of the novel, it is him who carries the plot with his discussions of politics and religion, of sex and relationships. He has an opinion on everything and while i may not agree with everything he (or Heinlein) thinks, it was an incredible pleasure to read.
I loved this book as a collection of ideas and almost a manifesto of the Martian lifestyle. Purely as a novel, as a story, I have to say that it wasn’t as gripping as Starship Troopers, which also served as a vessel for Heinlein’s world view but equally gave us a damn good story line. I found myself putting this book aside and almost forgetting about it. Whenever I picked it up again, I was hooked by the great (male) characters – let’s not start talking about the women here – and the amazing dialogue. Whenever it was time to put the book down again, the circle started all over. I was missing that story element, the plot that would keep me guessing what would happen to the characters, instead of watching them just do their thing. It was interesting and fun to read, absolutely, but more so for its ideas than its plot.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this classic of science fiction, especially to those who prefer the anthropological or political aspects of the genre.
THE GOOD: Some great dialogue that really just discusses certain aspects of politics, religion, and human interactions.
THE BAD: It felt like several stories, randomly stitched together. The female characters were not to my liking.
THE VERDICT: I see why this has won a Hugo and is still widely read today. It may have been written a while ago but humanity still doesn’t quite seem to grok how to be happy.
RATING: 7/10 A very good book.