Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

Putnam, 1991 expanded reedition of 1961 original, 489 pages

When I took on my Heinlein re-read project (all of his four Hugo-winning novels), the one I was dreading most was Stranger in a Strange Land, largely because I didn’t like it all that much when I first read it twenty years ago.  I saw it then as pointless, dull and largely unmemorable (save for the line “You’re four of the six most popular writers alive today.”)  Twenty years later, a re-visit shows that… I’m still not that far off from my initial assessment.

(Before going any further, I should state that the only easily-accessible version of the novel I had at hand was a Book Club copy of the “uncut” 220,000-words 1991 edition, not the 160,000-words 1961 original one.  Since that was also the version I read twenty years ago, I felt that I was comparing apples-to-apples in terms of revisiting my own experience of the novel.  While I’ll admit that this “uncut” version is closer to what Heinlein had in mind when writing the novel, it is not necessarily what original readers experienced in 1961.  So while I think that most of my complaints about the novel are valid no matter the version, keep this piece of trivia in mind when I rant, later on, about the novel’s interminable digressions.)

It’s easy to take pot-shots at Stranger in a Strange Land largely because its place in SF genre history is so secure.  Not only was it a commercial and critical success in the SF genre upon publication (it sold widely and won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel), but it’s one of the very few genre-SF novels to have broken through the mainstream in a significant way, even though by “mainstream” we here mean “sixties counterculture”.  With a plot that concerned itself with the establishment of a new religion and open-sharing communities, the book became a bible for the hippie movement, became (unfairly) associated with notables such as Charles Manson and even figures in the lyrics of Billy Joel’s retro-anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, rhyming with “Russians in Afghanistan”.  It remains Heinlein’s best-known and reportedly best-selling novel, and has been deeply influential for a significant number of Baby-Boomers.

This being said, it definitely remains a book of the early-sixties.  It has a charming retro-futurist quality borrowing both from perennial future markers and conceptual limitations of the time, mixing flying cars, trips to Mars, film video technology, psi powers, sentient Martians and post-World-War-III world government.  Much of the book is dated and quaint by today’s standards, especially its criticism of organized religion and treatment of female characters.  As usual while discussing Heinlein’s fiction, “pretty good for that time” does not translate into “acceptable by today’s standards.”  For all of their feistiness, the female characters don’t have much agency beyond proudly choosing to serve the nearest male authority figure, while Heinlein’s portrait of the horrors of a church blending fake piousness with cynical exploitation seems almost charmingly naïve fifty years and many televangelists later.

My own issues with the novel have more to do with its plot, or rather its somewhat simplistic one.  Here a human orphan raised on Mars comes to Earth after being rescued by a follow-up expedition, bringing back extreme naiveté along with psi powers made possible by the Martian educational system.  He can make things disappear at will, can discorporate for a while, possesses superhuman intelligence and, after being socialized with humans, easily becomes a cult leader.  Much of the novel is spent witnessing his laborious education, through endless speeches usually involving Heinlein stand-in Jubal Harshaw, a cranky old man who remains the unassailable Voice of Reason throughout the novel.  There is a big break in action midway through that makes the novel even less enjoyable.

Still, it’s easy to understand Stranger in a Strange Land‘s appeal to the counter-culture of the sixties, especially when the novel aims at staid conventional thinking and starts promoting free loving individualism.  No wonder it became a foundational text for much of the late-sixties hippie communes.  Ironically, it’s this deeply influential quality that makes Stranger in a Strange Land feel like such a dated period piece: It suggests something that has been tried and shown to fail such a long time ago that it seems like a relic of another time.  (Heinlein and his apologists will rightfully point out that Heinlein wasn’t suggesting answers as much as he was raising questions about society at the time; in this light the novel was a success in that it anticipated where society was headed far more accurately than other novels of the time.  Alas, the only reward for correctly anticipating the future in SF is feeling ordinary when the future does arrive as expected.)

Is it worth a read today?  It definitely is for SF genre historians, and sixties enthusiasts.  As for other readers… it depends on how much you enjoy lectures by a cranky old guy who thinks he’s seen everything.  Heinlein’s two biggest assets as a writer were his confidence and his gift for easy prose.  Taken together without much interference by the demands of characterisation, you end up with Stranger in a Strange Land‘s passages starring the wit and wisdom of “Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, neo-pessimist philosopher, devout agnostic, professional clown, amateur subversive, and parasite by choice.”  Harshaw is extraordinarily fun to read even as he (wrongly) expounds and pontificates and lectures at length.  He’s an idealized figure of how Heinlein wanted to be perceived and what some of his readers wanted to become.  As such, he’s interesting in the same ways any cranky eccentric relatives can be… in small doses.  Heinlein, as canny as he could be, was writing from a less complicated time and from our perspective, much of Stranger in a Strange Land has the interesting quality of being cynical and naïve at once.

In tallying up my reaction to Stranger in a Strange Land, the most telling detail is that the book took me six weeks to finish.  My time when I was guaranteed some reading time every day are gone, so I’d pick it up every so often out of duty, never feeling any urgency to tear through vast swatches of it as I did in reading Double Star or Starship Troopers.  Much of it (including the Harshaw lectures) was instantly forgotten, and I felt some impatience once the action moved away from the Harshaw compound.  It is a major novel in the history of the Science Fiction genre, but it remains a novel of its time.  I didn’t like it much at the time, and I still don’t like it much now.

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