Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein

Review of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein

A very interesting book; also a book of two halves. A number of years ago six explorers were sent to Mars; contact was lost with them. When humanity finally gets round to investigating they discover that the six astronauts are dead, but that two of them had a child, Valentine Michael Smith, who has been raised by the Martians. The new expedition brings him back to Earth.

One of the rules of writing is that your characters should develop during the course of the story, and Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land is a larger than life example of this: he starts off as a shy, naive orphan and grows in understanding, confidence and power until he takes on messianic proportions (Stranger predates that other great sixties sf novel of messianic musing, Dune, by a few years).

The first half of the book is by far the best, I found. It’s about Smith’s struggle to comprehend (to ‘grok’, in Martian – a word that doesn’t just mean to understand but to become one with, and more) humans and their language. It also concerns the attempts of Smith’s friends to keep him safe from the powers that be. After this, it seems to lose direction for a while, then heads off on a new bearing – the aforementioned messianic musing. I think this is less enjoyable because Heinlein has got most of the story out of the way and now he’s concerned expressing why he wrote the story in the first place; ie, to question institutions like religion, marriage, property etc. But it is quite interesting.

When I started reading Stranger, I was braced for it being a good story with a good central idea but not written that well (like, say, Ringworld or Rendezvous with Rama). I was pleasantly surprised. Much of the text does what it does with journeyman-like efficiency, but the characters approach three-dimensionality and the dialogue crackles like a good comedy script in places. In fact, dialogue takes up much of the story and the liberal sarcasm makes the almost equally liberal infodump quite easy to read. Apart from the middle bit, Stranger is a very readable book – it’s only taken a few days to get through its 400 text-full pages.

A case could be made that Stranger is a very sexist book. The main female character is Jill Boardman, a nurse at the hospital where Smith is (effectively) incarcerated. Right from the outset it’s said that her biggest interest is men. For the first quarter of book she’s a good character, then she’s eclipsed by Jubal Harshaw (a man) who takes charge fo the situation and remains centre stage for much of the remainder of the novel. When Jill briefly reemerges after the central climax she is besotted with Smith (although with good reason, given everything that he is and can do). Harshaw is a curmudgeonly old writer who has on his staff three beautiful women who take his dictated stories, manage his affairs and cook his food. When these women each kiss Smith for the first time they nearly pass out, he does it with such whole-mindedness.

The Martians live in a kind of utopia and Smith eventually determines that he wants to bring such harmony to humanity. Despite their general inferiority, humans actually have something that Martians don’t: sex – specifically, recreational sex. (Apparently, all Martian juveniles are female, then at some point in their development they are pleasurelessly fertilised and become adult and male.) Smith groks that love and jealousy are inimical and gathers to him an inner circle who practice free love (and telepathy and telekinesis) – although strictly heterosexual (it’s implied that Smith, with his near-mystical sense of right and wrong, perceives homosexuality to be a ‘wrongness’). Sex is the best form of ‘growing-closer’ there is. Did I mention that this was written in the sixties? Actually, I agree that the monogomous ethic isn’t really up to much and, if everyone involved could handle it, free love would be a happier and logical solution to people’s emotional needs. But while I admire the idealism expressed in Stranger, I can’t help feeling that it’s all rather bootless.

Still, whatever its faults, I would recommend Stranger in a Strange Land to anyone with a passing interest in science fiction. It’s rare enough to read a book that either entertains or tackles big ideas – and exponentially rarer to read one that does both.

Categories: Literature, Reviews
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