Stranger in a Strange Land

Monday, May 28, 2012


Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein, 1961

Hugo Winner – 1962

Premise: Valentine Michael Smith is the last survivor of the first manned mission to Mars. An Earthling raised by Martians, when he comes to Earth he struggles to understand humans. But Martian discipline has given him vast control over his body and if he decides to, he might change everything.

There are plenty of spoilers in this review, but the book is well known and from 1961, so I think it's fair to discuss it fully.

Stranger in a Strange Land has a lot in common with some of the Hugo-winning novels I've already discussed here. Similar to They'd Rather Be Right, part of the plot concerns a way to spread utopian telepathy, only if people can become enlightened enough to handle it. Also as in They'd Rather Be Right, one of the main characters is an ridiculously independent-minded wealthy citizen without whom the scheme would have crashed and burned early. Similar to the second half of A Case of Conscience, the plot centers on a character coming from another planet, trying to learn about humanity, and eventually becoming a public figure who causes tumult in society.

And similar to A Canticle for Leibowitz, it ends in a depressing, dystopian future.

What, that isn't what you got out of Stranger in a Strange Land?

I enjoyed the first two-thirds or so of the book on this read-through. I thought Mike's efforts to understand humanity, and the other characters' efforts to either help or control him, were compelling. And then Mike discovers that there's a sucker born every minute, and decides to sell humanity on his spooky Martian Phoenix-level power regimen. It's like a cult to teach people to tap into cosmic power through nudity and free love.

But no homosexuality. Right.

Part of my problem reading the book was that despite the Moon colonies and the mission to Mars and some lip service to world government, the book was clearly set in the 60's. Yes, it was set a bit ahead of when it was written. I am certain that it was very forward-thinking in 1961. Now, though, I think it just feels silly. The attitudes of the characters are too dated, between the friendly and not-so-friendly chauvinism and the swept-under-the-rug homophobia.

It's not overall a terrible book. It's not badly written... well, except for the chapters that break the flow entirely, either by inserting endless monologues in which straw characters argue with each other to then reach a foregone conclusion, or by being set off of Earth. Those parts are pretty awful, but the first half is largely free of this, and is quite strong.

The main weakness just comes down to the fact that it doesn't feel that socially forward anymore, and it doesn't have much else going for it.

To be fair, I don't remember reading it as a dystopian ending the first time I read it. But, in the final section of the book, the future seems to be projected along one of two paths: either the Martians will destroy the Earth (probably wise on their part, otherwise they're likely to be outbred in the solar system), or humanity will protect itself because those who remain joined a callous solipsistic mind-melding cult.

The more I think about it, the more I dislike Mike's vision for the future of humanity. It's not 'everyone will join us once they understand', it's 'I will summarily delete people who I decide are “wrong” and everyone who remains will join us because we are right.' That's some frighteningly simplistic thinking right there.

In fairness, though, I have to say that I've read so many works of science fiction (and fiction in general) spent glorifying free will that I'm just not sure I can take the opposite position seriously.

Stranger in a Strange Land is very important historically, but as a reader, I only enjoyed the first half. If I mentally average that enjoyment with my horror at the ending, adding in the fact that the text seems to support Mike unilaterally making himself the ultimate judge of mankind for no other reason than that he's a special snowflake, I'll end up with:

2 Stars – An Okay Book

List of Hugo Award Winners

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