The book begins quite promising. The first part sets off with a very interesting and ingenious premise and develops into a sort of a sci-fi thriller,The book begins quite promising. The first part sets off with a very interesting and ingenious premise and develops into a sort of a sci-fi thriller, which reminded me of Zelazny.
The story slows down considerably after that and takes a different character. The second part introduces Jubal Harshaw, who, for me, was the only likeable character in the book. It was namely Jubal that still kept the book interesting and enjoyable. In this part we also begin to learn more about the Man of Mars and the Martians, and he, likewise, begins to understand humans. And there is still some thrill in the story and it's a pleasure to read how Jubal handles the situation.
It is in the next act that the book takes an unexpected turn for the worse. The third part is a mix of sex, white trash, religion and disappearing clothes. Which leads to the forth part, where we see the rise of a completely impossible utopian church/sect (or commune, if you prefer), which promotes a hippie-neoplatonic-transcendental lifestyle, described rather unconvincingly.
As for the fifth part, it is a bit disappointing as a finale. It seems rushed and uninspired and never really makes the reader doubt as of the outcome.
Free love or the sexual fantasy of an immature man?
Now, free love is fine, but it's depiction in Stranger left me with a bad taste in my mouth. (I wasn't too surprised to find out that in some other of his works Heinlein speaks lightly even about paedophilia and incest, which goes a bit too far for my taste.)
It is ironic that Heinlein tries to make us rethink society, while at the same time he often portrays women and gender roles in a rather stereotypical way, he even bashes homosexuals, and he depicts some aspects of human sexuality and emotions in a superficial and exaggerated way, and other aspects he never even mentions.
Another character, in another novel by Heinlein, says that the beautiful metaphysical questions are meant to be asked, but not answered. I couldn't agree more. Yet, in Stranger, there's no doubt as to what happens when we die and this knowledge is important for the plot. That's an author's choice which I generally consider to be of poor taste (unless used for comedic purposes), even when, as in the case of Stranger, there's a spiritual mood about the book. Furthermore, Heinlein doesn't bother to ask many other beautiful questions which the premise poses, the book deals mostly with politics and sex. No-one ever sits down to wonder what gives Mike and the Martians the right to infringe on other people's rights. What do they mean by "wrongness", according to their Truth? What makes them so convinced that there is only one Truth (theirs)? And why should we buy that? How would the Martians react if I were to tell them that I grok wrongness and injustice in them? How do people react to the news that there is an alien race living on Mars? What is the position of the various churches? (Despite religion (and particularly the church of Foster) being deeply involved in the plot, we never learn what religious people think about this groundbreaking discovery.) And so on.
The double standards of Heinlein's philosophy
If I disregard all the free love and spirituality preaching, I can look at the book simply as an attempt to deconstruct Western society culture. Which sounds good to me, but even in that aspect the story is only effective during the first two parts. Heinlein does not defend Mike's point of view objectively, if at all. At one point he accuses philosophers of automatically accepting the basic social norms, but he himself does the same when he automatically presents those of Mike as right. The fact that he comes from Mars automatically becomes an argument in his favour. People seem either to judge him or to like him, there's no in between, there's no place for more than one truth, and that's hypocritical. I agree that social norms should not be taken for granted, but rather grokked in fullness first. After that, each individual should be free to choose for himself. Heinlein, however, does not leave much room for choice. He just substitutes the existing norms with his own questionable vision of a utopian society.
All of this makes the story unconvincing in my eyes and I never felt engaged in the fate of the characters.
But to end with something positive and to justify the three stars I give to the book, I will say that Stranger in a Strange Land is an influential novel, with memorable characters and interesting premise, and Heinlein's writing makes you keep on reading, even if you don't find the story that appealing....more