Dan Keating's Reviews > Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
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Jan 14, 12

Read from December 20, 2011 to January 14, 2012

I think I've about had it with Heinlein at this point.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" is probably the most polarizing book I've read recently. On the one hand, it attempts things that most science fiction doesn't attempt; for that matter, it deliberately bucks social taboo in favor of exploring what's beneath the darker side of our cultural identity, which should be a goal of any true artist. Then, on the other hand, the book is mired in the cultural identity of its time, the prejudices of its author, and just plain bad storytelling.

So, the bad, first:

Probably first and foremost is the problematic treatment of women in Heinlein's storytelling. There's a feeling throughout that Heinlein is attempting to be progressive; in particular, one character's discussion of the utopian vision of woman being able have sex without needing to regard accidental pregnancy or disease but to have full volition to control her sexuality, full volition to decide when her sexuality will lead to the conception of a child, and fear no threat of sexual violence due to having the power to banish any such threat before it may do any harm is pretty gender-forward, but principally when taken out of context. Many characters refer to female characters in a demeaning or condescending manner throughout, in a way that is casual and often viewed as commmonplace. No female character stands out as being fully self-actualized. Arguably the most important female character, Jill, is given little characterization - and the most important aspect of her characters' changes - from a relatively prudish, "normal" female citizen to a sexually liberated cult member who freely engages in sexual activity purely for the enjoyment of it with no regard to propriety - is not actually shown; the novel skips great periods of time and one of the things that's lost is Jill's character progression. Another scene in which a female character coerces a male character into having sex with her by crying when he refuses is pretty twisted on a number of levels. However, the most telling gender-role problem comes with the Man from Mars' loss of virginity - because the scene, while fully narrated, does not reveal with whom he is losing his virginity. As a matter of fact, the narration pointedly avoids revealing who it was, which sends the implicit message that it actually does not matter who he is having sex with.

A real feminist critique of "Stranger in a Strange Land" would be very long, very thorough, and would likely tear the novel to shreds. I don't feel qualified to conduct such a critique and can only comment on the things that bothered me.

Right on the heels of problematic gender-typing is Heinlein's homophobia. There isn't a ton about homosexuality in the book, other than to present it as off or wrong; in one notable passage, a character postulates that Michael, the Man from Mars, who can detect inherent "wrongness" in things (most notably guns throughout much of the book) would perceive homosexuals as wrong and would not choose to bring them closer into his circle. The novel also pointedly states gay men to be "feminine" and gay women to be "masculine," a glaring stereotype and, at best, massive oversimplification. Despite all the talk about throwing off society's previous code of sexual taboos and liberating sexual conduct for his followers, all relations are still strictly of a heterosexual nature.

Granted, this was being written in 1961, so Heinlein can be pictured as a prisoner of his times, but in a book that is an apparently sincere attempt to rise above the mores of the times to postulate a more perfect, harmonious society, using that excuse is an irony of the most inexcusable sort.

And then there's the storytelling itself. The first half to two-thirds of the book is paced very, very well. Things move along slowly but deliberately, giving the level of examination and narration necessary to give depth to the story. All in all, unless I'm much mistaken, the meat of the first two-thirds or so of the novel takes place over the course of only a couple of months. Then, all of a sudden, the pace changes remarkably - while the narration itself remains at about the same pace, it starts randomly jumping forward in time - resulting in the aforementioned loss of characterization for Jill. At one point, a main character makes reference to meeting another character - something which had happened earlier in the book - and he says that the meeting took place two years previous, which completely threw me.

And then, of course, there's the whole problematic concept of utopia itself. The people in the book are shown progressing into a kind of utopian extended family unit, in which they all love each other completely, empathize with each other completely, share all that they have and are with each other and never get angry or sad or upset at all, really. In particular, main character Ben makes an ass of himself (in the view of the social convention of Mike's group, which is non-mainstream, to say the least) in a way that would presumably hurt Mike and Jill's feelings, however Jubal postulates (correctly, as is proven later) that Mike and Jill will still take Ben back with perfect love and never a question as to why he ran out on them. Instead of seeming to have progressed to a greater level of happiness, they seem to have left behind actual feeling and have become blissful idiots. Which is kind of the definition of utopia; a group of blissful idiots who have managed to subvert their own perception into eternal happiness.

I could go on and on and frankly I don't feel like it. Perhaps sometime I'll revisit "Stranger in a Strange Land;" its presentation of frank, if still non-explicit, sexuality at that particular stage of our society merits notice, and its intellectual approach towards social criticism perhaps merits academic interest. For now, I'm done reading about characters wishing that the others "may never thirst." I think I'd rather find some characters who still remember what it's like to be thirsty.
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