Joe Boeke's Reviews > Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
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Jan 06, 2013

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Read in June, 2008

I remember reading _Stranger In A Strange Land_ as a young high school student in the late 70s. At the time, the story appealed to my changing state (as an adult, I think I can finally admit that the adolescent young man who read this book the first time, did so because my friends told me it was filled with lots of sex scenes). I also remember that despite Heinlein's writing found it a difficult book to read as a result I "skipped" around looking for the "good" parts (which are all in the second half of the book).

However some (other) passages in the book did leave an impression on me during that first read. Heinlein's railing against the parochialism of the Church (and the Catholic Church in particular) was certainly instrumental in shaping my views on religion and partially contributed to some of my more existential leanings (I'd also note that the criticism leveled at Heinlein for passing off his impressions/views/ideas as fact is certainly warranted).

So, when I found myself stuck in the Charlotte, NC airport for 5 hours this weekend (awaiting a 5 hour flight home to LA) I surprised myself by deciding to buy the Ace (trade paperback) version of _Stranger In A Strange Land_ and re-read it -- in retrospect, I am ambivalent that I took the time to re-read the book.

The protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, is a child born on Mars to two of the crew of the first human expedition to that planet; he is raised by the Martians when a catastrophe wipes out the adults of the expedition. Years later, another expedition to Mars results in contact with the Martians and Michael's return to Earth, completely innocent of knowledge about the planet. The greater part of the novel details his attempts to understand human nature from his Martian philosophical perspective (which is rather like that of Eastern philosophy); these end in his foundation of a new religion to help human beings achieve their full potential which hitherto has been impossible because of the straitjacket of human culture.

The book makes me think, which now (that I am considerably past my adolescence) I appreciate much more. It can be slow in parts (most of the book is dialogue with very little or no action), but (and I'm not sure if it is my age, or the fact that Ace added back in 30,000 words to this edition that weren't in the copy I read 30 years ago) much more readable than the first time through.

Some parts, especially in the second half of the text, result in disturbing thought patterns, even now. The concept that all human morals are arbitrary (which is how the "Martian" Valentine Michael Smith views them) and that anything that leads one to "grow closer" is good -- also leads down a slippery slope where moral objections to murder, and other heinous things, can be downplayed (in the name of the collective growing closer). While these attacks on Western culture don't seem quite as shocking as they must have been back in the 1960s, other parts of the book are just preachy and long-winded. The international intrigue and world government sub-plot of the first half of the book are more interesting to me now than they were on my first read (but ultimately unfulfilled as Valentine Michael Smith escapes to become the messiah like character of the second half of the book).

It would be easy to write this classic of science fiction off as a novel of the hippie era and relegate it to the dustbin (and history could still do that). However, the somewhat unique premise of analyzing human culture from an alien point of view as well as the fact that the novel forever broke (maybe bridged) the barrier between science fiction and mainstream literature, put it into the classic (must read at least once) category. By all means, read it and form your own opinion. Or better yet, (re)read Starship Troopers :)
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