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Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (Amazon commission earned)UK edition (Amazon commission earned)1.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsStranger in a Strange Land probably ties only with Dune as science fiction’s most famous modern literary classic. Unlike Dune, where there seems to be a consensus among fandom as to its excellence and stature in the genre (with people reserving their hate in varying degrees for the sequels), opinions on Stranger’s merits are far more polarized — as they are, incidentally, over Heinlein himself. The people who hate this book do so with all the passion of those who revere it as a masterwork. As always, I’m the guy who’ll try to cut through the miasma of “controversy” and re-examine the work on its merits as a story, without an axe to grind either way. 

It turns out the haters are, by and large, right. This is crap. While Stranger’s first half contains, despite a great many shortcomings, the seeds of a promising and enjoyable novel, mostly I found myself wondering how in the hell such a pretentious load of pigswill managed to gain a reputation as one of SF’s crowning achievements. I can only suppose that in the early 1960s, SF was so eager to be “taken seriously” as literature and to get away from the stigma of “that crazy Flash Gordon stuff” that fandom was only too happy to embrace a book that at least looked and sounded literary, even if Heinlein’s literary aspirations here are self-satisfied poseurdom at its most unintentionally comical. Heinlein himself, as the sixties began, was chafing over the perceived limitations of his reputation as a leading purveyor of adventures for boys. Thing is, he was good at that. There’s no shame in writing “juveniles” as long as the stories kick ass, which Heinlein’s did. But Heinlein was ready for bigger and better things, I presume, so here we are. 

Stranger in a Strange Land Uncut Edition (Amazon commission earned)In telling the curious story of a messianic “Man from Mars,” an archetypal “wild child” making his discovery of the human race and all its foibles for the first time, Heinlein offers some funny, if ham-fisted, political and religious satire. It’s not exactly an earth-shaking revelation that popular religious movements are little more than hucksterism exploiting the emotionally and intellectually bereft. Still, you can pull it off with style, as Heinlein does here and there, and it’s fun to read. 

Yet the novel suffers from a fundamental storytelling problem. Satire or not, there simply isn’t a single scene here that feels realistic. From first to last, the story offers one contrived scenario after another. Not only does this book not take place in any possible version of the real world, it doesn’t even take place in a convincing imaginary alternate version of our world either. Moreover, not a single believable person inhabits its cast, not even Jubal Harshaw, the feisty and establishment-taunting author/poet/lawyer/raconteur/renaissance man who serves as Heinlein’s Author Insert, and whose interminable monologues comprise a disproportionate chunk of the narrative. Finally, there’s the little matter that the story’s core message — that humanity’s problems can be solved by practicing cultish groupthink and promiscuous sex — was stupid then and is stupider now.

Stranger in a Strange Land - Old Berkley editionStill, it must have resonated with enough folks in 1961 to ensure its stature. Stranger’s influence upon the late sixties counterculture is undeniable. (And we all know how well that turned out.) Look at Valentine Michael Smith here and it’s all too easy to plug in such hippie icons as Timothy Leary or the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Smith himself could easily have adopted the Beatles’ “Come Together” as a personal anthem. Wikipedia tells me that some of Charles Manson’s disciples were fans of Stranger, though Manson himself denied ever reading it despite naming one of his children after the protagonist. Stranger even managed to fool no less a luminary than Kurt Vonnegut, which is probably not a surprise. There’s a hint of Vonnegut influence here, as Heinlein seems to have absorbed (or tried to) the sense of whimsy from The Sirens of Titan. But however sociologically prophetic Stranger may have proved to be, this same quality is what makes it so dated now.

The premise ought to be familiar enough even to fans who haven’t read it, or at the very least, fans who haven’t read it in 30 years or so. A mission to Mars (sent to rescue the first mission) discovers the planet is inhabited, and that the child of two of the original human astronauts has not only survived but been raised to adulthood by the native Martians under the guidance of their discorporate “Old Ones.” The concept of a human child raised by aliens with no human contact until adulthood is a doozy, and for roughly the first third of the book, the story is compelling, witty and suspenseful in handling it. Once it becomes clear that various political factions seek to take advantage of the childlike innocence of Valentine Michael Smith, it falls to scandal-mongering journalist Ben Caxton and his sorta-girlfriend, plucky nurse Jill Boardman, to spirit Smith away from the hospital where he is essentially held captive. Hiding Smith out at the home of Jubal Harshaw, everyone learns of Smith’s extraordinary talents: being able to leave his body and make any object, even people, he finds threatening simply disappear.

This is where things start getting silly. Harshaw, as I mentioned, is such an obvious avatar for Heinlein that it’ll be all most readers can do not to bung the book down the dispose-all. A elder-statesman figure of limitless wit and razor-sharp brilliance, whose every line is a speech (some running half a page or more), he also has a bevy of sexy personal secretaries, who are barely distinguishable from one another. It’s a subject of passionate discussion all throughout fandom just how radioactive Heinlein’s sexual politics were. You could put the way his female characters are treated here — with paternalistic condescension even when their own intellect is apparent; in Heinlein's world women are allowed to be Mensa-brilliant as long as they remember to be girlish and submissive too — down to the times, another of the book’s embarrassingly archaic elements, were it not for the fact that Heinlein's treatment of women didn’t appreciably improve well into the ’80s.

It all gets worse when Heinlein has Smith discover religion, through an encounter with the showy and improbably popular Fosterite cult, whose worship practices are pure Vegas. Smith becomes a little more interesting at first, going from innocent to shrewd as he realizes that his sincere desire to unite the human race in love won’t reach the masses effectively unless he couches it in the smarmy salesmanship of the revivalist. But what incisive social satire might be lurking in that plot element is effectively buried by Smith’s overall lack of depth, the continued dominance in the narrative of Jubal’s self-important lectures (cut them and you have a novella), and the resoundingly silly naïvety of the “love is all you need” message, depicted here as a series of half-baked sexual encounters that are about as arousing as imagining your parents screwing. The sex in this book is the erotic equivalent of a Tupperware party, and it certainly does the plot no favors. Even supporting characters lose their own identities — or what little they had, to be accurate — as they are absorbed into Smith’s love shack. Ben Caxton all but drops out of sight until near the end, and Jill, who in the early scenes is Ben’s putative girlfriend (who doesn’t sleep with him, in the manner of all 1961-era “nice girls”), becomes not much more than a sex-bunny by the end, while Ben must grow, I guess, by learning to let go of outmoded concepts like jealousy.

From an SFnal standpoint, Heinlein drops the ball too. If Mike is a human, then I’d like to know exactly how he’s managed to perform the magic tricks he does, which include the ability to alter his physiology just by sheer will. That he received alien teachings is made clear, but it seems to me it would take something more than that to allow someone to psychically alter physical reality. Mike grows to be less a character and more a shallow symbol as the book finally approaches its all too predictable climax. Unless you’re a complete idiot, I don’t suppose I’m spoiling a thing to mention that Mike suffers the fate of all messiahs. The finale is about as anticlimactic as they come. Stranger’s ultimate message — that the human race really really needs to stop hatin’ and get its shit together — hardly seems worth the effort. Did we really need to plow through 200,000 words of hokum to learn that, when the Beatles could get us there in less than three minutes? Strange indeed!

An interesting development occured after Heinlein’s death when his widow Virginia, who was jaw-droppingly active in shepherding her late husband’s legacy, discovered an archival copy of the original manuscript as it existed before Heinlein’s editors in 1961 required no less than 70,000 words to be shorn, mainly for “offensive” content. In 1991 Ace released the “Original Uncut Version” as a trade paperback. Happily, they did not choose to do the George Lucas thing of eliminating all traces of the original release from the face of the earth. The 1961 version remains in print in mass market paperback, while the trade version is the uncut.

Having read both versions now (I know I’ve got Advil on this desk somewhere), I wish I could tell you that the uncut edition is packed full of cool deleted scenes you've never seen before, like a “director’s cut” blu-ray, that open up the story and bring greater depth to an unfairly butchered original. Sadly, that isn’t the case. In what can only be described as a tour de force of editing, Heinlein managed to shave those 70,000 words from his MS merely by trimming passages throughout the whole thing; a sentence or two here, maybe just an adjective or adverb there. The story, however, is not materially changed, and there’s nothing like an entire deleted sequence restored. On reflection I’d give the edge to the uncut version, where the original’s choppy prose now flows considerably smoothly, and even passages that were well nigh unreadable in the original are now at least technically satisfying.