Review: Stranger in a Strange Land

I went through a Heinlein-obsession in high school. Surprisingly, I somehow missed Starship Troopers (no idea how!), but I recently tried to start Troopers. I was struggling, so I thought maybe I needed to get my appetite with a Heinlein I enjoyed. So I listened to Stranger in a Strange Land on audio book. Maybe it was because it was in audio. Maybe it’s because of who I am today versus who I was in high school. I didn’t like the book.

  • Premise: “Seeing humanity through alien eyes to have you question ‘accepted society’s’ mores”
  • Message: If I never read anything Heinlein wrote about it, I would say he wrote “free communist love is the right path”
  • Characters: flat. opaque.
  • Plot: At times, plodding

Let me start by saying I love the premise of Stanger. However, I found I didn’t like the characters. And I didn’t understand them. The reader is clearly supposed to feel Michael Valentine Smith to be alien – I get that. The women are all flat. They have exactly two aspirations in life: marriage or babies. Even Jill, who has strong potential to be considered as a protagonist really doesn’t seem to think for herself: following Bill Caxton and then Jubal and then Michael with nary an opinion, much less an original one… She never seems to struggle with herself or her decisions (the rare ones you could classify as “her decision”). Most of the other female characters are utterly interchangable (Ann’s only feature is that she is a trained Fair Witness with nigh-perfect memory, otherwise just swap her out with the others!). I understand he published in the 1960’s and women getting to vote was still pretty radical, but the at-times blatant sexist portrayal made it very difficult for me to relate to any of the female characters.

I think I was supposed to relate to Jubal Harshaw, but frankly I felt he ran right across the line of “Perfect Protagonist” (or Gary Stu). He can do no wrong. His flaws aren’t so much flaws as quirks and ain’t he just a cutey-pie. I feel like Heinlein was trying to write himself as the protagonist in the worst of ways: doctor, lawyer, gourmet, art critic, political aficionado, theologian, and successful/famous/beloved fiction writer… oh and potentially an amazing lover (hinted but never outright stated).

There is also little sense of danger after about the first 1/4 of the book. Once Jill and Michael reach Jubal’s house, there is no more threat throughout the book. It becomes (at times) a plodding foray through Michael’s transition from Martian to Man. Yet, as a coming of age story it fails completely because instead of Michael truly accepting humans and the struggles of the adult world, Michael seeks to make humans more Martian (it’s impressive how completely communist Heinlein was writing in the 1960s). Apparently, Heinlein said he was just trying to make people question some of the accepted “facts of life,” but at least in this audio book, it came across more in a “you are all doing it wrong” sort of tone. Something about the “this is the only logical conclusion anyone should come to” when Bill and Jubal are discussing the ‘society’ (let’s call it that) that Michael created in his ‘church’ (in quotes because it’s clear Michael doesn’t think of it like religion in a traditional sense).

This isn’t to say the book was horrible and ALL bad. Heinlein’s description of the political aspirations of the Martian venture are really good. The struggle for personal independence, recognition of different competencies, and the need for society to accept people who might break the mold are all explored. Bill Caxton’s struggle to accept or reject Michael’s powers (and teachings/’society’) felt like one of the most genuine scenes in the book (only foiled by Jubal’s omnipotent wisdom of religion, human nature, etc. instead of Bill being able to find it himself).

Now, I will be the first to acknowledge my feminist side is quite tender at the moment. There is a lot going on in the world that has me looking very critically at everything. I remembered largely enjoying Stranger in a Strange Land in high school and I was surprised by how… yes, angry… I was getting while listening to it this time. I think Heinlein was pushing boundaries and asking questions. Keeping the book in a 1960s context he was crazy-radical (hell, it’s still pretty radical). It is definitely a piece that attests just how much science fiction can push social concepts.

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One thought on “Review: Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. Ooooh, you and I are going to have a great conversation about this one. 🙂 I read Stranger in early college, and I also liked it at the time. However, in occasionally reflecting on it since then, I have come to many of the same conclusions you have, particularly about the female characters; admittedly, I may be more sensitive to the portrayal of women in fiction than I once was, as I’m more sensitive to gender issues now. But I think the real kicker for me was when I read Time Enough for Love, arguably the most famous Heinlein novel after Stranger, which I read a few years after graduating from college. It has some seemingly pithy and quotable statements, but overall I felt that the book was largely insightful about… well… not much of anything. And that was when I noticed the theme in Heinlein’s books regarding women – as you pointed out, they’re essentially flat, unambitious, boring, and unrelatable, and I realized that Heinlein was enjoying, perhaps a little too much, the concept of the “sexual liberation” of women. I’m not sure if he was trying to write the “modern” 1960s female as he thought he understood her, but I really got the impression that he was writing his ideal woman – compliant, complacent, and horny. Which, as a modern woman, angered me. Substantially. I have since not been running to the book store in search of more Heinlein novels.

    Though I do think I need to give For Us, the Living another try. It primarily comprises a description of the political and societal structure of a utopian future society, and I don’t remember any blatant objectification of women in that one.

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