15 April 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land

I think this is one of my favorite SiaSL covers

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
1962 Hugo Award Winner
408 Pages

Earth’s first expedition to Mars was thought to have resulted in every crew member dying.  Earth’s second expedition to Mars, some years later, revealed that not only was Mars inhabited, but there was even a survivor from the first crew…and he’s coming home.

As it turns out that survivor is Valentine Michael Smith, actual the son of two of the crew members, born in space and raised by Martians.  When he finally arrives it becomes clear that he is more alien than human and the rest of SiaSL is spent with Mike, the Man from Mars, trying to figure us out, to grok us.  What he finds is funny and sad and horrific and finally, he learns, hilarious.

Coming to Earth
I’ve read this book a few times and Mike’s arrival on Earth was still funny.  I still laughed out loud at his failure to understand and everyone’s frustration with his innocence.  For whatever reason, I’m really attracted to the idea that extraterrestrial life would be so different from our own that even if we were able to make contact, we would utterly fail to interact.  The beginning half of SiaSL appealed to me for exactly that reason.  Martians exist, but the only Martian we could ever hope to talk to, and still struggle mightily with, is the one who is half-human (bodily he’s 100% human, but culturally Martian).  It’s funny and a little sad and I like it.

“The Heinlein Voice”
Bulky paragraphs of text which read like an undergrad philosophy paper do not constitute Hugo-Award-winning dialogue.  Unless of course you are Robert Heinlein.  There were actually 2 or 3 instances when the characters acknowledge that they are preaching, long-winded or just ranting and so it seemed to me that maybe by 1961, Heinlein was aware of his criticism and was basically telling people, I know and I don’t care and I can lecture all I want and you’ll still love it.  Which people did.

When I have read this book in the past (the last time being a number of years ago), I missed or overlooked or whatever, all of this.  I guess I only heard what I wanted to at the time.  I think I read this for the first time in college, so maybe the lectures seemed normal to me at the time.  I’m not sure how I missed the homophobic and misogynist attitudes by a group of people claiming to eschew prejudice and promote free love for all, but it bothered me quite a lot this week.

These things were so barefaced that Jill, Mike’s water brother who almost never speaks wrongly, tells him “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.”  In some of his other books, I’ve thought maybe the way he treated women was kind of tongue-in-cheek, but once you start considering the role and treatment of women throughout his work, it starts to look like a history of violence toward women.  SiaSL must be one of the most blatant examples, and the most troubling to me.  A man comes from Mars and starts a cultural revolution full of stereotypical gender roles claiming it’s something new and different when really it’s just reheated leftovers.

If it is the most blatant, it is also the most offensive.  The above quote speaks for itself, but there is also a decidedly anti-intellectual tone which was a little off-putting.  Sure I think universities have tended to become more like fast-food restaurants than I’m comfortable with, but Heinlein dismisses the value of intellectual and scientific discourse offhandedly while at the same time resting the crux of Mike’s beliefs and Martian culture on philosophy’s that he would excoriate elsewhere.  It’s disingenuous and deceitful in my opinion.

It seems to me that the peripatetic style of Jubal and Jill and Mike would appeal to those who are interested in philosophical topics but haven’t much experience with them (maybe this applied to me), but Jubal and Mike are so muddleheaded sometimes that I can’t believe I ever fell for it.  This is one of those instances in which a thing looks like a duck and quacks like a duck but is decidedly NOT a duck.

I was warned that Heinlein’s tendency to lecture hit a high point here and I doubted it and I was wrong.

Although SiaSL was fairly popular at the time of its release, it is probably best described as a cult classic now.  I’m aware it influenced a generation, but to read it now is at times, more than a little difficult.  When Mike first comes to Earth and during his time spent in “the place”, Jubal’s own Fortress of Solitude, some of the dialogue is funny and Mike’s inability to grok is even funnier, but that’s about it.  I can’t say whether that will be enough to propel you through the rest of the book but I will tell you that the last 100 or so pages were excruciating.  While the beginning was great, I hated the end of this book so much that I’m embarrassed that I have ever liked it and recommended it to other people.  Erg…


Universe 3/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 1/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5 (Here, I’m counting Mike’s Martian abilities)
Characters 4/5 (After everything I’ve said I still liked the people, especially Jubal if he would just SHUT UP!)

Overall 18/25

The roll of the die
This week’s book is The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber.  I had to enlist the help of my favorite librarian (my mom) to get ahold of this one, so it better be worth it.  My copy is one of those university copies with tiny print and zillion words on each page.

Next week’s book is The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick.  I’ve read one other PKD novel, Androids, and it was amazing, so I have high hopes for this one.


  1. I've read SIASL a few times, and like you I read it for the first time in college, and I remember thinking "this is the coolest thing ever!".

    I pick it up again every few years, read the beginning, love it, and then get to the 2nd half where I usually put the book down. :( because that's where it just gets damn strange.

  2. Glad I'm not the only one. It really does feel like two different books.


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