87 of 89 people found the following review helpful
I'm not for a moment going to try to defend the literary merit of Heinlein's work. This is, truly, a dreadfully badly written book, a book which cries out for harsh editing. And yet I felt it necessary to write a review to counterbalance those which precede me here, because, although this is a bad book, it's a truly great bad book. It's a book that anyone interested in twentieth century popular culture should read, and a book which will remain the subject of serious literary debate long after all the Booker Prize winners are forgotten.
The reviewers who say this book is too long are right. The reviewers who say it's badly written are right. The reviewers who say it is sexist are... missing the point. Yes, one of the protagonists, who seems to be Heinlein's alter ego, is astonishingly misogynist.
But that's part of why this novel is interesting. It's a visceral satire on the values and mores of Middle America of its day - and, given that Middle America changes only slowly, it still reads true of Middle America today. Sarah Palin might burn it - and has good reason to fear it.
It's a book stuffed with ideas, many of which are very funny; and it's a book with, despite its surface misogyny, a very interesting exploration of gender relations and gender politics which still bears reading. Overall, I strongly recommend that - if you've any interest in a literature of ideas, in the tradition of satire in English letters - you read this book. It's the very best dreadful book you will ever read.
65 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on 28 December 2003
This book is Heinlein's most famous effort, still selling very well today in both its original (1961) 'cut' version, and in the 'uncut' version (about 60,000 words longer), released after his death by his wife, Virginia Heinlein. It is an extremely complex satirical book, with multiple literary and philosophical allusions and referents, and with attacks and comments on many of the basic tenents of American life and social structure, including sex, love, marriage, politics, government, religion(s), economics, tattoos, art, writing, astrology, journalism, TV, military, inheritance laws, cannibalism, prejudice, prisons, and carnival life. Heinlein's aim was for this book to create questions about all of a reader's basic assumptions, to gore every sacred cow, to upset all the apple-carts. In some ways, he succeeded beyond his dreams, as the book was 'adopted' as their bible by many of the '60s counter-culture movement, even to the point that several churches were established with this book as their basis (most notably the Church of All Worlds). Heinlein himself was rather terrified by this use, as he never intended the book to provide answers, only to force questions.
The plot line is fairly simple: A child born to the first Martian expedition, Valentine Michael Smith ("Mike"), is raised by the Martians and brought back to Earth as a young man, where he receives a rather eccentric education into the ways of man by those who befriend him. Once he feels that he understands humanity, Mike undertakes to educate humans in the philosophy of "Thou art God" in such a way that the truth of that statement is a provable tautology. As such, he becomes a self-proclaimed messiah, with the usual fate of messiahs that upset everyone's idea of what is 'right'. But those who have accepted his 'education' will continue on...
The book makes heavy use of irony and contrasting poles of thought, such as Mike (the innocent) vs Jubal Harshaw (the voice of experience), the Church of All Worlds (Appolonian) vs the Fosterites (Dionysian), the Carnival (heaven ) vs the Zoo (earth). Most of the character's names are important in terms of their 'meaning', elucidating and enhancing many of Heinlein's points. Due to its structure and theme, this is one of the few SF books that has been subjected to a fair amount of academic analysis, a process that continues to this day. Some critics have gone so far as to say that the book is not science fiction, but rather a modern example of a satire, belonging in the same realm as something like Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal".
This book has contributed some new words to the English language, most notably "grok" and "water-brother", and may have the best simple definition of love found anywhere: "Love is that condition in which the happiness of another is conditional to your own". (Note: this definition appears only in the 'cut' version, apparently thought up while he was editing the original version of the book down to what was at the time 'publishable' length).
Although this book reads very easily, with Heinlein's typical unforced, everyday American prose style, the concepts and questions he presents are neither simple nor trivial. Not all of his points are directly explicated - it is worthwhile for the reader to carefully look for some of the hidden, non-obvious parallels and historical referents that are scattered throughout this book. This is not a book that should be skimmed or read casually, and even a second reading may not uncover all of its buried allusions and ideas. In a few places the age of this book and the cultural conditions of its time need to be kept in mind, else you may receive the incorrect impression of just what Heinlein was driving at. You don't need to agree with all his points, but reading this will make you examine of your own assumptions and beliefs, take a look with new eyes at the world around you, and find your own answers.
This book was very much a ground-breaker when first published, so much so that Heinlein had great worries that it would not be saleable at all. With its publication it drove the field of science fiction back towards the world of major literature, and has greatly influenced much of what has been published since its debut.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Reviewing Stranger in a Strange Land is quite a challenge. Is it the best science fiction novel ever published? I would say yes. Is it my favorite? No; it's not even my favorite Heinlein novel. To add a little more irony to the pot, Heinlein himself insisted that the book is not really science fiction to begin with. Stranger really marks a huge turning point in Heinlein's career. Unhappy with the brand of "juvenile" writer and the editing that position constantly entailed, Heinlein was determined to write a truly adult novel, one with no taboos, no limits, and no restrictions of any kind. With Stranger in a Strange Land he accomplished that in spades, basically taking on the heretofore sacrosanct subjects of sexuality and religion. Heinlein was not sure that anyone would even publish this story that took him 12 years to write; what was published was a mere figment of the original manuscript, 60,000 words having been cut out. Even though Heinlein did the editing himself, it had to have felt like jabbing an ice pick into his own heart to do it. Thankfully, we can now read the complete, original manuscript the way Heinlein intended the story to be told.
The plot is deceptively simple. The first manned mission to Mars never made it home to Earth. The second mission, twenty years later, found Valentine Michael Smith, an infant born on Mars and the only surviving member of the ill-fated first mission. Having been raised by Martians, Smith is literally a stranger in a strange land when he is brought back to earth with "miraculous" abilities and a Martian philosophy of life. The Federation government basically hides him away from prying eyes, partly in fear of the legal and political dangers posed by his unique status. Having been raised by Martians, the human experience is completely new and rather frightening to him. He has never even met a woman until nurse Jill Boardman sneaks into his room to get a glimpse of him. Fearful that the government is going to keep Michael basically imprisoned (or worse), Jill helps sneak him out of the hospital, and the two of them end up at the home of Jubal Harshaw. Jubal is an outspoken, older man who lives a thoroughly individual lifestyle, but he commits himself to helping Michael escape his perilous situation. Michael quickly begins to absorb human knowledge and, less quickly, begins to understand the confusing mentality of human beings.
Halfway through the novel, you may be asking yourself why the book was so controversial; the answer becomes clear as Michael now steps out into the wider world. He and Jill move around incognito, and Michael learns more about people. After a stint as an unsuccessful magician, he eventually decides to become a preacher. He's not preaching a religion, though; he offers humans a new way of living and thinking, one based on the Martian system he grew up in. This new lifestyle involves a lot of nudity, a lot of open fornication, and the constant repetition of a mantra of sorts naming yourself and those around you God. The "I am God, you are God" theme is essentially Heinlein's means of emphasizing the personal responsibility of each individual for his own life. It is not strictly antireligious, but certainly it is not an idea that would go over well among most fundamentalists. I say most because I am a fundamentalist myself, but I understand what Heinlein was saying and recognize the fact that, after all, this is fiction. Frankly, though, the free love theme bothers my sensibilities and causes my viewpoint of the novel to change somewhat. Even though disapproval began to temper my enthusiasm toward the end, I certainly cannot give this book less than five stars.
Science fiction readers had never read anything quite like Stranger back in 1961; its originality, bold themes, and fearless writing hit with the force of a hurricane, and science fiction has never been quite the same. The Hugo Award this novel rightfully won barely begins to give it the honor and acclaim it deserves. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, albeit I must enclose a caveat with my endorsement. This book has the power to shock readers even today; do not let your own beliefs take away from the wonder to be found in the pages of this novel. Stranger requires and deserves a completely open mind from anyone who would approach it; it also requires multiple readings to even begin to plumb the depths of its riches.
Anyone wanting to understand and get a true appreciation of the genius of Robert Heinlein really must read Stranger, but I would not recommend picking this book up before you have sampled some of Heinlein's other wares. It would be a real shame to let any adverse emotional reaction to the themes of this novel deprive you of the joy and wonder to be found in countless other Heinlein stories and novels.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 7 December 2010
There are at least two editions of this book: the shorter one originally published in the early 60s, with significant cuts imposed by the publishers, and a much longer one published by Heinlein's widow after his death. I read the latter.
Because it's Heinlein, there's politics here: just as with The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and Starship troopers there's emphasis on personal responsibility; and like in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, there's lots on freedom from interference by the state and sexual freedom with lots of polygamy. Heinlein clearly doesn't trust politicians, saying in this book that they're all primarily interested in power over their fellow man for its own sake, as opposed to using their positions and power for good. He is, perhaps, somewhat naïve in saying that one politician in particular can be trusted with money because he's only interested in power - because money is a great tool for getting, maintaining, and abusing power. It's no coincidence that modern politicos get more generous with their budgets as elections approach!
The book also has a lot to say about religion. It's not entirely negative, treating it as being a useful tool for some to "achieve enlightenment" but not a necessary tool. It certainly doesn't have much good to say about our contemporary religions.
Finally, as a stylistic note, the vast bulk of the story is presented as dialogues between characters, including that which I sometimes slate other books for - expository dialogue. Here though, I didn't even notice that that's what was going on, thus proving that in the hands of a competent writer, this method can work just fine.
You should read this book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The title says it all. As you read this story of a stranger who brings more than novelty to his new world, different people will read different things into the story. I suggest you read "Stranger in a Strange Land" for your self and draw your own conclusions. Remember this is no longer the 60' so don't go out and build a water-brother nest.
If you read an older version of this book, then you have missed a little something. Many of the words were cut out of the book before it was published. Moreover, due to contractual agreements the missing part of the book could not be printed while Robert A. Heinlein was alive. Now dead the missing pages have been restored to many versions.
Now all bets are off. So count the words in the copy you are about to buy and be sure you have the whole thing. And for those people who read the original release I suggest you re-read to see what you missed
If you have not read other Heinlein books then you may not realize how his writing stile has changed over his life time. This book is more of a latter Heinlein style. Some people like both early and late Hein lend others prefer one or the other.
The audio versions have all the pluses and minuses of audio. So you will also want a copy of the book for reference.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The book is a force of nature. I can completely understand why Heinlein was such a shocker in his day - here's an author who actually wasn't afraid of making spectacular and disturbing attacks on the middle class morality of the day through his concepts.
Sure, looking at it from today's point of view, most do not raise one's eyebrows that much, even if quite some are still relatively perceptive. The shock value has mostly gone for today's reader, on the other hand the book is still full of hilarity and makes for a good read.
As another reviewer pointed out the dialogues and people are mostly fairly self satisfied but this does not necessarily detract from it in my opinion (I guess I'd be riled by it, if I did not like the book, dialogues, concepts, etc.).
Finally, the comment about rape, also already commented upon is a massive detraction, although I suppose it might have been 'modern' back in the day.
That notwithstanding, it is a very interesting insight into the thinking of the 60s, and Heinlein's bravery and vision to play with pretty much all concepts in the book makes this truly a classic of science fiction writing.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 28 May 2004
The basic story is about a human, born and bred on Mars, brought for the first time to the planet Earth as a young man. It's a story into the human psyche and the general conditioning and programming of all of us from stimuli such as advertising, religion and other propaganda's bombarded at us constantly throughout our life by society. This is done by looking at our principles, rules, regulations and morals through someone else's eyes who hasn’t been socially programmed.
The book when released in the 60's immediately had 60,000 words cut by the publishers who thought it was just to controversial, and only after Heinlein's death recently has the full version been available, even now in a more moderate and liberal society it still very hard hitting.
I have to read it every year, as this book truly inspires me, there is no other book like it, you grok!!!
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
This particular version of Heinlein's book Stranger in a Strange Land is the uncut version containing 60,000 more words than the original 1961 publication and its subsequent reprints. The restored text is now a staggering 220,000 words and is, in the view of Virginia Heinlein, the real version that Robert intended to produce but which was considered too radical by his publishers without ruthless editing. The blurb on the front of the book goes slightly further than this and states, entirely incorrectly `the Hugo Winning Best Seller They Wanted to Ban'.
Heinlein's reputation as a writer rests, to a very large extent, on this book and the generally held belief that it broke new ground for the science fiction genre in tacking issues of sex and gender and, through the eyes of Valentine Michael Smith, the absurdities of human life and above all organised religion. Indeed the `cult' status of Stranger, assured by the early 1970s, is precisely because it has been seen as part of the zeitgeist of the 1960s; free love, critical views of authority, and a desire to be different and unorthodox. Like the blurb on the cover, the hype is disingenuous and misleading. Having read this new uncut version I suspect that these associations with the book are unfounded and have credited something which, on close reading, falls far short of classic status. It is an important book, and in parts it is entertaining and extremely thought provoking, but it fails to live up to its reputation and, unfortunately, the uncut edition exposes the weaknesses of the concept more than the 1961 text.
The plot is an interesting and imaginative application of a old and trusted narrative: a human child is born on board a doomed Mars expedition, raised by Martians as the sole survivor, and finally returned to Earth aged 25 when a second expedition turns up to annex the planet. Valentine Michael Smith is thus human but thoroughly Martian; indeed as the story progresses it is clear that his cultural up-bringing in the mental disciplines of the Martians has imbued `Mike' with an ability to manipulate space and time and even his own physical appearance. He is also at the centre of a legal dispute over a claim to Mars and various patents and royalties owned by his famous but dead human parents. He is thus, like many a character from Swift to Huxley, dropped into a completely different cultural context where he is both a threat and an asset, desired for his knowledge and yet feared as something not entirely understood. The `cultural alienation' of this noble savage generates some very humorous moments, especially concerning his abduction from Hospital, his views on nudity and death, but the immediate difficulty here, in my opinion, is Heinlein's poor skill as a writer and his own prejudice.
Firstly there is the sexism and sheer social conservatism of Heinlein's future global view of Pax Americana. This is at the very least limiting to a modern audience, but in the context of a novel that is attempting to critique notions of sexual and gendered conventions, the effect is ruinous. For example it is made clear on a number of occasions that Martian sexual reproduction, and the gendered identities this underpins, is radically different from human society: Mike is unaware of the difference between men and women until, through Jubal, he identifies the meanings the older man attaches to Jill and the other women Mike bonds with while hiding from the authorities. So much more could have been made of this if Heinlein has been comfortable giving Mike more direct presence in the text, following through the subversive idea of bonding with `water brothers' whose gender is seen by Mike as malable, and whose sex is deemed irrelevant.
Heinlein's tantalising glimpse of Martian `difference' is brilliant, nestings, cannibalism, water brothers, `groking' but it is all wasted because it is folded back into the gendered expectations of his main characters. This limits the extent of the culture shock that Mike identifies and describes and removes any reflectivity the main characters have about their own culture. In more capable hands the sheer sexism and homophobia (page 463 is intriguing in this regard) could be potentially ironic, actually part of the parody of the society the story is sending up, but alas Jubal IS Heinlein. The imaginative elements of the book - and its send up of cults and Foster and the hope Mike embodies - are rendered further pointless through the interminable dialogues between the aged polymath Jubal and Braxton (among others). Eventually the book founders in a welter of characters, in which Mike becomes both a priest and ultimately, a sort of Christ in a random, poorly written ending.
Like the era of free love and `hippy Buddhism' the book came to represent, Stranger in a Strange Land is ultimately conservative and conventional. Compare Mike's `strangeness' for example, with John in Brave New World published in 1932, or indeed with the insight and placement of Genly Ai in Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness published in 1969. These writers offer radical insights for the most part because they challenge and transcend the conventions of the reading public: Heinlein's merely reinforce them. For a text to be a classic, it has to somehow transcend the time in which it was written, or to be open to reinterpretation outside of the confines of its own universe. This book doesn't lend itself to that at all. This is a good book, far too long, far too verbose, and it is not a classic.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 August 2015
This book was written in the 1950s and published in 1961, and it shows. It's science fiction, but it's what someone writing in the 1950s thought of as science based in the future. Which is interesting. Obviously it was written before HD TV, the internet, mobile phones etc, so some of the talk about things like "stereo tanks" is quite quaint.
The actual story itself was an interesting premise. A human being, born on Mars, and brought up by Martians, comes back to live on Earth. The whole idea of someone having to learn the language and how to behave in a completely different environment was interesting. However, the book then goes on to describe how this Man from Mars can do all sorts of things to his own body and that of others, and to inanimate objects. To me that went a little too far. He was still a human being. He'd just been brought up in a different environment. Why the author felt that gave him any sort of magical powers is beyond me. But then I suppose this is "science fiction".
The book is over long, and self indulgent in places. It needs a really good editor and I found the last half dragged. I also took exception to the attitude to women and homosexuals found in it. All the characters in the novel were entirely one dimensional, but the women particularly were viewed as only good for secretarial duties, kitchen duties, or being decorative. I particularly didn't like a part of the book where a female character expresses the view that "nine times out of ten rape victims are asking for it". I nearly put the book down at that point, but decided to persevere.
I'm glad I read the book. But I won't be reading any more by this author.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 January 2014
Let me give you my take on the negatives first: In the first, oh, let's say fifth of the book or so, I thought I wouldn't be able to read this. Some of the dialogue read like a 1940's film noir script or a Raymond Chandler novel; there are a few truly offensive views expressed about women, homosexuality, rape and bizarrely, haemophiliacs but I determined to read the book in context. It was published originally in 1961, when female equality was on a very different footing than it is today but also at the beginning of the age of free sex, the development of oral contraception and a gradual relaxing of strict social and moral conventions that had been the source of misery for both men and women for decades.
Apart from some really outdated (at least by Western civilisations standards) ideas, I found I wasn't too offended at all.
Yes, Jubal does call his female employees 'girls' but they do give as good as they get and he clearly values them and sees them more as extended family members. There are some strong and professionally accomplished female characters at least mentioned and some sympathy for the plight of women if you read to the end: Sam in conversation with Jubal suggests that a logical outcome of Mike's teachings and methods might result in a time when 'women are free of guilt and fear'. Many of us now are but in fewer countries that you might comfortably admit. And don't think it didn't cost some 'discorporations' to get here!
Things seemed to get a little weird towards the last third of the book but actually, I didn't find it, as many have accused, a book of two halves; the latter half being ill thought out or too self indulgent. To me it seemed a natural progression of the themes and ideas introduced in the first half of the novel. Group sex is most definitely featured but not salaciously or in any kind of lurid detail. Religion is approached, really from an agnostic perspective and may offend anyone with firm religious beliefs who cannot tolerate different viewpoints. I am an atheist so for me, the spiritual element is a device or framework for wider topics relating to social and economic issues and conventions. (Or, I could just be wrong). In fact the modus operandi of pseudo religious cults is discussed and brought to mind the controversy surrounding the 'Moonies' and more recently, Scientology. Personally, I don't think the inclusion of the 'angel' scenes adds anything at all but they don't take up more than a few pages so easy to ignore.
This is my personal take on the themes, which I think are still very topical:
Imagine what an alien race would make of earth society. How would creatures who have no concept of ownership, gender or sex in a male/female sense, view the insane way we structure our cultures from politics to the absurdity of capitalism and the way we attempt to suppress our most basic drives?
What would creatures who know for a fact that corporeal existence is one part of the cycle, death being a natural step to the next phase, make of our multiplicity of faiths or as Jubal puts it: 'the capacity of a human mind to believe devoutly in what seems to me to be the highly improbable'. How would a race which embraces canabilism as a ritualistic and revered re-cycling of matter, no longer required by its previous owner, perceive our taboos? Incidentally, there is no real suggestion that the canabilism taboo does not serve humanity as a legitimate safeguard.
But I think the author is trying to challenge the reader to, in turn, challenge long held beliefs and social norms. This is what our human but Martian born and bred protagonist finally attempts to do and I think we still need to: challenge the status quo on many global social, moral, economic and religious issues.
Stranger in a Strange Land is ultimately, a call for more, 'growing closer' if you will or to give pantheism a chance and a plea for 'waiting fullness' before closing your mind to ideas that discomfit you or are at odds with your own philosophy.
For the ideas at the heart of the work; for the witty, amusing dialogue and the full fleshy character of Jubal Harshaw; for inducing via 40's/50's period dialogue, the uncommon but not unpleasant effect of reading the first 50 pages or so in black and white with Robert Mitchum narrating (that's just in my head), I am willing to forgive Robert A Heinlein for being a product of his era and let him off on the mild to moderate misogyny and bigotry charge. I wouldn't do this with a more modern or recent author but I hope anyone who has not read the novel yet and enjoys sci-fi will be able to do the same and 'grok' this novel as much as I did.