52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Upsetting the Apple-carts,
This review is from: Stranger in a Strange Land (Paperback)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)