Friday, October 11, 2013

Review of Stranger in a Strange Land by R.A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What an interesting way to write a story about the first manned missions to Mars, in which an ancient culture of living, intelligent Martians is encountered. Not only do we never see Mars or get any real description of the Martians, there isn't even much focus on them. The book is about an orphan human raised by them from birth, Valentine Michael Smith, and everything we learn about the Martians comes to us from his somewhat inscrutable point of view and from the manifestation of the abilities that the Martians taught him.

Yet even that doesn't turn out to be the subject that the book spends most of its time on. Most of it is spent exploring the tedious ramblings of a phlegmatic old curmudgeon named "Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, and neo-pessimist philosopher" who is positioned as the only person (outside Smith's cult) who secures and maintains full access to Mr. Smith as said "man from Mars" transforms from naive alien to Earth's latest messiah. And yet Harshaw doesn't achieve that rapport because he deserves it. In fact I'm not really sure what the transcendent personality of Smith sees in him. There's not much to like. Harshaw would be the first to admit that. Maybe it's his 'friends in high places' connections.

In any case, none of the above accounts for the popularity of this novel. What gained it attention at first was a 'free love' cult following enamored with Smith's portrayal as an advocate of open nudity and unfettered sex. The book arrived on the market just as the hippie revolution was evolving out of the earlier 'beatnik' culture: a culturally pivotal time for the baby boomer generation. In some ways it was just the right story at the right time.

I picked up this book only fairly recently and read it as part of my program to back-fill my 'education' with some of the classics I'd missed. How could I pass up a book billed right on the cover as "the most famous science fiction novel ever written?" Well, I personally kept losing interest as I waded through the passages where Harshaw rambles and pontificates. Nowhere in the book did I ever identify with him, sympathize with him or care what happened to him. Seemed to me that the story could have been better told without his presence at all, or even with him present and doing just what he did, but barely noticeable to the reader: a minor character at best.

"Stranger" was written at a time when Mars was still believed to have canals, and when people still believed it possible that there was, or had been, a widespread advanced civilization on the red planet. I remember those days fondly, and would have liked to have more of the author's creativity devoted to Mars and the Martians. In retrospect I see I was hoping to get blood from a turnip. Heinlein was firmly focused on extrapolating American 1950's culture and mentality forward a few decades without making it appear the least bit out of touch with those times, or with his existing stable of fans.

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