Hello, Internet! It’s been a while It turns out doctoral programs are a lot of work and a lot of stress. So, I’ve been neglecting my creative side a bit and my blog side a lot over the past… well, year. I’m going to start remedying that, however. I have a backlog of reviews to do, and then some new updates on WIP’s! No new WIP’s this time; I have vowed to finish everything I have started before I go onto anything new, and keep those plot bunnies in check! But for today, I want to turn your attention onto the subject of this review: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
This was my second Heinlein book, after his teen/young adult Tunnel in the Sky, which I loved as a kid and recently reread only to find myself cringing at the writing (though the plot was wonderful and amazingly structured and complex). Stranger in a Strange Land, though, is most definitely not a children’s book. When I started reading it my father warned me about the orgies. I didn’t believe him. I should have.
For those of you who haven’t read much Heinlein, this book is not abnormal for him. Heinlein seems to have a strange fixation on human sexual practices, and loves exploring the violation of sexual taboos. He does have a point; as one of my professors has said on many an occasion, Western society is built around sexual repression. Heinlein breaks the walls of this repression and lets his raw sexuality come out. I bet you didn’t think you’d ever read that on a science fiction site.
In all seriousness, this book is about connections. Heinlein addresses several themes in this book; what it means to be human, what it means to die, the purpose of religion, and most centrally, what it means to love another. Heinlein throws out the idea of separation between romantic and any other type of love, and I think argues that all love is the same, and can be expressed in the same way. This expression of love is not only sex (in Heinlein fashion), but through what is called in the book the “sharing of water.”
The premise of the plot is simple: mankind sends an expedition to Mars. Everyone dies except one, who is raised by the Martians, who are a fantastically alien species ruled by their dead (it makes perfect sense in the book, I promise). When another expedition to Mars pops along, they bring this human, Mike, back to Earth, where he has to learn to be a human again. This is a fascinating way to examine how silly a lot of what we humans do really is, and Heinlein does this wonderfully for the first half of the book. Mike’s curious exploration of Earth and his naive acceptance of everything, including murder and death (remember, he was raised in Martians where the dead rule the living) is really well done and very powerful. Heinlein hit the nail on the head here.
All the while, of course, Mike is having a profound influence on those around him, who see his influence and wonder at the world, and begin to grok (this is where the term comes from; I interpret it as along the lines of “to understand deeply”) him. He becomes more human, and they become more Martian. This was also a good touch, though at first I thought that Heinlein was going to push human thought as superior. Boy, was I wrong.
I found second half of the book lacking, but others may disagree. Mike eventually comes to accept what he is and rejects both pure Martianism and pure Humanism in favor of his own combination. However, he does not stop at the halfway point of both; I would argue that he retains much more of his Martian learning, and indeed the point of the book is ultimately that he had an enormous transformative effect on Earth through the religion he found and through the real “miracles” he is able to perform. I was not a huge fan of Mike being able to actually have almost magical powers, as I felt it weakened the symbolic power Mike had, but I was willing to accept it. I was willing to accept Heinlein’s critique of religions as trying and failing to grasp at some universal truth; hell, that’s what I believe in a sense.
What made me dislike the second half of the book was Heinlein’s exploration of sexuality. This is not because I’m an enormous prude. I rather enjoyed his early explorations of sexuality and the symbolism humans attach to it in the beginning. I enjoyed his exploring it as a connection between people, and his trying to define what it means to be connected to others. However, his exploration of sexuality I found incredibly misogynistic. I don’t think it was just me, either. At one point, a woman mentions that “9 out of 10” times, a woman wants to be raped. I did a quadruple-take at this and had to re-read it several times. Then I kept reading, and learned that women liked to be objectified as sex objects. It was how all women expressed their sexuality. And all men expressed their sexuality by objectifying women. It was, as Mike noticed, how things should be.
This was a little hard for me to swallow. If you don’t believe that this was in the book, go back and read the scenes where Mike is traveling the country, and his nurse-friend (whose name eludes me at the time of writing) is working as a showgirl. It’s all there, and all very disturbing (the same misogyny is also present in Dr. Stinky, the Muslim pilot’s, relationship with his wife, as well as in the way Jubal Harshaw relates to his secretaries). Once the blatant misogyny came out, I noticed it everywhere. It truly tainted my perception of the book and of Heinlein himself. He didn’t ever question his misogyny once; it just came out and was portrayed as natural. I ultimately read the book as celebrating the objectification of women, though I doubt Heinlein saw it that way.
Furthermore, I didn’t know what to make of the scenes Heinlein wrote about angels talking in heaven. They confused me, added nothing to the plot or themes, and I think ultimately underlined the symbolism. The idea there, I think, was to show that religion is what we make it and that all of them have part of the truth, but it wasn’t done very effectively, I don’t think.
The book wasn’t a total loss, though. I truly enjoyed most of the first part; the interaction between two utterly alien cultures (and they truly are utterly alien; Heinlein did that very well) was brilliant, and his initial explorations of sex and love as connection were beautiful. Then he ruined it with his misogynistic trumpeting and, I felt, lackluster ending.
Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. It is a classic of science fiction for a reason, and does make one think. If I was allowed, I would recommend the first half, and then tell you to stop. Because that would be bad form, though, I’ll just recommend you read it, but with a jug of salt.