Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlein
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 25, 2019
This will be slightly different than my typical review, as much about me as the book, the mindset I had during various readings. I've lost count of the number of times I've read Stranger in a Strange Land, but the most recent previous occasion was shortly after I created this site, almost twenty years ago. I hadn't yet started individual book reviews, concentrating on biographical articles on various writers instead, with quite a few pages devoted to Heinlein. There have been two versions of this novel published. The one most people have read came out in 1961, winning the Hugo the following year. In 1989, a year after his death, the copyright came up for renewal. His widow Virginia not only renewed the copyright for the book as originally published, she also submitted the complete, uncut manuscript, which came out in '91. It's out of print at this time, but surely used copies are available from many sources. The '61 version was about 160,000 words, the '91 book topped out at over 220,000. I'm pretty sure I've only read the uncut book once, sometime in 2000, maybe early 2001, then followed that up with another reading of the '61 version. At that time, I did it for a book club discussion on a now defunct message board, but didn't review it here other than a few paragraphs in my main Heinlein article, which has now been edited to move some of those comments here. If I had reviewed it then I would now be editing that because my opinions have changed a bit. I still like it, just not as much or as fervently as before.
Surely most people know the basic story. Valentine Michael Smith is born on Mars to two members of the first Terran expedition, then is orphaned and raised by Martians. Modern readers will balk at anything like that, knowing full well there isn't intelligent life on Mars. Best to view this as a fantasy then, which it is even more than it is science fiction. Keep in mind that Heinlein began writing it in 1949, editing and changing it several times over a decade. At that time we did not have the information on Mars that we do now, and he wasn't the only one still writing about other life in our solar system. Besides, not only is this more a fantasy, it is best to view it as a satire, in the vein of Gulliver's Travels, with an outsider learning about a new culture which he finds incomprehensible. There is little about the uncut version that I can recommend, and on this reading of the "original" I thought of several more things that could have been cut. The services at the Fosterite church did give Mike a few ideas that he incorporated into his own church, but when first presented they were mainly used as a vehicle for Jubal Harshaw to pontificate on his ideas about religion, and morality in general. I would have condensed the Fosterite mentions, cut out the carnival and Patty Paiwonski altogether, as well as excising anything that indicated Foster and Digby were actually elevated to heaven. That aspect alone puts this definitely into the fantasy realm, and I'm sure Heinlein didn't believe in that type of afterlife, if at all. I'd keep Mike's revelation at the San Francisco zoo, most (but not all) of Jubal's diatribes, and definitely keep the scene where Ben Caxton comes back to Jubal's home to discuss his misgivings about Mike's church. In fact, if I was writing a screenplay, I'd start with Ben's visit, then flashback to the beginning and develop the story from there. It has been optioned for film several times, but hasn't developed beyond screenplays so far, and if it ever happens I suspect they'd have to switch it to Mike being born in another solar system altogether, or infected by an alien entity of unknown origin, or else imply it takes place in an alternate universe.
Most Heinlein fans discovered him through his juvenile novels, or other early books like Double Star, The Puppet Masters, or The Door Into Summer. I've dedicated this site to my friend who introduced me to SF, specifically Stranger. Before that I was reading a lot of biographies, histories, some historical fiction, along with a few of the classics. My only previous exposure to SF was kids books like Tom Swift or Danny Dunn. Many people have remarked that it is a wonder I pursued any other adult SF after Stranger, that it was a weird place to start. They're probably right, but my friend deduced it was the right one for me at that time. I was raised in a fairly strict, fundamentalist religion. My parents were not as strict as some other families we knew, but the Bible and the church were still the prominent focus of their life. I read the Bible but reacted differently to it. I had begun questioning several things, and I'm sure my other readings gave me some ideas my father in particular didn't like. Some might have said that other books, including science fiction, is what led me away from the Bible, but I am sure it was due to the fact I was already moving away from it and seeking other answers. The book is not as profound now as I thought it was then, mainly because my opinions and perspectives have changed several times since. However, it did present some ideas that were already circling around in my thoughts. Heinlein presented some negative ideas about Judaism and Christianity, but also Buddhism and Hinduism. Oddly enough, he had mostly positive things to say about Islam. After this, I started readings in those other religions, but I'm still a seeker. Rather, I've given up seeking since I'm more like Olaf Stapledon, convinced man will never be able to puzzle out the truths of existence. The purpose of life is to live it, enjoy it while you can. Wait. Does that make me a Fosterite?
One always has to determine whether an author is expressing his own opinions, or just those of his characters. It's particularly puzzling in Heinlein's case since his political philosophy changed so much throughout his life, and there have been mostly rumors or hearsay about his religious or spiritual beliefs. I think he used this book to express ideas previously ignored in SF, as a thought experiment, but that doesn't mean he believed everything Jubal or Mike said. Even if he did, I don't have to agree with him to enjoy other parts of the book. It's similar to how I can be a pacifist but still enjoy Starship Troopers. The book is broken up into five different sections, and in the same manner as Valentine Michael Smith's physical and spiritual growth, Heinlein's control and direction of the narrative changes as well. There are several things about the first section, "His Maculate Origin," which point out a few failings in creating and developing his characters, or at least in making their actions plausible. The nurse Gillian Boardman is described as having men as her hobby, yet her initial dealings with Ben Caxton seem to indicate their relationship had been platonic up to that point. That always seemed peculiar to me, even when I first read it as a naive 17 year old. Some of his comments about homosexuality are indicative of the time, but he must have changed his attitude later, or was reacting to criticisms for those comments, since he did include same-sex couplings in later books. Otherwise, it's representative of Heinlein's work in general. Even though he wrote stories of the future, where there have been definite changes in technology, he always concentrated on the characters and did not clutter the narrative with descriptions of that technology, instead letting dialog and snippets of exposition paint the appropriate picture of that world in the reader's mind. Heinlein's ideas and philosophy were always in his writings, only earlier they were more subtly placed. Stranger was Heinlein unleashed in a cascade of ideas ranging from politics, religion, and art, to the hypocritical sexual mores of American culture. If it doesn't ring true today, that's because Heinlein was already out of step with the culture, but was pretending to be enlightened.
At the same time, I wouldn't doubt he regretted some of the things he wrote, or at least regretted how some of the ideas were interpreted by many of his readers. Heinlein always expressed the importance of individualism, of thinking for oneself, but too many people started treating him like a guru who had all the answers, and he had to go to great lengths to protect himself from those who wanted to drop in and discuss philosophy and religion. I guess I thought of him that way for a while too, but being an extreme introvert never thought to seek him out, or even write him a letter. I need to do more research on other SF books released in '61, because it is surprising this won a Hugo. It's completely different than anything he had done before, plus even though Troopers also won the Hugo, he did alienate a lot of readers with what they perceived to be fascistic comments. It is less surprising based on the other finalists that year. Even though I'm familiar with all the other authors, I've only read one of the other novels. The main focus for readers today should be on Mike and Jubal, their relationship which begins uneasily but develops into one of strong love and respect. At times it is dificult for either of them to know which one has taught the other more. If one approaches the book as an allegory on religious faith and the human capacity for love, then you might be able to overlook any perceived shortcomings. I've seen criticisms of the book simply because of the word 'grok.' It was a concept for which a new word needed to be created, and while his choice might sound weird, it's no weirder than most words. Just try repeating any word over and over and eventually it will start to sound like gibberish. I'm still not sure I grok 'grok,' but I don't think that is necessary in order to grok the book.
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