“Stranger in a Strange Land”: Don’t Bother

It’s not often that a book is so bad that I feel the need to write about it as a warning to others, but this is one of those times. So here’s a quick rundown of why this is one you can skip.

Not that I’ve read enough science fiction to be an expert, but I usually enjoy it, and I’ve always felt that I should read this book. The publisher now calls it “the most famous science fiction book ever written,” and it’s definitely up there. Written by Robert Heinlein — along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, one of the “big three” sci-fi novelists to emerge in the postwar years — it was published in 1961 and became a huge crossover hit later in the decade. To this day, for many baby boomers who weren’t into science fiction, it’s the only true sci-fi novel they’ve read (“true” just in the sense that you’d find it in the sci-fi section of a bookstore, unlike more “literary” SF writers like Kurt Vonnegut or Margaret Atwood).

So, what’s wrong with it? First of all, it’s incredibly sexist. And not just “it was a different time” sexist, as Heinlein fans all over the internet will inform you. I’ve read a lot of books from this era, including some other genre fiction, and I’ve never encountered anything quite like this. Here’s how the main female character is introduced:

Gillian Boardman was a competent nurse, and her hobby was men.

Gillian later offers up such pearls of wisdom as “The truth is, I get a kick out of having men stare at me …lots of men and almost any man” and “Nine times out of ten, when a woman gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” And Heinlein is equally nuanced and insightful on the subject of religion:

‘Well …Jesus made quite a splash with only twelve disciples.’
Sam grinned happily. ‘A Jew boy. Thanks for mentioning Him. He’s the top success story of my tribe — and we all know it, even though many of us don’t talk about Him. He was a Jew boy Who made good and I’m proud of Him. Please note that Jesus didn’t try to get it all done by Wednesday. He set up a sound organization and let it grow.’

But the real star is Jubal Harshaw, Heinlein’s obvious wish-fulfillment stand-in for himself. Jubal is an aging popular writer who lives with a harem of three beautiful, brilliant young women who take turns keeping house, splashing around in the pool and serving as his personal secretaries. He’s also an unbelievable Renaissance man, displaying categorical knowledge of everything from law to philosophy to sculpture to herpetology:

It was the handsomest specimen of Boidae he had ever seen — longer, he estimated, than any other boa constrictor in captivity.

We are treated to Jubal’s wisdom partly through bizarre non sequiturs like that one, and partly through various monologues in which he serves as the mouthpiece for Heinlein’s political and social views, which are at best charmingly muddled and at worst a complete chore to read. Jubal fancies himself a kind of curmudgeonly Hunter Thompson-esque libertarian, but first and foremost he’s a pedant. There’s nothing another character can say to him that won’t produce a lecture in reply, and even the most interesting of these often slide back into tired sexist stereotypes by the time he’s done. For example, here’s his response when someone compliments one of his sculptural replicas:

Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist — a master — and that is what Auguste Rodin was — can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is… and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…. and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…. no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn’t matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired — but it does to them.

At any rate, here’s the main plot: a human baby named Michael Smith is orphaned on Mars, raised by Martians, and returns to Earth as a young man with magical powers, befriending the characters above. He spends the first half of the book waiting for Jubal to shut up, then ditches him to start a free love cult and become an all-purpose hippie Christ figure.

Aha, you say, a free love cult — so at least there’s some action, right? Sorry to let you down, but that’s another area where Stranger fails to live up to its reputation. There’s almost no sex at all until the last third of the book, and even then it’s all just implied, in a “then they went off to the bedroom together” kind of way. (On the other hand, Heinlein describes every chaste kiss in the rapturous tones of a twelve year old at summer camp.)

Even the book’s famous contribution to the English language, the Martian verb “to grok,” isn’t really a new concept at all, just a cute way of saying “to understand.” A lot of space is devoted to explaining the term, but it can all be summarized as “to understand in some intense Martian way.”

One of the ironies of this book’s popularity is that, of the two central figures — Smith the communal cultist and Jubal the rugged individualist — it’s Smith and his hippie ethos that so many readers identified with, although Heinlein seems more sympathetic to Jubal. But if he had a point to make here, the readers can hardly be blamed for missing it; there’s never any real conflict between the two, so this tension between their worldviews remains frustratingly unexplored.

Indeed, the line from fans of the book seems to be “yeah, it’s a little dated, but if you get past that, it’s a really interesting commentary on American society at the time.” They will rarely be any more specific, and I can understand why — because while Heinlein obviously has something to tell us about society, it’s never clear exactly what it is.

I don’t really have a better theory about the book’s appeal, though. For whatever reasons (and I don’t think it was just the New Agey cult stuff) it struck a cultural nerve in the ’60s and meant a lot to some people at the time. Those people have every right to remember it fondly. And it might still mean a lot today to someone who reads it at a young enough age that the pseudo-philosophy and just-off-camera sex are still exciting. But for the rest of us, this is one of those “classics” that’s better to read about than to actually read.