Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
read October 21, 2009 through December 8, 2009 (I would like to note that in that time I had the Major League World Series, NaNoWriMo in which I wrote a 150,000 word novel, four books to read for class, two exams, and roughly six papers due.)
Premise: A boy born on the first mission to Mars comes back to Earth twenty years later on a subsequent mission and is totally out of his element. He was raised by the Martians and so adheres to their way of life. He must learn about human cultures, customs, religions, taboos, etc. Eventually, once he “groks in fullness” everything he sees (that means, once he gets it) he starts his own “religion” where everybody basically sits around all day, manipulates things with their brains, and has lots and lots and lots of sex.
Verdict: I’m split in my feelings. There are parts that I love and parts that I hate.
First off, apparently I read the original “toned-down” version. I say this because I was in the bookstore the other day and found a copy that said “COMPLETE AND UNCUT” implying that there is apparently an even greater amount of sex in Heinlein’s original manuscript. Moving on. There are sparkles of sheer brilliance in this novel, buried under the strangest sexist claptrap that I’ve ever had the displeasure to read (“all women like to dress up” “all women desire beauty, youth, and buxom boobs” “all women want nothing more than to be impregnated by a virile man” “homosexual encounters will be grokked as containing wrongness—but only if between men” Mike suddenly turning from adorable puppy to manly man… the list goes on. And on. And on.) However, in spite of these atrocities, I liked this book. I will simply overlook these things as Heinlein’s ignorance as a male in 1961. Poor dear. I nearly tossed this book across the room (metaphorically—the library copy is old and delicate). The only things that stopped me were the fact that I must read it as a Hugo Award winner and this article. Which is really awesome.
This book is all about the free love. And published in 1961—it certainly fits! Apparently it was sort of the hippie Bible and heralded in the counter-culture of the late ’60s. I also find myself at times wholeheartedly agreeing with the depiction of “religion,” but at others wanting to strangle someone. I believe this is due to him trying to get the people of that time to understand what he wanted to say. I much prefer Kurt Vonnegut’s “Church of God the Utterly Indifferent” from Sirens of Titan—a book published in 1959. (OH LOOK IT WAS NOMINATED FOR A HUGO!!! Lost to Starship Troopers. We shall see.) /digression. In the end, really, it’s the same sort of message Heinlein is promoting, only he’s more optimistic that humans can see for themselves that they are… shall we say, God. Whereas Vonnegut just insists we be good because God is utterly indifferent to whether we kill each other in his name. The power of kindness and treating others and the Earth with respect is in the hands of humans and need not defer to a mythical “higher being.” This is called Humanism—a movement which Vonnegut headed for decades.
I think this is a must read. Aside from the glaring bits of non-sensical sexist crap, this was actually a really good book with a message I can wholeheartedly get behind—the mark of good science fiction.