Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the most famous and controversial science fiction novels, by the legendary author Robert A Heinlein.
A best seller and Hugo award winner - having never been out of print, Stranger in a Strange Land was written in 1961, almost 50 years ago.
The original published novel was cut down from 220,000 words to 160,067 with much of the content removed considered too shocking for the audience at the time. This novel was however created to be controversial, to push the boundaries and to deliberately shock with running themes of sexual freedom, individual liberty and responsibilty along with the influence of organized religion on human culture and government. According to information published after Robert Heinlein's death in 1988 the novel was originally to be called "The Heretic". An unedited version of the novel was published in 1991 by Putnam however there is much debate over which version is the better novel. The version being reviewed here is the original edited version.
The novel tells the story of a human called Valentine Michael Smith who is raised by Martians (on Mars) and then gets taken back to earth in his early adulthood. As he is unacustomed to the heavy gravity of Earth (Mars gravity is just 38% that of Earth) he is kept in a hospital, and distanced from any female contact (never having seen a human female). Gillian Boardman, a nurse at the hospital gives in to her inquisitive nature and manages to meet Mike, who due to a cultural missunderstanding, see's Gillian as his "water brother".
Eventually Mike is freed from the hospital and goes on the run with Gillian, arriving at the home of the Lawyer and eccentric - Jubal who takes him under his wing. Mike is eventually given freedom thanks in main to Jubal and it's then that he really starts to develop and explore his humanity. The science in the novel is casually described and subtle, from the use of flying cars (with VTOL capability) to completely automated food processors and almost light speed travel.
The plot focuses on humanity and 20th century culture through the eyes of Mike, who although human knows nothing of human nature, society or culture due to being raised completely by Martians. This enables Robert Heinlein to use Mike as a vehicle to explore the human condition, religion and the consumarism that drived the 20th Century. Even though this is a science fiction novel, it is also a snapshot of the past, with Heinlein drawing on many contemporary ideologies and social conditions of the time. 50 years on this enables the reader a unique glimpse of both Heinleins vision of the future, and the past.
After half a century you could be forgiven to think that the views presented in the novel have no bearing on today's society, that after so long we must have progressed sufficiently to find no relation in the novels many messages. You would however be completely mistaken, Stranger in a Strange Land still offers an alternative viewpoint that is both relevant and topical in the present day. While the novel has less ability to shock than it did, partly due to our 21st century desensitisation and partly due to our more open views on religion and sex - this still isn't a walk in the park and does throw up sharp and descriptive alternative ideas of human relationships and beliefs, essentially attacking every facet of middle America life in the 1960's through cutting satire and energetic wit.
There are many hidden, non-obvious parallels and historical references that are scattered throughout and it can take a lot of attention (or a re-read of the book) to spot. There are a few areas that haven't survived quite as well, and you have to remember that this was written before Man visited the Moon, before the women's liberation movement and long before the microprocessor revolution. Rather than detract, this does show just how far ahead of his time Robert Heinlein was.
As with many of the classic science fiction novels of the 20th century (and make no mistake this is a true classic), there is more emphasis placed on characterisation than on events and technology. This produces some fantastically fleshed out characters, really great dialog and a very likeable protagonist. The pace of the novel is spot on, although all the actual controversial material is in the last quarter of the book (at least in this original edited edition). This novel is one that really polarises opinion, people either love it or hate it and Stranger in a strange Land still manages to inspire fierce debate, which in itself shows just how powerful this novel is, almost 50 years after it was created.
Brilliantly executed and stuffed with controversial ideas, Stranger in a Strange Land is a ground breaking piece of science fiction which makes you closely examine your own assumptions and beliefs, and look with new eyes at the world around you, a must for any serious science fiction reader.
Written by Antony, 05 April 2010.