548 of 591 people found the following review helpful
Reviewing Stranger in a Strange Land is quite a challenge. Is it the best science fiction novel ever published? I would say yes. Is it my favorite? No; it's not even my favorite Heinlein novel. To add a little more irony to the pot, Heinlein himself insisted that the book is not really science fiction to begin with. Stranger really marks a huge turning point in Heinlein's career. Unhappy with the brand of "juvenile" writer and the editing that position constantly entailed, Heinlein was determined to write a truly adult novel, one with no taboos, no limits, and no restrictions of any kind. With Stranger in a Strange Land he accomplished that in spades, basically taking on the heretofore sacrosanct subjects of sexuality and religion. Heinlein was not sure that anyone would even publish this story that took him 12 years to write; what was published was a mere figment of the original manuscript, 60,000 words having been cut out. Even though Heinlein did the editing himself, it had to have felt like jabbing an ice pick into his own heart to do it. Thankfully, we can now read the complete, original manuscript the way Heinlein intended the story to be told.
The plot is deceptively simple. The first manned mission to Mars never made it home to Earth. The second mission, twenty years later, found Valentine Michael Smith, an infant born on Mars and the only surviving member of the ill-fated first mission. Having been raised by Martians, Smith is literally a stranger in a strange land when he is brought back to earth with "miraculous" abilities and a Martian philosophy of life. The Federation government basically hides him away from prying eyes, partly in fear of the legal and political dangers posed by his unique status. Having been raised by Martians, the human experience is completely new and rather frightening to him. He has never even met a woman until nurse Jill Boardman sneaks into his room to get a glimpse of him. Fearful that the government is going to keep Michael basically imprisoned (or worse), Jill helps sneak him out of the hospital, and the two of them end up at the home of Jubal Harshaw. Jubal is an outspoken, older man who lives a thoroughly individual lifestyle, but he commits himself to helping Michael escape his perilous situation. Michael quickly begins to absorb human knowledge and, less quickly, begins to understand the confusing mentality of human beings.
Halfway through the novel, you may be asking yourself why the book was so controversial; the answer becomes clear as Michael now steps out into the wider world. He and Jill move around incognito, and Michael learns more about people. After a stint as an unsuccessful magician, he eventually decides to become a preacher. He's not preaching a religion, though; he offers humans a new way of living and thinking, one based on the Martian system he grew up in. This new lifestyle involves a lot of nudity, a lot of open fornication, and the constant repetition of a mantra of sorts naming yourself and those around you God. The "I am God, you are God" theme is essentially Heinlein's means of emphasizing the personal responsibility of each individual for his own life. It is not strictly antireligious, but certainly it is not an idea that would go over well among most fundamentalists. I say most because I am a fundamentalist myself, but I understand what Heinlein was saying and recognize the fact that, after all, this is fiction. Frankly, though, the free love theme bothers my sensibilities and causes my viewpoint of the novel to change somewhat. Even though disapproval began to temper my enthusiasm toward the end, I certainly cannot give this book less than five stars.
Science fiction readers had never read anything quite like Stranger back in 1961; its originality, bold themes, and fearless writing hit with the force of a hurricane, and science fiction has never been quite the same. The Hugo Award this novel rightfully won barely begins to give it the honor and acclaim it deserves. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, albeit I must enclose a caveat with my endorsement. This book has the power to shock readers even today; do not let your own beliefs take away from the wonder to be found in the pages of this novel. Stranger requires and deserves a completely open mind from anyone who would approach it; it also requires multiple readings to even begin to plumb the depths of its riches.
Anyone wanting to understand and get a true appreciation of the genius of Robert Heinlein really must read Stranger, but I would not recommend picking this book up before you have sampled some of Heinlein's other wares. It would be a real shame to let any adverse emotional reaction to the themes of this novel deprive you of the joy and wonder to be found in countless other Heinlein stories and novels.
307 of 333 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2011
Folks, let's be clear here -- if you don't like "Stranger" but do like other Heinlein the odds are great you've never read the uncut version. I won't go into details (you can find them easily on the net) but essentially the cut down version is not written in Heinlein's "voice" but drastically cut down (by RAH) to fit into a length the publisher thought proper.
And so it does not sound like any other Heinlein novel, and this has split the "Stranger" camp right down the middle. There are those to whom the original book was bible -- and those tend not to like other Heinlein works. Those of us who love Heinlein have always felt kind of "meh" about Stranger... until the uncut version was released (in 1991).
Now, the Kindle version being sold is the cut version, so if you were a fan of that (published in 1961) you'll love this version. However, if you are not a huge fan of that version I would stay away from this Kindle version at all costs (there are easily found web versions of the uncut novel -- I'm not advocating piracy, but it's unlikely we'll ever see a Kindle uncut version as Amazon seems clueless here -- even official reviewers seem to think this version is uncut, but I can promise you it isn't, as the passages are clear and easy to find in even the sample version).
One last thing -- if you have read the cut version (either this Kindle version or otherwise) you might want to give the uncut version a try. Also, if you are new to Heinlein and want to know what all the fuss is about, definitely read the uncut version. Watered down beer tastes just like that.
166 of 193 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2005
This novel was way ahead of its time in many ways, and yes, stuck in the 50s in other ways. Reading some people's negative reviews here has been amusing.
Most of them presume that Heinlein was writing from their 90s or post-2000 perspective for some insane reason. Take note: He wrote this *before* the so called "free-love" movement had become widespread in the 60s. Take further note: The water-brother mini-society he created in the novel wasn't "free-love" at all, but had a quite high barrier to entry.
Other negative posters are clearly unable to escape their ethnocentric viewpoint, finding the relationships constructed by Heinlein to be distasteful based on their societal values. If you are unable to think about a society that practices polyamory without feeling embarassment or nausea, or really think that it is simply "unnatural", then don't read this book. (...)
Most of all, remember this is science fiction. It's intended to portray an alternate reality, and I think it does a fine job of that while satirizing our reality at the same time. I could go on about other particulars of the book, but I won't: In short, this is one of the finest books ever written.
60 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 1999
When I first picked up _Stranger in a Strange Land_ I wasn't expecting much. I had read _Starship Troopers_ and _The Puppet Masters_ and thought they were O.K. But this book just blew me away. Not so much because of its science fiction extrapolations, but rather for how funny, intelligent and true the book rang. _Stranger..._ shows human beings through the eyes of one Valentine Michael Smith, a Martian with human origins. He is so child-like, so innocent, so funny and calm in every situation even though he has such awesome powers--it's amazing to read about him. Along with Gully Foyle, in _The Stars My Destination_ I think he is one of the best SF protagonists ever written. And the way he learns and evolves from the strange cast of human characters--I also really liked Patty and Jubal Harshaw--is wonderful to read. The ending is so unforgettable. And how Heinlein came up with such a cool word like grok I'll never know. Also, he brings the interesting concept of water brothers into the story, and shows how humanity should love each other without resorting to meaningless violence. Sometimes Heinlein gets a bit too wordy and some of his views about God and woman I find hard to swallow--I can see why this book is so controversial. But aside from those minor flaws, _Strange..._ is a great book to read not only because it is enjoyable by itself as literature, but also because it has the intelligence and audacity to pose such difficult questions and firm beliefs about humanity, God and our place in the universe when now such concerns are ignored by most current SF.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2002
This novel is probably Heinlein's most famous work. It was first published in 1961 and I think this fact is significant. Sometimes, literature does not age well. Heinlein has written other novels (e.g. "Starship Troopers" was published in 1959; still highly relevant; read my review of it) that have aged much better than this, so you may want to read one or two of his other novels before you decide whether or not you like his work.
The novel is divided into four sections that have titles that remind me of a biography of a saint or some other sort of religious figure. Part 1 is called "His Maculate Origin." Part Two is called, "His Preposterous Heritage." Part Three is called, "His Eccentric Education." Part Four is called, "His Scandalous Career." Lastly, Part Five is called, "His Happy Destiny." This gives the reader some hint about where Heinlein is taking the story and as such is somewhat helpful.
I agree with another reviewer that the initial premise of the book is very interesting both as a plot device and as a story. Michael Valentine Smith (he is the "Stranger" in a strange land) is a human raised on Mars; he is biologically human but philosophically Martian. Native Martians are never physically described but there are some hints about how their society is set up. Due to some interesting legal decisions, it is discovered the Michael is heir to a vast fortune and that he is possibly the ruler of Mars. Initially, Michael finds human culture enormously difficult to understand. However, he manages to get some help. He carries out talks with the politicians and has his rights secured.
The ideas in the novel were no doubt very popular in the 1960�s. Michael stresses what might be called �free love�, pantheism (e.g. all his disciples create each other with the phrase "Thou Art God"), religious pluralism and an incredible optimism that heaven can be created on Earth. There is also a dose of Heinlein�s trademark libertarianism in some of Michael�s views. In part Four, Michael starts up a religious institution to teach people the Martian language and the Martian way of doing things. However, as other reviewers have said, by this point, the novel seems to degenerate into a soapbox for Heinlein to voice his ideas. The way that Heinlein argues for religious pluralism is extremely weak sophistry likewise for his arguments in favor of some sort of "new sexuality" where sex bonds all sorts of different people, with no apparent rules. There is no explicit homosexuality but the new sexual morality proposed would probably admit it.
Understanding the "message" of the novel is a little tricky. There are some valid observations about how religious institutions are founded and sustained. Indeed, the Fosterite Church strikes me as the ultimate American religion. It combines the "new" revelation (an idea that Mormonism and Jehovah�s Witnesses use), an overwhelming emphasis on �Happiness� and it is extremely emotional. While there was potential for examining how Earth would react to the discovery of an alien race, it is not really explored. I think the message that Heinlein intended to communicate in the novel is that love, brotherhood etc can create a utopia but established interests will always prevent it from forming.
I personally found "Starship Troopers" a more interesting novel; the next Heinlein novel I read will probably be, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." My overall impression is that this novel�s story starts out well but morphs into a soapbox and that it is overrated. Yet, keep in mind, it probably one of the most popular SF novels since World War 2 and most people have extremely polarized opinions about it.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
This book is Heinlein's most famous effort, still selling very well today in both its original (1961) 'cut' version, and in the 'uncut' version (about 60,000 words longer), released after his death by his wife, Virginia Heinlein. It is an extremely complex satirical book, with multiple literary and philosophical allusions and referents, and with attacks and comments on many of the basic tenents of American life and social structure, including sex, love, marriage, politics, government, religion(s), economics, tattoos, art, writing, astrology, journalism, TV, military, inheritance laws, cannibalism, prejudice, prisons, and carnival life. Heinlein's aim was for this book to create questions about all of a reader's basic assumptions, to gore every sacred cow, to upset all the apple-carts. In some ways, he succeeded beyond his dreams, as the book was 'adopted' as their bible by many of the '60s counter-culture movement, even to the point that several churches were established with this book as their basis (most notably the Church of All Worlds). Heinlein himself was rather terrified by this use, as he never intended the book to provide answers, only to force questions.
The plot line is fairly simple: A child born to the first Martian expedition, Valentine Michael Smith ("Mike"), is raised by the Martians and brought back to Earth as a young man, where he receives a rather eccentric education into the ways of man by those who befriend him. Once he feels that he understands humanity, Mike undertakes to educate humans in the philosophy of "Thou art God" in such a way that the truth of that statement is a provable tautology. As such, he becomes a self-proclaimed messiah, with the usual fate of messiahs that upset everyone's idea of what is 'right'. But those who have accepted his 'education' will continue on...
The book makes heavy use of irony and contrasting poles of thought, such as Mike (the innocent) vs Jubal Harshaw (the voice of experience), the Church of All Worlds (Appolonian) vs the Fosterites (Dionysian), the Carnival (heaven ) vs the Zoo (earth). Most of the character's names are important in terms of their 'meaning', elucidating and enhancing many of Heinlein's points. Due to its structure and theme, this is one of the few SF books that has been subjected to a fair amount of academic analysis, a process that continues to this day. Some critics have gone so far as to say that the book is not science fiction, but rather a modern example of a satire, belonging in the same realm as something like Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal".
This book has contributed some new words to the English language, most notably "grok" and "water-brother", and may have the best simple definition of love found anywhere: "Love is that condition in which the happiness of another is conditional to your own". (Note: this definition appears only in the 'cut' version, apparently thought up while he was editing the original version of the book down to what was at the time 'publishable' length).
Although this book reads very easily, with Heinlein's typical unforced, everyday American prose style, the concepts and questions he presents are neither simple nor trivial. Not all of his points are directly explicated - it is worthwhile for the reader to carefully look for some of the hidden, non-obvious parallels and historical referents that are scattered throughout this book. You don't need to agree with all his points, but reading this will make you examine of your own assumptions and beliefs, take a look with new eyes at the world around you, and find your own answers.
76 of 98 people found the following review helpful
Heinlein conceived STRANGER in 1948, but didn't finish it until
1960. His editor asked him to cut it from 220,000 to 150,000 words; as
published it was 160,087. It was reissued from the original
manuscript in 1991, and I just got around to reading this "uncut"
edition. I first read STRANGER in the early sixties -- it's the only
"major" Heinlein I'd never reread (unless you count _To Sail the
Sunset Sea_ as major).
STRANGER hasn't aged well. Ostensibly set in the 21st century, it
reads like the 1950's. News commentators are "winchells" and
"lippmans" -- I recognize the names, but remember nothing else
about the originals; do you? The bad guys and minor characters are
purest cardboard. Women ("bims") have the "liberty permitted cats
and favorite children"; homosexuals are "poor in-betweeners". The
world beyond the USA is almost invisible.
Jubal Harshaw, the writer, patriarch and "father of all", is a self-
indulgent know-it-all given to long, hectoring speeches. The
women are quick to shed clothing and inhibitions, and couple with
any water-brother. They grow younger, more beautiful -- and more
exhibitionist -- as they learn Martian mind-control. Feh.
And yet, and yet .... STRANGER still works as a novel -- I reread it
pretty much at one go. The idea of a child raised from infancy by an
alien race ... Valentine Michael Smith's journey from innocence to
full humanity to New Messiah ... the cheerfully crass
commercialism of the Church of Foster ... the silly-but-serious
mysticism ... Heinlein, whatever his flaws, was a master story-
STRANGER was Heinlein's first crossover bestseller, becoming
something of a Sixties icon -- peace & love, y'know. Bits and pieces
were taken up in pop music and culture: "Discorporate, and you'll
be free", urged the Mothers of Invention. Grace Slick of the
Jefferson Airplane sang of "sister-lovers, water-brothers". The
ability to grok was briefly important, if mostly forgotten now.
Should you read, or reread, STRANGER? Mmmph. I don't regret
doing so, but the book stays pretty low in my mental ranking of
Heinlein novels. And if I were you, I'd hunt up the earlier edition --
the restored 70,000 words add little but bulk to the story.
Peter D. Tillman
Review copyright 1999 by Peter D. Tillman
28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2000
I won't go so far as to say that this is the greatest work of fiction ever written - it is not. It suffers on several counts, not least of which is that it marks the real beginning of Heinlein's later descent into rambling on at too great a length propounding on the benefits of free love at the expense of gripping storytelling.
That said, it nevertheless earns 5 stars not just for its well-deserved place near the top of the SF pantheon of 'must reads' but on its merits. This is no mere rayguns-and-aliens space opera and as such it was, in and of itself, also a contributor to a fundamental shift in the nature of all SF published afterward. I don't think it's going to far to say that this book reshaped the genre permanently.
One thing is certain: If you haven't read this book - or much of what Heinlein wrote after - it is very different form what you're expecting. At times it seems a simple enough story. But by taking Micheal Valentine Smith and raising him in an alien culture, Heinlein is able to draw out much of what it means to be human - his main character, after all, is an alien human who must learn for himself how his fellows work to try to fit in among them. A monumental endeavour for its time and no less relavent today. And, at the risk of repeating myself, this effort continues to this day in much of the better SF being published. The newer takes on the subject may not agree with Heinlein's point of view on the nature of humanity, but they cannot ignore it and in many ways they owe their ability to approach the issue in print to this book.
So, it's important. Does that also translate into a good read? Yes, it most certainly does. This novel is packed with fun and interesting characters interacting with panache and an ever-present hint of heresy that stimulates the mind to explore new ground even as it makes you laugh and/or nod your head in fervent agreement.
So, if you're a fan of SF you need to read this book not only b/c no SF collection is complete without it but also b/c it's great fun.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Believe it or not, with all the reading I do I have never read any of Heinlein's stuff. Someone recommended Stranger In A Strange Land to me, and I'm impressed with the guy's writing...
The basic plotline is that a manned trip to Mars occurs but the ship loses contact once it gets to the surface. The thought is that everyone was killed. But a later mission reveals that there was a survivor, and it was a child that's been raised as a Martian. He's brought back to Earth, and has to understand and learn everything there is about being human, as well as learning how to control his Martian mindset.
I won't go into all the "deep significant meanings" in this book, as I don't do subtlety very well. Besides, many others have done a far better job of that than I could ever hope to. The thing that impressed me is that reading the book 45 years after it was written doesn't affect the story at all. I expected that the science part of this sci-fi novel would be rather hokey, but it all aged very well. With very few exceptions, the technology doesn't have that "futuristic" feel that you often saw in writings from that era.
Good read, and I'm definitely interested in reading more of his work...
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2000
Okay, I'll admit that to '90's sensibilities some of Stranger is kind of silly. Valentine Michael Smith, born on Mars and raised with Martian mind-over-matter powers, comes to earth to bring humans the enlightened truth: people should live in large communal groups, naked most of the time, swapping sexual partners willy-nilly. It's a very 60's thought and in the AIDS era, it seems downright dangerous.
Fortunately, the swinging isn't the central point of the novel. Most importantly, Heinlein lets the characters drive the story instead of vice versa, taking us into Valentine's head and making him a sympathetic hero. Like Christ (a clear parallel), he just wants people to be nicer to each other and live in harmony with the world. Like Christ, he discovers that people prefer conflict and ecological pillaging.
There are scathing riffs on popular religion (churches of the future feature bars and casinos), politics, and human nature. It's all wrapped up in a funny, easy read. You may not build yourself a nudist commune after reading this, but your consciousness will definitely be expanded.