Monday, August 29, 2005

Robert Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

Recently I briefly mentioned Robert Heinlein in a post, and following on from that and a comment made by Stefanie I decided to re-read "Stranger in a Strange Land" [SIASL] a book that I was very impressed with as a teenager, and certainly, from my later reading of Heinlein, probably his best.

Heinlein uses the story of Michael Valentine Smith in two ways. Firstly he produces the interesting and clever story of the "Man from Mars" visiting Earth and struggling to comprehend human ways and then uses the story to criticise many aspects of society and secondly he uses the characters as a platform to expound his own ideas.

SIASL2It should be said at this point, that many of Heinlein's criticisms of the role of church, organised religion and the state are ones I share, though I think his solutions and ideas (of rampant individualism, his sexism and his homophobia) are abhorrent to me. However, clearly as he was writing this, his own personal ideologies haven't been fully fleshed out, and this makes SIASL somewhat less heavy going then some of his later novels (Too Sail Beyond the Sunset in particular).

The book is well written, but a bit like struggling through treacle in places (did I really read all the long sermons that Jubal - Heinlein personified - gives in my teenage years?)

The basic story is good and holds up well compared to more modern Sci-Fi, when you clear the junk away in your head, and certainly there is much here that will upset and shock those high-up in the church.

Heinlein predicted the world of huge televised churches and rich super-preachers of today. As an aside, I am surprised by how badly Heinlein predicted the society of the near future. His characters still use faxes, computers receive only a single mention, and any idea of person to person communication, surely one of the easiest things to predict, is absence. Also, the idea that they send humans to Mars, before robot probes made me laugh. But in Heinlein's defence he wasn't writing THAT sort of Sci-Fi.

All in all this is still an interesting read, holding up well compared to Sci-Fi today. It's chief interest though, is as a starting point for Heinlein's political trajectory, which ended with him writing some dreadfully reactionary old tosh. Though there are glimmers of this. This quote by the character Jill shocked me as I didn't remember reading it before. It gives an idea of where Heinlein was heading.

"Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's at least partly her own fault"


Stefanie said...

Thanks for the mention. Nice review too. I found Heinlein in college because my roommate loved him. First one I read was Job. I was raised Lutheran and having doubts and the irrevernece of the book was exciting and thought-provoking. Now I'm a godless heathen :)

Stranger is one of my favorites. Haven't read it since college though. Sort of overdosed and the sexism really got to me after a while. One of these days I'll revisit him because I do think that he is classic even though sometimes, as you mentioned, the science and future vision don't always jive :)

Erik said...

I fell in love with SIASL as a teenager. I have reread the book about every 5 years since then. I'm almost 53 now. Each time I read it I come away with something different because I am different. The homophobia and mysoginy glared on one reading. I'm gay and thought that I recognized those attributes fairly well. As I am presently re-reading it, I can't help wonder if Heinlein was intentionally shining a light on the flaws of intolerance? If so, the techinical aspects he got wrong about the "future" are outshined by the social commentary that he got right.