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Stranger in a Strange Land Book Review July 3, 2010

Posted by vorpalkeith in book review.
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This is a cross-post from the forum for the Comic Book Outsiders. Their current book club selection is Stranger in a Strange Land, and I had enough of a response that I thought it was worth sharing.
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Let me preface this by saying that I really like Robert A. Heinlein. His is some of the most enjoyable science fiction that I’ve ever read.

That said though, I did not like this book. I was okay with about the first 2/3rds of it, but the last third was really dull, grating, and irritating to me. In some ways I hated it (the only other Heinlein story I had this reaction to was Farnham’s Freehold, which actually touched upon some of the same ideas – maybe I’m a prude when it comes to cannibalism?)

I was with it when they were discussing the differences between human and Martian culture. I dug the vague descriptions of the Martians themselves, and their powers. I was definitely with it when Mike was on the run from the government, still trying to survive in a world he couldn’t fathom. That’s good stuff there . . .

And then the orgy based religion. I think any time that you get to the point in a story where your main character forms a cult with himself as the godhead, you’ve jumped rails.

And it was definitely a cult. Members lived together in one big group marriage, separated from outside societal influence and under the guidance of a single ultra-charismatic leader who can do no wrong because only he holds the special knowledge they all seek. Knowledge wasn’t given freely, you had to move through a series of harder and harder “circles” to gain “enlightenment”. And how do you advance through these circles? By having sex with the cult leader, by gum! Orgies and a lot of neat phrases about how cool and bright and hippie awesome everything is abound.

Plus the cannibalism. Sure, sure, I get it it, it’s Martian and different. But I AM a prude when it comes to that.

I understand that maybe Heinlein had intended this to be a critique of religion, and if so I rescind my statements. I don’t think so though, because the book was held up as such an example of how to truly live by the New Age movement that the satire was either completely missed, or not there in the first place.

I loathe the solipsism of the movement in the story. It was only about hedonistic self-indulgence. Nothing was wrong, so go ahead and do whatever feels good (sounds vaguely of how people get sold on Satanism, all I’m saying). The problem with that idea is that if nothing is wrong, then nothing can actually be RIGHT, and, as my philosophy professor used to say, then you can’t get out of bed in the morning.

Valentine Michael Smith couldn’t be a hero because he didn’t STAND for anything. I guess I’d just rather read stories that have heroes.

All of that isn’t even the main problem with the movement in the book though. Any of that I can forgive in a story, but this is meant to be science fiction, and I think at the heart of science fiction is a certain amount of humanism. The problem here is that all of the characters we’re supposed to care about, to prove their value, give up everything that makes them human. Everything but sex. That seems to be the only thing humanity has that is of any value in the end of this story.

Maybe I missed the point . . .

Ultimately, I’d have much rather read a book set entirely on this vision of Mars. Those Martians were interesting sounding and I’d have loved to have spent time with them.

I still really like Heinlein though. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Citizen of the Galaxy, Starship Troopers, Glory Road, The Puppet Masters – now those are some cracker books!

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