Postmortem: Stranger in a Strange Land


Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land sits high in the pantheon of sci fi, on the same shelf as Asimov’s Foundation, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Herbert’s Dune. The cover of my copy claims it’s “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written,” and while that’s certainly not true now (if it ever was), it’s in the top tier. So I went into this with pretty high expectations.

I got about 80 pages in and stopped reading.

The premise is intriguing enough: a human, raised by Martians, comes to Earth for the first time. He doesn’t speak the language, he knows nothing about our culture, he’s trying to understand humanity from the middle of a media circus. Good stuff, right?

The problem is that our Martian friend – Valentine Michael Smith – is just about the only likeable character in the story.

Everyone else is astonishingly flat. The men are all fast-talking world-wise know-it-alls who never hesitate or take a breath. And the women – good lord, Heinlein’s women could not possibly be more cookie-cutter gender-stereotyped than they are. They’re forever bursting into tears, saying irrational things that need to be corrected, and generally just being “women” instead of people.

It’s a shame, because I get the sense that there really is a good story hiding under all the wreckage. I found myself curious about Smith, what his Martian culture was like, and where his interactions with humanity were headed. But the curiosity just wasn’t strong enough to overcome my intense hatred of the other characters – of what you might call the character of the entire book.

Maybe it’s just a personal thing. Anybody else read this novel? What did you think? Did you make it farther than I did?

6 responses to “Postmortem: Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. It’s been a while, probably more than ten years since I read it, but I did make it all the way to the end. At the end of the day he’s writing a Christ allegory combined with some sixties philosophy. It’s a notable book of science fiction but as an older and more critical reader I definitely get your flat character criticisms. An audiobook performance (and I know one exists because I picked up a southern accent for a few days from listening to it) might be a way for you to get through this book if you really want to “grok the fullness”.

  2. I agree with Ben: it is more notable for the philosophy than the prose.

  3. I read it in the late 1960s, when it was quite the thing. Maybe only Lord of the Rings was hipper — depending on who you were hanging with. (For an example of its influence, the Who’s “rock opera” Tommy has several references to it.)

    I read it, but it was far from my favorite Heinlein book (I’m curious if you’ve read any of his other books, BTW, and, if you did, were the same problems present there also). The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was probably my favorite, and a big influence on my writing. SiaSL was sort of the Heinlein novel for people who didn’t really like science fiction (and I was fine with science fiction).

    • Interesting. I read his entire short story collection The Past Through Tomorrow, and I seem to remember liking that okay. I also started to read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and didn’t finish it, but I don’t recall why. It’s been a long time, so I might like it better if I tried it again today.

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