Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
Religion and sexuality are two of the most difficult subjects to engage as a writer. Regardless of the writer’s intentions, someone is going to be deeply offended or challenged, probably both. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land seeks to both offend and challenge. Heinlein uses the eponymous stranger to stand on a soap box and examine humanity’s penchant for ideology and sexual repression. Clearly a product of its time, the novel does not hold up as well on the speculative fiction front. On the psychological front, the novel can and does retain an impactful message for humans to examine their own foibles.
The story centers around Valentine Michael Smith, a human born on Mars and raised by Martians after the deaths of the entire crew of the first manned mission to the red planet. By being indoctrinated to a completely alien mindset, Heinlein uses Michael to examine first the interpersonal relationships that define humans, such as friendship and trust, and then to examine the larger cultural constructs that define society, such as property and religion. There is a strong tie to Bedouin desert culture in Michael’s water-sharing (which makes sense considering the complete lack of ready water on Mars). Sharing water becomes a symbol throughout the novel for the sharing of minds (and eventually bodies). But Michael (whose name translates to “who is like God”) is not the only main character of this novel. Instead, Michael is merely the catalyst for changes to human society that would be inevitable were it ever discovered that life exists beyond the third planet of the Sol system.
The second main character is Jubal Harshaw: a writer, misanthrope, amateur anarchist, and moral center of the story. It is Jubal’s (whose name translates to “father of all”) insistence that Michael interact with others and the world that set the stage for the second half of the novel. The novel’s structure can be considered gospel-like, with the heading for each section an allusion to a Christ-like rise and inevitable fall. The Judeo-Christian allusions are rampant throughout the novel, with Jubal reluctantly taking on the role of Yahweh to Michael’s role of Yeshua. Jubal also allows Heinlein to spent copious amounts of pages (too many, in fact) espousing his beliefs on every subject from sexual taboos to political necessities. While reading the diatribes of Jubal, I kept getting the suspicion that I was reading the mind of Heinlein.
Unfortunately, the other characters are not really given much to do, except fall unconvincingly into a pseudo-harmonious idea of plurality of marriage and partnerships. The closest thing to a third main character is Gillian Boardman, called Jill frequently through the novel. She serves a function of providing Michael with an earthly education, particularly the nuances of human’s puritanical social mores. Her transformation into a follower/lover of Michael is inevitable from the first meeting between the characters but it is filled with sweetness (at times). Unfortunately, she is also given some truly atrocious things to say about female sexuality, particularly when it comes to who is to blame when a rape occurs.
This underhanded treatment of women is a recurrent theme throughout the novel and one that I find most distasteful. The idea of non-monogamous sexuality is not unfamiliar to me but in the novel such things are almost always discussed by men and women are given little to do except acquiesce willingly. While Jubal has a certain roguish good-nature to him, he is surrounded by nubile female secretaries in an edenic home. While he receives grief from them for his brashness and solipsism, it is mostly in the form of a subservient back-talk without any real teeth. The only other major female characters are depicted as shrewish manipulators (in the case of Agnes Douglas) and/or effective con artists (such as Madame Vessant).
Then there is the religious angle, which takes up the entirety of the second half of the novel. As I read through the encounters with the Fosterite religion (a Christian denomination of some power that encourages gambling, sexual freedom, and debauchery as long as it’s done with the church’s controls in place) and the encounters with Fosterites such as Patty Paiwonski, I wasn’t sure if Heinlein was creating caricatures or real characters of devout faith. In the end, when Michael creates his Church of All Worlds, he openly admits to using religious trappings and iconography to trap the “marks” (the masses) into his ideology. Heinlein’s uses this second half of the novel in an attempt to expose his ideas of the rigged nature of organized religion (through the Fosterites political power and approved brands of purchasable commodities) and the esotericism inherent in mystery cults such as Christianity.
More than anything, Stranger in a Strange Land is meant to be incendiary novel, by the author’s own admission. The story itself is secondary to the author’s desire to trample over the social mores and taboos of his time and adjust them ever so slightly. The fact that much of the philosophy of the story was adopted by neo-pagans (such as the real-life Church of All Worlds) shows that Heinlein was able to tap into some dissatisfaction with the status quo of religion and sexuality. For all its faults, Stranger is a dynamic story that one should be read, if for no other reason than to challenge the social and cultural norms one is indoctrinated with from an early age.
This Stranger in a Strange Land book review was written by Nicholas King
Have you read Stranger in a Strange Land?
We've found that while readers like to know what we think of a book they find additional reader reviews a massive help in deciding if it is the right book for them. So if you have a spare moment, please tell us your thoughts by writing a reader's review. Thank you.
Stranger in a Strange Land reader reviews
8/10 from 1 reviews
There are currently no reader reviews for this book. Why not be the first?
Write a reader review
Thank you for taking the time to write a review on this book, it really makes a difference and helps readers to find their perfect book.
More recommended reading in this genre
On a remote jungle island, genetic engineers have created a dinosaur game park. An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now on...
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the kno...
For Kivrin Engle, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the four...
The Sixth World of Men
Walter E Mark
On the surface, the sixth world of men is a glorious world. It is a world of great technological advancement. It is a world that has been at peace for a hundred years. Whil...
The Lathe of Heaven
Ursula Le Guin
George Orr is a mild and unremarkable man who finds the world a less than pleasant place to live: seven billion people jostle for living space and food. But George dreams d...
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school. By chance all of their names contained a colour. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning ‘red pine’, and Oumi...
The Chronicles of Fate and Choice
This is where it all began. Everything. Love, hate, good, evil, us and them. Before the Gods by KS Turner successfully breaks the genre rules to produce something unique, c...
A combination of previously unseen stories, favourites from Interzone and contributions to numerous anthologies, IMAGINED SLIGHTS showcases one of the most versatile and el...
A Scanner Darkly
Philip K Dick
Substance D is not known as Death for nothing. It is the most toxic drug ever to find its way on to the streets of LA. It destroys the links between the brain's two hem...
Beauty and Sadness
The successful writer Oki has reached middle age and is filled with regrets. He returns to Kyoto to find Otoko, a young woman with whom he had a terrible affair many years ...
Kikuji has been invited to a tea ceremony by a mistress of his dead father. He is shocked to find there the mistress's rival and successor, Mrs. Ota, and that the cerem...
Leila Fenech is dead. And so is her brother Dieter. But what's really pissing her off is how he sold his afterlife as part of an insurance scam and left her to pick up ...
The Shadow Year
In New York's Long Island, in the unpredictable decade of the 1960s, a young boy laments the approaching close of summer and the advent of sixth grade. Growing up in a ...
Dead Men Naked
After the sudden death of his best friend Neil, involving a 6-foot giant crow and quite some Tequila, Lou’s life takes an unexpected turn towards the impossible. As L...
This is an awesome concept with awesome characters and that familiar Sanderson style of writing. I feel like with all this awesomeness around the place, the plot never gets...
Looking for more suggestions? Try these pages:
Best of 2016
Whitney H Murphy
As survivors in a ruined city, there are some realities we can’t escape. Or forget. Like the truth that our bodies don’t work anymore. We all know it—with ev...
Books of the Month
A selection of books - old and new alike - that were a joy to read.
Forced by necessity into a life of piracy, Senlin and his eclectic crew struggle to survive aboard their stolen airship as the hunt for his lost wife continues. But the Tower of Babel is proving to be as difficult to re-enter as it was to escape.Hopeless and desolate, they turn to a legend of the tower, the mysterious Sphinx. But help fro...
The Wolves of Winter
Forget the old days. Forget summer. Forget warmth. Forget anything that doesn’t help you survive in the endless white wilderness beyond the edges of a fallen world. L...
Paris was supposed to save Hallie. Now... well, let’s just say Paris has other ideas. There’s a strange woman called The Chronometrist who will not leave her al...
A corrupted city. A dark dream of power. Luke is a prisoner, condemned for a murder he didn’t commit. Abi is a fugitive, desperate to free him before magic breaks his...
The Fifth Empire of Man
Rob J Hayes
The Pirate Isles are united under Drake Morrass’ flag, but the war has only just begun. There’s still a long way to go before he’s able to call himself Ki...
Ian C Esslemont
After the disappointments of Li Heng, Dancer and Kellanved wash up on a small insignificant island named Malaz. Immediately, of course, Kellanved plans to take it over. To ...
Age of Swords
Michael J Sullivan
Raithe, the God Killer, may have started the rebellion by killing a Fhrey, but long-standing enmities dividing the Rhunes make it all but impossible to unite against the co...