I love science fiction, but I have always had an aversion to the works of Robert Heinlein. For whatever reason, I got the idea early on that Heinlein was a bit more misogynist in his writing than his contemporaries. I don’t really respond well to writers who can’t write women realistically (or at least realistically based on my unrealistic thinking of what a well-written female character should read like). To me, the inability to represent half of the species properly is a big knock. But I finally got around to reading “Stranger in a Strange Land”, a work that for whatever feelings I may have about its author, is widely recognized as a major piece in the science fiction cannon.
It’s a solidly good book. I would almost say that it’s a great book, but we’ll get to why I won’t say that in a bit. For all of his anachronistic baggage (here’s a direct quote: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” Are you fucking serious?!?), Heinlein is a capable writer who clearly knows what he’s doing. He constructs a good story in a believable, not-too-far in the future world. I haven’t read early 60’s sci-fi work in a while, and all of the standard tropes of the era are on display: Space travel has revolutionized society, the world is governed by a super-powerful UN, etc. It’s a good, old-timey hoot.
All of that noted, this is not a book without it’s flaws, and here I’m not talking about Heinlein’s personal bugaboos. The structure is almost split right down the middle. The first half, in which the main character returns to Earth from being raised by Martians, and the subsequent geopolitical maneuvering, was vastly more interesting to me than the second half, in which said person starts a religion based on his Martian upbringing, and involving a lot of quasi-libertarian logic and a bunch of orgies. From the description of the two halves, the second one should be much more interesting, but for whatever reason it’s not for me. I think a lot of it has to do with the structures of the two parts. The first part is well-paced and characters are clearly established. The second part ranges far and wide, and the characters whom the reader has met and come to know are thrown in to bizarre situations without much explication. By the end (which is telegraphed far in advance), I really didn’t care how things were going to happen, finding myself wishing for them to hurry up and happen already.
None of this is really helped by Heinlein’s habit of maneuvering his characters into conversations and situations so that he can then use them to provide elaborate discourse on Heinlinean ethics (which are admittedly not wholly congruent with my ethics). By the end of it, I didn’t really care about what the characters thought about anything, since they were all just Heinlein in disguise. The book begins as a slight polemic and only escalates from there. Not my style. Lots of references to Rodin sculptures, though, so that’s a chit in the plus pile.
So, that’s my quick take on Stranger in a Strange Land. If you’re a fan of science fiction, it’s rightfully required reading. If you’re not, I don’t know how much you would dig it. Most likely depends on who you are. For me, it’s another one crossed off the list. I’d be lying if I said I was going to run right out and consume the rest of the Heinlein cannon.