Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land

 Don’t get me wrong, I read and enjoyed Starship Troopers, but I really hated this book. You could say that Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of a human raised on Mars, who returns to Earth and preaches Martian “hippie” philosophy, but that doesn’t do it justice—you have to describe how the story is told. And that story is an ugly one.

Stranger in a Strange Land is overrated, lousy writing—an overly long story padded by racist, misogynistic 1960s dialogue that does nothing to forward the plot or develop the characters. The only dynamic character is Jubal Harshaw—and he’s a blowhard who professes acceptance of other lifestyles but who won’t shut up about how his cranky libertarianism is the best philosophy. He’s mildly entertaining at best, grating at worst—and one of the few reasons I kept reading and finished the book; because he was an actual character. The rest of the characters are props for Harshaw’s dialogue—dialogue that reads as a bloated screenplay, considering that Heinlein rarely describes the character’s actions or environment to develop the scene and “show” what is happening rather than tell. Heinlein just tells, which means this book badly needed editing. The version in print right now is the “uncut” version—supposedly superior to the stripped-down version that was considered a cult classic in the 60s—but ask any author, and you’ll know that good books are edited before they are published, and for good reason.

Sure, it’s notable that this book predicted the counterculture hippie movement years before it actually started—but really, the book’s writing is horrible. Once Valentine Michael Smith starts following the Christ story, Heinlein starts pandering, fast. The book really jumps the shark when the pseudo-prophet Foster (a creepy Brigham Young/Joseph Smith) is revealed to be in heaven and preparing for Michael’s arrival. Don’t show us that—it ruins all credibility of the story and exiles all suspense. Granted, a philosophical novel will have a lot of talk and not a lot of action—just look at Huxley’s Island and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for examples—but the ultimate irony is that Jubal’s final advice to Michael is “Show people—Talking about it doesn’t prove it.” And in the case of Stranger in a Strange Land, it doesn’t.

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