According to a randomly-generated Pinterest infographic I saw recently, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is the top-selling science fiction title in English of all time. I have my doubts, and I have not bothered to Google.
Even if it’s not the bestseller, it’s certainly a bestseller. Having been around for 45 someodd years undoubtedly has something do with that, as does the nontrivial quantity of sexy sexing that goes on in its 400+ pages. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In case you’ve been busy reading literally anything else since 1961, Stranger in a Strange Land is, broadly, the story of Michael Valentine Smith, a human born and raised on Mars (back when we thought Martians were a thing and before we stranded a sad robot on the planet to sing Happy Birthday to itself once a year, a fact that makes humans sound sadistic as hell until you learn the even sadder reason why we made it stop). Having been basically Martian for the first twenty-odd years of his life, Smith returns to Earth with a number of Martian secrets up his sleeve, including – apparently – the secrets to long life, eternal happiness, and lots and lots of sex.
Those things are related, I guess.
As you might expect from a sci-fi novel written before we’d even golfed on the Moon, there’s quite a bit in Stranger in a Strange Land that doesn’t stand up to time, including:
- Mars. Yeah, we know nothing cool actually lives there, unless you count Curiosity and maybe some fossilized bacteria. Just…pretend it’s not Mars, okay?
- Women. …I actually think Heinlein was trying to be progressive about women with his female characters. Several of them have obvious agency; quite a few are indispensable to the plot; one even serves as the protagonist for a portion of the book. But there’s no escaping the Mad Men-esque misogyny; these are still women written by a man who thinks women are for him.
- Technology. Sci-fi never really stands up in this category (consider the original Star Trek, which still used “tapes” and “gain”). My favorite failure in Stranger in a Strange Land, however, is the presence of stenographers (plural), who are not only employed full-time but are also relevant to the plot. Heinlein, dude, the dictaphone was invented in 1907. Extrapolate.
- Sex. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by books like Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, but Stranger in a Strange Land is sooooo cishet – to the point of being blatantly homophobic at some points in order to remind us just how cishet it is. Yawn.
But wait – there is one very good use for this book.
Do you hang around atheists? Do you hang around libertarians? Do you try mightily not to hang around either, only to find yourself being tediously mansplained to by a fedora wearing a man underneath itself as you wait for the elevator? Do you wish you had a small, mass-market-paperback-shaped projectile to fling vehemently in the direction of this talking fedora in order to shut it the hell up?
Stranger in a Strange Land is for you.
Ultimately, the novel is less about exploring the implications of humans on Mars (or vice versa) than it is a vehicle for Heinlein to explicate, at tedious length, some personal opinions on the nature of religion and the universe for the benefit of a captive audience.
What Heinlein explicates, however, is exactly the same philosophy every tedious libertarian hipster college sophomore prides himself on being the first truly enlightened human to figure out. Yes, you’ve heard it all before. Skip these bits when you read it, as they contribute nothing to the plot.
But when you next face a sentient fedora attempting to explain to you how religion is a scam or how the only true “freedom” is for each of us to do whatever the fuck he wants without the burden of taxes, feel free to chuck a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land at his head. Follow it up by yelling, “Heinlein did this in 1961 and it was more interesting!”
Then buy yourself a latte. You earned it.