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Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlein
Ace, $9.99, 608pp
Published: 1961

For each of the Hugo award-winning novels I tackle, I read the book, take a lot of notes and, once I'm done, read Jo Walton's commentary on that year's Hugos. I don't always agree with her but I do here, down to a lot of little details. It's an important book, especially for its time, and it's tough to argue against it winning in 1962, but I have the same problems with it that she does, even though, like Walton, I'm a big Heinlein fan.

But let's back up a step. What's it about and why's it important?

Well, it was 1961 and science fiction was changing. Instead of looking out, at the stars and what might be hidden amongst them, it was looking inward. I noted in my review of 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' last month that four winners of the Best Novel Hugo in a row were all introspective. 'A Case of Conscience' looked at religion, 'Starship Troopers' looked at society, 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' looked at both and 'Stranger in a Stranger Land' looked at everything.

And really that's what it is: the author, through the central character of Jubal Harshaw (is this really about the Martian, Michael Valentine Smith?), expounding at length on life, liberty and happiness, not to mention anything else that might come up in conversation. He expounds on politics, religion and personal liberty, for no better reason than that the best hamburgers are made from sacred cows. Oddly, it asks a lot of questions by having Harshaw tell us (and whoever he's talking to) how it is.

It took Heinlein twelve years to write this book, so he was railing against the fifties rather than the sixties, but the sixties took his views to heart and this book made the retired Naval engineer, individualist and libertarian a darling of the counterculture. After all, he was preaching about free love and against the government and telling us, "Thou art God". He was happening, man!

And I think this is why I appreciate 'Stranger in a Stranger Land' a lot more than I enjoy it. Heinlein was one of the first science fiction writers that I read and one of the first whose careers I devoured. I didn't always agree with what he seemed to suggest, though I did a good deal of the time, but I appreciated how he never seemed to be anything other than himself. He had a host of right-wing beliefs and a host of left-wing ones, because his mindset was his own and wasn't decreed by this party or that. He was both fiscally conservative and socially liberal, again without seeing an incompatibility. A man's business was his own and people, including government, should keep out of it. And, especially through Jubal Harshaw, he made us think about a whole host of topics and come to our own conclusions. I deeply appreciated all of that. Even when I disagree with him, a lot of why I think the way I do stems from reading Heinlein.

So 'Stranger in a Strange Land' is important, but is it any good?

Well, like Walton, I really enjoy it when it starts. We've gone to Mars but the manned expedition was lost. A quarter of a century later, we went back and found one survivor, born on the ship and raised by native Martians, who sent him back to Earth. Being a Martian in every way but his heritage, he's entirely lost on our planet. Being insanely rich because of his parents and a prior legal decision that effectively gives Mars to him, he's also a very large target. So, the book starts out as a wild adventure, one of his nurses helping him to escape his hospital, keep him from assassination and find him a place to exist safely and freely. This ends up being with Jubal Harshaw. This is all fantastic stuff.

Also, like Walton, I stop liking it soon after that and for many of the same reasons. It gets very talky. Most of the characters are the same or, if they aren't, they become the same. And, as Walton nails absolutely, everyone is smug. Heinlein helped teach me how to think, but the characters in this book all know that they're right, even if they weren't in the prior chapter, and they tell everyone how it is, as if there's no argument. Harshaw does play a lot of devil's advocate, so he's better for the story, but he's the smuggest of them all. He's professionally disagreeable. I always got the impression that if he ever convinced you of something and you started to preach it back at him, he'd promptly take the opposing side and talk you out of it again. He wants you to think for yourself but he knows that, if you think right, it will be exactly what he already knows.

Another thing is that, while I learned a lot about tolerance from Heinlein, who pronounced women as entirely capable and made us identify with a number of his heroes before pointing out that they were black or Filipino, this is another example of how he hadn't got it right yet. In 'Starship Troopers', he had all starship pilots be women because they think faster, but all soldiers are male and women are the reason they fight. Here, he has Smith's mother be the engineer who invents the Lyle Drive which makes travel between planets viable, and the most reliable character be Anne, the Fair Witness, but sex is always between men and women; all women, once freed from convention, are willing to sleep with anyone; and women pop out babies every chance they can get. He was ahead of everybody else, but he wasn't quite there.

I read 'Stranger in a Stranger Land' long ago, after Heinlein's juveniles but before many of his later works. Unlike many of his other books, I had never gone back to it, so I found that I'd forgotten much of it. I'd adopted some of its language, like "grok" to mean knowing something completely. I'd never forgotten the idea of a Fair Witness, someone who, when wearing the cloak of office, has been trained to report on what they see without any assumptions whatsoever. However, somehow I remembered parts of the book taking place on Mars, which isn't the case. Most of the book is spent at Harshaw's house and the rest is with Mike on the road to his inevitable future.

I'll cut this short (well, shorter) because 'Stranger in a Strange Land' is a book that's utterly perfect for a discussion group. Heinlein throws pretty much everything at the wall for four hundred pages (more in the 1991 uncut version) and readers could spend their lives debating what stuck. Mike ends up creating a religion called the Church of All Worlds, something that one fan created for real. It's been around for over half a century now and is a registered 501(c)(3) religious organisation. How often does a sf novel lead to something like that?

Heinlein would win another Hugo for Best Novel, but it was six years away. I will find myself on safe ground there, because it's my favourite novel, not just of Heinlein's output but of all time, and one I re-read often. Next up, though is 1963's winner, Philip K. Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle', which I have to confess to never having read, even though I have a large PKD shelf and I've devoured a good portion of it. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Robert Heinlein click here
For other Hugo winners click here

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