Stranger in a Strange Land

imagesI don’t really remember when I started this. It might have been 2012, or 2013. You see, I’ve been reading it for about half an hour every fortnight of school time… and not quite every fortnight even then. So it’s taken me a while. And I feel somewhat bereft now that it’s finished. It was such a hefty, cosy friend every time I went into the library to set a good example by reading.

Yes, this was my first Heinlein. Yes it was deliberate; I’d heard it was his “liberal” book, and the concept intrigued me. Yes, I know there are people who are appalled by this. I did read the whole thing though, so it wasn’t that bad (… over a few years…).

Not having read other Heinlein I don’t really know how else he presents his politics. I’ve seen the move of Starship Troopers, but I think there’s some squabbling about whether he meant the novel to be quite as satirical as the movie ended up being? Anyway, from the perspective of a leftie in the 21st century, this doesn’t seem all that liberal in its politics. I mean, I guess it seems to be advocating a form of socialism, but I’m not sure how seriously anybody was meant to take that (although given how prevalent ‘grok’ is in certain circles… hmm). Of course if you take ‘liberal’ to mean ‘happy to talk about sex and have sex and I don’t believe in marriage to have sex’ then yes, it is liberal. Of course compared to modern books the sex scenes are positively chaste and I had to re-read some sections to understand what the fuss was about (ohhh he talked about them kissing but he meant they weren’t ONLY kissing…).

It’s a very long book to talk about the return of a human child to Earth, now a man, who has been raised by the inhabitants of Mars and has therefore quite a different way of understanding the world. He has no clue about human interactions and the ability to perform various mind-tricks like telekinesis and so on. There’s also a financial aspect since the way the law works he appears to be the owner of or ambassador from Mars, plus other technological side-benefits, which means that he is a multi-millionaire… all of these things naturally mean he has more enemies and would-be friends than he can deal with.

Interestingly the focus, I think, is not really on Mike, the Man from Mars. Nor is it on Jill, his nurse, at least not after the first bit. Instead the character who has really stuck with me is Jubal. Jubal almost seems to me how I imagine Heinlein to have been (and this is completely unfair since no one is born old): old, cranky, seen it all, cynical, bored by the world but still in love with it, impatient, garrulous, and desperate to do right by all those around him. Also the most amazing sense of entitlement. Jubal appears to have tried everything worthwhile and he runs a house that is at once a commune, a resort, and a demanding place of work. His obstinance and his love of his adoptive grandchildren, his bullying and arrogance matched with the fact that he uses his enormous brain for the good of those he loves – this, rather than Mike, seems to me to be the epitome of humanity.

Because in many ways I think Mike is meant to represent the best of humanity. But he’s a distant figure, for all he sleeps with every woman he gets close to as far as I can tell. He is unknowable. Interestingly he’s an inversion of the Great White Saviour trope, I think, because he’s doing humanity better than humanity but he IS human, just raised by a distant and unknowable people. I’m not sure that he’s being a better Martian than the Martians; we’re not given that info.

There are some appalling moments, especially about the women; this is not unexpected. The stuff about Fosterites was weird and a bit uncomfortable (but not nearly as weird as the bits about Foster himself!). The inclusion of a Muslim character surprised me, given the publication date… and the way he’s treated by those around him is simultaneously welcoming and also appalling.

I am glad I’ve read it. I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone. Perhaps someone like me who is old enough to be cynical and hasn’t read any Heinlein before… as long as they’ve read enough other SF to know that it’s not all like this. Will I read any more Heinlein? I’m honestly not sure. There are so very many other books to read.

5 responses

  1. No, I am pretty sure Jubal IS the author insert figure, in an unmistakable way.

    1. Oh good. I don’t feel so mean now! 😀

  2. I know this is the famous one, (probably because it was so shocking when it was first published), but it’s probably not the best Heinlein to cut your teeth on. I’ve read Stanger in a Strange Land all the way through once or twice, and have restarted it countless times since. I love the beginning, and then end up putting it down about 1/3 of the way through. Jubal is a pretty good Heinlein analog, and from what I recall, Jubal is referred to in other later Heinlein books.

    if you’re interested in dipping your toes into some other Heinleins, i highly suggest The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It’s full of politics as well, but they’re, hmm… slightly different and make for a better story. Other good ones include The Puppetmasters, Job, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, Red Planet, and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

    1. If/when I read another, I think it will be The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I don’t know anything about it other than the hype…

  3. […] Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut; Archer’s Goon, Diana Wynne Jones; I finished Stranger in a Strange Land!! Also Of Sorrow and Such, Angela […]

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