Stranger is considered sci-fi cannon and a classic. As such, there is no end to the number of summaries, reviews and opinions you can find about this book. I expect my own take on this work will add more noise than insight but I’ll forge ahead regardless.
First, let me clarify that I read the full uncut version in all it’s 220,000 word glory. The original published version was cut by some 25-30% by Heinlein himself. Generally, the comparison of the work favours the uncut version, because the dialog runs more naturally, but irregardless of critical opinion of the book itself, all consider the editing job masterful. Heinlein economised each and every sentence resulting in very little to nothing in terms of plot and story being removed. My overall impression regarding the edition differences is that the best edition would be a slightly cut down version of the full version – leaving the dialog so that it flows but removing or rewording some narrative. Something in between. Jubal can get awfully preachy.
The release of Stranger couldn’t be better timed and I think that had much to do with it’s success. It obviously spoke to a lot of adolescents who were coming of age in the 60’s. In my opinion this was the book’s greatest triumph. It questioned orthodoxy when people were ready to hear the message. Heinlein himself stated that he never intended to offer answers, but only provoke questions and in that regard it was effective. Using Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from Mars, Heinlein was able to question cultural conventions and taboos such as marriage and sexuality, religion and cannibalism. Casual and group sex and even homosexuality figures prominently but always in a modest “off camera” way, though apparently some scenes were softened or removed in the 1961 release.
Questioning orthodoxy is mostly done in the second half of the book, and this seems to be where many critics claim the story lost it’s wonderful momentum it had built up until that moment. Another common complaint is the painfully dated way women are handled in the story. Jubal Harshaw, doctor, lawyer and author, whom I consider to be every bit a main character of this story (and a stand in for Heinlein himself), maintains a bevy of voluptuous secretaries at his beck and call while working from his communal home – Freedom Hall. The women, while all intelligent and capable, they are still treated as interchangeable schoolgirls. In fact it’s so blatant that Jill Boardman and Dawn even look and act alike in the story. Men like Jubal, Ben Claxton and Mike make all the decisions that move the plot along as the women follow along and eventually get pregnant (hold on – the exception to this would be of course Jill’s action to break out Mike from the hospital – but all this is planned by Ben). The low point to all this had to be the comment that rape was pretty much 90% the woman’s fault. Truly cringe-worthy even if it was said in-character.
Mike’s goal was to teach humanity to better itself and break the shackles of conformity and cultural restriction by teaching Martian ways. In this fashion he hopes to prevent the destruction of Earth by the Martians (who already destroyed the fifth planet – hence the asteroid belt) since they likely grok humans are a “wrongness”. However Martians never act hastily and their impending doom is at least half a millenia off. What I find interesting is that learning the Martian language is essential in this process. This reminds me of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Dispossessed since both these works support the notion that language affects thought (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). I wonder if LeGuin’s works were influenced by Stranger since they postdate it by about a decade? In either case, I think she handled the concept more masterfully. The other interesting twist is the fact that humanity had to be motivated emotionally rather than intellectually. Mike states that simply giving away free Martian lessons didn’t work. He had to wrap it in an emotional package of pseudo-religious revival (neo-paganism) where learning martian was a privilege bestowed upon those who advanced their way through the nine levels (Dante’s Inferno anyone?) of the Church of All Worlds. It’s ideas like these than allowed me to continue through the second half of the book.
The book is showing its age, which classics are supposed to be immune from. In part, where the book deals with future technology, Stranger has aged with a fine patina. It has a retro vibe – flying cars and astonishingly fast air and space (via the Lyle Drive) travel and synthetic food abound but all else seems pretty much untouched. Totally missed the telecommunications revolution (though it did predict waterbeds!). There’s a nascent colony on Mars, but no mobile phones or Internet. Seems like the classic 50’s vision of the future (maybe it’s classic because of this book? hmm). More glaring is the use of language – very dated – and treatment of women (discussed). In the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein avoided the dated dialog trap by inventing a lot of words used by the Loonies and giving the narrator an accent. He did not do so in Stranger except for the monumental exception of the word “grok” and it shows. Besides this, anyone not reading this book in the 60’s will lose out on the depth of it’s impactfulness. The sexual revolution has happened. Divorce, homosexuality and alternative family structures are more accepted (though certainly we’re not at the Martian level). Agnosticism and atheism has grown. Mike’s message and lifestyle is not nearly as controversial 50 years later.
The afterlife scenes left me confused. Archangel Foster and Bishop Digby and eventually Mike after his martyrdom all occupied this control room in the afterlife, manipulating events (seeming with contradictory goals). Do they represent the Holy Trinity with “the Son” on Earth in corporeal form and “God” and the “Holy Spirit” left in the control room? Is the consummation of Mike after his death by his inner circle of friends the equivalent of the Catholic Eucharist? Strange parallels.
In summary, I think I understand why this book did so well and became a classic. Its message of questioning orthodoxy was perfectly timed. Unfortunately, read some 50 years later it doesn’t quite hold up.
(Amazon) Stranger in a Strange Land