Robert Heinlein was one of the most prominent science fiction writers and “Stranger In A Strange Land” was his flagship book. It contains extremely controversial views about sex, religion and politics with ample helpings of each.
The story opens with the arrival of Valentine Michael Smith at the Bethesda Naval Hospital after being marooned on Mars. Twenty years earlier the best and brightest of Earth had been sent on the first expedition to Mars. The extramarital affair during the mission that resulted in his birth also resulted in the entire crew being murdered in a crime of passion. While Earth was rebuilding after World War III Smith, who never had human contact, was being raised by the Martians.
While struggling to adapt to the heavier gravity of Earth, Smith is kidnapped by his nurse Gillian Boardman — the first human female he has ever seen. Through her boyfriend who is a star reporter, Boardman learns that Smith’s life is in danger. His mother, having invented a new spaceship drive before her death made Smith one of the most wealthy men on Earth. Having been the first human being born on Mars, Smith is the legal owner of the planet according to Earth law.
Smith and Boardman flee to the estate of Jubal Harshaw, the dominant character of the book. Harshaw was a famous public advocacy lawyer and a medical doctor, making him “twice as hard to push around”. Now in his advanced years, Harshaw is the exact opposite of Smith. Worldly, educated, and curmudgeonly he becomes Smith’s teacher as they avoid pursuit by the world government.
What follows is a series of expertly written dialogues between Smith – who is psychologically a Martian and Harshaw ( as well the staff on his estate ), as each learns about the other’s world.
Sexuality, religion, art, politics, human nature and even cannibalism are all called into question.
I first read this book when I was about twelve years old and some of these excellent conversations followed me in my thoughts through the course of my life.
It was in this book, that I first learned that the essence of the fine arts is not photographic reproduction but communicating a message. Harshaw explains why Rodin’s “La Belle Heaulmière” (The Old Courtesan) is one of his favorite pieces of art. Anyone could have carved out a sculpture of a beautiful woman, explains Harshaw, but Rodin was able to make people see the beautiful woman that the old woman once was.
Later in the book, Smith is despondent, despite having become educated about life on Earth. Having been raised by beings that defacto only had one sex and who interact with the dead as mundanely as we buy groceries, Smith just can’t understand humanity.
At a zoo Smith observes a chimpanzee brutally assaulting a smaller of his kind out of the possession of a treat. After sobbing, the smaller chimpanzee then turns on an even smaller member of his kind to do the exact same thing.
Smith brakes out laughing, – for the first time in his life. In a flash of insight Smith sees that the basis of humor is tragedy and that human beings are the only animals that laugh — or that need to. This according Smith, is what makes an animal a human being. Having just laughed, he has taken full possession of his humanity and comes at long last to fully understand people.
You just don’t get fascinating ideas like this in the movies, nor television and especially not on the internet. “Stranger In A Strange Land” is chock full of such interesting observations.
Reading this book again was reading it for the first time.
The content of “Stranger In A Strange Land” is dominated by sex and political intrigue, neither of which I understood when I was twelve. This time around I did not find the sex spooky. I did understand the political intrigue and I did understand Heinlein’s subtle yet damming satire of religion. I thought both were brilliant.
Heinlein was a highly intelligent, creative and stubborn man. He was pro-military, he was anti-draft, he was a strong social libertarian, anti-hippy, sex positive and a strong atheist.
You will get a truly unique mix of views about everything in his book “Stranger In A Strange Land”. Conservative and liberals alike, will be deeply offended. Everyone will be fascinated.
Run, do not walk to your local library.
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