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Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace
Published: 1991
Review Posted: 6/29/2009
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 9 out of 10

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

Book Review by Paul Weiss

Have you read this book?

"A cult classic now out of time and out of place!"

Valentine Michael Smith is genetically a human. But he was born on Mars and he is now the only survivor of the first manned mission to Mars. When the second mission to Mars rescues him and brings him back to earth, they discover that is 100% Martian by culture, language, upbringing, education and understanding. They even discover that he has some exceptionally potent psychic abilities that, by human experience, are all but supernatural. Never having heard any human language and never having met a woman, he is a true "tabula rasa" when it comes to sex and sexuality, war and fighting, business, money and economics, religion and, indeed, all aspects of human culture and the cultural implications that are inherent in any of earth's many languages.

As if it wasn't enough that his arrival on earth caused a global sensation, the US government was aghast to come to the realization that a piece of earth-side legislation known as the Larkin Decision had the unforeseen implication that Valentine Michael Smith was not only the owner of Mars but also its sovereign. He was also the sole inheritor of the combined wealth of the entire crew of the first mission and, as a result, (despite having no knowledge of what money even meant) was now wealthy beyond imagining.

Events which transpired at Bethesda Naval Station, where Smith was housed after he first arrived on earth, conspired to place him under the watchful eyes of Gillian Boardman, a nurse at the hospital, Ben Caxton, a journalist, and Jubal Harshaw, an aging grumpy author with some definite ideas as to the rights and wrongs of the world. The novel, as you might imagine with this introduction, relates Michael Valentine Smith's journey through earth's culture, his reactions, his assimilation of the ideas and language of the earth and, ultimately, his proactive responses to what he has learned.

In the time of Timothy Leary, Haight-Ashbury, hippie culture, free love, flower children, "drop in, tune out", student protests against the Vietnam War, communal living and so on, it is little wonder that Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, became a much-loved cult classic. But, sadly, reading it almost 40 years later is to discover that Jubal Harshaw, one of the primary characters, is simply Heinlein's mouthpiece standing on a soapbox loudly spouting endless (and frankly outdated, dreary and boring) diatribes and opinions on organized religion, cults and churches (which, in Heinlein's mind, appear to be virtually indistinguishable one from the other), culture, language, imperialism, and, of course, sex and sexuality.

Certainly, Stranger in a Strange Land can be read with some interest because of its historical relevance to the period but it hasn't aged well at all. Modern readers born after the 60s will almost certainly find it both bizarre and quite tiresome. Even as a Heinlein fan who first read (and enjoyed) it shortly after its initial publication (and like other young people of the day was wont to ask my friends if they "grokked" the story), I found it a great disappointment today.

Recommended only out of academic interest. I found it a tough slog to even finish it today.

Paul Weiss

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Comments on Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
Posted by Joe Douglas on 8/13/2012
I strongly disagree, Paul. I have read SiaSL a dozen times now and everytime I view the story through different "glasses". I think it provides a great outsiders view on (human)cultural issues which will never be outdated. Born in '75 and strongly recommend my daughter, born '97, to read it.
Posted by Elizabeth Tame. on 1/10/2011
I am 19 years of age (1991, also after the 60's)

and absolutely love this book. There is so much to this book and so much to 'grok' from it.'Stranger in a Strange Land' is far from any sort of disappointment. I would certainly recommend this book.
Posted by sarvis on 8/13/2010
Remember, u were how old when u read this? And now as a old man u change. As is life. We love this. U hippies did a few things right. DON'T MESS THEM UP!!!! (guttershark)
Posted by jon snow on 4/18/2010
I forgot to add. I am 24 years old, born 1985 (was born AFTER 1960) and I absolutely love this book.
Posted by Wendy on 2/4/2010
I disagree, Paul. I read the book 10 years ago and just read it again. Love it! I'm 37 years-old, by the way...would pass it on to others.
Posted by Pamela J. Dodd on 7/5/2009
Stranger in a Strange Land is one of my favorites. Oh, it is dated, as are many works published more than 40 years ago. Still, the characters are memorable, as are some of the questions posed within the story. Certainly, it took some courage to use a pseudo-mythological savior as a main character, even in the sixties. And the "fair witness" concept is one that could revolutionize the justice system.

Although I thought that some of Heinlein's later works were much better, Stranger in a Strange Land did hold my interest when I first read it, and I've re-read it a half-dozen times since then, without any loss if interest.
Posted by von Darkmoor on 7/4/2009
Overall I must agree, Paul. I ranked it a three (1.5 stars) and mentioned some of your same points in my review 3 years ago at