Stranger in a Strange Land

by Robert A. Heinlein

Oh, Heinlein. I had my doubts about this one after my last foray into his work, but mention of Stranger in a Strange Land being on the bookshelf of an author I respect within another book I loved made me think that it might be worth a look. (Besides, the copy I picked up touted itself as “the most famous science fiction novel ever written,” so I’d be silly not to read it and still consider myself reasonably well-read.)

As you may guess from the title, Stranger in a Strange Land is very much a fish out of water story. Valentine Michael Smith is the first human born on Mars. His parents were part of the first expedition there from Earth (Terra), and he was raised by the ancient civilization of seemingly simple––by Earth standards, at least––immortals who live there. After another Terran expedition, Michael is sent back with the crew to Earth in order to understand them, their language, and their ways. When it comes to light both that he’s exceptionally wealthy due to his parents’ estates and that he can to lay claim to ownership of Mars because of precedence set in human law, a small group of people tries to protect the innocent Martian from those who want to take advantage of him, who have no regard for his safety and wellbeing in their quest for power and riches.

With Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein showcases an extraordinary imagination, having a unique capacity to extricate himself from human preconceptions that history and culture allow us to easily take for granted. This results in a mature reflection of the bounds of human understanding for science, religion, and philosophy when we hold to our prejudices, and the amazing potential we could theoretically have if we were able to move beyond them. The book most impressed me when the author interwove this discussion within his story, when Michael was most out of his element and we witnessed a world alien to him from a point of view that felt sincere. But, this being Heinlein, I could only apparently expect so much restraint. As the book progresses, he more and more feels the need to lecture to make his main argument apparent; though the interest doesn’t completely fall away in these sections, it greatly hurts the reading experience.

I was left torn by the end. Not far into Heinlein’s book, I was blown away. I was prepared to name this one of my favourites, but then the story became horribly bogged down and preachy, and I struggled to formulate a concise opinion by the end. I’m not sad that I read it. It most certainly gave me food for thought, and I would even suggest it expanded my understanding of the human condition, but it just as certainly would need some serious pruning for me to see it as the masterpiece so many consider it to be.