Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book 135: Stranger In A Strange Land

"She had not thought about it at the time, as she had not believed that anything could happen to Ben. Now she thought about it. There comes a time in the life of every human when he or she must decide to risk 'his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor' on an outcome dubious. Jill Boardman encountered her challenge and accepted it at 3:47 that afternoon."

Dates read: March 21-27, 2017

Rating: 4/10

Lists/Awards: Hugo Award, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Growing up, it's easy to believe that almost everyone lives more or less the way you do. It's only as you get older that you start to realize that's not true. But it's hard to resist the urge to think of the way you grew up as the right way. But what if it wasn't just the people in your neighborhood or town that you were comparing yourself to? What if it wasn't even the same state or country? What if it was a person who came from an entirely different world?

Valentine Michael Smith, the central character of Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land, is an entirely unique person: the son of two space explorers on Mars who died shortly after his birth, he was raised by Martians in Martian culture. As an adult, Mike returns to Earth to explore his "home" planet. Initially hidden away in a hospital by the government, which is trying to figure out what to do with him, he's discovered by a reporter and smuggled out by a nurse. That nurse, Jill, becomes his constant companion, sheltering and protecting him as he learns about the world and becoming something of a disciple as he comes into his own and begins teaching Martian ways to his friends and, eventually, the world.

Jill and Mike are taken in, after their initial flight from authorities, by author/lawyer/doctor Jubal Harshaw, an older, cynical man who lives in a sprawling compound with three young women he employs as on-call stenographers for his writing and a handyman to keep things in good repair. This group forms the core of what becomes the Church of All Worlds, a religious movement centered on Mike and the teachings he espouses, including the deep significance ascribed to the sharing of water, the concept of "grokking", and (of course!), non-monogamous sexual relationships. The rise of this church upsets the established power structure of this future Earth, with predictable results for the figure at the center of this upset.

Smith is both human and profoundly non-human, which raises interesting questions about what exactly it means to be a person, a fairly common theme in the science fiction genre. Perhaps because it had been done before, or perhaps because he was disinclined to explore the issue, this is not the route that Heinlein chooses to go. Rather, he uses the story to explore the "Martian" philosophy on life. Which is interesting, for a while. But since the portions of the book that are effectively espousals of this philosophy actually make up a solid majority of the book, with relatively little character development, I found myself getting bored pretty quickly.

The plot is pretty straightforward: it's a messiah tale, with the kind of story progression you'd expect for this kind of tale. The prose is...not fluid. It's clunky, and the long passages of expository dialogue aren't handled with any particular deftness. While it raised some thought-provoking ideas, it never captured me as a piece of literature. I don't think there's any reason genre fiction can't be successful from a literary standpoint, but I never got wrapped up in the story this book was trying to tell me. It may be a sci-fi classic, but it didn't do it for me. I wouldn't recommend it.

Tell me, blog friends...what are your favorite genre fiction books?

One year ago, I was reading: The Good German

Two years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed


  1. I like almost any genre as long as it is written well. I haven't read a lot of sci-fi, but some and my favorite is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Russell always writes historical fiction and she says The Sparrow is historical fiction placed in the future. I have read three of her books and love her writing no matter what the genre. If any book is not well-written (obviously a subjective opinion) I am not interested. Nice review, though.

    1. Me too! I just want a good story at the end of the day. I'll have to add The Sparrow to my (never-ending, always growing) list! It sounds super interesting. And thank you!