I had a number of reasons for wanting to take a crack at Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land here on the blog. First of all, it is an undisputed classic. It’s a favorite in sci fi circles, though, and I don’t spend as much time there as I should. This seemed like a good chance to correct that.
However, I really knew nothing about the book. What I thought I knew came from the Iron Maiden song of the same title:
Stranger in a strange land
Land of ice and snow
Trapped inside this prison
Lost and far from home
Of course, the above selected lyrics show that the song has nothing (as far as I can tell) to do with this book.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for David Foster Wallace.)
So…what is Stranger in a Strange Land about? Well, we have Mike (Valentine Michael Smith). He is a human who was born on a flight to Mars and was marooned there to be raised by Martians when the crew of his voyage killed each other over some infidelities related to his birth. After a subsequent mission, he is brought back to Earth. Many on Earth hope to exploit him for both the wealth he inherited and a Mars land grab they hope to justify through him. The Martians, on the other hand, hope to use him to gather data on Earth.
“It’s a nasty story. I got that much before my informant sobered up. Dr. Ward Smith delivered his wife by Caesarean section–and she died on the table. What he did next shows that he knew the score; with the same scalpel cut Captain Brant’s throat–then his own. Sorry, hon.”
Jill shivered. “I’m a nurse. I’m immune to such things.”
“You’re a liar and I love you for it.”
Of course, this is just the beginning. Some decent humans get a hold of him and attempt to thwart those who would exploit him, though he soon doesn’t need much help.
Johnson did not hit Jill as hard as he used to hit his wife before she left him, not nearly as hard as he hit prisoners who were reluctant to talk. Until then Smith had shown no expression and had said nothing; he had simply let himself be forced along. He understood none of it and had tried to do nothing at all.
When he saw his water brother struck by this other, he twisted, got free–and reached toward Johnson–
–and Johnson was gone.
Only blades of grass, straightening up where his big feet had been, showed that he had ever been there. Jill stared at the spot and felt that she might faint.
Berquist closed his mouth, opened it, said hoarsely, “What did you do with him?” He looked at Jill.
“Me? I didn’t do anything.”
“Don’t give me that. You got a trap door or something?”
Where did he go?”
Berquist licked his lips. “I don’t know.” He took a gun from under his coat. “But don’t try your tricks on me. You stay here–I’m taking him.”
The Old Ones had taught him well. He stepped toward Berquist; the gun was swung to cover him. He reached out–and Berquist was no longer there.
In a very summary way, and I hope in a non-spoiling one, this attempted exploitation is dealt with one way or another. Mike then attempts to understand humans and live in their world. Then, he tries to use what he knows to fix things for humans. Much happens along the way.
All in all, this was probably one of the more interesting sci fi and/or utopian novels (I say utopian because of the discussions centering around Mike attempting to fix things for people) I’ve ever read. I got into it and didn’t feel that I had to wade through a bunch of stuff to get to the story. As for the utopian dreams, it didn’t really descend to the level of mouthpiece, though it came close at times.
Mind you, the pacing was a bit different from what would have been my druthers. Sometimes it felt like Stranger in a Strange Land wandered a bit. It certainly didn’t seem logical to me how the book flowed from one thing to another at certain points. However, other than those things, I found the book to be damn good…and I think my criticisms are more my personal taste as opposed to real criticisms of the merits of the book.
Frankly, I’m not much of a sci fi buff, so I can’t judge Stranger in a Strange Land in that context. However, I don’t much care about that. I just judge it as a book, same as any other. It might not be my favorite thing out there, but it was a book I needed to read. I’m glad I finally got around to it.