So-Called “Greats”: Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert A. Heinlein is often categorised as one of the “big three” authors of mid-20th century science fiction, alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. With novels like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers, it’s clear his contribution to the genre is valid.

Of all his works though, one stands out as being perhaps his greatest: Stranger in a Strange Land. First published in 1961, this Hugo Award winning novel has been regarded as one of the many novels that shaped America. All this hype surrounding it naturally made me eager to read it.

Yet, upon reading this what I got was anything but a “great” of the genre. In fact, this is by far my most hated “great” of speculative fiction.

Tried and True Storytelling with Memorable Characters

The main plot of Stranger in a Strange Land is nothing too new. It’s practically the same “raised by wolves” plot of both The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes. Unlike these stories though, the lead protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, is raised on Mars by Martians and tries to adapt to life on Earth. This spin on the classic “raised by wolves” gives it both a sense of familiarity and uniqueness, although that’s hardly a benefit.

Perhaps where this novel’s greatest strength is in is its characters, particularly Valentine Michael Smith. He is, as the title suggests, a stranger in a strange land. Earth to him appears as this strange place, with humans interacting in ways he can’t quite understand.

In many ways, I feel like Valentine Michael Smith myself, being on the autism spectrum disorder. I too felt like a stranger in a strange land, living with a different way of seeing the world to other people. This is the one good thing about this book; it gave me a character I could relate to in sci-fi.

A Tedious Read with Disgusting Ideas

What really makes Stranger in a Strange Land a terrible book are two main aspects. The first of these is how tedious the book is. I read the uncut version, the one which Heinlein personally liked best. This uncut version is a long, boring read, being filled with a whole lot of nothingness.

The front cover of the New English Library (NEL) cover of Stranger in a Strange Land, the edition of this book that I originally read.

I remember finding this a really difficult read and took away a lot from the plot. This was caused by terrible writing, which I struggled with. This is, I think, Heinlein’s writing style, as I stopped reading The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress for the same reason.

The other main aspect is some of the ideas Heinlein brings up in this book. I won’t say some of them as they’re along the lines of sexuality and consent, which can cause distress. I remember feeling angry as I read these ideas. They were to the point I actually wanted to slam the book shut and discard it immediately.

Yet, despite this, I powered through, only to get angrier with its ideas of masculinity. This one experience is what I really hated about this book and has what made me less keen on reading more of Heinlein’s work.

Is It A “Great”?

In my opinion, Stranger in a Strange Land is far from a “great” of speculative fiction, based on its ideas and writing style. Yet, it’s a book as to which I keep thinking back to, despite my displeasure at it. This is because of my connection to Valentine Michael Smith. He’s one of the very few book characters I’ve connected with over the years, which helps it be held up as a “great” for that one character.

I personally wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, but if you’re interested in mid-20th century award-winning sci-fi books, give it a read. Who knows, you may find it more entertaining than I did. 

Title Image: Stranger in a Strange Land illustration, 1987, oil on canvas, link below

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