2017 Reading List: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

This next book on my 2017 list was chosen at random by my office book club. This was the second book we’ve read and, while I read it quite a while ago, we just got together this past week to discuss it.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, is allegedly the most famous science fiction book of all time. However, I’d never heard of it, and neither had most of my coworkers. It was written in the 1960’s and when it was originally published, they actually asked the author to cut it down because it was too long and they believed no one would read a book of that length. He cut it down as much as he could, but he believed everything in the book was important. After his death, his widow had the original uncut manuscript published in 1991. This is the version that I read. 

The book is about a man, named Valentine Michael Smith (Mike), who was born on Mars and raised by Martians. When a new space mission from Earth goes to Mars, they bring the human back with them. Because of certain laws in place, it seems that Mike is the apparent “owner” of Mars, and is therefore quite wealthy. However, he has no idea, because in his mind, he is a Martian, unaware of Earthly laws and politics. So he becomes a subject of interest in the eyes of U.S. political leaders. They want to essentially take away his “rights” to Mars without him truly understanding.

Enter Ben, a journalist, who wants to speak to the famous “Man from Mars,” whom no one has been allowed to see since his arrival. He struggles to get access to Mike and actually gets taken away by the government for intervening. His girlfriend, Jill, is a nurse at the hospital where they’re keeping Mike and she befriends him by “sharing water.” Now they are bonded together, and Jill helps him get out of the hospital. She takes him to a man named Jubal, and that’s where the story really unfolds.

Jubal is a retired lawyer and a famous author who writes under pen names through his assistants, young women who live with him. He is eccentric and stubborn and clever and witty. And he is my absolute favorite character. By the end of the book, you realize the book is actually more about Jubal than about Mike.

Under the care and protection of Jubal and Jill, Mike learns the ways and customs of Earth and human beings. He inexplicably has qualities that are unheard of among humans. Like the ability to slow down or stop his breathing and heartbeat, his ability to stay underwater for long periods of time, his ability to make objects and people vanish into thin air, his ability to levitate things, his ability to “leave” his body and see things that are going on in other rooms or places, and his ability to subtly change his form and appearance.

But he learns how to be human and how to speak English. He reads and memorizes encyclopedias. He remembers everything he’s ever read or seen or experienced. His body becomes stronger and he becomes a high functioning member of society. But all of his experience is on Jubal’s compound.

He learns that weapons are bad and he must do everything he can to protect his “water brothers.” He also slowly teaches Jill how to speak and understand his Martian language.

This part of the book was the most interesting to me, although it was a bit slow and drawn out, compared to the rest of the book. It was so interesting to think about human concepts from a new perspective and to realize that things we think are innate or unconscious are actually constructs of our culture and society. The first half of the book was truly and exploration of human nature at its deepest level.

But alas, Mike must leave the compound to experience more of the world. He and Jill join the circus and travel all over the country. Mike works as a magician with Jill as his assistant. He’s not very good though because he doesn’t have true charisma to connect with the crowds.

They move on from the circus, traveling, seeing new cities, gambling in Las Vegas.

Mike starts a church, of sorts, where he preaches his essential truth “Thou art God.” He positions it as a religion, where people are followers of him, of Jill, of Jubal. People have to learn Martian, they don’t have a construct of money, they don’t wear clothes, they can have sex with whomever they want. Yes, Mike creates a sex cult.

Ben and Jubal are appalled by what he is doing, but eventually, they both join.

Since Mike is obviously very unconventional, the authorities don’t like him. So he gets arrested often. He always escapes from jail, and at least one time, he released all the other prisoners as well. So they really don’t like him.

Mike stages the explosion of his religious sex compound and manages to get everyone out, even though they’re all believed to be dead.

And in the end, they are accosted by an angry mob and Mike basically sacrifices himself and they kill him.

So I ruined the ending for you. I’m sorry, but you had to know. Two of my coworkers hadn’t finished the book when we met to talk about it. They both said they only got about halfway through, but they weren’t motivated to finish it. They thought it was interesting concepts, but too boring and drawn-out. They said they didn’t care if we ruined the ending by talking about it. But once we told them about the circus and the sex cult and the explosion and Mike’s ultimate demise, they decided they HAD to finish it.

So now, when you get halfway through and don’t think you can keep going, you will remember what happens later in the book and you’ll keep going until you get to the good parts!

A few thoughts:

  • There was a lot of talk of religion in this book. Different religions and their importance in peoples lives. It’s interesting because I think that religion is still relevant but it’s much less prominent today than it probably was in the 60’s, when this book was written.
  • This book is very sexist. The author obviously could not imagine a world where women were equal to men. This bothered me.
  • The evolution of technology in the author’s mind was interesting. This is the thing I’ve found about the little science fiction I’ve read – they can imagine the improvement or advancement of the things that they already have or that are already important, but they are unable to imagine as accurately the things that do not yet exist for them. For example, the author wrote a lot about television and the evolution of television into holographic 3-D boxes. Telephones were visual, but phones were also big. Flying cars played a huge role. But the author could not have predicted the true evolution of computers and the way that we would have computers that fit in the palm of your hand, the internet that connects people and houses all information. In the book, they’re still reading books and encyclopedias. And the author could never have guessed that social media would soon change the way the whole world works.

I really enjoyed this book, despite my initial aversion to science fiction. As I said, this book touched on so many qualities of human nature, culture and language that it hardly felt like science fiction. Except when Mike make people disappear with his mind.

I would recommend this book, even if you’re not a big science fiction fan, like me. It was interesting and eye-opening and entertaining. But remember, I don’t believe the book was truly about Mike. I think it was about Jubal.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this – if you’ve ever heard the word “grok” and had no idea what it meant or where it came from, this is the book. Read it, and then you’ll grok.

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4 thoughts on “2017 Reading List: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

  1. Regarding your second thought on your “thoughts” section; this is similar to the reason I don’t like reading H.P. Lovecraft. The man was a ridiculous racist and it falls into much of his writing. Many try to pass it off as being a product of the time, but I don’t think that excuse is enough to brush over the representation. I ran into a similar problem rereading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger because the only women in the book are defined by their position as sexual objects for the protagonist. That being said, thank you for such a great review and where in the world do you work that has a book club and how do I join haha!?

    • Thanks for your comment! While, like you, I don’t like discriminatory writing, I still think that there are important books that still need to be read and discussed. The important thing is to recognize and call attention to the discrimination, the racism, the sexism.

      And I love that we started a book club at work! A coworker and I decided that since we love to read and talk about about books, we would just send an email out to the company to see if anyone else was interested in starting a book club with us. There were about 8 people interested, we all put book suggestions in a Google doc and we randomly pick one every two months or so. Then we meet for lunch to talk about it. Super simple, but a lot of fun!

  2. I read this when I was in college, and loved it. I enjoyed it because I’d never read anything like it. Since then, I’ve picked it up a few times. I love the opening of the book, when we first meet Michael and learn about his youth on Mars, what Grok means. These days, I get past the opening. . . and then am just bored to tears.

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