Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1962 Stranger In a Strange Land

Robert A. Heinlein
Completed Feb 2013, reviewed 4/13/2013
3 stars

I enjoyed this book, but I’m not sure if I actually liked it.  I liked the basic premise: a human, Valentine Michael Smith, born and raised on Mars by Martians comes back to Earth and becomes a new Messiah.  The writing was good; it kept my interest and kept me reading.  My biggest problem with the book was that it felt like two very different books mashed together.  The first “book” is a chase, trying to free and hide the human Martian.  The second half is an in-your-face polyamorous hippie commune-based messiah story.  At times, I found the long dialogues arguing and supporting the polyamorous society to be not much more than well-written propaganda.  And there’s quite a style difference between the two halves.

From my research, I've found that it was quite shocking when it was first published.  I am a little perplexed that this book is now located in the young adult fiction section at the library.  While not shocked by the polyamory, I find it amazing that our conservative vocal minority, even in my liberal town, doesn't meet nightly at libraries with torches, ready to burn the book, or at least keep it out of the young adult section.

All of Heinlein’s books can be seen as, in some way or another, simply essays on war, libertarianism and polyamory.  But Heinlein does it so well!  If the book weren't so well written, I wouldn't have given it the stars I did.

Of course, the female characters never seem to make it above being secretaries or supporting wives.  At least they were a little more fleshed out than Starship Troopers or Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  This is most evident with Gillian Boardman, a nurse who discovers and rescues Valentine Smith from the government, starts out as a strong woman in the first half of the book, but her character’s strength dissipates in the second half.  The homophobia and racial slurs also caused me trouble.  As usual, I have to step back and realize who wrote it and when.

I really love that in all three of these books, Heinlein uses the device of the old smart man.  In Moon and Troopers, he’s a professor.  Here he’s an old writer/lawyer/doctor, kind of a Deus ex machina, all-wise and compassionate, having tons of money, and getting the main characters out of trouble.  I liked him more than Smith, who almost becomes a caricature by the end. 

I gave the book 3 stars.  Because it is so well written, I wanted to give it 4, but I knocked off a star for the significant change in writing style between each half of the book, for how he just had to put down gays and other minorities, and for turning all the strong women into Ivory Soap Girls.

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