REVIEW FRIDAY: Sometimes a Classic Ages Poorly


A book review of the 1960s sci fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. Copyright held by the author.

AS THE pandemic wears on, I find myself turning to comfort novels, the great science fiction classics I discovered in my youth when I spent the majority of my high school nights and weekends sheltered amid stacks of science fiction books by classic authors: Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and my favourite, Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein received four Hugo awards for science fiction novel of the year: Double Star (1956), Starship Troopers (1960), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1967), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1962). Each of these novels possesses Heinlein’s trademark tropes: strong self-reliant men who overcome the dim-witted fools who govern their lives, and satirical swipes at religion, conventional marriage, and government (especially the intrusive sort). Heinlein’s novels are filled with wonderfully intuitive insights into future technology and the narratives rarely stumble, especially his juvenile novels. Red Planet, Space Cadet, Between Planets, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, The Star Beast, and others often hold up better than his “adult” stories. Yes, they are opinionated, and the author’s views aren’t for everyone. But the stories are packed with adventure and joy. For a terribly shy youngster dealing with an undiagnosed mental illness and other struggles, I found Heinlein’s stories and heroes appealing — avatars for the world I desired and for the man I wished to be.

Of course, no genius gets everything right. In Heinlein’s future universe, astronauts use slide rules to calculate orbits and computers fill up rooms. It doesn’t matter; the heroes always emerge victorious after the requisite stumbles. All hail invention and good old fashion perseverance.

I have reread a good dozen of these novels in the past three months and the last one, Stranger in a Strange Land, proved to be all I remembered and more, and unfortunately the more is not good. Of his four Hugo winners, Stranger in a Strange Land is the only one that ages poorly. After a strong opening section, the story bogs down into wordy philosophical tedium. It preaches. It bores. Worst, it insults women.

The story revolves around Michael Valentine Smith, a human raised on Mars and by Martians. Smith is the lone survivor of the spaceship Envoy—the first human expedition to Mars.

Discovered by the Champion crew 20 years later, Michael returns to Earth with the crew and is placed in seclusion by the government until his nurse, Jill Boardman, rescues him from possible death and probable government manipulation.

The story follows Michael’s adaption to human civilization and his desire to change it according to Martian ideals. Raised under the guidance of Martian “Old Ones,” the charismatic and handsome Michael harbours skills his human brethren do not: teleportation, psychic abilities, and the ability to discorporate or die at will.

The novel explores familiar themes in Heinlein’s later works including a North American culture dominated by religious zealots, a society consumed by vanity and popular culture (insightful for a 1962 novel), corrupt politicians (nothing new here) and puritanical views on marriage and sex.

In 1961, Heinlein’s views on plural marriage, free love, and the nature of God were controversial. The book was banned by libraries and denounced by critics as “cheap eroticism.” For me, however, a 15-year-old boy, it opened up a world that wasn’t available to me — one filled with adventure, love and beautiful women.

As an adult, however, I recognize the cowardly view Heinlein held toward the women in his later novels — I Will Fear No Evil, Time Enough for Love, and Friday. Women can only find happiness and fulfillment when they pop out babies and satisfy the egotistical wants and needs of misogynistic males. Men rarely address women by their given names. Adult professional women are spoken to as “girl,” “honey pie,” “darling,” or “adorable.”

During one remarkable discussion in Stranger, Jill Boardman, Michael’s nurse and protector, states, “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” If a male character uttered that sentence, I would internally shout, there’s the antagonist. I now know whom to root against. The same Jill discovers later on in the book that she is most happy when she can shed her clothes and become the embodiment of every male’s female ideal.

I recognize that a reader doesn’t have to agree with a character’s viewpoint to enjoy the story. I enjoy books that challenge my worldview. Plus, an artist has the right to express opinions that are unpopular, crude and even savage. However, the tone of the novel did not sit well with me. In Heinlein’s future, heroines are glorified Playboy bunnies. It’s a world run by males and for males.

Of all the Heinlein novels I have reread during the pandemic, Stranger is the one novel that not only failed to entertain me but also soured my view of Heinlein’s later works. Stranger wants to be a story about a small group of enlightened men and women striving to shed society’s puritanical restraints with the goal of guiding humankind to a new level of intellectual and moral maturity. It fails. Stranger in a Strange Land is a male fantasy suitable for lonely young boys and angry weak men afraid of strong intelligent women: women with the ability to carve out or create a world equal or greater than their male counterparts.

  1. Very insightful! I was a major Heinlein fan myself, and reading this book as a teenager very much influenced me. I began to search out more of his books and found they got more and more negative as pertains to women as well. On re-reading Stranger in a Strange Land a year or so ago I sadly noticed all of the points you noted. I myself stopped reading Heinlein completely when I was younger after partly reading his novel, ‘To Sail Beyond the Sunset’ which openly encourages father-daughter incest even with a mother’s consent. Upon reaching that part in the book, I literally stood up in shock and disgust, and ripped the book apart to throw away. I did not want to pass THIS book on to anyone. And in looking back over his books, I can see it was all leading up to this. So as much as I still love the old writers — I have all of Frank Herbert’s book, including his son’s Dune continuations — Heinlein no longer has a place in my bookshelf.

  2. Thank you for your comments and insight. His early short stories such as Universe and Orphans of the Sky and juveniles hold up well. He turned into a creepy old man and all his older works represent his predatory desires. Love Herbert. Clarke. Asimov and of course Bradbury.

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