Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

The 1960s must have been a really trippy decade. We've all seen the movies, we've heard about the hippie movement, we know the names Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. But I think I have found the quintessential example of 1960s free-love, anti-establishment, anti-religion which should be required reading for anyone interested in the philosophy of the era.

Why is it that science fiction rarely makes the circuit of "good" fiction in high school classes? There are a very few classics that do make the cut, but somehow science fiction is not respected as a useful literary genre with which to learn more about the times in which it was written. And yet science fiction is the most apt social commentary that exists. Good science fiction writers take tangible, concrete contemporary issues and place them in a futuristic scenario in which they can manipulate, comment on, and otherwise screw with the stories.

Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the best examples of this type of writing that I have ever read. It is an amazing book. As I was reading it I had to come back and check when it was published, how popular it was at the time, and what kind of reception Robert Heinlein received for his book. I could not believe that I had never heard more about this novel when it played so specifically into the criticisms of society in the 1960s. One review that I read suggested that the hippies of the era actually used the ideas in Heinlein's book to create some of the free love "nests" of the era. Why hadn't I ever heard that before?

The basic premise of the story is that a human who was raised on Mars is returned to earth. He has changed due to his interactions with the Martians and has skills which a normal human does not have. Through the course of the book, the character, Valentine Michael Smith, develops his abilities and uses them to try and make a better world, one person at a time. The people who surround Smith are critical of the world in which they live and a lot of the book is monologued commentary on human society. The father figure, Jubal Harshaw, acts as a voice box - I would assume - for Heinlein. So much of what he said was a direct criticism of American consumerism, egotism, and powerful institutions.

A few warnings, the book can be slow. I read the 350 page version published in the 1960s. In the 80s the book was re-released with additional content pushing the total page count over 500 pages. I had a hard time keeping my interest in the middle of the book as it was. I don't think I would have wanted an additional 150 pages. And, if you are protective of organized religion or uncomfortable reading about liberal sexual relations, don't read this book. Most of the commentary is focused on the ridiculousness of religious ideology. And Smith's response is to create an open, loving society in which sex is used as a means of growing closer. I didn't find either aspect offensive, but that might say more about me than about this book.

In the end, I think that Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the most interesting historical commentaries I have ever read. In school we all read 1984 or Animal Farm, both of which are great books. But they are dated now that communism has fallen apart. Heinlein's concerns and criticisms are less dated. Much of what concerned him almost 50 years ago remain relevant today.


cathy said...

I love this book! I read it in high school thanks to my parents. You're right - science fiction is definitely snubbed on high school reading lists, and there is plenty of great literary works in the science fiction genre that might really draw a high schooler in.

A Gwen Nelson said...

I mentioned Sci Fi to my college history students and they looked at me like I was insane. Guess I can't change the curriculum all on my own.