Review: Stranger In A Strange Land

I hadn’t read Stranger in years, though like all nerds there were ideas and vocabulary from it that were part of my worldview.  Recent events incited me to have another look and refresh those old engrams.

Coming back to Stranger reminded me how much it challenges assumptions about religion and culture.  I found ideas in there that rewarded some thought and dissection.  My dissection was encouraged by their oblique presentation.  I’m confident that some of that was a stylistic decision to mimic the oblique writing style of so many religious texts.  Forcing readers to interpret vague text  draws them into the ideas and invests the interpreter in the meanings they form by dint of expended energy.  Noticing that aspect of inspirational writing was probably worth the reread.

I think of Heinlein as an idea generator – I often claim that he produces an interesting idea every hundred pages – and Stranger supports that.  It is speculative fiction in the best sense of that term.  Neither prediction nor prescription, but a reflection on humanity framed to encourage new thinking.  Ideas about the human condition, feminism, marketing inspiration, and carnival history are reverberating nicely in my skull now, which is great fun.

If Stranger is trying to sell its ideas on societal values, its literary constructions intrigue me.  Though there are nods to various underrepresented groups – e.g., women and a sympathetic Muslim character – it never felt inclusive to me.  I mean inclusive in a more broad sense than a purveyor of “Political Correctness” might construct it.  I don’t think Heinlein is failing to represent women, or people of color, or first nations citizens, or your favorite hot button name well; I think he isn’t representing humans well.  All of these characters feel like glib, educated, science fiction writers to me.  Even his allegedly charismatic Messiah is easily forgettable.  The only character I remember distinctly is Mary Sue, er, Jubal Harshaw.  And I don’t like him much, but he did evoke an emotion.

It’s possible that Heinlein intentionally kept his characters sketchy to act as symbols or manifestations of various counter points to his philosophical ideas.  I don’t see a lot of Bible characters as fully realized, either, so I believe this is a possibility rather than an excuse. That illuminates how I think about Stranger – I look at the ideas and presentation as parts of a manifesto that Heinlein tossed into the world.

There are ideas I find compelling in Stranger. There are ideas I disagree with. Any work with that density of ideas served up with a modicum of entertainment is worth my time.

Strongly Recommended.  If you want to punch Harshaw after 3 pages, you’re not alone.

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