Tuesday, 21 April 1998

Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

Edition: New English Library, 1970
Review number: 27

This is one of the classics of science fiction, and was hailed in the early seventies as the novel of the hippie era. It is easily Heinlein's best known work, and his later attempts to regain its tone mark, to me, the beginning of a lengthy decline.

The story is basically an attempt to analyse human (and specifically American) culture from an alien point of view, to look at is as though absolutely none of the commonly held beliefs were true.

The hero, Michael Smith, is a child born on Mars to two of the crew of the first human expedition to that planet; he is raised by the Martians when a catastrophe wipes out the adults of the expedition. Years later, another expedition to Mars results in contact with the Martians and Michael's return to Earth, completely innocent of knowledge about the planet. The greater part of the novel details his attempts to understand human nature from his Martian philosophical perspective (which is rather like that of Eastern philosophy); these end in his foundation of a new religion to help human beings achieve their full potential which hitherto has been impossible because of the straitjacket of human culture.

Some parts of the book seem rather dated now, principally Heinlein's rather patronising attitude to one character who is a Moslem. The attacks on Western culture don't seem quite so shocking as they must have done on first reading, and the New Age hippy culture of free love a less radical alternative. But the book continues to be a good read.

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