Traditionally billed as a science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land is more a social and political commentary, with the sci-fi part taking a back seat. The story begins when Valentine Michael Smith, a human child born on Mars and raised by Martians, returns to earth. Heinlein’s narrative provides perspective on American culture through the eyes of this alien human, and is done through satire.
There’s nothing that seems off-limits to Heinlein. He attacks government, ideology, religion, sex and human relationships. Knowing that this book was first published in 1961, it is helpful to understand the context within which Heinlein wrote this novel. Americans were fearful of a nuclear holocaust as relations with Russia were contentious. Birth control pills were approved by the FDA in 1960, giving rise to the sexual revolution. Teens had money, free time and the new entertainment of the day (ie, music, television and movies, not to mention drugs) was turning them away from the traditions of their parent’s generation. Then along comes Heinlein, and he exposes them to something even more shocking: total abandonment of traditional conventions. And he doesn’t just portray it in this novel – he is preaching it.
This type of anti-establishment, anti-traditionalist thought had a huge influence on the Democrat party in the United States and on American society as a whole. What’s fascinating, is comparing this to the state of the Democrat party and young people today. Right now, it appear that Democrats and American youth are embracing Progressivism – which is actually the polar opposite of Heinlein’s movement from the 60’s. With Progressivism, the establishment goes even further to dictate the conventions of that society upon it’s people. It is eye-opening to read some of the Goodreads comments about this novel – today’s Progressives hate it.
I was born in the 1960’s, so my generation reaped the benefits of the freedoms Heinlein’s generation sought to secure for society. He was virulently opposed to religion, but at the same time he was tolerant of those who choose it. He also opposed all institutions, because he believed them to be a source of tyranny and oppression. He placed the freedom and opportunity to think for oneself and live one’s own life above all else.
As a novel, I thought Stranger in a Strange Land was meh. Satire is tricky with me, and much about this book just seemed slap-stick and silly. There was also a strong Jesus Christ motif running through the piece, and while I could attempt to look at it objectively, I’m sure many would have a problem with it. As a thought piece, however, it’s well worth the read.
4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1961
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