Book Review: Stranger In A Strange Land By Robert A. Heinlein

Yes, it’s more Sci-Fi! But, I’m no longer in the world of Warhammer turning, instead, to the classic literature of Robert A. Heinlein. Based purely on the suggestion of Google, and their “you may like to read…” algorithm, I picked Stranger From A Strange Land, completely overlooking the fact Heinlein was also the author of Starship Troopers.

Even if I’d remembered Heinlein’s previous offering, it wouldn’t have put me off from beginning read. The issues I found in Starship Troopers are now so diluted by the cult love I hold towards its film adaptation, that I don’t really recall them anymore. But looking back to them now, I wish I’d looked them up, because, while Starship Troopers is flawed, Stranger From A strange Land takes its problems to a whole new level.

It’s been a long time since I’ve struggled with a book quite as much as this. I actually reached the point, after 100 pages, where I was finding it so difficult to get into the story, I actually walked away. I selected a new book to start, deciding that Heinlein was to earn his place on the very small shelf I have for books I never managed to finish – currently only occupied by Steven King’s The Gunslinger & Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But it was too late. The story may have been passing me by, nothing but a miasma of words on a page, but the characters weren’t. They had a personality, a joviality, that had done just enough to get them under my skin, and leave me unable to leave.

As I said, my problem with Stranger From A Strange Land is that I just found the story impossible to follow and unravel in my mind. Heinlein writes in huge swathing monologues, that seem to go and on without natural pause. Paragraphs bloated with polysyllabic oration that skips in broken rhythm. My mind left desperately trying to translate a word while bombarded by 3 more. It reminded me of the over-the-top, jargon filled speeches, so often portrayed in courtrooms and parliaments. A man pacing back and forth, spewing words and phrases, designed and paced to create a spectacle that is more bamboozling than informative.

Worse than the confusing oration was the fact that, what little of the story I was able to follow, and picture in my mind, felt removed more like basic fiction and less like scientific dreaming. Stranger From A Strange Land is story of a man from Mars, returned to Earth, starting with interstellar space travel – a trip from Earth to Mars that takes only 19 days – but after the return journey, the rest of the book plays out in a world that feels far more like the 1940s than anything capable of producing interstellar travel. The descriptions of technology that feel primitive and old fashioned married to a pace of life, far slower than anything needed to drive the thinking of man beyond our own skies. Heinlein feels like he’s created a world that has gone a long way backwards, to apparently, go forward.

These problems may just be the result of the impossibility I found to get beyond the simplistic ‘top skin’ of the story. When two characters talked, I’d get general topic but ask me what they truly said, and I wouldn’t have a clue and that’s my issue. I’m sure there are people, smarter than me, who would tell you, that once into the lower levels of Heinlein’s tale, there are social commentaries and historical thinking, images and reflections of the mood of a generation, lying in wait, an entire dimension that makes this a classic. But I couldn’t get there, however much I longed to. I wonder, in part, whether it’s a book that has failed with age. Modernity proving his foresight so wrong that the book is no longer relevant and reflective to an audience beyond its initial generation?

For all these problems, as I said, it was the characters that kept me reading. I never felt they were really me. There weren’t any familiarities or similarities between us – and they really need to learn to breathe more often (for the sake of literary chapters) – but they turn their world into one of warmth and friendliness. I wanted to hang around with them and be in their company. What I was being a naive accomplice to, I’m still not sure, especially as their actions towards public acceptance and gender equality, are beyond questionable at times but they just seem to exist in a safe place of inclusion. Whatever their politics and might actually have been.

I really wouldn’t recommend Stranger In A Strange Land. It’s use of technology feels outdated and misunderstood and the story feels preachy and unfathomable because of the language of presentation. Heinlein, for all his laudings, has written a book that, for me, doesn’t feel like a real Sci-Fi story, instead being nothing more than the forward thinking musings of a bygone era, attempting to hide in a genre it doesn’t belong. I think I’ll stick to my simple Space Operas.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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