Love it or Hate it? Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein
Have you ever noticed how some books seem to drive a wedge between people? You check the reviews and find almost no middle-of-the-road ratings. Instead people either seem to love it or hate it. Well, welcome to the Love it or Hate it post category! Each month, we’ll pick one book to review and two contributors will battle it out to convince you to pick it up or throw it out. Last month we discussed The Twilight Saga. The votes were closer than I thought. 42% loved it and 35% hated it. Everyone else fell into the “haven’t read it but I’ll pass” category. Many thanks to our Love it reviewer, Nicole R! I (Jen) was the Hate it reviewer.
This month’s selection is on Boxall’s 1001 List of Books to Read before you Die and is considered to be one of the most influential science fiction books ever written. It is also considered to be a highly controversial book for many reasons. So the question is… do you Love it or Hate it? Continue reading to find see our two reviews. Make sure to vote in our poll at the bottom of the post even if you haven’t read it.
Synopsis (from Goodreads): Valentine Michael Smith is a person raised on Mars, newly returned to Earth. Among his species for the first time, he struggles to understand the social mores and prejudices of human nature that are so alien to him, while teaching them his own fundamental beliefs in grokking, watersharing, and love.
Love it (Reviewer A): Have you ever read a book that fascinated you from beginning to end, and where you couldn’t guess, even when you tried, what is going to happen next? I have. A long time ago, in my late teens, I read Stranger in a Strange Land. It was actually highly recommended to me by one of my friends. Back then we didn’t have fancy eReaders or public online libraries. I’m not even sure I would have been able to find this book in the ‘regular’ public library either, but one day I was given a file and then I read it on my ‘new’ Windows computer.
I believe the thing that most stuck with me then was the part about Michael loving everyone and connecting with everyone (It seemed super cool at the time). Much later (in 2012-2013), I listened to the book for the second time. It was a much deeper experience. And even though I liked it less, I found much more to think about.
A lot of what became of Mike was due to the society and its lack of acceptance of someone different, someone unique. If you’re not a part of the herd – you’re a black sheep and you need to disappear. It worries me that this type of behaviour is not ageing and doesn’t seem to dissolve into nothingness. On the one hand, this theme keeps the book relevant today, but on the other hand it is bad news for people who are different and want to stand out.
Reading the story for the second time, I did notice some things about Mike and his ‘church’ I disliked. Fortunately, even though the ‘church’ and ‘beliefs’ seem to take a big part of the book, there are a lot of other things to think about as well. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT! Oh, come on, how cool would it have been to look at something and just simply wish it to not exist any more?! ‘Poof’, it’s not there… it’s no-o-o-o-o-o-where!”
Hate it (Reviewer B): To be fair, I didn’t hate everything about this book, but the elements I did hate made me never want to read another book by Heinlein.
Yes, it was an influential book, provided inspiration to many scientists and, thanks to Heinlein, we can now use the word “grok.” I just didn’t grok the appeal of the book and found it dated (free love, hippy communes, etc.). But more than anything, I just felt that Heinlein was a sexist jerk whose views on women were about as insightful as a block of wood (or the FIFA officials who decided it was appropriate to celebrate women athletes by using scantily clad, stiletto wearing models to present the medals). All the women were secretaries, strippers, or nurses. The book was littered with gems like this:
Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master-and that is what August Rodin was-can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is…and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn’t matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired-but it does to them.
And my personal favorite: “9 times out of 10 when a woman gets raped it’s partly her own fault.”
I’ve heard lots of people justify the sexism in this book by claiming it was a product of the times. I hate that excuse. It’s okay because everyone else thought it was okay? Thomas Hardy wrote in the late 1800s and was arguably more progressive in his views of women than Heinlein (at least in this book). If we applaud Hardy for being able to think outside his time, why should we allow more “modern” authors to get away with sexism in their books?
For those not convinced by the sexism argument, Stranger in a Strange Land is also incredibly preachy. The first half was quite good and I enjoyed some of the messages that the love it reviewer mentioned. But the second half rapidly devolved into a weird free love, cultish, over-the-top sermon that I found boring and induced much eye rolling.
Do you love orgies, free love, and female characters with as much depth as a doorknob? Then look no further, because this is the perfect book for you!
What do you think? Vote in our poll and tell is if you love it or hate it. If you haven’t read it, you can vote on whether you want to or not.
Oh, Reviewer B! I’m sad you didn’t like it. But sometimes a book just doesn’t click, and I get that. I know I probably won’t change your mind, but there are a few things I want to add about the role of women in this novel.
You’re right that most of the women are strippers or nurses or secretaries, but that isn’t the whole truth – while the female characters for the most part fall into the typically gendered jobs, they are also so much more than their profession. Heinlein enjoys a pretty girl, but portrays women who are passionate, clever, and unafraid to stand up for themselves. Heinlein also does an excellent job of portraying men and women in equal relationships; women aren’t princesses to be rescued, but equal partners who do their fair share of saving the day. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while Heinlein’s women are objects of desire and admiration, but that’s far from their only role – and not their most important one.
I agree the book can be sexist, and I don’t want to make any excuses for those parts of it – the rape line you point out is especially horrifying. But it’s still pretty rare to find strong women characters in a lot of science fiction, but Heinlein always made a point of putting them in his books, usually at the forefront. I recommend this book a lot, and while there are a few wince-worthy parts it still has a lot to offer.
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I found myself thinking about books to burn and this one bubbled to the top of my mind, along with The Double Helix. I read it as a young woman and hated it. Yes it has a “strong” female character but only through the eyes of being an object of desire/attraction. Desirable first, strong second. That was my take on it at the time and I admit, I have never re-read it.
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I agree. I read it relatively recently and really hated it
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This is a horror story. It divulges the true nature of a cult leader in all his evil. But instead of leaving one to feel horror, it purports to celebrate the cult as some kind of utopian ideal. This book is awful.