Stranger in a Strange Land

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Stranger in a Strange Land is a novel I’ve heard so much about for a long, that is, not really hearing what it was actually about.  I’ve heard masterpiece, brilliant, bestselling classic (and that was also written on the front cover of my edition), great book, etc.  So in my mind I pictured a great work of science-fiction, that would go clear over my head since I assumed I would get lost in all the science.  Well my vague assumptions were incorrect.  Science-fiction is not my forte at all but when it was chosen as the March read for my book club, I was anxious to finally know what this book was all about. I got the uncut version so that I wouldn’t miss a bit of Heinlein’s first desired words of Stranger in a Strange Land.  Heinlein’s original draft was cut about 160,000 words before being published because a few of the scenes were viewed as being “offensive to public taste”, which is how Virginia Heinlein described it in the preface of the book.

This is the story of Valentine Michael Smith.  Humankind sent an expedition to Mars, but there were never heard from again.  About twenty-five years later another expedition is sent and they find Valentine Michael Smith, who is the child of two of the original crew sent there.  He has been raised by Martians.  He was later discovered and brought back to Earth.  In the beginning, he is naive, curious, and childlike, not speaking or understanding well Earth language or our customs.  Once on Earth, he becomes the center of attention for mankind, as he teaches them grokking and water-sharing.  What is grokking you may be wondering?  “Grokking, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, is to understand something intuitively or by empathy.”  It states that it is a word invented by Robert A. Heinlein in the 1960s.  It can be used in many verb forms like groks, grokking, or grokked.  It is considered to be used in US informal English.  As I read on, in the beginning I was struggling with this word.  It was everywhere and I started to consciously replace it with “smurf”, while laughing to myself because it reminded me of that.  I quickly began to understand better it was a way of saying a deeper understanding of something, along with a few other meanings.

As a whole, I didn’t enjoy this novel.  I went into it expecting something that it isn’t.  I was expecting lots of spaceships, advanced technology, and lots of other strange and intriguing things.  On the other hand, what I got is a satirical critique on society at the time and on what it was likely to become.  It was like reading about the sixties.  There wasn’t enough technological advancement for my taste.  It’s very heavy on themes about sex, religion, politics, and relationships.  Heinlein couldn’t keep quiet at all during his book.  It was like he had to keep reminding us of the reasons he had for writing it.  That got a little old and was a major turn off for me.  However, there are some great one liners and his forecast of the future has proved to be somewhat accurate for some things.  He seemed to have difficulty though with his female characters who remained so insipid that their names could have been interchanged.  Not to mention their roles are typical for female characters – nurse, assistant, sex object, mother, etc.  Some have accused the book of being down right sexist.  I won’t discourage you from reading this book because I do feel that it will appeal to some, but don’t go into it thinking it will be a typical science-fiction novel because it’s a lot more than that.  There are many themes running through this novel that are worthy of being thought about and discussed in a book club setting for example or among friends.  I gave it only 2 stars because I really didn’t find it enjoyable to read.  That’s my opinion, but I urge you to make your own by picking it up yourself.  Is is the best science-fiction novel ever written?  I’m not so sure about that.  So, what do you think?  Will you put Stranger in a Strange Land on your TBR?  If you’ve read it, did you enjoy it?  Do yon think it’s the best science-fiction novel ever written?  If not What do you think is the best science-fiction novel ever written?

Robert A. Heinlein was most known for having written Stranger in a Strange Land, along with quite a few others.  He was born in 1907 in Butler, Missouri.  Heinlein is considered to be “the dean of science-fiction writers”.  He was the focal fiction writer supporting and encouraging other great science-fiction writers such as Ray Bradbury and L. Ron Hubbard.  He hosted an informal gathering of science-fiction writers of the Mañana Literary Society which included Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, L. Sprague de Camp, Henry Kuttner, and C.L. Moore.  Isaac Asimov was recruited by Heinlein from 1942 to 1945, while he was working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as a service engineer.

Heinlein’s first short story published in 1939 was called Life-Line.  It is the story of Professor Pinero.  He invents a machine that has the capability to predict how long a person will live. He had the intention of writing it for a competition in Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine, where the prize was $50, but instead he submitted it to another magazine called Astounding, and was paid $70.  From there he wrote a plethora of short stories and novels, often encompassing themes of sex, race, religion, the military, and politics.  Heinlein also wrote a series of novels that would be considered Young Adult today called the  Heinlein Juveniles, also known as the Scribner Juveniles, which consists of 12 books written between 1947 and 1958.  They are Rocket Ship Galileo, Space Cadet, Red Planet, Between Planets, The Rolling Stones, Farmer in  the Sky, Starman Jones, The Star Beast, Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Have Space Suit-Will Travel.  Heinlein was a real powerhouse in science-fiction writing, so if you’re interested in his work, there is surely something among his many novels and short stories that will interest you.  Oh and by the way, if you were wondering what the A stands for in his middle name, it’s Anson.  Anson MacDonald was a pseudonym he used.  MacDonald was his second wife’s maiden name.  Check out the clip below for Robert Heinlein quotes.  He was surely a highly intelligent man with a great sense of humour.

Title: Stranger in a Strange Land

Genre:  Science-Fiction/Classic/Fantasy/Religion

Published:  1991 edition

Edition:  The Berkley Publishing Group

Pages:  525

Language:  English

My rating:  * * 

My favorite quote:  ”You speak it fluently, I heard you.  Do you grok ‘grok’.” (Stranger in a Strange Land, p. 264)

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4 Comments

  1. Never read Heinlein, and I’m not attracted to read it. I read Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Howard P. Lovercraft, Franck Herbert, Philip Jose Farmer, and a few others including recently Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells. Among all of these novels only one that I remember from Clarke included a religious theme. My recommended sci-fi books would be : War of the worlds (Wells), Foundation (Asimov), Robots (Asimov), 2001 Space Odyssey (Clarke), Dagon (a short story of Lovecraft), Ubik (Dick), Farenheit 451 (Bradbury) “Tous à Zanzibar” (John Brunner), Dune (Herbert).

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  2. I remember being similarly disappointed after reading Stranger in a Strange Land (but what a great title). It has been many years, but yes, there is a lot of philosophizing about free love and not so much about spaceships. I actually just read in a blog post today, someone using the word grok. I intuitively knew what it meant. So I guess it has entered the vernacular?

    I loved Dune when I first read it, but it is a huge book and Herbert also has an agenda and his characters talk a lot about politics, religion and ecology. It is a book, where if you read it at the right time, you live it, if you know what I mean.

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