Smug messiah: Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land was a publishing phenomenon. It came out in 1961 and it didn’t just sell to science fiction readers, it sold widely to everyone, even people who didn’t normally read at all. People claim it was one of the things that founded the counter-culture of the sixties in the U.S. It’s Heinlein’s best known book and it has been in print continuously ever since first publication. Sitting reading it in the metro the other day, a total stranger assured me that it was a good book. It was a zeitgeist book that captured imaginations. It won a Hugo. It’s undoubtedly a science fiction classic. But I don’t like it. I have never liked it.

Okay, we are going to have spoilers, because for one thing I think everybody has read it who wants to, and for another I can’t talk about it without.

My husband, seeing me reading this at the breakfast table, asked if I was continuing my theme of religious SF. I said I was continuing my theme of Hugo-winning SF—but that comes to the same thing. Hugo voters definitely did give Hugos to a lot of religious SF in the early sixties. I hadn’t noticed this, but it’s inarguable. Does anybody have any theories as to why?

Every time I read Stranger, I start off thinking “No, I do like it! This is great!” The beginning is terrific. There was an expedition to Mars, and they all died except for a baby. The baby was brought up by Martians. Now that baby, grown up, is back on Earth and he’s the centre of political intrigue. A journalist and a nurse are trying to rescue him. Everything on Earth is beyond his comprehension, but he’s trying to understand. It’s all marvellous, and Heinlein couldn’t write a dull sentence to save his life. Then they escape, and we get to Jubal Harshaw, a marvelous old writer with hot and cold running beautiful secretaries and I get turned off. I don’t stop reading. These are Heinlein sentences after all. But I do stop enjoying it.

My problem with this book is that everybody is revoltingly smug. It’s not just Jubal, it’s all of them. Even Mike the Martian becomes smug once he gets Earth figured out. And smug is boring. They all know lecture each other about how the world works at great length, and their conclusions are smug. I also mostly don’t agree with them, but that doesn’t bother me as much—I find it more annoying when I do. I mean I think Rodin was the greatest sculptor since Praxiteles, but when Jubal starts touching the cheek of the caryatid fallen under her load and patronizing her, you can hear my teeth grinding in Poughkeepsie.

Beyond that, there isn’t really a plot. It starts out looking as if it’s going to have a plot—politicians scheming against Mike—but that gets defanged, politicians are co-opted. The rest of the book is Mike wandering about the US looking at things and then starting a religion where everybody gets to have lots of sex and no jealousy and learns to speak Martian. Everything is too easy. Barriers go down when you lean on them. Mike can make people disappear, he can do magic, he has near infinite wealth, he can change what he looks like, he’s great in bed… Then out of nowhere he gets killed in a much too parallel messianic martyrdom, and his friends eat his body. Yuck, I thought when I was twelve, and yuck I still think. Oh, cannibalism is a silly taboo that I should get over, eh? Heinlein made the point about cultural expectations better elsewhere—and really, he made all these points better elsewhere. This is supposed to be his great book? The man from Mars wanders around for a bit and gets conveniently martyred? And it’s literally a deus ex machina—Mike was protected by the Martian Old Ones and then when they’re done with him he’s destroyed by an archangel according to plan.

The big other thing I don’t like about it isn’t fair—it isn’t the book’s fault it sold so well and was a cultural phenomenon and so it’s the only Heinlein book a lot of people have read. But this is the case, and it means that I am constantly hearing people say “Heinlein was boring, Heinlein was smug, Heinlein had an old man who knows everything character, Heinlein’s portrayals of women are problematic, Heinlein thought gay people have a wrongness, Heinlein was obsessed with sex in a creepy way” when these things either only apply to this one book or are far worse in this book than elsewhere.

The things I do like would be a much shorter list. I like the beginning, and I regret the book it might have grown into from that starting point. My son once had to write a book report on it for school, and without lying at all he managed to make it sound like the Heinlein juvenile it might have been. I like the bits in heaven. They are actually clever and tell me things about the universe, and they are funny. I think the satire about the church-sponsored brands of beer and bread and so on, the whole ridiculous Fosterite Church, deserves to be in a better book. I like the worldbuilding — the way what we have here is 1950s America exaggerated out to the edge and gone crazy. And I like Dr. Mahmoud—a Muslim scientist.

I like the ad for Malthusian lozenges, and I think it’s worth looking at for a moment because it’s a good way in to talking about sex. Ben and Jill watch the ad on a date. The ad is for a contraceptive pill—Malthusian lozenges is a charmingly science fiction name for them, both old-fashioned and futuristic. They claim to be modern and better than the other methods—which is exactly the way ads like that do make their claims. Ben asks Jill if she uses them. She says they are a quack nostrum. Really? They advertise quack nostrums on TV? There could be quack nostrum contraceptives? No FDA or equivalent? Then she quickly says he’s assuming she needs them—because while we have contraceptives, we also have the assumption of 1950s legs-crossed “no sex before marriage” hypocrisy. Now demonstrating how silly this is as a sexual ethical system is partly what the book’s trying to do later with all the Martian guilt-free sex stuff. And in 1961 this stuff was in freefall—until well into the seventies and second wave feminism. Even now there’s a lot of weird hypocrisy about female sexuality. This isn’t an easy problem, and I suppose I should give Heinlein points for trying it.

But… okay, it was a different time. But Heinlein throughout this book has the implicit and explicit attitude that sex is something men want and women own. When he talks about women enjoying sex, he means women enjoying sex with any and all partners. Never mind Jill’s comment that nine times out of ten rape is partly the woman’s fault, which is unpardonable but this Jill’s in-character dialogue, and before her enlightenment and subsequent conversion to smug knowitall. And I’m also not talking about the “grokking a wrongness” in “poor inbetweeners” of gay men, or Ben’s squeamishness. These things are arguably pre-enlightenment characters.

I’m talking here about attitudes implicit in the text, and explicit statements by Jubal, Mike, and post-conversion women. And that is quite directly that all men are straight, and once women get rid of their inhibitions they will want sex with everybody, all the time, just like in porn. Eskimo wife-sharing is explicitly and approvingly mentioned—without discussion of whether the wives had a choice. You’re not going to have this blissful sharing of sex with all if you do allow women a choice—and women do indeed like sex, Heinlein was right, but in reality, unlike in this book… we are picky. And come to that, men are also picky. And sex is something people do together. Even in a paradise the way it’s described, when people can grow magically younger and don’t need to sleep, some people are going to say no sometimes to other people, and the other people will be disappointed and grumpy. It won’t all perfectly overlap so that nobody is ever attracted to anyone who isn’t attracted to them. So you will have friction, and that opens the door to entropy.

Also, what’s with everybody having babies?

I appreciate that sexual attitudes were in freefall, I appreciate that the traditional cultural ones sucked and nobody had worked out how it was going to be when women had equal pay and did not have to sell themselves in marriage or prostitution and could be equal people, I appreciate that we need babies to have more people. I even had a baby myself. But even so there’s something creepy about that.

Generally, when I talk about women in Heinlein I don’t think about this book because I manage to forget about it. In general, excluding Stranger, I think Heinlein did a much better job at writing women than his contempories. But here—gah. All the women are identical. They’re all young and beautiful and interchangeable. If they’re older (Patty, Allie, Ruth) they think themselves magically younger, to be attractive, so men can like looking at them, but smug old Jubal doesn’t need to do that to attract women. There’s only one actually old woman in the book, Alice Douglas the horrible wife of the Secretary General, who is described by Archangel Foster as “essentially virginal,” who sleeps apart from her husband, and who appears as a shrew obsessed with astrological advice. One point however, for Mike’s mother having (offstage and before the book starts) invented the Lyle drive for spaceships.

It’s perfectly possible that I’d be prepared to forgive everything else if the characters weren’t so smug and if there was a plot arising from their actions. But Hugo winning classic though it is, I do not like this book and cannot commend it to your attention.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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