Stranger in a Strange Land may be an old favourite of mine, and apparently of many other readers, but I'm wondering if it's time to drop it from the list of greatest novels.... more
Strange man in a strange genre
If a fellow Golden Age of Science Fiction writer hadn't started his own religion, Robert A. Heinlein might have been a candidate to do so. He had the requisite imagination, an authoritarian streak coupled with an altruistic mystical bent, and a vision that inspired hordes of followers. But, unlike Ron L. Hubbard who founded the Church of Scientology, Heinlein left his religion in his books. Thank god.
These days it may be difficult to understand the effect Heinlein's writing once had—on science fiction readers to begin with and, after Stranger in a Strange Land, on anyone caught up in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
From about 1940 to 1960 Heinlein was considered one of the three masters of SF, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests he may have been the all-time most important writer in the history of science fiction. (Note: "most important", not necessarily best.)
He was born, raised and university-educated in Missouri, before attending the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, and launching a military career.
He was in his thirties before he started writing seriously in 1939. But then he quickly made his name by prolifically producing science fiction that together formed a projected Future History. By 1942 he had written nearly thirty stories and three novels. Two of his most enduring works of this period are "The Roads Must Roll" (1940), which still ranks high in compilations of classic science fiction, and Orphans of the Sky (1941), a "novel" formed from two novellas, Universe and its sequel Common Sense.
Later in the 1940s Heinlein switched to writing for the juvenile sci-fi market. His works in this genre are fast-moving space adventures that include a surprising amount of science, both enrapturing and educating young readers, while remaining quite readable—and entertaining—for adults. Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1956), for example, is about a geeky teenager who is beamed up by aliens into an interplanetary conflict that threatens to destroy Earth; with its breezy humour and ironic twists it sometimes seems a forerunner of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker books.
Heinlein also produced scripts for movies—including the hit Destination Moon (1950), the first scientifically credible film about space flight—and with less success for early television, before returning to print. His next novels included The Puppet Masters (1951) about an invasion of earth, Double Star (1956, Hugo Award winner) about an actor who impersonates a galactic politician, and the sweet time-travel story The Door Into Summer (1957).
Many of his earlier Future History stories were also collected and published around this time, one of the best volumes being The Green Hills of Earth (1951).
His novel Starship Troopers (1959) however is his most popular work of this period. Yikes. Pages of simplistic anti-communist diatribes interspersed with militaristic jingoism as a group of young people are trained to wipe out threatening aliens, referred to as "bugs". If you thought the 1997 film of Starship Troopers was too violent, not to mention fascist, you really don't want to subject yourself to this book. Some viewers apparently thought the film was a satire on militarism, but readers of the novel will be quite certain Heinlein meant for it to be taken straight. The book won another Hugo.
And then he seemed to reverse himself completely with his most acclaimed novel.
For over a decade he had been writing a tale variously called The Heretic or The Man From Mars. By 1960 it had reached 220,000 words, about three times an average science fiction novel. After fighting with publishers over the length he compromised, agreeing to cut it to 150,000 words, and Stranger in a Strange Land was published in 1961. A version with most of the text restored was released posthumously in 1990.
Stranger in a Strange Land wasn't an immediate hit. But in 1963 it started to click with the growing anti-establishment zeitgeist. The story of a messianic alien who comes to earth and converts his followers into pacifistic, loving, spiritual followers became a cult classic. Paradoxically, as Stranger was growing in popularity in the counterculture, Heinlein was agitating for conservative causes, including stumping for right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. And the book won another Hugo.
A few works later, Heinlein published his fourth great novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), which depicts a rebellion on the lunar colony against rule by earth, reflecting the American Revolution as well as Heinlein's anarchist libertarian politics. It's also the book that popularized the expression "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch", which he shortened to TANSTAAFL. Another novel, another Hugo.
More novels and story collections followed, but his major work was over. His later fiction tended to be didactic, presenting Heinlein's views but foregoing interesting storylines.
His greatest contribution to literature of this period may have been his support through hard times of fellow science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose views and lifestyle—not to mention his writing—would seem to be polar opposites to Heinlein's. Dick himself was deeply touched by the generosity of Heinlein, whom he called the representative of all that was best about humanity.
In 1975 Heinlein was awarded the first Grand Master Nebula Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America, putting the crown on his reputation of being the age's greatest science fiction writer.