Book reviews / Science Fiction

Book review: Stranger in a Strange Land

I didn’t grok this book at all.

That folks, is a hilarious joke about the most annoying literary device I’ve come across in all the books from the list.

Grok, you see, is a Martian word for…something. Like knowing or understanding or something so deep we can’t possibly translate it with our pathetic language. AND IT’S REALLY ANNOYING. It would be fine if there were other Martian words, but no, just that one. Over and over and OVER again.

How do I even attempt explaining how weird this book is. I thought the empathy boxes in Do androids dream of electric sheep were super weird. Not even a patch on this book.

So, there’s a kid, the product of an affair in space, who is raised by Martians (as the entire crew of the ship dies). So he grows up Martian. Then another ship from Earth goes to Mars and then they take him back to Earth.

Then…after a lot of boringness, he basically starts a Church that’s like a cult but not a religion, where people who fucking grok the right way, join the inner circle. There they learn the Martian language as well as telepathy, telekinesis, physical regeneration and a whole lot of other crazy powers. Oh, also, everyone has sex with each other (but only men and women because while love is a supreme goodness, it’s only good that way). Although, they did kind of indicate that 2 of the women may have had more of a thing happening. They do at least mention the existence of homosexuality which most books don’t even consider. But the central point is that male-femaleness is what allows all the goodness or whatever to happen – so in some way the idea of being gay is rejected as not being as good.

I think just like with his inclusion of Dr. Mahmoud, Heinlein wanted to have inclusivity but it was always kind of done with all the subtlety and nuance of a jack hammer. Like, why was Dr. Mahmoud’s nickname Stinky? No one else has a fucking nickname.

UGGHHH. Also you had to wade through a whole lot more religious and philosophical babble to finally get to the end. Where apparently, the main character (the Man from Mars) is the Archangel Michael. Oh yes, all religions are correct or something. I was getting a bit glass-eyed at some point when this was being explained in tedious detail.

But! BUT! What was the most distracting thing about the book was the crazy sexism. LIKE CRAZY SEXISM. Like the stuff that makes your jaw drop to the fucking floor and your mind is like how was this ever published. (Oh because it was published in 1961).

Here are the most jaw-dropping examples.

“This would account for his action in jetting to Australia and proposing to Doctor Winifred Coburn, a horse-faced Spinster semantician nine years his senior. The Carlsbad Archives pictures her with an expression of quiet good humour but otherwise lacking in attractiveness.” Page fucking 11.

“With his free hand he slapped her aside. “None of that, you little slut!” Johnson should not have slapped her. He had not hit her hard, not even as hard as he used to hit his wife before she went home to her parents, and not nearly as hard as he had often hit prisoners who were reluctant to talk.” Page 74.

Fine, he was a bad guy and very shortly after was ‘made not to exist’ but at the same time, why was that needed?

“Are you the sort of useless female who comes unstuck when she’s needed?” You are a total dick page 161.

“But it pleased him very much that the women did not chatter, did not intrude themselves into the sober talk of men, but were very quick with food and drink in warm hospitality. He had been shocked at Miriam’s casual disrespect toward her master – then recognised it for what it was: liberty permitted cats and favourite children in the privacy of their home.” You make me sick page 233.

“She relaxed and smiled. “I’ll hold you to it. I remember how you used to pat my fanny while you assured me the professor was sure to get well – you always could make a body feel better.”
“I can’t believe that I ever did anything so unprofessional.”
“You did, you know you did. And you weren’t very fatherly about it, either.”
“Maybe so. Maybe I thought it was the treatment you needed. I’ve given up fanny-patting for Lent – but I’ll make an exception in your case.” Holy Operation Yewtree page 225! The gentlemen doing the…er..patting…was very much senior to a possibly under-age woman. EWW.

“But I was coping with wolves when you were still on Mars. Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her fault.” WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK PAGE 317?

CAN YOU SEE HOW YOU CAN GET DISTRACTED FROM THE STORY? And just like Starship Troopers where Heinlein tries not be sexist but is TOTALLY FUCKING SEXIST – this is like that but much, much worse. There are so many women characters, they are main characters and they certainly have equivalent high positions as men in the book, lots of them are smart or kind or have all good traits – so on surface it should pass the test. BUT THEN YOU GET ALL THE SHIT MENTIONED ABOVE. Can it even? I don’t know.

I don’t know how Heinlein held these mutually contradictory images of women in his head. You would figure when writing them, he’d eventually be…wait a minute…maybe women who are competent professionals wouldn’t want to get groped and demeaned? NAAAWWW. That’s far too futuristic.

I can understand how this book was groundbreaking for it’s time – there are a lot of interesting ideas in there. Unfortunately, there’s probably about 8 too many to deal with satisfactorily. Also, in a modern context it’s awful. Just awful. It’s hugely dated – from needing tape recorders to the horrid sexism and the whole culture. I’d recommend reading A fire upon the deep and just give this a pass.

The only context that you should read this book is if you’re writing a thesis on science fiction and do all the research to contextualise the horrifying stuff. Ugh. I don’t know what to give it.

It was really dull in places as well (I wish I had read the shorter version which had 60,000 less words) but I really did love some of the characters. There were some good religion-jabbing critiques and some very funny bits. I liked all ‘the girls’ that were employed by Jubal (the aforementioned likely candidate for Operation Yewtree) – they were all so self-confident. Gah. 1/5 stars. But don’t let that encourage you.

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