Never have I wanted so badly to not finish a book. And Sandworms of Dune doesn’t count. That I don’t want to finish because it’s garbage. I don’t want to finish Stranger In a Strange Land (by Robert A. Heinlein) because I don’t want it to be over. It’s my new favorite book. I’ve been saying that a lot lately. First it was Neuromancer, and I don’t know what it will be next. But right now it’s Stranger.
Before I get started, a word of caution. If you are a Republican, or any other breed of evangelical Christian, don’t read this book. It will seem like an attack on your religion and you people respond with claws to anything you mis-represent as threatening. In short, your religion will not allow you to enjoy this book. That makes me sad (because I want everybody to enjoy this book), but it is nonetheless true. Prove me wrong. I will happily recant (that’s an invitation, not a challenge. No claws, please). If you happen to be that rare case of Human who has both religion and an open mind, read this book. You will like it.
I was reading on the toilet just now when what it is that I love about this book hit me. The theme is interesting, the philosophies discussed are intriguing. But that’s true of any good science fiction. What I love about Stranger In a Strange Land is that it’s charming. It’s full of little human moments (or, at least, there are enough of them for me to find it remarkable). Like Firefly (“you’re nice too, Captain.” “No I’m not. I’m a mean, old man.”). From Jubal’s “secretaries” throwing him into the pool, to Michael’s inevitable initial fascination with and mis-understanding of religion (and Jubal’s natural discomfort at discussing/explaining it), the characters are real, and act like it.
Heinlein (who somehow seems to avoid the common pitfall of modern literature: imbuing each of his characters with the same voice) introduces you to his characters the same way a good movie director does. He doesn’t present you with a dossier and say “This is Michael Bluth.” He throws you into their lives in media res and lets you figure out for yourself what kind of people they are. And you fall in love with them. When you discover something about them that doesn’t quite make sense with your picture of “who they are,” you don’t feel confounded. You feel rewarded, just like you do when you discover something about a real person that deepens your understanding of them.
For me, this was true even of the characters I didn’t like (Ben Caxton and Duke), and the ones you’re not supposed to like (Secretary General Douglas and his wife). I found myself sympathizing with them, because they are all whole persons, with real motivations and shortcomings.
This isn’t like Dune, and it isn’t like Ender’s Game. You’ll think it’s like Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451, but I promise it’s not. While it certainly has themes in common with all of those (mostly) great books, Stranger In a Strange Land is a unique work of classic science fiction. It plays with your mind, and if you can escape your preconceptions of righteousness, you will enjoy it.