Thursday, July 02, 2009

[Lisa's Take] Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein)

There are some books that every book geek should have read, and I have an embarrassing number of them that have been sitting in my stack for many, many years. Cache 22 has been in there since 2001, along with Fahrenheit 451. Catcher in the Rye, Dorian Grey, something by Ayn Rand, not to mention all of the strictly-fantasy books that people tell me I have to read.

Stranger in a Strange Land has been in my stack for a very, very long time. I remember in early high school my mother said "you really need to read this" then quickly changed her mind after re-reading it herself and deciding I didn't need that much candid sex as a 13-year-old. The novel unofficially joined my stack around that time, and then officially a few years later when I received a copy as a gift.

Honestly, now that I've finished SiaSL, I'm unsure about how best to review it. Much like when I read 100 Years of Solitude I find myself struggling with evaluating the elements of "real literature" versus "fantasy candy." I didn't find the story of SiaSL particularly compelling, and it dragged painfully through the second half. I was counting down the pages to the end, so very ready to get it over with. I didn't like or care about any of the characters with the exception of Jubal Harshaw, who reminded me far too much of an old friend to dislike.

I did, however, appreciate some of the very progressive ideas that Heinlein touched upon, especially considering the book was written over 40 years ago. His diatribes on love, lust, sex, relationships, and polyamory were impressive and well considered. Early in the book I enjoyed Jubal's dissertations on religion, media, and lifestyle, though Heinlein's portrayal of religion shifted so heavily towards the end of the book that I was left with a sour taste in my mouth.

What I didn't appreciate about the book were the rampant undertones of sexism and the blatant gay-bashing. Generally my rule is that it's ok for an author to have opinions opposite of mine (Orson Scott Card comes to mind) so long as those viewpoints don't creep into his literature. Heinlein did not manage to maintain this separation, and his diatribes on the matters left me quite grumpy. Saying things like "9 out of 10 women who get raped probably were asking for it" and generic gay bashing is more than I can deal with. I especially have a hard time reconciling all of the "free love, open relationships, orgies!" talk in-story with the blatant statement that "being gay is wrong and immoral."

I don't really have a bottom line for this review. As with many books that are "more serious" rather than strictly fantasy, I don't know whether to recommend it or not. It's a lot like Wicked in some ways - not a very pretty story, but one that has some really interesting themes. Take from that what you will.

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