I remember reading this as a young adult. The scene where the hero enters his ‘trial’ to the tune of Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets actually led me to an appreciation of symphonic music. I found the book a while back and decided to read it again. I just could not remember how it ended, so in most ways, it was like reading it the first time.
The beginning of Stranger In A Strange Land is fabulous. Heinlein takes us on a wild romp through government silliness and political ineptitude. The premise is a good formula for fun. The government captures a sort of superman and tries to keep him a secret. That’s partly because his parents left him an incredible fortune. And partly because he’s from another planet (well he’s human, but raised on Mars).
We start out on a Disney-like romp through government ineptitude and laugh heartily at the foolishness of politicians. This first half of the book is wonderful, some great story-telling.
Unfortunately, Heinlein gets lost in a maze of religious fervor. He makes his hero, Mike, a sort of messiah. However, unlike Frank Herbert, this guy is not Paul Atreides. And with good reason. Herbert did not begin his tale with the sort of humor and wild roller-coaster ride that Heinlein does. Nor does Heinlein give us the villians that Herbert gives us. The government baddies in Stranger are nothing like the Harkonnen Duke and the Emperor in Dune. To say nothing of the Bene Gesserit. That’s because Heinlein seems to wander away from the standard myth formula.
Stranger’s hero, Mike, forms a “religion” that sounds like one sort of Ideal for Christianity. His mistake is in not understanding how humans actually feel about sex. Heinlein gets lust and love confused. Thus we get an unrealistic portrayal of love. Herbert avoids this. He employs the hypocritical nature of humans to mix lust and love to the advantage of his story.
Worse, Heinlein can’t figure out how to end his story, so he literally employs the Deus Ex Machina formula to get the story told. And so I now know why I don’t remember the ending. It’s boring. I quit caring about the characters.
When compared to Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis, one can only give a pitiful laugh at how Heinlein conceives the Martians. Lewis does a far better job. His explanation of angels and the organization of the heavens is far more believable than Heinlein’s. That’s because Lewis employs concepts from the classical genre. The structure Lewis gives to the heavens is one that humans have understood for millennia. He does put a Christian twist to it. However, with two millennia of Christian thinking added to human understanding, this only helps us understand what Lewis is doing. It makes his story work.
Don’t get me wrong, Stranger In A Strange Land is worth reading. But just for fun. And, if about halfway through it you put it down and forget to finish it, well, that’s okay. You’ve already read the best part.