Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the most famous American novels written in the 20th century. When I started to read it, I had no idea what to expect. I guessed that Stranger would be about space exploration and other worlds, in the vein of Star Wars, Firefly, or even the Enderverse. What I found instead was something completely different.
Stranger is indeed science fiction, and does concern extraterrestrial concepts vital to the plot, but it is far more introspective to the human race than anything I was prepared for. It concerns Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars and brought to Earth, and his struggle to understand the foreign species around him.
One of the reasons I was first interested in this book was because it won a Prometheus Award, given out by the Libertarian Futurist Society. Their website, while not containing impressive HTML nonetheless holds a great deal of recognition for libertarian literature. Part of Stranger is indeed about how easily an individual can be crushed by either government, religion, or simply society generally. Indeed, several of the novels protagonists are as ruggedly individualistic as any human could be, and almost all of the enemies in the book arise from when collective action overtakes individual freedom, whether that collectivism stems from the terrestrial state, the extraterrestrial Martians, or the blind servants of the supernatural.
However, the book certainly has its flaws. While political events and societal observations are masterfully crafted, they are interspersed with jarringly 1950s gender roles that immediately break the illusion of a futuristic society. That’s not to say the book or Heinlein are anti-feminist; women certainly can hold power in the novel, but it is clearly restricted to a mid-century mindset, something I cannot fault Heinlein for, as he did not pick the age in which he lived.
Overall though, the book is an excellent adventure, entertaining and thought provoking. I would certainly recommend reading it, but it is not someone first approaching the science fiction genre. Something like Ender’s Game definitely comes first when starting to explore sci-fi, and after that I’d recommend Dune. Then perhaps take a dive into the more intense science fiction of Stranger.