Stranger in a Strange Land Review

Stranger in a Strange Land Book CoverI read Stranger in a Strange Land years ago, and I didn’t much like it then. I re-read it as part of my Robert Heinlein reading project, hoping that I would like it more this time, and I did enjoy part of it, but not all of it.

Here’s the usual spoiler warning–if you haven’t read Stranger in a Strange Land, then this review WILL spoil some of the plot for you.

The premise is that Michael Valentine Smith was raised on Mars by Martians, who are far stranger than we could ever have imagined. He has learned, via his strange upbringing, a variety of what we would now call superpowers. He’s telepathic and telekinetic, and he has almost complete control over his own body, kinda like an Indian yogi.

The first third or so of the book is about Smith’s return to Earth. As the sole surviving heir of the crew that explored Mars, he has legal rights to the entire planet, but all kinds of government interests want to take advantage of his naivete. A nurse and a journalist sneak him out and into the care of Jubal Harshaw, a lawyer and doctor who spends most of his time writing novels.

Harshaw becomes a father figure for Michael, and he handles the negotiations between him and the powers-that-be. Harshaw is clearly the Heinlein surrogate in the story. He’s cranky, irascible, and he knows everything.

This section of the book was hugely entertaining. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it also has a clear conflict.

The rest of the novel falls a little more flat. Michael Smith begins to educate himself about the planet Earth and how humans live. He eventually begins his own religion. There’s a lot of hippy stuff related to free love that was probably a lot of fun for Heinlein to write about. It was less fun to read.

Heinlein seems to enjoy attacking the mores of modern society. Not only does he poke the readers’s sensibilities about sex, but he also addresses ritual cannibalism.

His writing is also quite chauvinistic, but it’s chauvinistic in that 1950s way, where he seems to think he’s enlightened and cares about women’s rights, when really he’s just as guilty of the kind of behavior he pretends to condemn. At one point, one of the characters explains that “9 times out of 10, it’s the woman’s fault”. I found that extremely disappointing, even for someone writing in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Stranger in a Strange Land also seems to want to convince the reader of its own importance. I came away from it with the sense that it was meant to be an “Important Book”.

But it’s not really as profound as it hoped it would be. Then again, maybe I’m just a produce of my times. In one of my other reviews, I mentioned that at the time the book was published, it was probably considered really groundbreaking. Not so much, anymore.

What did other bloggers think of Stranger in a Strange Land?

  • Stranger in a Strange Land starts off well. It appears to be a fun science-fiction story about a human raised among the Martians that returns to Earth and has a huge cultural shock while having to deal with all of Earth’s bureaucracy. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the Martian civilisation and bow it differs from ours, and the plots of the administration to make the protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, sign over his rights. Unfortunately, this part only lasts for the first couple of hundred pages or so.” – Just a World Away
  • “Does Heinlein really believe this tripe? Can this be the same author who wrote Starship Troopers?” – dobeka’s blog
  • “I was fortunate to get to the Saint Louis Museum of Art after I’d read SIASF. They have several works by Rodin and I was, of course, struck. What has always amazed me about his work are the faces, the hands and the feet.” – Popke

 

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Glory Road Review

Glory Road was an interesting novel, as it’s the first heroic fantasy I’ve read from Robert Heinlein. This review, as always, contains spoilers, so if you want to avoid having the plot spoiled, stop reading now.

Glory Road Book Cover ArtE.C. Gordon has just gotten out of the military. He’s a veteran of the Vietnam War, and he spots a personal ad as he’s deciding what to do with his life. The personal ad describes him perfectly, and it’s advertising for a “hero”.

When he answers the ad, he meets a doctor, the most beautiful woman he’s ever met. She runs some tests on him. She and her assistant agree that he’s perfect, and before you know it, he and the doctor and her assistant are in an alternate universe.

The doctor, it turns out, is actually a sorceress (and more). Her assistant looks like an old man, but there are some surprises about his relationship with Star (the beautiful doctor/sorceress).

Gordon takes the name “Scar”, and he names the sorceress “Star”. Her assistant’s name is a dwarf named Rufo.

Together, they’re on a quest to find and get the Egg of the Phoenix.

In many ways, this book reminded me of Poul Anderson’s book Three Hearts and Three Lions. Both novels feature an ordinary person from our place and time transported to a fantasy world and accompanied by a beautiful woman and a non-competitive male dwarf. Anderson’s novel was published a couple of years before Heinlein’s, but I think some of these tropes are common enough that there’s no plagiarism going on here. Just a devotion to a certain kind of fantasy trope.

In fact, Scar alludes to various other heroic fantasy type novels throughout Glory Road, especially Burroughs’s Barsoom novels. He also alludes to one of the greatest lines in Sherlock Holmes:

Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.

The adventure part of the novel takes up the first 2/3 of the book, and it’s entertaining as hell. But once the quest is completed, and Scar goes to live with Star, the book slows down considerably.

It turns out that Star isn’t just a beautiful young woman. She’s the empress of 20 known universes. Scar is married to her, and he’s her consort, but he’s bored. Heinlein takes this opportunity to pontificate about relationships between men and women. I didn’t enjoy this part of the book nearly as much as the beginning and the middle.

Also, what’s the deal with Robert Heinlein and spankings? So far, in every book of his I’ve read, at least one of the major male characters threatens to spank one of the female characters. In fact, in Glory Road, Scar carries this out. It’s as if Heinlein thinks that a male asserting his dominance over a woman, especially via corporal punishment, is a natural and desirable thing.

I just think it’s kinda creepy.

So far, all of the Heinlein books I’ve read have earned three stars at Goodreads.com. I’m hoping to find one that deserves four stars soon. Glory Road wasn’t it, though, but it was more entertaining than Podkayne of Mars or Farnham’s Freehold.

What did other bloggers think of Glory Road?

  • “Problems with the major female character; plotting issues in the second half; overbearing politics.” –SFSignal
  • “Alas, “Glory Road” is a preview of the old, pervy and insane Heinlein to come.” – Nashville Book Worm
  • “One nice feature about the story is that it follows what happens afterwards. Oscar goes from Hero to Poodle. This is real entertainment and Oscar is a very appealing protagonist. Defintely get this one. Even if you’re not a Fantasy fan, you’ll like it.” – Vintage45

Podkayne of Mars Review

Podkayne of Mars Cover ArtThis review of Podkayne of Mars contains plot spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Podkayne of Mars is an epistolary novel written as the diary of a teenager girl, Podkayne, who hails from Mars. It also features notes (in the story, written in invisible ink) from her younger brother, Clark.

Podkayne’s parents have been planning a trip to Earth, but said trip is canceled because of the unexpected birth of Podkayne’s three younger siblings. Mars stores babies away for future birthing, and in this case, they thawed out the babies earlier than they were supposed to.

But Podkayne’s and Clark’s Uncle Tom has a trip planned, and he makes arrangements for the kids to travel with him.

Clark is a precocious and possibly sociopath child, and he stirs up trouble as they’re boarding by claiming to be carrying happy dust with him. He did this to distract the inspectors from his sister–the reader learns eventually that Clark has stowed away a bomb in Podkayne’s luggage. (Of course, Clark disarms the bomb before it can harm anyone on the ship.)

The ship they’re traveling on is bound for Earth, but it also has a stop planned for Venus. On the ship, the characters make friends and deal with situations. One especially entertaining section describes the procedures in place for a radiation storm. Clark also develops a crush on a woman named Girdie, who eventually decides to stay on Venus to work. Girdie also becomes a mentor figure to Podkayne.

Venus turns out to be a future-version of Las Vegas, and Clark spends much of his time there learning how to gamble (and how to win at gambling). The characters never actually reach Earth though, because on Venus they learn that Uncle Tom is more than just a kind, older figure. He’s actually an ambassador, and the powers-that-be on Venus have specific goals for how he’s supposed to do his job.

Podkayne, Clark, and Uncle Tom are kidnapped and tortured by the bad guys, but Clark eventually builds a bomb. They escape, but Podkayne is severely injured when she tries to protect a baby alien from the bomb.

Podkayne of Mars avoids a lot of the ickiness in some of Heinlein’s other novels, although the bad guys hint that Uncle Tom’s interest in his niece is more than avuncular. Clark’s an interesting character, and Podkayne herself is also a well-rounded, well-written character. She’s much more interesting than any of the women in Farnham’s Freehold, for sure.

The book seems to be truncated somehow, as if the story never really got started. It seemed odd that the characters never actually make it to Earth.

It was a fun read, but it’s far from brilliant.

What other people on the Internet have said about Podkayne of Mars:

  • “Heinlein wanted the book to serve as a cautionary tale for parents that pursue their own goals at the expense of raising their children– this is the reason for Uncle Tom’s diatribe at the end of the book in the original, published ending. In his original, submitted, manuscript Podkayne died. ” – Popke Blog
  • “I hadn’t read a strong female protagonist in science fiction until then.” –Ami Chopine
  • “Really, you could almost enjoy the story until the last chapter. After that, you just want to strangle everyone. Starting with Heinlein.” – Jellyn’s Collection of Curiosities

Farnham’s Freehold Review

Farnhams Freehold Cover to the Edition I ReadI started my journey through the works of Robert Heinlein with a used paperback of Farnham’s Freehold, which I’d never read before. Sure, I’d heard of it. A few years ago I read a few websites and books about survivalism, and Farnham’s Freehold is popular among those types. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the actual novel, though. I didn’t read any spoilers of any kind.

Fair warning. The rest of this review DOES include spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, and you want it to remain unspoiled, then bookmark this post and return to it in the future, after you’ve read the book.

Ahem.

As I was saying…

Hugh Farnham is an older man with a wife and two kids. He’s hosting a bridge party when the bombs start dropping. Luckily, he has a shelter, to which he rushes his family. They’re accompanied by his daughter’s friend and the family’s servant.

Hugh’s wife, Grace, is an alcoholic. She’s portrayed throughout the book as being more or less useless. At one point, Hugh reminisces about how great she was when she was younger, and at another point, they mention that she’s a good cook, but other than that, she has no redeeming qualities.

Hugh’s son, Duke, is a lawyer, but he’s at odds with his father for most of the book. He doesn’t seem especially unreasonable to this reader, but at various points, Hugh and Duke threaten to kill each other for various reasons. The first time this happens, it’s because Duke refuses to obey his father’s orders unquestioningly.

Hugh’s daughter, Karen, is a college student. There’s not much to her character, but she and her father clearly adore each other. In fact, at a couple of points in the book, the hints are more-than-obvious that they’re almost a little too close.

Karen has a friend named Barbara, who is also quite taken with Hugh. They eventually become lovers and then husband and wife.

Joe, the household servant, is a black man. He also has little to do.

The plot revolves around the family’s efforts to survive and restart civilization, but they face a surprise when they emerge from their shelter. There’s no wreckage or sign of destruction. Outside the bomb shelter is nothing but pristine wilderness.

The family theorizes at first that the blast catapulted them into an alternate dimension where there is no human life, but they eventually realize that they’ve been transported several thousand years into the future.

In this future, white people are enslaved by the ruling class, which is made up of black people. And not only are they slavers, they’re also cannibals. In spite of that, they don’t seem like such bad people.

This section of the book reminded me a lot of Planet of the Apes.

In spite of the outlandish premise and the book’s faults, there is much to enjoy about Farnham’s Freehold. The scenes where they’re trying to re-establish a civilization for themselves are interesting, especially when they’re discussing practical matters like how to handle plumbing, food, and other realities of survival.

On the other hand, the writing is uneven. Heinlein comes across as a racist and a chauvinist, although my understanding is that he was neither in real life. His attitude toward women and minorities probably seemed enlightened in the early 1960s, but now they’re hopelessly dated.

The implied desire for incest is creepy and off-putting, too. I get that he was trying to demonstrate that the rules change when you’re dealing with a society that only consists of half a dozen people, but still…

At any rate, it was an okay book. I gave it three stars on GoodReads, but perhaps I was too generous.

Here’s what some other people on the Internet have said about Farnham’s Freehold: