This month I decided to read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land for one reason: Stephen King wrote “[Heinlein was] not only America’s premier writer of speculative fiction, but the greatest writer of such fiction in the world. He remains today as a sort of trademark for all that is finest in American imaginative fiction.” When the King speaks so glowingly about another writer, I’m inclined to listen. So I picked up Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land from my local bookstore, The Book Catapult. Ultimately, I wanted to know why I should read Heinlein’s 1961 novel…today.
I didn’t know much about Heinlein’s work. When I Googled Heinlein, I recognized some of his other titles, specifically “Starship Troopers,” even though my association with that book is more of Denise Richards and the slaughtering of alien bugs. I went into the book with very little knowledge of the author, but Heinlein was a four-time winner of the Hugo Award. Clearly, Heinlein is someone we’re supposed to read.
But in the middle of the 600-page read, I found myself wondering what the hell was Stephen King thinking. Of course, when a man publishes countless works like Heinlein, it’s not fair to judge him based on one book. But after finishing the novel, I am confident I will never read another Heinlein book again, because of two main reasons: 1. He seems like an asshole with an archaic and chauvinistic view of his characters. 2. The book is poorly structured.
Let me explain a bit more and start with something obvious: Heinlein’s characters at times appear to dislike Jews and have terrible ideas about women. While I’m 💯aware that characters don’t have to be politically correct (In fact, some of the best characters are the worst people in the world), the characters in Heinlein’s work are flat and appear to be simply puppets for political and ideological views. Most of the second half of the novel is polemic, and the angle of the characters are clear: Let’s get people to think about destroying monogamy and embracing free sex. It was clear that his Man from Mars was building a church to destroy traditional values of sex, marriage, and family. It was a church that promoted orgies and free sex.
That’s cool. If that’s your bag, then great. Heinlein, I don’t care if you’re polyamorous or into robots. That’s your decision. And I don’t care if your characters are into it either. In fact, it can certainly make for interesting plot points. But it’s the way you write. Your characters are tools of your own personal propaganda. It wasn’t a story; it’s a political ad for a new philosophy. Clearly, in 1961, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was a part of a larger zeitgeist, but it’s 2019, ideas of free love don’t shock me, and I want to know why I need to read your book now.
So, because I believe his characters are merely puppets for his own pulpit, I read sentences like this and I’m disgusted:
Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault. So don’t be hasty.
The quote comes from a part of the book where one of the main characters, Jill, is telling the man from mars not to be hasty in protecting her; it might be her fault that she is being raped. This line is obviously disgusting, and while it’s only one line (a terrible line), it’s much more significant when the entirety of the book made so many micro-aggressions against Jews and women that it must only be the tip of the iceberg of a mind that was lost in itself.
Over at The Outline, Sophie Kleeman has a similar reaction. In fact, she says:
“Why should it be a surprise that such bumbling misogyny is hidden in plain sight in one of the most popular science fiction books of the 20th century, one that sold millions of copies and won the Hugo Award for best novel?
I agree with her and wonder: Why are we still reading this book today?
Of course, there are some interesting moments in the book. I enjoyed the beginning and the very end of the book, imagining what it would be like to encounter a man raised by an alien race. It’s a stroke of brilliance that Heinlein takes the old narrative idea of “raised by wolves” and applies it into space. I enjoyed that.
But outside of the powerful idea of the book, Stranger in a Strange Land is almost 300 pages too long. When I was in the middle of the book, I couldn’t wait for it to end. If I hadn’t promised myself that I can no longer stop reading a book unless it’s absolutely the worst I’ve ever read, then I would have stopped reading as soon as Jill and the Martian ended up working at a carnival.
What I hate about the novel is that Heinlein appears not to consider his readers. Perhaps in the 1960s, readers had more leisure time because they weren’t distracted by the notifications of digital media, but there are so many great pieces of art at the touch of our fingertips now, and I hope authors would edit their work to be considerate of the finite amount of time we all have on this earth. Heinlein doesn’t seem to give one shit.
Here is proof. Robert Heinlein gave the following advice on writing: “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.” I would argue that a writer should rewrite to think about their reader’s attention span, interest, and desire to keep reading. Heinlein does’t care. What even shocked me more was that according to Mental Floss, Heinlein originally wrote the book over 13 years, and the original word count was a “whopping 220,000 words and 800 pages.”
Putnam originally demanded that Heinlein cut the book down, which thank God they did, and instead of realizing how great advice his publisher gave him, Heinlein said, “The story is now as tight as a wedge in a green stump and, short of completely recasting it and rewriting it, I can’t get it much tighter. I have rewritten and cut drastically in the middle where [Putnam] felt it was slow.” What a tool.
I’ve never seen a writer who seems so lost in reality and the value of his own words. There is no freaking way I’m reading 220,000 words of this book, and honestly, Heinlein, the book is not tight. It’s sprawling, poorly structured, and a waste of my time.
So, to answer the question of this blog: Why Should We Read Heinlein today?” We shouldn’t. We should let his book become an artifact, and it should die with the rest of the old heroes.
Again, I’ve only read one book, but if someone has a thought about one of Heinlein’s other books and can make an argument to read them, I’m all ears. It would have to be a good argument.