Title: Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land is a classic science fiction novel from 1961 about a child from the first (failed) expedition to Mars who is raised by Martians and brought back to Earth. As he learns about Earth and human culture he sets out to change society by teaching people the Martian language and a more enlightened way of life.
Ages 14 and up
Despite Heinlein’s history of writing books for younger readers Stranger in a Strange Land definitely falls among the more sophisticated of his adult writing. He uses the story to take an in-depth look at sexual mores, religion, and death. Heinlein himself would likely have scoffed at my suggestion that the ideas in his book are too sophisticated for younger readers. However, I would recommend that kids have more of a grounding in the subject matter (sex, religion, etc.) before they can grok the full meaning of the story. To be perfectly honest, there are some adults – much less kids – who I’m sure wouldn’t understand it.
I’m surprised it hasn’t been banned more energetically for the ideas it contains about sex and religion. When it comes to religion I’m not going to give any warnings – Jesus, Mohammed, and the others are big boys and can take care of themselves (although no bombing, please). But parents should be aware that there are sexual situations tied in with the themes of the story that they may want to discuss with their kids. You have to talk to them about sex at some point. This is probably not a good place to start.
Revisiting Stranger in a Strange Land recently I was surprised at how dated it was. The early chapters sound much like early seasons of Mad Men with the characters drinking and smoking to excess and taking dames out for the biggest steak they ever seen. The drinking continues throughout the book but the heavily stereotyped 1950’s era gender roles actually lead into some of the important themes about sex. The idea that the male/female duality of our biology makes humanity unique and special in the universe is an important conclusion and is explored in much of Heinlein’s later work.
The book was very influential on the counterculture movement of the 60’s. Free-love, communal living, redefining belief systems, reshaping society, it’s all in here and at times may seem like a blueprint for some of the social experiments that came out of the 60’s. But unlike a book along the lines of Fahrenheit 451 that can astound you with its prescience Stranger in a Strange Land actually brought about change more than predicting it. This is why it’s often referred to as the most famous science fiction novel of all time. Because it sold millions of copies to people who not only thought, “this is an interesting picture of the future” but “I would like to be a part of this future.” This is why, when the time is right, I would highly recommend Stranger in a Strange Land – but only when the reader is ready to grok its fullness.
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