160. Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land proves that Heinlein was a hippie guru. Starship Troopers proves that he was a right wing madman. —-  From last post.

That’s nonsense, of course, but they do seem to stake out the two ends of the Heinlein continuum.

I’m a great fan of Heinlein, but neither of these books is a favorite of mine. I first encountered Stranger hiding in plain sight. It was 1963; we had just moved into a new high school. I was special assistant to an English teacher who was too lazy to shelve books himself. He let me put up all the new arrivals for the new library and Stranger was one of them, looking innocent in hardback with a Rodin statue on the cover. It wouldn’t have lasted long in rural Oklahoma, except no one else ever read it.

Stranger talks a lot about sex, in a fashion the hippie generation (in full disclosure, that would be my generation) took to be an anthem of free love. To many, it was the answer. That was a silly reaction, because Heinlein wasn’t in the answer business; he was in the question business. If you want to know what Heinlein was trying to do, just read what he said:

All men, gods, and planets in this story are imaginary. Any coincidence of names is regretted.

In other words, “I dare you to to believe I’m not talking about you.” Compare it to the introduction to Huck Finn.

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

If that sounds just a trifle similar, remember that Heinlein was a great fan of Mr. Clemens.

Heinlein had always been a chatty writer. It was a big part of his charm, and why he was able to get scientific ideas across so painlessly. Look at the first part of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. It is a highly technical exposition of how a space suit works, that nobody else could have managed successfully. Heinlein put his technicalities into the words of a naive young enthusiast, and the boy’s personality pulled us along.

Stranger was a project that Heinlein had wrestled with for years, and when he finally wrote it, he took no heed of market pressures – including length. Even after Putnam asked him to cut the book, it still ran 160,000 words.

For the religious right, it was blasphemy; for the hippie generation, it was the word. For me, even as a teenager, it was a wet firecracker. All chit-chat about sex and everything else, but nothing ever happened. A book that sets out to disrupt society cannot be dull. Stranger was dull.

For me, the best thing about Stranger was that its success allowed Heinlein more freedom from constraints, especially length constraints. He had been a master of compression. Look at Time for the Stars or Door into Summer. Every sentence, even the chit-chat, carries the story forward at a brisk pace. 

Heinlein never wrote like that again, but his later, longer stories – despite occasional clunkers – are fine in a new way. They allowed him to sit in a metaphorical easy chair and tell long, rambling stories to those of us who loved to hear him talk.


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