“Stranger in a Strange Land” is among those books that were life-changing and profound literary experiences when I was growing up. It was a tremendously significant tradition-shattering revelation when I first read it, and coincided smoothly with the loose, iconoclastic hippy culture in which I soon afterwards became enmeshed.
I came upon the book almost by accident. My maternal grandmother gave me a boxed set of Heinlein novels one Christmas. I don’t think “Stranger in a Strange Land” was among them, but I was so impressed with Heinlein’s other works that I sought out more. That’s when I came across this amazing and unique novel. I remember then thinking that the novel fell more or less into two sections, one a rousing adventure and the other a more contemplative, albeit tongue-in-cheek look at contemporary inhibitions and morality. I didn’t mind the radical nature of the social, psychological, and theological theories presented therein, because I was looking more and more at countercultural ideals and less at traditional society myself. “Stranger in a Strange Land” became wildly popular in the sixties, influencing pop culture and even pop crime – most infamously in the case of Charles Manson and his murdering cronies. It wasn’t the book’s fault, though.
Anyway, I have read the book several times since, but I think this is the first time I have read the uncut version. I had no idea, in fact, that such a version existed. I recently got it into my head that I’d like to read the book again – I can’t quite recall what brought it to my mind – and in perusing for a copy I came across this heavy, thick, uncut version at a big discount. Why not? thought I. More bang for the buck. If the shorter version of the novel is great, then more of it must be even greater, right?
Well, not exactly. As I said, in my early readings, the novel seemed to be divided into a first more adventurous half and a slower second half. The thing is, the first half had always been my favorite, and I felt the novel bogged down in the late going. This new version has 60,000 extra words, and it seems to me that most of them are in that first half, and they dilute the adventure, bog it down, take out the leanness of the narrative, give it a middle-aged spread. Most of the extra wordage is Jubal Harshaw sitting down and expostulating with someone in a one-sided pseudo-conversation. It just isn’t necessary. It violates the old writer’s adage of show don’t tell. Hell, I don’t care much about that rule myself. I think it’s fine for characters to take off and expostulate and soliloquize and otherwise pontificate, and Jubal Harshaw is a great character, custom-made for delivering classic Heinlein viewpoint. The problem is, there’s just too much of it. The monolog goes on and on and the story suffers as a result. I think, in fact, that the shorter version of “Stranger in a Strange Land” is better.
Don’t get me wrong. This book is still great in its bloated form – in quality far beyond most other science fiction novels. It remains a singular, unique, original piece of work even now, fifty-five years after it was first published. And I would gladly read this version again if it was the only one around.
The book has its comedic aspect, and Heinlein obviously set out to shock. The free sex and communal living was more radical when the book first saw print than it is now. The cannibalism that Heinlein exaggerated from Christian ritual is wildly off-the-wall, and the book’s lengthy attempts to justify it are, in my mind at least, parts of the novel that miss the mark. Still, although Heinlein wrote plenty of other first rate fiction, I think that this novel is probably his masterpiece, and a germinal piece of sixties literature. Somehow it captured a bursting out, a freeing of the human spirit that would become evident by mid-decade. I think part of the reason I come back to the novel is that it reminds me of what I sought in the sixties: an alternative, a creative exuberance, a sense of liberation, an ideal of brotherhood for humankind. Heinlein falls flat in some places: his depiction of women as inferiors, the way some of his characters casually insult women, long sections of stilted dialog – but he captures the ambiance of an era, and for this readers are willing to forgive him his faults.