59. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein (1961)

This is a troublesome book. On one hand, Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the most impressive and sustained feats of fiction I’ve ever read, going far beyond the limitations of science fiction – it’s much more about religion than science. On the other hand, it contains some of the most repulsive sexual politics ever committed to print. Heinlein’s story is simple enough: a young man, Valentine Michael Smith, raised on Mars by Martians after an abortive human colony on the planet has died out, returns to Earth where he learns to understand our way of life, while exercising his extraordinary mental powers to create a cult of disciples. So far, so Messianic. Smith’s adventure is gripping, and the way in which he destroys the old religion to build the new is brilliantly handled. Where it all goes haywire is in Heinlein’s handling of sex. Central to Smith’s beliefs is the sanctity of sexual love which, he says, should be free and without guilt – but only if women are entirely submissive, and on no account EVER to be homosexual. Heinlein ties himself in knots advocating free love and then expressing his disgust for homosexuality: like a lot of sci-fi writers of his generation (notably Frank Herbert) he seems to have ‘issues’ in this area. There’s no doubt that Heinlein was a great writer – it’s just a shame he couldn’t get his prejudices up to date with his visionary imagination. (Footnote: David Bowie tried to get a movie version of this off the ground in the 70s; he’d have been great as Smith. In the end, of course, he made the not-dissimilar The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on a novel by Walter Tevis.)

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