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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This is a terrible old chestnut of ‘best novels’ lists, but with good reason. Nobody has ever managed to cram so much political despair into such a relatively short space, and despite the need to create and describe the daily life of Airstrip One, Orwell never forgets that he has a story to tell. Like many of us, I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in my teens – I think it’s a great ‘gateway novel’ for any kid with literary leanings – and it coloured my ideas about art, politics and human nature for a long time to come. God only knows what Orwell would have made of social and political life in 2012 – it’s become a modern cliche to say that his ideas of thoughtcrime and doublethink are truer then ever. I really like Orwell’s social-realist novels too, and if the rules were different there would be room on this list for Keep the Aspidistra Flying or Coming Up for Air. And of course as a teenager I loved Nineteen Eighty-Four even more because David Bowie tried to make a musical out of it, and it turned into my favourite album of all time, Diamond Dogs.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, because usually I can’t make head or tail of it, but I picked this up for a couple of quid recently, recognised Walter Tevis as the author of The Man Who Fell to Earth (once a Bowie fan…) and, being short of reading matter, gave it a go. And it’s superb. There are none of the dull technological descriptions or puerile fantasy that usually puts me off: this is a straightforward dystopia set in future America where robots have taken over and all the humans are wacked out on drugs. The central character, the super-robot Spofforth, is a strangely likeable monster, while the ‘everyman’ Bentley travels around what’s left of the US learning to be human while avoiding abstract philosophy, which I can never be bothered with. Mockingbird is the best post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read (admittedly there aren’t many) and I highly recommend it. There won’t be much more sci-fi in this list: one, perhaps.