When this book was first published in 1961, it was cut dramatically. Not to make it shorter, but because the publishers were afraid that the contents were too shocking for current mores. I picked up the book in the 1990s, on a recommendation of a friend, shortly after the uncut edition was released, and in our more weary-minded era, the book isn’t shocking so much as prurient.
Stranger has long been one of my favourite books, although I would be hard pressed to tell you why. I think it’s partially the image of a utopian society which appeals to me, the idea that there could come a time when we don’t have a concept of property and possession, jealousy and ownership. Or maybe I just like lascivious books.
One thing which really struck me in the book on this re-read was the misogyny and homophobia embedded in it. This has been a topic of dispute among critics for quite some time, with some people arguing that these attitudes reflect the beliefs of the characters, while others feel that Heinlein is just straight up misogynistic. Given his other work, I would have to reluctantly conclude that he is indeed a misogynist, and that’s a bummer, although this book in some ways manages to transcend misogyny by the end.
I’ve noticed that people have a tendency to defend offensive content in classic books, and I don’t think that this is necessarily a good idea. I think that recognizing this content allows us to (forgive me) grok in fullness. It is a discredit to Heinlein and the book to pretend that this misogyny isn’t there. It’s not as though one becomes homophobic or misogynistic by reading the books, and pretending that the behaviour is justified or acceptable in the context just makes it worse, in my opinion.
I remember when I was a young child reading the Dr. Dolittle books, there was a discussion of an African character, which I duly digested and thought about and then I approached my father to ask him for clarification. I was confused about some of the language that Lofting had used, and I didn’t quite understand his treatment of the character. And he explained to me that in the era when Lofting lived, talking about black people in that way wasn’t considered offensive, but that didn’t make it right. In that conversation, my father taught me how to appreciate something for what it was, while also viewing it with a critical eye, and this is how I read books like Stranger. I think less of Heinlein for the views in the book, but I don’t think less of the book for it, if this makes any sense.
I can certainly see why the book ruffled feathers when it was released. And I imagine it still ruffles a few feathers today. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein. Published 1961, 525 pages. Fiction.