I started writing this review before I even finished “Stranger in a Strange Land” because there is one LOOMING criticism that I keep seeing in a lot of old and new reviews of the book. Some variation of the phrase, “it meanders”. Yeah, it really does, but that is because this is not really one book. It is 2 short books that were wielded together and each is weaker because of it.
The Plot Goes Thusly
You know what, I need to explain my chief criticism of the book via the plot, so let’s just say the plot is, “Valentine Michael Smith is Space Jesus. He founds a church and sometimes he is a carney.”
You could snap this book over your knee and you would get “Stranger of Mars” and “Stranger of Earth”. The first story is a quasi-spy thriller about finding a man who has inherited a mountain of a fortune from parents he never knew, inherited a governmental authority over Mars because of a legal knot, and he has super powers because of his time spent with the Martians. He is important on multiple levels.
This first story ends with a big confrontation between the Man from Mars and his entourage of sympathetic humans versus the governments of Earth, and it is resolved peacefully with the entrusting of the fortune, a strange divestment of the accidental government authority, and his fantastic powers being kept secret.
That would be a solid novel. Valentine Michael Smith’s abilities as the Man from Mars and his worldview are interesting. These ideas are explored with real stakes hanging overhead. There is tension as you feel the government closing in on them, Mike’s growing awareness of the world and increasing care and concern for his friends, and the oncoming collision the two worlds. All of this gets resolved in a satisfactory way without a massive shedding of blood, that is unique… And then the book keeps going.
The Second part of “Stranger” is its own story and could have easily been stretched out into a full novel, what I would like to call “Stranger of Earth”. This story is about the Man from Mars finding religion and explaining how his powers work as a reflection of his alien mindset and philosophy. The Martians who raised him taught him how to tap into a greater power within himself and now Mike is going to teach everyone the Martian ways as a path to peace and enlightenment.
Space Jesus is hardly an unknown idea in fiction, this is a quintessential example of it. I would kind of like to see Mike debate Ender from “Ender’s Game” about their conflicting theological nit-picks. Ender would probably turn into a psychic ghost in a couple hours because of his superhuman intellect and empathy. But, I digress.
|Ender had another advantage in that the Aliens he interacted with were vividly described.|
Martians have only the vaguest of descriptions, 3 legs and big as a ship. Rather weak.
While you could complain that the first story is padded by too many conversations about moral relativism, lampooning astrology, and hanging out by the pool, this story is starving for attention. Whole action sequences involving escape from prison, the firebombing of his temple, and the Martians having used Mike as a spy for their interests are all talked about but not shown. What could have been an action packed tale of religious persecution is talked about almost academically until the final scene.
The last scene is a jarring turn into graphic murder. As the Man from Mars allows himself to be martyred to serve as a figure head for his religion. The reason he needs to do this is Earth is now on a countdown. Martians see Earth as a threat and are preparing to collectively use their telepathic powers to rip the planet to bits. They won’t do this for centuries, maybe even a 1,000+ years, but if the people of Earth don’t learn Mike’s psychic abilities to fight back then we are all toast.
Turns out that Angels are real, and occasionally incarnate on Earth to create new religions to help humanity in times of extremely dire circumstances. Mike is the archangel Michael and he is starting his religion to save Earth from Martians. WHAT!?
END SPOILERS- You can start reading again
So here is my biggest criticism of this book: it is not 1 book, it is 1 book, a stripped down manuscript for a second book, and NO THIRD BOOK. This thing needed a third book to take place resolving the dangling threads of Mike’s church and the Martians’ ultimate decision about Earth. Where is the “Revelations” part of the thing? When Mike comes back centuries later with greater powers to combat the stars falling to lead humanity to some final salvation? Too much is just left hanging.
I have read that this book started out as a bet between Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard to see who could create a functioning religion, but that Heinlein backed out when shit got too real. You know what? That is a plausible urban legend. “Stranger” has a functional world view even if the psychic powers are a complete fiction.
Free love, communal ownership and cooperation, a belief that all people are aspects of god… All of this stuff is a cohesive religious philosophy. Rewrite this narrative so that it was beamed to the author by some alien mind and that all of this took place on Earth thousands of years before Rome and bam, you have a religion and mythos.
This book is hard to recommend. I tend to judge books on different criteria, “do I like the subject matter?”, “does the writing from page to page have good flow and word usage?”, “does the book have good structure?” each of these things is present and to me gaugeable.
Subject matter: I liked it. The idea of how would a quasi-modern world deal with Space Jesus from Mars and his new church is a good place to start a story. The few action sequences we get or scenes of them testing his abilities are interesting.
Writing flow: I loved the dialogue 90% of the time. It gets a little misogynistic at points (it was written in the 50’s, by the standards of the time it was exceptionally progressive, but by modern standards it is still too conservative in some areas but hyper-liberal in others), conversations can get a little long, and some words get over used; but taken as a whole there is a good rhythm. Exposition (the bane of genre fiction) is done in funny ways, explaining legal questions is done while characters argue over who is cooking diner, that is cute and natural.
Structure: This baby has bone cancer. As I mentioned it is a three-part story missing the third part and the second part is malnourished. There are long sections of things taking trips to literal carnivals to perform magic shows. What? What?
I do not regret listening to this. And the book that has to follow it, “Neuromancer” is already suffering from the comparison as it is heavy with lingo and jargon but lacks the easy going dialogue and relaxed ruminations of “Stranger”.
If you like dialogue driven stories with a loose fitting narrative that is more about hammering out ideas (like Plato writing down Socrates’ methods for teaching) then this book will work for you… Mostly. But I imagine you will end up having my same issues as it gets overlong and under-punch.
I should note that the voice acting for this book was solid. There are a dozen speaking roles and each is done with enough distinctiveness that I was able to keep them all separate in my mind. The only ones I would have difficulty telling apart would be the extremely late characters or tertiary presences like Ruth, Dawn, or the other astronauts from the Mission to Mars that brought Mike back to Earth.