Awhile ago when The Guardian was serializing its choices for the 1000 novels everyone must read and had just announced its sf/f picks I spent some time trying to psyche out why Stranger in a Strange Land was on their list.
As a teen in the Sixties I thought it was quite titillating and socially adventurous, and related to its reception by members of a generation that thought it endorsed their rebellion, while managing to resist its siren calls to join group marriages, You-are-God religions or even the Libertarian Party.
Then in 2008 I read the uncut edition of Stranger. So when The Guardian issued its list, I had fresh memories of feeling it was a novel that time had definitely passed by.
I thought Starship Troopers would have been a better pick for The Guardian’s list because it’s still a lightning rod of controversy. Why wasn’t it one of the choices when they assembled the list? Unfortunately, the explanation of what they were trying to accomplish with the list, Choosing 1000 Novels Before You Die clarified nothing:
Rather than dividing up our series alphabetically or by decade, we invented our own seven genre categories, each of which highlights a different aspect of the novel….
A bold and vivid imagination marked out the titles in Science Fiction and Fantasy, including classics such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Lord of the Rings and Frankenstein.
Stranger belongs on any list of novels chosen for their historic impact on the science fiction genre, or novels with wide influence over American popular culture. The Guardian, however, wasn’t lecturing about genre or cultural history, it was singling out works of “bold and vivid imagination.” Successful choices depended not only on the writer’s imagination, the writer’s ideas also must have retained their power to impress a current audience with their boldness. Stranger’s problem on that score is that its sexual and religious messages played out in the boomer generation, were assimilated or not, and the world reforged some into quite different issues, or made them irrelevant (one minor example, think in 2009 how different the attitude toward tattoos is than in 1959.)