Is Stranger a Novel
Everyone Should Read?

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.) 

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4 thoughts on “Is Stranger a Novel
Everyone Should Read?

  1. I re-read Starship Troopers a few years ago, having first read it in the Signet edition around 1965 or so.

    The politics weren’t an issue … it was the “Let’s stop and have a lecture” that caused me to stumble.

    Oh well.

  2. Both those two novels had pedantic sections as Heinlein was trying very hard to convey certain political and aesthetic attitudes and why they were good ones to hold without detracting from his stories as stories. Where much of the controversy has lain has been in how successful he was in this, as with the critical comment and Biblical pun from, I think (and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong) damon knight that Heinlein had given up his inheritance for a “pot of message”.

    Mr. Heinlein’s pedanticism never bothered me, as I learned from him. For example, “Jubal Harshaw’s” lecture to Ben Caxton on how too look at art taught me as much about art appreciation and criticism as any course I’ve ever taken — and there are literally dozens of people in both the Bush and Obama administrations who needed or need to read “General Nielsen’s” Starship Troopers lecture on the nature of Chain of Command, and who is in it, and who is not.

  3. “But isn’t Stranger even more pedantic?”

    Probably not when I read it back in the 60s, just as I didn’t find Starship Troopers such back then either.

    Rereading the books of your youth can be a dangerous thing to do.

    So let me insert the classic opening line from L. P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between” –
    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”

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