"Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is, like The Sparrow, a story about the sole survivor of the first human mission to an inhabited planet. In this case, the survivor was an infant and was raised by Martians. He comes to Earth, his ancestral planet, as an adult. Having grown up on Mars, Earth is very much an alien country to Valentine Michael Smith, known as Mike. His adventures on our planet shed an often satirical light on human (and particularly American) society of the mid-twentieth Century, by projecting a few years into the future.
Stranger was one of my favorite books as a teen, and I still see it as one that has informed my way of thinking about the world in some key ways. It was considered a "hippie book" in my youth, and I was surprised recently to see that it was first published in 1961. I had assumed that it reflected the hippie phenomenon, but it seems more to have predicted it. I do think the book has had an enduring effect on our culture, including on the language ('grok'). I chose it because Vanessa had recommended it, because I haven't read it in a long time, because I wondered if I'd still enjoy it and because I'd love to hear what this group of women has to say about it.
The title is biblical, as are a few of Heinlein's. In Exodus, Moses is the one who says 'I was a stranger in a strange land.' Like Mike, he was raised by an alien people and returned to his own tribe as an adult."
I started reading it yesterday. At about 100 pages in, I'm finding it still a gripping read and thought-provoking. I'm very much noticing the ways in which it is dated, but most of them aren't bothering me. I'm not sure how much of the not-bothering to attribute to the book itself and how much to my fond memories of it, iykwim.
In any event, I put together initial discussion questions for the Book Club and they are, to some extent, guiding my re-reading. I thought I'd share them here, since I think most of my flist has probably read the book. And I'm putting them behind the cut for those who haven't, because there are some spoilers.
Discussion Questions for Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
1. This is a novel of projective fiction. Heinlein wrote about a future society in 1961, looking at trends he saw – technological, political and social – and predicting what would happen with them in the future. Some things he got right and some he got wrong. How did you feel about that, reading it close to 50 years later? Did you feel distracted by the things that didn’t come to pass? Were you impressed or surprised by the things he did predict? Did it still feel projective, or did it feel too anchored in the mid-twentieth century? What are some of the ways in which the book is dated? Did they bother you?
2. What are some of the things that Heinlein got right in his predictions? Were you ever surprised that the book was written in 1961?
3. One thing Heinlein seems not to have predicted is changes in gender roles and gender relations. His female characters are often capable and intelligent, but all of their agency occurs through men. They are secretaries, wives, nurses. Heinlein is able to foresee huge changes in social configurations in other ways, but seems unable to imagine even a female doctor. Did that bother you? Did it seem like a blind spot to you?
4. There’s a lot of Christian symbolism in the book, particularly around Mike’s death, where he is shown as Christ-like and even uses some of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian bible. If you are a Christian, did you find that offensive? Inspiring? Something else? If you are not a Christian, could you relate to that aspect of the book?
5. Have you ever heard or used the word “grok”? Did you know it comes from this book? Does it mean something to you beyond simply “understand”?
6. I said in my intro that when I read this book in my teens it was considered a “hippie book.” What aspects of the novel reflect or predict hippie culture? Is there a message in the book, and is it one that’s consistent with the hippie phenomenon?
7. Mike is an enormously wealthy and potentially politically powerful individual who – at the beginning of the book, anyway – is completely unaware of his wealth and potential power. This is a plot element Heinlein has used in other books as well: naïve young man unaware of his wealth and power. What makes that worth exploring more than once?
8. Heinlein often has a character in his novels who is an irascible older man who expounds on his philosophy of life at various points during the book. His fans generally view that character as the voice of the author. If Jubal Harshaw is the voice of the author, what is Heinlein trying to tell us through him?
9. Heinlein wrote a bunch of YA novels about resourceful young men coming of age under difficult circumstances, collectively known as “the Heinlein juveniles.” Stranger is also about that topic, but is not intended for an adolescent readership. If you’ve read the Heinlein juveniles, what makes this book different? In what ways is it the same? Would you read this one to a child?
10. What is the significance of sexuality in the novel? How does it relate to spirituality?
11. My copy says on the front “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written.” Do you think that’s true? If not, what are the other candidates for the title? Do you expect people to know about the book? If so, what do you expect them to know? If you met a man named Valentine and said, “Like Valentine Michael Smith!” would you be surprised if he didn’t know what you were talking about :-)?
12. Have you read this book before? If not, what did you know about it?
Book Club Day isn't until May 15, so that's when we'll be discussing the book. If anyone wants to say anything about it here and now, though, I'm happy to discuss.
Fun Fact to Know and Tell: the inventor of the water bed was unable to get a patent for his invention in 1968 because of the water beds that appear in Stranger in its 1961 publication.