I just loved the beginning of this book, this time round, as much as when I first read it at 15, I think. Two things sci-fi can do really well (but doesn't always) are:
- Showing us our world and society in a new light by seeing it through alien eyes
- Showing us our world and society in a new light by projecting trends into the future
I think Heinlein does both of those things brilliantly in Stranger. Michael's observations as he tries to make sense of human society amused and delighted me, from the trivial (the mention of "the color that is called red when it refers to hair but is not called red when it refers to anything else") to the substantive (the way he is able to grok a "wrongness" about Digby). And Jubal's reflections, trying to explain Mike's take on humanity to Duke, were similarly enjoyable and insightful.
As to the projective nature of the book, although I was certainly struck by the things he got wrong, from the trivial (he couldn't predict pantyhose!) to the substantive (he really had no idea the role that computers would play in our lives) I thought a lot of the predictions - from that Paris Hilton-esque woman who pops up from time to time to "host motherhood" to tabloid tv - were bang on.
Okay, what didn't I like? A few things, including sexism, religious philosophy and overuse of superpowers.
I always had found the religious parts of the book less appealing, and particularly the "heaven" scenes, and I found them hard to take this time round, even though the basic religious principle of finding the divine in everything is much more closely related to my personal theology now than in my youth. I think when I first read the book I thought Heinlein was kind of wise and definitely knowledgeable about Western religion and its history. With an adult outlook and a relatively knowledgeable albeit layperson's understanding of world religions and a somewhat more in depth understanding of my own religion and its history, I find his take on religion ignorant and puerile. And I felt disappointed by that.
I had decided to not be bothered by the sexism, to just take that as a given, but I think I didn't quite succeed. When happily Miriam relates that her husband says "women should be obscene and not heard" it was a little too much for me. The really limited range of occupations he depicts women engaging in (and always ones in service to men); the way the women are always objects - sexual, servile, or otherwise; the way that Dawn and Jill become more and more alike to become interchangeable objects - all of that I found really hard to take. And I was surprised by that. I certainly have noticed sexism in the juveniles as I read them with the kids (and talked about some of the sexist assumptions with them) but not at this level. I've actually been pretty impressed - considering when they were written - by some of the strong female characters and by the range of activities they engage in in the juveniles. But not in Stranger. I think Heinlein thought he was looking at women and at gender roles differently, because he was rejecting monogamy, but he just could not overcome a view of women as objects. So the sexism really bothered me, in spite of my resolve.
What bothered me the most, though, was that I found the ending too pat and too sunny. The book seems poised to have Mike truly grapple with his own humanity, really understand that he has killed people and what that means to him as a human. When he realizes he's a spy for the Martians, he distinguishes between what they would think was right (destroying Earth) and how it would not be right to him, not now, because he is human and wants to preserve humanity. But then at the end it's all resolved with sweetness and light and superpowers that solve any impediments and group sex and immortality and it felt cheesy and superficial and kind of dumb. I cried at Mike's death the first time I read the book - and the second and the third. I rolled my eyes at it this time. I had to force myself to finish the book.
All that said, I think there is true genius in its pages, if only intermittently, and I do find myself thinking of the characters and thinking of parts of the book fondly since finishing it.