This is me slowly making me way through the venerable science fiction classics! Stranger in a Strange Land is about a human of Terran origins who was raised on Mars, and his return to Earth. The plot is really simple; it’s mostly the Man from Mars — Valentine Michael Smith — re-acclimating to our society and, eventually, teaching some of his Martian ways to other humans who are willing to learn.
The novel is much more character-driven than plot driven, and the differences between Michael’s perspectives and abilities vs. ours comprise the impetus for most of the character arcs. As Mike adapts to Earth via the instruction and guidance of his companions, they adapt to his customs as well. Eventually, by the end, Mike’s gospel reaches many more people outside of what was, initially, a rather tight group of people who initially enabled his freedom on Earth.
It’s my understanding that, at the time of its publication in the early 1960’s, this was a pretty controversial novel. It’s easy to see why, as it lampoons religion and includes very favorable portrayals of polyamory and group sex. There is some pretty heavy philosophizin’, too, that justifies its position on these topics. All in all, it made for an interesting read, and in many cases was pretty ahead of its time.
In other cases, though, it is pretty pointedly indicative of when it was written. The imagined universe here, unfortunately, despite all of the liberties it takes with sexual relationships, delivers a pretty disappointing facsimilie of heteronormative 1950’s gender roles. Where some science fiction novels enjoy their ability to challenge social roles, and others deftly side-step them, this one seems to rather revel in its sexism and homophobia. Expect all of the men to be experts in everything, and always delivering their expertise to the women, whose responses are primarily “That’s interesting, dear. Can I pour you a drink?” And for all of the pontificating about brotherly love, and eschewing modesty, and sharing everything and loving everyone and deeply understanding and empathizing with everyone on a molecular and spiritual level, sex — the pinnacle of understanding each other — only happens between men and women. Also, brace yourself for when one of the female characters says “Nine times out of ten, when a woman is raped, it’s her fault.” It’s, as I said, disappointing.
Still, this is a classic, and as far as sci-fi goes, it’s nice to see a venture into character study. I’d still recommend this one overall, with the caveat that there is some potentially upsetting cognitive dissonance with regard to the gender and sexuality content.