Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

A couple of days before vacation, and I made a quick trip to the library for some reading material. While cruising down the aisle that held Sci Fi on one side and Mysteries on the other, I saw Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, published in 1961. It was a book on my mental list of "Hey, you should try to read this some day" books, so I picked it up and was immediately fascinated.

The first trip by humans to Mars, since it was so long, was undertaken by four married couples. Valentine Michael Smith, who was conceived during the trip (but whose mother and father were married to other astronauts) was the only survivor of this voyage. He was raised by Martians, and endowed with some of their powers, which are supernatural in terms of Earth. The second voyage to Mars, 25 years later, finds him and brings him back to Earth. The book is about his struggle to adjust, and then dominate, and then die here after founding his own Martian-based religion.

It is a fascinating book on many different levels. There are clear parallels to Kipling's The Jungle Book, of a human raised by non-humans. It is a study of semantics; when asked "Feel like breakfast?" he thinks he may be the main course. (By the way, being eaten is not considered bad if you are a Martian.) It is a study of philosophy and religion, along with the science fiction There's also a touch of Elmer Gantry in it. Rather than write another straightforward review of a 45 year old classic, let's take advantage of the fact that its a look into the future from 45 years ago, and see how close the technology and "history" in the book worked as predictors of what's actually taken place. To do that, we have to estimate when the events of the book take place.

There is no specific date given in the book -- it's not the year 2525, or anything like that. However, we are given a year relative to when the first lunar colony was established. What year might that have been to Heinlein, writing in the late 1950s for a book released in 1961? JFK's speech pledging to reach the moon within the decade was given on September 12, 1962, approximately one year after the book was released. But it could certainly be a reasonable assumption that Heinlein could have envisioned a moon landing by 1970 or so. If we could make it to the moon by 1970, then a reasonable SF writer may assume that by 1980 a lunar colony would have been established. (After all, why expend all that effort to get to the moon, and then just ignore it? That would be foolish.) The first trip to Mars was eight years after the colony was established, so now we are approximately up to 1988. The second trip to Mars was 25 years after that - part of the interruption was caused by World War III. So that brings us to 2013, approximately eight years into the future from now, as one estimate of when the events took place. By being more optimistic on the speed to the moon, or the establishment of a colony, you may even be able to get the envisioned time frame of the book to approximately now. A little bit pessimistic, and it is further out. But I think it's safe to say that the events in the novel take place within our technological ballpark.

So, how good was Heinlein's vision -- or looked at another way, have we kept pace with his vision? Let's look at the technology first.

Well, we made it the moon eight years after the book was published, but we are nowhere close to establishing a colony. It would probably take a major effort over five or ten years just to go back and stand in Neil Armstrong's footsteps, much less start a colony. And that's if we could generate the political will to want to do it. In fact, at this moment, Americans can't even get into low-earth orbit. That's not because of a failure of technology, however, it's because of fear. And Mars? Forget about it. Heinlein's first Mars voyage took place using technology somewhat similar to what we have now; he said it would take 285 days each way, plus a wait of a little more than a year while on Mars to wait for a good planetary alignment. By the second trip, which would be taking place around this time, a new technology (he called it Lyle drive, instead of warp drive or hyperdrive) had shortened the trip to 19 days each way. In other words, we're not even close.

How about earth transportation? Flying cars, buses, and taxis are the norm in the book. They are even unpiloted -- you just punch in your destination and off you go. Well, we have cruise control and On Star, and DVD players for the kids in the back seat. Reality is still lagging behind.

Instead of TV, there is sterovision. There's no real detail, but I'm assuming that the stereo part means a three-D image or holograph, instead of a TV with surround sound. Since it is also referred to as a tank, or is disguised as an aquarium, it's probably the former. So we are somewhat lagging here, but big screen HDTVs probably keep us close. And phones have telescreens in the book -- you can make video calls. We could do that now -- but speaking as a typical home office worker, that would mean getting dressed and presentable before making calls. Not all advancement is an improvement.

The one place technologically that puts us far ahead of the book is in computer technology and the Internet. Nothing close to the Web is in the book; you can get books (recorded electronically in some fashion) that project their text and allow high-speed scanning, but it appears that you have to get a physical copy of the text. We are far ahead in digitalization of information.

Technologically, Heinlein was more optimistic than reality. How about some of the political and cultural trends?

Politically, there is a World Federation, led by a Secretary General, that presumably morphed out of the UN, and it has the real political power in this country along with most others. There's some distinct totalitarian undertones to the police force, although they have to operate out of the glare of publicity to do their dirty work; this is not a dictatorship. Obviously, this is nowhere close to taking place in the real world; in fact, Europe just took a big step back from this last month in the French and Dutch elections. Whether this means we are more advanced or less advanced than the book depends on the individual.

There was a World War III in the book, while we haven't moved past II; some commentators may say that the current conflict between some of the Western democracies and Islamic extremists is in fact a world war, although one of low intensity.

There's some large organized religions, with some shady business practices, that wield power in the book. One, the Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite) would probably make Tom Cruise feel right at home.

There are still traveling carnivals with side shows in the book. In reality, they withered out long ago. Looked at it another way, we still have the sideshows, they just get piped right into the living room via Jerry Springer, the Michael Jackson trial, Fear Factor, etc..

In the book, the wife of the Secretary General of the Federation relies heavily on an astrologer, and uses advice from the astrologer to help mold her husband's actions. Yeah right, like that could really happen.

One thing that was somewhat disconcerting is that some of the dialog seemed to rely heavily on a 1950's pattern or slang, especially in some of the man-woman date scenes. It's natural, since that's how people talked when the book was written, but the slang seemed a little odd, projected into the future. Another way this shows up -- some newspaper columnists are referred to as "winchells" while some others, considered more prestigious, are called "lippmans". To many readers today, these terms would be mysterious; but Walter Winchell was a famous gossip columnist while Walter Lippman was a more prestigious columnist who wrote about foreign affairs and politics.

Even if you don't want to use the book to give a grade to our civilization, it's still a highly worthwhile read. In fact, a whole lot of Heinlein books have been added to my "must read" list.

This review also appears on