Well known is my love for Heinlein; even having only read one of his works previously I do not hesitate to recommend Stranger in a Strange Land to EVERYONE. While one might assume this means I’m an avid sci-fi fangirl the truth is, I’m not. If there is any genre I am a fangirl of it would be romance and even then I can’t honestly say I like all those books. Not. Even. Close. Now having read my second Heinlein work I can honestly say I will still recommend him to anyone, including this book, with one exception: If you have not read him before this book won’t be the easiest to start with.
The story takes a character that appears in several works of Heinlein’s, Lazarus Long, and focuses on him. He’s the oldest man in the universe, born somewhere around the turn of the 20th century and dying a few millennium later, and has traveled far and wide throughout the galaxy using different identities as he goes. When first we meet him he is close to death, rescued from his assured death (his choice), he is captured and thrown into a regeneration center to be brought back to a younger age. The ruler of Secundus (Ira), the planet of which The Howard Foundation runs/populates, had Lazarus’s self-termination switch removed from the premise until a bargain was struck: Lazarus would speak of his life for the official records, while Ira scoured the universe for something Lazarus had never done or experienced before.
POV shifts occur over the gaps of the Chairman Pro Tem (Ira Weatheral – ruler of Secundus), third person omniscient as the computer tells us of Lazarus’s life as it has recorded it, Lazarus’s point of view when he recollects things or when he travels back in time to his youth, and a man of computers as he meets Lazarus on a new colony. I don’t know that the POV shifts made much of a difference in the story that was told, but it did aid in understanding more characters and the commune that Lazarus winds up finding for himself. There are abundant bits of wisdom and history dropped into the text as the discussion of Earth and it’s veritable destruction are discussed, as well as the reasons for Secundus falling a part in the way it seems to be, but there is also the humor Heinlein is quite known for and an openness about sexuality and the questioning of taboos that is sure to shake up the lesser open individuals.
When I got to the part of Lazarus’s time travel the brain wanted to reject it. Few (i.e. none that I’ve read previously) time travel books deal with the issue of paradox and circular logic in a manner that works logically, but Heinlein does it remarkably well. For example, take this excerpt of him describing himself as a child for the archives (bear in mind he left the year 4272 and is currently in 1917):
But I continue to play chess with him (his five year old self) because: (a) I am determined to get along with all my first family for the short time I will be here; and b Woodie will play chess at any opportunity, and Gramp and I are the only chessplayers around who will put up with his poisonous ways. (Gramp clobbers him as necessary; I have no such privelege. But if I were not afraid to find out what would happen, I might strangle him. What would happen? Would half of human history disappear and the rest be changed beyond recognition? No, “paradox” is a null word; the fact that I am here proves that I will keep my temper long enough to get shut of the little beast.)
There are also little wisdoms found in the notes of Lazarus Long that come in the form of two intermissions. Universal morality:
All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury, or folly which can -and must- be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function. As racial survival is the only universal morality, no other basic is possible. Attempts to formulate a “perfect society” on any foundation other than “Women and children first!” is not only witless, it is automatically genocidal. Nevertheless, starry-eyed idealists (all of them male) have tried endlessly -and no doubt will keep on trying.
Never appeal to a man’s “better nature”. He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.
The greatest productive force is human selfishness.
A couple about taxes:
Taxes are not levied for the benefit of the taxed.
Be wary of strong drink. It can make you shoot at tax collectors-and miss.
The more you love, the more you can love -and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had time enough, he could love all of the majority who are decent and just.
Last one (honest):
To be “matter of fact” about the world is to blunder into fantasy-and dull fantasy at that, as the real world is strange and wonderful.
This is a very long work, just shy of 600 pages, but it is well worth the journey. Lazarus Long is now secured in the top standing of favorite fictional characters while Heinlein, even with his darned ambiguous ending, is still amongst my favorite authors.