Stranger In A Strange Land Turns 50, Skip It And Read These Better Robert A. Heinlein Books Instead
Sci-fi master Robert A. Heinlein’s most famous book, Stranger in a Strange Land, turns fifty today. I’ve been reading Heinlein since I was far too young to actually be reading Heinlein and he is without question one of my favorite authors. And Stranger in a Strange Land is far from his best book.
Unfortunately, because the book had such an impact on the culture of its time, it gets tons of publicity and now anyone looking to explore Heinlein’s work usually starts by reading Stranger… and then they never read anything else. Stranger in a Strange Land is a huge turnoff: narratively unsound, full of more wild ideas than it is with actual story, for people new to Heinlein having them read Stranger in a Strange Land is a sure way to make sure they’ll never read anything else he’s written.
So with the 50th anniversary of Stranger in a Strange Land looming, now seems like the right time to recommend other Heinlein books which are not only completely different, but infinitely better, particularly as a way for new readers to gain entry into Heinlein’s world. Most of these come from earlier in his writing career, before he wrote Stranger. After Stranger Heinlein kept writing more books like, well, Stranger. If you want to read Heinlein, start with these 5 books instead…
The Star Beast (1954)
This was actually written as a novel for young adults but it works well enough that adults can enjoy it too. This was my first introduction to Heinlein at an early age and if you’re looking for an easy window into his worlds this might be the book for you. It’s the story of a boy named John Thomas who has a pet alien, brought into his family by a spacefaring ancestor. The pet on the other hand, thinks it’s the one keeping humans and as it grows to adulthood (and reaches a prodigous size), John learns it’s not just some puppy but an intelligent creature from a powerful race of spacefaring aliens… who want him back.
Tunnel in the Sky (1955)
Tunnel in the Sky is kind of like Heinlein’s Lord of the Flies. A group of students are sent to an alien planet to practice their survival skills. They’re only supposed to be there ten days but no one ever comes to pick them up. They band together to form a community and the book follows one student who eventually becomes their leader, helping them all survive in a harsh and deadly environment. Years pass and things eventually go from bad to worse when they discover a species of viciously deadly aliens threatening to wipe them all out.
Starship Troopers (1959)
Yes this 1959 Hugo Award winner is the book that weird Paul Veerhoven movie from the 90s is based on. But the book has so very little in common with the film they made out of it, it’s almost a completely different thing. Starship Troopers is hard-edged, military science fiction about a young soldier named Johnny Rico, thrust into the midst of a war with an alien race of bugs. He’s a member of the mobile infantry, ground troopers who fight in power armor. In addition to telling a damn good war story, the book contains some pretty savvy political and military themes. Using Rico Heinlein examines all sorts of social ills, while still telling a great science fiction tale.
The Door into Summer (1957)
This is the story of an independent thinking engineer and inventor (Heinlein’s favorite type of character) named Dan Boone who builds a robotics company, only to be betrayed by his partners and stuck in cold sleep. He wakes up decades later and tries to rebuild his life in a strange future. Along the way Dan rises and falls again, ends up at a nudist colony, and eventually gives up and goes back into cold sleep again. It’s a complex story about innovation and invention and corporate intrigue. It handles some of Heinlein’s pet topics, tackling issues of sexual freedom and oh yeah, lots of time travel. But it does all of that while still telling a great story. For me this is Heinlein at his best, but you may not want to tackle this one until you’ve fortified yourself with some of his simpler works first.
Farnham’s Freehold (1965)
Farnham is the cold war era tale of a family hiding inside a bomb shelter when nuclear war breaks out. It’s brilliant, particularly early on as Heinlein describes his little group of people, huddled inside their shelter while the world shakes around them. Eventually they leave the bomb shelter, to discover they’ve somehow been transported… somewhere else. Alone in a hostile environment without any of the technology they’re used to, the group tries to form a community and survive, only to discover a place where white men are slaves and the world they knew is buried and gone forever.
Other Heinlein Books Worth Your Time: Have Space Suit Will Travel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Red Planet, The Puppet Masters, Starman Jones
Have a favorite Heinlein story I missed? Recommend it in the comments section below.