I would argue that this is the greatest sifi novel of all time, at the very least it is in the top 5. I am not sure where I first came across this one. I assume that I did a quick Google search for best sifi novel and this one kept showing up. So I knew I had to check it out and see what all the fuss was about.
This is the second book I have read by Heinlein and I think is without a doubt his most famous. Check out my review of Starship Troopers if you want a little more info on the author. This novel did receive a Hugo Award in 1962 for best novel. The only thing you really need to know about Heinlein is that he is one of the most famous authors in the sifi genre. He is considered one of the Big Three in sifi along with Isaac Asimov and Author C. Clark. I have not read anything by Asimov but his most famous work was the I Robot Series which inspired the movie with the same name starring Will Smith. I have read 2001: A Space Odyssey by Clark and I will put up a review on th at one very soon. Once again I digress…
The opening of this book fills in a lot of background information to set up the story. First, it talks about a manned mission to Mars where two of the smartest people on Earth are among the crew. The captain who is the inventor of a revolutionary type of warp drive, his wife along with the rest of the crew successfully land on Mars. The mission suffers catastrophic losses and everyone of the crew is killed. Back on earth because the captain invented this warp drive it is now used by many corporations and his estate accumulates a vast wealth, one that is the most valuable in history. The Captain was a very good astronaut and since he was the first to land on Mars, he technically owns the planet. Many years after the first Mars mission a crew is sent to try and find what happened. While on Mars they discover a human child that has been raised by Martians and bring him back to Earth. Because he is the son of the captain he is to inherit one of the most valuable estates in history, and the owner of the planet Mars, making him the richest person in the world over night.
His name is Valentine Michael Smith and he is taken to a research facility so he can be studied. A female scientist at the facility (Gillian Boardman) starts to fall in love with him and soon helps him escape the facility, and Michael uses his Martian knowledge and powers (although this is a bit of a misnomer as he does not have super powers) to subdue some guards during his escape. From there Gillian introduces him to her very intelligent friend Jubal Harshaw who is a writer and lawyer. Jubal is fascinated by Michael and his ideals, behavior, and his thinking. Michael has been taught many different things while being raised on Mars. Most of his ideas are influenced by his upbringing on the red planet. From there the story follows the trio as they help Michael understand Earth and its people while trying to protect him as he is quite the celebrity being the heir to the world’s largest fortune. Michael teaches Gillian and Jubal his ideas that he was taught on Mars and soon they start their own religion. From there the story explores many different and fascinating ideas of a true stranger in a very strange and future land.
I have done a poor job of giving a synopsis of the plot, it is way too deep for me to do it the justice it deserves in the review. I loved this book, and I have no idea why! I cannot put my finger on what made me like it. Perhaps that it is written in a style that is easy to understand while still keeping the reader engaged and interested. I honestly have no idea? I admit that most of the time I dislike longer stories that seem to accumulate un-needed pages, as the mass market paperback copy of this one is 438 pages with small type, but for some reason it never bothered me one bit. The story is very exciting all the way through to the end.
Perhaps the reason I liked this one so much as it is like following a celebrity/mystic/cult leader though all stages of his life. But Michael is not a celebrity in the traditional sense; he is more a mythical figure with knowledge that is beyond our comprehension. The other think I liked is the character himself. He is like this being who is so naive and child like in most of his thinking yet at times he shows extraordinary knowledge and understanding that is so far beyond what we Earthlings can understand. That is what is so interesting to see throughout the story is how much Michael changes from the beginning till the end. He is a child, yet at the same time he is an elder wise man of the community that is able to teach others. At the beginning of the story he is a child then you watch as he learns more and more about the culture on Earth and he begins to grow and understand this strange and foreign culture. Then he is able to teach those around him a thing or two that he learned on Mars, that is when things get really interesting. It is very cool to watch this as it unfolds and to me you cannot help but start to develop a deep bond for Michael as you keep reading.
There are so many different themes and ideas that this book touches on from sexuality, to politics, to legal precedents, and even religion. I thought it was pretty amazing that the author did such a fantastic job of showing so many different aspects of this future world to the audience. At times you really feel like you are there and you can almost see what it would be like living in that world. The detail and descriptions are not overdone in my opinion, and I am a stickler for that sort of thing. I think there is just so much to talk about, so many ideas that give the book the majority of its length. I did like how the story was not overdone with amazing new technology of the future, instead it touches on these aspects briefly when needed, but its main focus is on the development and life of Michael. Watching a character grow through so many different stages in his/her life is really amazing to watch.
Some of the best scenes in the book are when Michael talks about his beliefs and religion from Mars. It is very interesting to hear his thoughts on the matter and really puts into perspective what an alien religion might be like. From being a water brother to eating their dead, his views on the subject are so different from what we believe here on Earth, but at the same time they are very real and very sound in their logic. I could spend a whole other review talking about all the religious aspects in the story along with all the sexuality that is depicted. But I would rather you read it for yourself.
As I have mentioned this book is famous for so many reasons, one of them is that Heinlein invented the word “Grok,” which is now an actual word in the dictionary. It took me a while to figure out what it meant in the story, and I thought it meant to think or understand. These are correct but it can also means – “to drink” and figuratively means “to comprehend”, “to love”, and “to be one with”. One dictionary description was “To understand thoroughly through having empathy with”(Wikipedia). That is pretty amazing that a word the author made up for the story is now an official word and in the dictionary. Pretty neat.
When Heinlein first took the book to a publisher is was over 220,000 words long! The publisher quickly made him cut it down to a manageable 160,000, which I still think is nuts. Years later when the book was a major success the complete version was released to the public. Some have argued that the full version is even better than the shortened version. I have not read it so I cannot comment, but I thoroughly enjoyed the shortened version I read.
I am trying to think of a negative for this story and other than the length I have nothing. Even after this review I still am not sure what about this book resonated so strongly with me. Perhaps it was just so many different little things the story does so well. I highly recommend this book as there is so much to think about while reading this one. It is not just a sifi book but more a look at certain aspects and ideas of humanity and our culture. This is truly a must read for a fan of the written word. You need to check this one out as, such a beautiful and fascinating read.