When thinking of the sci-fi genre, I think a lot of us may envision star wars / star trek or other expeditions in space, interacting with alien creatures, dealing with amazing futuristic technology. In that vein of thinking, this particular book actually feels a little "light" in terms of stereotypical sci-fi. At the same time, it really is a landmark in science fiction for the subtle weaving of futuristic technology and thinking into a thoughtful and often philosophical narrative showing the interaction of humans one with another. There are plenty of futuristic sci-fi elements. But they are there as backdrop elements to create an intricate stage for the characters.
In many ways I preferred this more "subtle" approach to sci-fi. Rather than being blatantly "in your face" about the science fiction elements, Heinlein integrates them calmly and gently into the story in a way that makes them feel all the more realistic. Some of the futuristic technology is very compelling…others (as would be expected) feel somewhat dated now that we are 50 years past the original publication date and have seen countless technological advances.
I find myself reacting to this book on a number of different levels. Mostly, I found this book as a thought provoking work filled with philosophical wanderings. More than its science fiction elements, this book is heavily filled with discussions and commentary on human nature, political/corporate nature, the ideas of freedom and responsibility and other overarching concepts. It serves as an exploration of humanity from an "external" perspective…attempting to shed human bias and look at the nature of "being" in a new light.
The general "plot" of the story is actually pretty interesting and rather compelling…a human born on Mars and raised by Martians. He not only learns their culture but is able to learn to use their extraordinary abilities (forms of telekinesis, telepathy, and other "mind over matter"/psychic abilities). He returns to Earth very naive as to our ways and free from our prejudices and earthy concepts. He tries to learn how to be a good human but eventually decides he should also try to teach humanity the great things that Martians comprehend.
While the plot is intriguing, the heart of the book is in the learning of the Human-Martian Valentine Michael Smith. He is obviously full of questions and soaks up knowledge like a sponge. He engages in many, many question and answer sessions with various characters and draws numerous conclusions about humanity.
While I definitely don't agree with all of the conclusions posed by Heinlein in this book, I will grant that he poses many interesting questions and creates some very intriguing discussions between his characters. The book is filled with vibrant characters that each serve as a different Foil for Smith in his search for truth and knowledge.
Generally speaking, I enjoyed this book. I found the characters and the plot vivid and intriguing. I liked the depth and breadth of the futuristic world that Heinlein created. I sometimes felt a little bit bogged down in the philosophy and lengthy discourses, but also found them interesting and thought provoking. In addition to the general philosophical discussions, I found myself thinking about the 'nature vs nurture' debates and seeing these philosophical arguments through the question of "what is natural". I was a little put off by the seemingly 1960s-esque jump to free-love that Smith and his follower took. It seemed a little bit of a stretch but by the same token was believable given Smith's nature and perception.
I don't think I would fall in with those who praise this as the "greatest science fiction novel ever" but I can appreciate it and recognize it as a well written and very thoughtful novel that I'm glad to have finally read. As a science-fiction novel, I feel like it falls a little short. As a literary and philosophical work, I think it excels and puts forth some well constructed ideas. An intriguing book worth reading at least once.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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