Stranger in a Strange Land

ISBN: 0441788386
ISBN 13: 9780441788385
By: Robert A. Heinlein

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About this book

Only Valentine Michael Smith, newborn, survived the first mission to Mars. Raised by Martians, he returns to Earth an innocent, rich heir, and "owner" of Mars. Protected by irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw, he explores human morality and free love, founds a church, and disseminates psychic talents taught by Martians. Working title The Heretic. "Stranger" alludes to the Bible, Exodus 2:22.

Reader's Thoughts


This is a magical, rare thing. The first half of a great book seamlessly fused with the second half of an awful book.It has been many years since I read it, so forgive me some fuzziness here.The first parts of the novel are well written and believable (as long as you can go with pre-space program views of Mars, and—much worse—the idea of a manned Martian expedition that should never have gotten past psychological screening and isn't followed up for 20 years), and does a wonderful job portraying a completely foreign culture.As the main character (Mike Valentine) acculturates to Earth and starts trying to absorb what he can and fuse it with his values, the book goes steadily downhill. The author's main philosophical mouthpiece (Jubal Hershaw) presents several interesting 'narrative essays' (not uncommon with Heinlein) throughout the middle sections, and Jubal himself remains my favorite character from the book.Mike's later views and the religion/cult he founds are where the novel falls apart. Broadly sexually utopianist in nature, it displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the human species in general, and would be unlikely to last more than a couple of years with any meaningful number of members. (Somewhat like early socialist communes which initially did well, and then fell apart.) This might not be so bad, but the entire last third of the novel is focused on this as it slowly drags into the realm of an unrealistic culture, that frankly, isn't even appealing in the first place.


Though this novel has a promising start that is engaging, truly original, and thought-provoking, somewhere around 100 pages it melts into some kind of mind-numbingly misogynistic alternative view of morality. In this author's frantically defended "free love" and "universal property" society, all the women are perpetually horny, deliver sex willingly to multiple partners, enjoy being mistaken for other women who resemble them, wear no clothes, and are - surprisingly - all very beautiful. If Heinlen had continued to do what his first few chapters did, which is propose a highly complicated political, economic, and scientific plot-line that is intriguing, but tied up too neatly too quickly, this book would have been brilliant. But it wasn't. Don't read it unless you have some need to check one of the most famous sci-fi novels in history off your list.


here are some quotes i like from this book. (hah! lazy reviewer)"'I don't pay attention to politics.''You should. It's only barely less important than your own heartbeat.'"(45)"The three Federation defense stations swung silently in the sky, promising instant death to any who disturbed the planet's peace. Commercial space stations swung not so silently, disturbing the planet's peace with endless clamor of the virtues of endless trademarked trade goods"(95)"History will justify you"(99)"...that streak of anarchy which was the political birthright of every American"(118)"Everything and anything about a culture can be inferred from the shape of its language"(150)"All three of us are prisoners of our early indoctrinations, for it is hard, very nearly impossible, to shake off one's earliest training"(160-1)"Man is the animal who laughs"(183)"Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas"(264)"every choice must be paid for"(398)

Andrew Dugas

Wow, a lot of mixed reviews of this book here. First, the edition referenced is the 1991 UNCUT version, which is about 33% longer than the version published in 1961. So for those of you who felt it was over long, there you have it.Second, about those offended by the book's purported misogyny and homophobia, keep in mind it was written in the late 1950s. By the standards of the day, this book was comparatively forward-thinking. Should we fault Shakespeare for his politically incorrect foibles? Read Catcher in the Rye lately?Third, the social impact of this book is given short shrift in these reviews, especially in regards to the early psychedelic adventurers around the SF Bay Area whom adopted the word "grok" to describe the contemplative aspect of the LSD experience. Throw Free Love and waterbeds into the mix while you're at it.Fourth, as a work of fiction, this book has tremendous scope. A rich diversity of characters whose stories come together with that of Michael Valentine Smith, a well-imagined future that perfectly comments and satirizes the present one. (Consider the focus of the public imagination on the various happenings of celebrities and their excesses, satire still valid nearly 50 years later.) And most of all, the intimated future destruction of Earth at the hands of the Martians, not unlike what happened with the planet that has since become an asteroid belt.As far as the book's take on religion and spirituality, Heinlein has borrowed less from the Eastern traditions (as so many other reviewers have indicated) as early Christian ones.Remember, religion is a human construction. A church is a human institution. Those who confuse church and religion with the Mystery they are intended to honor deserve what they get.


For me, it would be a more apt title if it were “Strangeness in a Strange Book.” Of all the books I’ve read on the list so far [and I’ve skipped around, been reading them as I can find them], I enjoyed this one the least. Overall, I was enjoying the ideas the book was putting forth about religion and politics and community prior to Mike’s intellectual ascent [descent?] as a Man rather than a Martian. I was extra disappointed with it because the premise the book set up in Sections One and Two seemed very interesting and then, somehow, everything became weirdly psychedelic and communist with a side of evangelicalism thrown in.Once he became Man, I became more and more uncomfortable with the book. I don’t know. Maybe I’m repressed, but I doubt it. Some of it probably stems from the fact that I didn’t live through the Free Love Era and the boom of Communism. Both have always been, for me, fabulous ideas that did not work; so to read about them working seems both contrived and naïve. Some of it also stems from the fact that I think Heinlein wanted to think he had some insight into the sexual feelings of women and I think he missed the mark by a long shot. Of course, you can’t win many points with me when one of your main female characters says, “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” [pg. 304] Plus, I’m not into losing my individuality, regardless of whether or not it makes me a member of a peaceful society.I had the brilliant idea while reading this book to put in little markers about what I wanted to talk about. Unfortunately, it’s now about 2 months since I finished it and I no longer remember why I put the markers on some pages. I marked the section where Mr. Heinlein points out the ritualistic cannibalism in Christianity, but I forget what point I was going to make about it. I also marked the passage about Jubal’s feelings towards Fosterites and other Earthly religions. I think Heinlein was using Jubal as the adherent to Science as a religion, setting up all belief systems currently at work on Earth, pre-Martian Man, to be resolved under the power of human mental oneness i.e. “grok.” I put a marker on a page that used “grok” a lot and I think it was to remind myself to make the same point Liz made about “grok” sticking in her head and becoming really annoying. [Just wait till Ringworld for new words that will stick in your head.]At one point in the book, I stuck a Post-It note on which I wrote, “I suppose I take it for granted that reading comprehension requires a certain level of knowledge and a certain level of common sense.” The pages to which it was stuck referenced things like Julius Caesar, the S.S., and Hemophiliacs. I realized that if I didn’t know what those things were a lot of this book would not make sense to me. It wasn’t just Stranger in a Strange Land that cause this revelation though. I was reading Ulysses by James Joyce at the same time, and, if it hadn’t been for my love of Irish ballads and history, I would really have had NO CLUE what half that book was about.I’m always intrigued by the levels of future advancement presented in sci-fi. It’s very interesting to see what predictions have come to pass, what things are still distant dreams for us, and what things are totally wrong. On pg. 229, Heinlein mentions a star exploding and Earth not noticing. Right before I read that, I’d just finished reading an article in the Smithsonian about how astronomers have systems set up to alert them when a super nova is occurring so that they can observe the gamma ray bursts. But we still don’t have flying cars.

Christina Wilder

Started out fantastic, got preachy at the end. I could comment on my personal beliefs with some issues raised in this book but I'd rather not, as I'm not interested in having that discussion online (and certainly not on this site). Anyway, while I found some of the statements appalling (Jill's assertion that rape is the victim's fault), I tried to think of them as dialogue, but they were so insulting that I had a hard time doing this.Still, for the sci-fi elements, the fantastic scenes of Jubal not putting up with bullshit from condescending politicians (too funny), the suspense of the early part of the book leading to Jill and Mike on the run, and the utterly bizarre ending made this an enjoyable read. The preaching, not so much. Even if I agree with a point being made, I don't need care for proselytizing.


Mixed feelings here. The first half of the book reads like a suspenseful mystery/action flick with some sharp observations about language and culture clashes. And I loved it. The second half deals with whacky religion and uninhibited sex. Public nudity, open marriage, sex used for growing closer - it's all very out there and provocative, especially for 1960s. But since it's 1960 you also get a fair share of sexism. Women are often excluded from male conversations, patronised: "girl", "dearest", "child" - that's apparently the way to talk to a grown woman; and given the roles of caretakers only - cooks, secretaries and nurses. And of course the heights of their ambitions outside the church is marriage, within the church there's no place for ambitions but sex with holy people*. So yeah, Heinlein made my inner feminist groan a lot. "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault." - charming, isn't he? And don't even get me started on his ideas about religion... But the book gives plenty food for thought, technology and gadgets aren't as outdated as you'd think, and the conspiracy plot was truly gripping. So Stranger in a Strange Land - despite being irritating and infuriating at times, was never a waste of time. And I think I grok it.______________________________________Does that sound Mormon like to you Gretchen? I know little about Mormons, I doubt they are that extreme, but I kept imagining them as I read. And I guess they do stick with that outdated, little sexist attitude towards women. So your friend's mother definitely has a point.

Jason Pettus

The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "classics," then write reports on whether or not they deserve the labelEssay #66: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), by Robert A. HeinleinThe story in a nutshell:Conceptualized in the early 1950s, but not written and published until 1961 (supposedly so that "society could catch up with it," according to the author), Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is a classic example of a science-fiction (or SF) novel acting as a premonition to its real-world times, only moderately successful when it first came out but eventually a must-read touchstone among the hippies of the Countercultural Revolution a decade later. It starts with the first-ever manned mission to Mars, which because of its length was crewed only by couples, which ended tragically with the unexplained deaths of all on board; but when a second team finally arrives twenty years later, they discover that one of these couples had secretly had a baby, one Valentine Michael Smith, and that the lone survivor was raised by the insanely unhumanlike native Martians as one of their own, guaranteeing his re-introduction to the human race being as awkward as Tarzan being returned to Greystoke Manor.And in fact, surprisingly the entire first half of this long novel is dedicated merely to the complicated legal questions that have arisen by Smith's appearance, including what powers he exactly has to grant property and mining rights to individual nations or even to commercial interests, cleverly reflecting the real debates that were going on at the time over these same questions in regards to the Soviet/US race to the Moon. And so this is how the gentle, confused man-child eventually becomes friends first with the feisty nurse Gillian Boardman at the hospital where he's being kept; then her sometimes lover, brash journalist Ben Caxton; and then Caxton's friend and one of the most memorable characters in all of modern American literature -- lawyer, doctor, curmudgeon, millionaire hack author, angry libertarian, proud sexist, sculpture collector, Poconos-mansion-owning octogenarian Jubal Harshaw*, who eventually invites the whole party to an extended stay at his secluded Austin-Powersesque compound (including a household staff straight out of a James Bond parody -- three beautiful women who also happen to be experts at office management, cooking, engine repair, high diving and more). And indeed, there's a good reason that it turns out to be such a complex battle to get Smith away from the draconian "protection" of the US government; because hey, it turns out that such "psychic abilities" as mind-reading and telekinesis are actually ho-hum scientific principles, as easily accomplished when you know what you're doing as solving a hard math problem is, just that no human had been smart enough to "crack the code" until Smith was basically raised from birth with the knowledge by the evolutionally superior Martians, skills that the US Army are awfully anxious to learn themselves.It's when the action switches to this compound, then, that the much more famous second half begins; because with Smith being the curious, inquisitive soul that he is, of course the first thing he wants to do once gaining his "freedom" is to tramp across the country vagabond-style, exploring as much as he can about human life and sampling a wide variety of traditional and mystical religions, trying to find something that can adequately explain the curiously hippie-like belief system the Martians adhere to, and especially the all-important concept in their culture of "grokking" (not quite the simple act of understanding something, not quite religious revelation, not quite a profound connection between two living creatures, but a sort of combo of them all, impossible to fully understand unless you can actually speak Martian yourself). And indeed, this is exactly what Smith ends up doing, is creating his own religion (the Church of All Worlds) dedicated to teaching humans to speak Martian so that they can fully grok this new, enlightened way of living, which apparently also includes a nudist lifestyle and lots and lots of hot group sex…or, er, communal free love, I mean. (Man, those Martians are some real swingers.) Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with most of the other religions of the world, including the suspiciously Scientologist-like "Fosterites" who Heinlein also explores in depth in the book's second half, leading to an easily anticipated martyr-like death for our perpetually misunderstood hero; but not before Smith has a chance to let his followers know that what he's really done is kickstart the next step of human evolution, and that those who refuse to learn the new ways will eventually become as obsolete and then extinct as the Neanderthals are to us.The argument for it being a classic:Well, for starters, it won the prestigious Hugo Award the year it came out, with Heinlein himself the very first winner of the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America (in fact, when people refer to the "Big Three" SF authors of the 1960s, Heinlein is one of them, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke); plus the Heinlein estate claims with some authority that this is the biggest selling SF novel of all time, with it certainly undeniable how much of an influence it's had on the culture since, including the introduction into the general lexicon not only of "grokking" but the phrase "Thou art God"**. And that's because, fans claim, Stranger in a Strange Land is a perfect example of genre fiction as metaphor, of a fantastical story that actually helps guide us in our everyday lives; that its perfect combination of humor, drama, action and philosophy preaches important lessons about self-determination, loving your neighbor (in all sorts of ways), and the facile nature of so many traditional religions, to say nothing of fringe cults that prey on the weak-minded. A landmark publication in the history of Libertarianism (and with Heinlein in general the originator of the "Libertarians in SPAAAAAACE!" trope now so common in science-fiction), fans say that its lessons of thinking for yourself and rejecting bureaucratic BS couldn't be more timely, the rare book that can be positively cited by both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement; the fact that it almost single-handedly pushed the entire SF industry into mainstream respectability is mere icing on the cake, simply an external sign of just how important this novel is. The argument against:Ahem. "Oh, are you freaking kidding me, you stupid grokking hippie trash?" That's an attitude you heard from a lot of people in the years after this book first came out; and while the vitriol has calmed down some in the 51 years since, it still remains the most effective argument against it, that this silly ode to long-hair orgies and Stickin' It To The Man isn't nearly as well-written or as important as its fans claim, and that it mostly has the reputation it does merely because Heinlein was damned lucky to have put it out right at the exact moment in history when mainstream society was most clamoring for a story like this (an accusation we've heard before in this essay series, don't forget, when we were discussing Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer). And this didn't get any better at all, they claim, even after Heinlein's widow in 1991 managed to get over 60,000 words from the original manuscript put back into the official bookstore version, after originally being cut in the early '60s for being "too scandalous;" because almost all of this cut material happens to be from the novel's infuriatingly repetitive and digressive second half, with literally hundreds of pages in the modern edition now dedicated to dated, rambling explanations of this group's adherence to free love, public nudity, water-based sharing rituals, and the importance of being "one with the universe" (that is, when you're not violently raging against the commies, capitalists, and other SOBs who are trying to steal away all your personal liberties -- oops, sorry, Heinlein apologists, did I just poke a hole in your precious little peacenik logic? Sorry about that!). And besides, say his critics, Heinlein was a cantankerous sexist and military booster who may or may not have been a fan of certain ideas commonly associated with fascism (but see Starship Troopers for a lot more on that), so you're officially forgiven for not buying into his luvey-duvey New Age charlatanism.My verdict:So for those who aren't familiar already with the fine points of SF history, perhaps it's best to start with the following to understand my thoughts today about Stranger in a Strange Land -- that between the early days of this genre, when it was considered good for not much more than empty kiddie crap, and our own post-Star Wars age when we just take it for granted that a genre project can have millions of fans and generate billions of dollars, there was a perfect storm in the 1950s and '60s (aka "Mid-Century Modernism") when an obsession with rationality and philosophy, a weariness over dogma-fueled wars, the explosive birth of the Electronic Age, and the sudden maturing of American literature all came together in a glorious mess in the world of science-fiction, a "coming of age" moment in which the genre was suddenly the single hottest thing in the entirety of the arts; and Heinlein had a huge role in helping to make this happen, demonstrably the very first genre author in history to get published regularly in conservative, mainstream, middle-class publications like The Saturday Evening Post, and also one of the first people in history to write SF stories where the fantastical science was simply a given, the stories themselves exploring the more underlying human-interest subjects that would naturally come with such innovations (now known as "social science fiction," and again not reaching its true apex until the Countercultural Era a decade later).So for Heinlein to put something as shocking and subversive as this out in the Kennedy years, after having a following of millions for his generally suburban-safe post-WW2 "juvenilia," was very much like the Beatles putting out "Sgt. Pepper" a mere three years later; a game-changer, in other words, not just a new project but a literal gauntlet that forced other writers to catch up, a line in the sand that served as an easy litmus test in those years to determine whether someone could "dig it" or not. And indeed, reading it for the first time a half-century later, this is still a very funny, thought-provoking and above all highly entertaining novel, full of intelligence and wit and great surprises; and sure, its critics have a point, that the second half does get bogged down occasionally with Heinlein's love for pontification (plus overly detailed descriptions of hippie orgies), but in an era that gave us Walden Two and Atlas Shrugged, it's important that we be more forgiving of this than we would with a contemporary novel, and understand that overblown philosophical treaties disguised as genre actioners are actually one of the most charming things about Mid-Century Modernist literature in general. Granted, this book inspired a lot of awfulness after the fact, not least of which is the entire trope of "Brilliantly Advanced Space Alien Who Acts Like Sweet Guileless Mentally Challenged Man Child Merely Because He Doesn't Yet Understand The Dirty Ways Of Our Flawed World" (see E.T., Starman, K-PAX, The Man Who Fell to Earth, ad nauseum); but in general, this is exactly as groundbreaking and still inspirational as its fans claim, and I have no hesitation today in declaring it a literary classic that everyone should read at least once before they die, a title that I'm convinced is just going to become more and more important as the years continue. It comes strongly recommended to one and all, as long as you approach it with a little patience and forgiveness, just as you should with all Mid-Century Modernist genre novels.Is it a classic? Yes(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)*And hey, yeah, just how autobiographical is good ol' Jubal? He sure looks and talks like Heinlein, after all; and in fact many have argued that the main character in this novel is not Smith but rather Harshaw himself, and that the entire Martian premise is just a thinly veiled excuse for Heinlein to essentially rant for several hundred pages on the subjects of women's lib, artists who receive state money, out-of-control central governments, and how much he hates each and every one of them. But on the other hand, genre editor and Heinlein friend David G. Hartwell has said before that Harshaw was based on mystery author and "Perry Mason" creator Erle Stanley Gardner, who like Jubal was a prickly former lawyer who got filthy rich off an endless series of hacky pulp novels.**And speaking of its impact on the real world, here's an amazing piece of trivia I came across that didn't fit well into the main essay: that a year after the book first came out, a man who now goes by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart started a very real church modeled after Smith's fictional one, which like the novel adhered to a strict policy of hedonism and Do What You Want. And they're still in operation!


The Man From Mars, the main character, starts out as a fascinating, strange and fragile creature. Born on Mars and raised my Martians, creatures vastly different from ourselves, he has no point of reference for understanding human language and culture. Hell he can't even cope with our gravity! His early interactions with "his own kind" are fascinating. What makes someone human? We generally think of it as a matter of species, but the Man From Mars lacks any of our traits beyond the physical. He doesn't even think like us. Hilarious, poignant, and disturbing interactions ensue. Brilliant stuff, really.Spoiler: Sadly, it turns out he's a superman. Seriously, the man of steel wouldn't last a second against this guy. And he's richer than Bruce Wayne. And a philosophical genius. Yawn. Supermen make for boring literature. Take a lesson from the Greeks and give them a weakness or two.End SpoilerThis book has a stellar start, introducing fascinating concepts aplenty, promising to expound upon them in luscious, ground-breaking detail. Alas, it was not to be. Heinlein does not delve deep enough. He promises an exploration of the nature of language and symbols, especially the untranslatable concept. The verb, "to grok" gets a healthy exploration of it's nuanced meaning(s) early in the book. To drink, to grow closer, to think, to learn, to know, to eat, to cherish, to hate, to become: all these English verbs share meaning with, or are encompassed by, the Martian concept of grokking. But Heinlein doesn't go any further than this. He chooses to tell, rather than show, when it comes to the Martian language. Supposedly many of the great insights he is writing about can only be understood if one first learns Martian. Well, then teach us some, gorrammit! Do we need to get Professor Tolkien on the case?Heinlein has some great insight into what laughter is, and what purpose it actually serves. Sadly, his own sense of humor gets very tiring after a while.His notions about sex and community are quite cool to me, at first anyway. Then it kinda degenerates into 1960's-style softcore porn, complete with the literary equivalent of soft-focus lenses. Also, Heinlein's attitudes towards women are so dated as to be truly aggravating.In summary, Heinlein really hits the mark on a lot of topics. Sadly, he raises some brilliant questions that he doesn't bother to answer. Those answers he does give are often unsatisfying. Much of it has an odor of "hippie space magic."Ok, so I actually liked the book, on the whole. I loved the first half, and found some real gems in the second half. It deserves it's place in the sci-fi canon. Maybe some lively/thoughtful discussion will help me put it in perspective.


I read this. Yes. When I was young. At the time it appeared to be fascism for hippies. Proto-Manson, then. I'm struggling to remember anything. He comes from mars and he starts a new religion and he eats people. No - he gets eaten by people. I think that's it. A bit like Jesus. If Jesus was a fascist. You know what - I can't remember a thing. It's late.


I seem to be hit-or-miss with Heinlein. I have read and enjoyed Starship Troopers and The Glory Road; however I couldn't finish Job: A Comedy of Justice and was not impressed with Stranger in a Strange Land (SISL) ... It is simply NOT good Science-Fiction (even if it is a fair piece of satire). The book is divided into five (5) parts ... Part One [His Maculate Origin] was a good Sci-Fi plot that I actually enjoyed ... the premise being that of a lost human boy raised by non-humans (in this case Martians) along the lines of Tarzan of the Apes and The Jungle Book (which is thought to have been his original inspiration for the story). Next to nothing is actually revealed about Valentine Michael (Mike) Smith's time with his adoptive people, but the story keeps humming along with a little political intrigue and mystery. Unfortunately the plot begins to sink after this until it practically disappears by the end. The koolest concept here has to be the 'Fair Witness' characters ... A very limited version of human machine proxies that could easily be the precursor to the better developed Mentats of the Dune saga.Part Two [His Preposterous Heritage] introduces what is arguably the true main character in the story and Heinlein's alter ego, Jubal Harshaw, who proceeds to introduce 'Mike' to all the ills of human society. This wasn't all that bad a satire actually, even when Jubal waxes on the sermon a bit too much (it had the feel of watching re-runs of "Abbott and Costello', 'I Love Lucy' or 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.') Mike really takes a back seat here so that Jubal can pontificate at will, but the humor of it all was still mildly entertaining. Presumably Jubal's female secretaries provide the strong gender examples that Heinlein is noted for ... They are also incredibly shallow and boring (or as presented in one discussion thread ... They differ by a haircut). There is absolutely NO character development for anybody except Mike from here on out; and as far a Mikey is concerned, all of his character development happens all at once as he is 'wondrously converted from Tarzan/Mogli into the next Messiah of humanity. We also get two main plot items ... The term 'grok' which became a cult classic in the late 60's and the revelation that Mike has a super power to go with his naiveté that just about blows any plot discipline out of the water for the remainder of the story."Thou Art G-d" saith the Man from Mars ...The rest is a complete Grokk.Part Three [His Eccentric Education] was an attempt to develop Mike a little further so that he learns the 'art of the con' that is apparently required to make a go of any religion. Mike needs this, because he wants to harness such shams to 'trick' humans into accepting his rather dubious views on human society (which social change has now exposed as mildly sexist and homophobic). Part Four [His Scandalous Career] Here is where Jubal comes back on stage in order whip the reader with guilt to make it easier to accept Heinlein's free love society. That is really all that you find here. We get such gems as: "I can at least see the beauty of Mike's attempt to devise an ideal human ethic and applaud his recognition that such a code must be founded on ideal sexual behavior ..." Really? Even if accepted as true, Heinlein completely FAILS to explore this concept other then to say that it is obviously good. To support his claim, he gives us a voyeuristic look into his 'Nest' (aka Harem) where such physical contact is open, natural and without jealousy BECAUSE everyone is an equally great looking sex god following the true path to happiness. The problem? We the reader get NO insight into how Mike's disciples change their thinking. They just do ... Possibly because they now see the inherent 'rightness' of the concept once it is properly explained to them (the only instance we get of that is between Jubal and Ben Caxton and that is left unresolved at the end of the encounter).Part Five [His Happy Destiny] After such a stinging rebuke of Christianity (specifically) earlier in the story, it seems surprising the Heinlein would so blatantly force the 'Passion of Christ' upon his protagonist here; and with very little rationale other then some need to highlight one of his more hypocritical definitions of 'grok' that includes consuming the physical body of a person in order to truly know him. Add to this a complete moral bankrupcy where it is okay to cheat, steal and kill as needed and I do not see any appeal what so ever to Heinlein's proposed utopia. Sure ... I get the fact that the story is not supposed to be realistic (it is supposed to be satire) and that it was not intended to be a guide to a practical utopia, but that just doesn't save the later half of the story from being so preachy and simpleminded that it not only obscures the "important questions" about contemporary social mores (specifically sex and religion), it actually fails to entertain with its long-winded monologs defending the 'rightness' of the title character's views on the subjects. While Heinlein may not have intended to provide convenient answers to the questions he thought he was raising, that is in fact what he did, displaying a remarkable ignorance of basic human psychology that ultimately dooms his 'social commentary' to failure.

Shannon (Giraffe Days)

Apparently a classic of the sci-fi cannon, I'd never heard of this book until it came up on a book club here. It took me a long time to read only because of lack of time, and a rather annoying trait the author has that I'll go into later.This is one of those books that tells us more about the period it was written in than anything else, so it's important to note that it was first published in 1961 and later again in 1968 - when moon fever was running high and people seemed to have high expectations for human achievement. Events are set in an undisclosed future but the older characters seem to remember the first moon landing, so I wouldn't be surprised if Heinlein was thinking of it being set around about now. With a mix of very daggy technology like "stereo tanks" (TVs) and large, clumsy listening devices, alongside hover crafts and spaceships to Mars, the scope of the setting is hampered by a 50s' imagination. Stranger in a Strange Land is about Michael "Mike" Smith, the "Man from Mars", offspring of two of scientists on board the original mission to Mars, who was raised by Martians. He is more Martian than human, especially in his thinking and outlook and philosophy, when he is brought back to Earth. Heir to a shitload of money care of his parents' heritage, it's unsurprising that the bigshots on Earth are wanting to keep him locked up tight. A nurse at the hospital where he is first kept, Jill, offers him a glass of water and in that one action becomes a "water brother" - the highest accolade for Mike. She rescues him from the politicians with the help of her journalist friend Ben and takes him to the home of a grumpy, reclusive man, Dr Jubal Harshaw, who lives with three young women who serve as secretaries - Anne, Miriam and Dorcas - and two men who take care of the property - Duke and Larry. Mike's particular talents slowly reveal: he can vanish things, including people, if he recognises there is a "wrongness" in them; he can withdraw from his own body and shut down his body so there is no heartbeat; he can teleport and think telepathically; he can absorb books in minutes and regulate his own body, making it muscular and mature at will; and so on. All of this can be done with understanding of the Martian language, which Jill starts to learn. He's completely ignorant of human ways, of human concepts - things like jealousy, possessiveness etc. are all alien to him. He doesn't understand religions and he has never laughed.After months on the road with just Jill, learning and "grokking", he finally knows why humans laugh and how to do it himself, and gets the human condition. It leads him to start his own "church", though it's more of a way of life open to people of all religious denominations, with free love and open mindedness, and abilities gained through mastery of the Martian language. With Mike set up as a new Messiah, a prophet, there's only one logical conclusion for this story.As a story, Stranger in a Strange Land is enjoyable and original. Yet, as a story, it's also bogged down with sermons, with Heinlein's opinions, and a very out-of-date mentality. It reads very 60s and 70s, though it was written before then. Not as far-sighted as it would like to be! It's especially noticeable in the relations between men and women, which have that faintly liberated tinge that's all really lip service, and a great deal of sexist language. Which is ironic, really, considering Mike's free love cult. There's also an affectionate insult for a Muslim character who's nicknamed "Stinky" that I couldn't help but be offended by.It does make it hard to read, though, when you come across lines like this, as spoken by Jill very matter-of-factly: "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault." (p304) While today the statistics are more like "nine of ten times, a woman's rapist is someone she knows", the idea that it's "partly her fault" is still considered true by way too many people. To hear this come out of Jill's mouth makes it especially awful.Another example is Jubal saying: "Pipe down, Anne. Close your mouth, Dorcas. This is not a time when women have the vote." (p382) Granted, they ignored him and did what they wanted anyway, but there're a lot of these flippant, dismissive remarks all through the book. Product of its times, sure: just not at all futuristic.Then we come to the proselytizing, which the book is rife with. Today, reading this book, the opinions shared are very "yes, so?" - old hat, in other words. Though it is fun to read the rants, the set-up is cringe-worthy. Jubal is the main lecturer, and the characters around him serve as props. There are a great many "Huh?"s from educated and knowledgeable people so that Jubal can share his abundant wisdom. One "huh?" is okay, but when each long paragraph of Jubal is responded to with a "huh?" it gets a bit silly. Frankly, it's bad writing. It reminded me somewhat of The Da Vinci Code, which also uses characters to expound the author's theories on religion etc. at great length. While these things did at times make it harder to read the book, essentially the book is easy to read and often quite fun too. Jubal's sermons (and when Jubal isn't around, other characters fill the role, like Ben and Sam) can be a bit heavy-handed and obvious but a lot of it I agree with, so it wasn't rubbing me up the wrong way. Mike is a challenging character to write, because in order to write a naive, ignorant character to this extent, you need to be incredibly self-aware. Heinlein has fairly good success here, and Mike's growth, maturation, development and resolutions fit the character and work. He has charisma and is definitely intriguing; yet because he lacks the human flaws, he's also somewhat unapproachable and alien: a good balance to achieve.


Robert Heinlein was a good friend of AI legend Marvin Minsky (check out his people page! It's interesting!), and I've heard that they often used to chat about AI, science-fiction, and the connections between them. Here's a conversation I imagine them having some time between 1961, when Stranger in a Strange Land was published, and 1966, when The Moon is a Harsh Mistress appeared:"Bob, this book's not so bad, but I felt it could have been so much better! OK, love the idea of the guy from Mars, who doesn't understand how people work and has to learn the most basic things about emotions, society, etc from first principles. You have some good stuff there. But I think you got a bit distracted with the super-powers and the sex. Sure, put in sex, all for it, but don't get Mike so involved in that part of the book. He should be more abstract I think. And I wasn't so thrilled by the fact that he never actually does anything much with his powers, except for start a minor cult and get martyred. Seems a bit negative. What does his martyrdom achieve, exactly?Wait. I have an idea. Why don't you rewrite it so that he's an artificial intelligence? Really, that makes more sense. He's even more alien than a human raised by Martians. Oh, don't worry about that, I can help you with the technical details. Feel free to drop in at the AI Lab any time, we're all huge fans. People will be delighted. So, yes, as I was saying, he needs to do something. Maybe he's... the central computer in a future Lunar society? And he helps them start a revolution, and break free from Earth's tyranny? Even though what he's really most interested in is understanding how humor works? I don't think you need to change that much else. Call him Mike again by all means, so that people see the link. And you should absolutely martyr him at the end. Only, I think this time you should do it in a subtler and more ambiguous way. But sure, leave the door open about whether he's really dead.""Hey, thanks Marvin! Terrific ideas! You know, sometimes I think you should be the science-fiction writer, and I should be the AI researcher. I'll definitely come by soon. With a draft, I feel inspired. Going to start as soon as I put the phone down. Take care!"

Otis Chandler

I really enjoyed this book. The concept of a man who had grown up on Mars and never seen another human until he was in his twenties is such a fun idea - and a rich canvas. Watching Mike try to grok humans gave a Heinlein great opportunities to point out some of our faults - and our advantages.I think my favorite part of this book is the word 'grok'. I would bet that there are deep discussions over the true meaning of this word - but I will contend that its closest meaning in English is 'to be enlightened about something'. If you grok God you have reached enlightenment. If you grok music you truly understand in the way that Mozart understood it. If you grok another person you love them. If you grok programming then you truly love and are really good at programming - that, and you're also a probably a pretty big nerd for using a word like 'grok' :) I used it in front of my girlfriend and she still hasn't forgiven me, since I had to explain that it was "a Martian word"!One thing that I grokked (yes I'm going to keep using it dammit) after finishing this book is that it is kind of a 60's manifesto for free love. I wasn't alive in the 60's, but given everything I know about the 60's from movies, books, etc it seemed that my grokking was right.

Erich Franz Guzmann

I am delightfully surprised with Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" and the places in my mind it had taken me, placed me and left me. It is a really powerful novel; and also a very influential one as well. I can easily see how and why this novel was hip and cool to read during the so called "hippie movement" era. Which to my dismay I missed the 60's and 70's, for it was just before mine. I am very curious however, if this book is close to at all with the free lovin', peace and love ideology and attitude that supposedly many people had during this time? And if so, it somewhat gives me a better understanding of how all these people came to their belief system.It is still radical to me; but the beliefs I have right now would be just as radical to the people in the 60's and in the 70's. I can almost grok it but not completely... maybe someday? But thou art God, and never thirst, my Brother's.

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