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

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.

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.

Rindis

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.

Will

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.

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.

Manny

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!"

Dash

Can you grok it?I feel I should preface this review with the following information divulged upfront. This book was pushed on my by my father when I was around 16 years old. For good or bad, these were the circumstances under which I first read it, and this may have contributed to my being predisposed to enjoying the read. Before reading "Stranger" I had read half a dozen or so of Heinlein's so-called "juvenile" or "adolescent" novels, including "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel" and "Starship Galileo". It is somewhat difficult for me to review these books since it has been so long since I have read them, but I must say that I enojoyed them thoroughly when I read them as an adolescent. I feel that I am qualified, finaly, to review "Stranger" now as I have read both vesions, having read the originally published severely edited version and the later released "unedited" version, I much prefer the later.Upon my second reading of this novel, I was somewhat dismayed at the degree of misogyny therein. I was especially surprised at not noticing it the first time around. I would say that the primary reasons that I so loved this book were the way it mocked organized religion, promoted polyamorism & "free love", and was, at its core, just a very well-crafted science fiction tale. I admit that Heinlein does get a bit preachy from time to time, and some of the dialogue is offensive to many from many angles, but where it is abrasive I feel it is so in a likeable way. There are occassional exceptions to this, but I found it to be refreshing in most cases. The book is written largely in a dialogue manner, so most of the opinions and statements contained therein reflect the predjudices and social mores of the characters themselves.The message that I most empathized with in this novel was his championing of the individual and alternately pointing out the downfalls of becoming a blind follower. Just the idea of pushing yourself beyond the percieved limitations of body and mind is captavating and inspiring.Now that I am all grown up I would place myself, politically, far from Heinlein, although I do have a bit of a libertarian streak. I am a very "liberal" person generally, and am a pacifist, vegan, mother nature loving hippie sort of fellow. I have always thought back on the Heinlein that I read as a teen as mostly pointing out the absurdity of unbridled militarism and militiristic propaganda. I find it fascinating that some see him as being militiristic in his writings. I have not read all of his books, but from what I have read I got a wholly different impression. I think it is interesting what the original publishers deemed too controversial and offensive enough to require editing. Individual freedom and liberty - the negative effects of organized religion on society - sexual freedom for all -these are the themes I can relate to and endorse contained in "Stranger in a Strange Land"!

Brad

Twelve years separated my two readings of Stranger in a Strange Land. The first time I absorbed it in an odd environment, an environment that came close Valentine Michael Smith's Church of All Worlds in conception (well...a summer camp is pushing the point, but it was similar in communalism and sexuality), and I just finished the book again. Now I am married to one of the girls from that camp and we have children.I grok that my personal philosophy was influenced unwittingly by Heinlein's book all those years ago, and now I grok there is much in me that comes in line with Valentine Michael Smith's grokking of life and ethics. What is odd is that I barely remembered Stranger in a Strange Land coming into this second reading. I remember most books I have read before much better. The details were missing in my re-reading, but my grokking of Stranger in a Strange Land's emotional world was deep. I don't use "grok" to be silly either. I use it because it is appropriate.The book often talks about "waiting for fullness" and I imagine I will have to wait for that to come. I will read this again, sooner than I did last time.

Morgan

This is the second Heinlein book I've read, and hopefully, the last. It's interesting to read this book in the context of it's supposedly historical influence on the 60's free-love movement, and the origin of the term 'grok' which shows up amongst the geeky stuff that I read. Other than that, I found myself severely rolling my eyes at least every other page.On the free-love, polyamorous relationship thing, I felt he could have explored this much more. For example, during Ben's initiation into the "nest", he eventually freaks out and runs away when it becomes apparent he's about to take part in a threesome with a man (previously he was ok with a threesome with two women). This is eventually explained as jealousy, not homophobia, which I'm not sure I buy. And, once he realizes he was jealous, he is immediately able to overcome it and return to the nest. Umm, is it me, or was that too easy? In general, I find Heinlein's characters just aren't realistic at all, and misogynist to boot. People jump from monogamy to polyamory with nary a second thought. Apparent strangers become "water-brothers" (an extremely close and trusting arrangement), without knowing the extent of the commitment, and never abandon or betray that trust? The female characters, while to their credit are often portrayed as strong & intelligent, come off more as male-fantasy versions of strong women, rather than realistic. And then there's Jubal Harshaw, Heinlein's apparent mouthpiece: seems to know everything; is independently wealthy; is a sexist, libertarian ass; and has three foxy female assistants at his beck and call.And the dialog! WTF? While quick and often witty, it comes off as the sort of sophomoric male banter I might hear in a locker room, or some really cheesy movie. I find it detracts significantly from any larger ideas the author might be trying to present.After two books, Heinlein has unseated Orson Scott Card as the sci-fi author that pisses me off the most.

aisha

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)

Apatt

Robert Heinlein is my favorite of the Big Three of Science Fiction (Assimov/Clarke/Heinlein), simply because I think he tells better stories and is more proficient at creating interesting characters (yes yes, YMMV!).Stranger in a Strange Land is Heinlein at his best, creative, provocative and controversial. I may not necessarily agree with the ideas and philosophy put forward in this book but I had a blast reading about them. The protagonist Michael Valentine Smith with his weird ideas and psychic powers may be focus that drive the entire novel but his adopted father Jubal Harshaw is the standout character for me, the one that stays with me to this day. I just love the way he pontificates, nobody write pontifications like Heinlein! This is one of those rare sf books that "mainstream" readers deigned to read in droves, most of them probably never understanding its value as sf or gain a lasting appreciation of the genre. In any case this book needs to be read not because it is a classic, but 'cos it's like far out and groovy man!Read it, grok it.

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.

Robin Hobb

I will state, without apology, that I have enjoyed every Robert Heinlein book I have ever read.Do I always agree with his philosophy or his observations on life. No.But he tells me a story, and while he is telling it, I don't put that book down.I don't read books to find authors who agree with me or match some political template.I read books for stories. And diversity in story tellers is good.

Donovan

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.

Erik Simon

Fingernails across a chalkboard.

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