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

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.


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.

Erik Simon

Fingernails across a chalkboard.

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.


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!"

Kelly Maybedog

Nowadays, most people seem to either love or hate Heinlein. Many read his children's books like Podkayne from Mars, Red Planet and The Rolling Stones, enjoyed the adventure and moved on to his adult stuff just to get more. The politics, sexism and lack of depth went over their young heads. To them, his books were just great adventure. And yes, for the era in which they were written, they were great adventure and less sexist than most SF at the time. My intro to the man was a little different: I was dallying at the library because I wanted just one more book (I was 12 I think). My mom was trying to get me to leave so she glanced at the paperback rack where I was standing, grabbed "Stranger in a Strange Land" and said, "If you want to know how weird your father is, read this book." How could I turn that down? I grabbed it and devoured it as soon as I got home.I loved it, the free love was eye-opening, and I announced when I was finished that I was bisexual. I've never turned back, although my mom was understandably disbelieving, never really even hearing me. (She was later shocked when I first dated another woman.)The book affected me profoundly but I am afraid to read it again because I'm sure I'll hate it. So I have a love/hate relationship with Heinlein. He was my second favorite author by the time I graduated from high school having read everything he wrote. By the time he died, I had wised up and realized what he was really about. Libertarian politics anger me. His twisted sexism, the kind where a woman tells a man he's smarter because he needs to believe he is and yet has very little power, makes me want to vomit. And I hate to think what kind of racist drivel I'd find.But if there was a book that actually changed my life, this is it. Yes, I was 12, and yes, I would have come out eventually and yes, I would probably strongly dislike the book now. But Stranger was my favorite book for a long time. For its place in my past, my enjoyment of it at the time I read it, and the effect it had on my life, I must give it five stars. Just don't ask me to defend 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.


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)


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.


** spoiler alert ** I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein as part of the Science Fiction & Fantasy book club. I'm always willing to try new books, especially ones out of my typical genre. I borrowed this copy from the library, and it is the uncut version, having 60,000 words that were cut from the original restored.If it were possible, I would have given this book 3.5 stars. I more than liked it, but I wouldn't say that I really liked it (which seems like a major commitment to me). *Spoilers may start here*I loved the first half of the book. In fact, if I could rate the first and second half of the book separately, I would have given the first half five stars. That's how much I loved it. The characters were human, the story moved along nicely and was very interesting. Heinlein shows his adeptness at writing sci-fi by making technical, complicated things read so very well. I didn't need a quantum physics degree to understand this story at all, nor did I need any kind of advanced training in anything to understand what his gadgets and technical stuff looked like and did. It was all really plain. The language was a little annoying - grok isn't my favorite word, but I have found myself thinking about the word a little bit. I did, however, LOVE the fact that it seemed very roaring 20's to me. I'm not sure if it was the language, the settings, or what, but it felt like someone had cut the culture of the early 1900's and transplanted them somewhere in the (not so distant, now) future and everything remained fairly intact. Some might find this disturbing, but it appealed to me - I felt very "retro" reading it... or maybe that was just how I filtered it. After Mike learns of sex, the story went to pot for me. I'm not sure if it was my version or not, but I felt like certain cast members would get pages of soliloquy, about religion, sex, morals, etc. While I have nothing against trying to teach something to your readers, there were parts where I just wanted to shout "enough all ready! Get back to the story!" The worst scene for this (IMO) was when Ben came home from the Nest and was talking to Jubal about it. Jubal went on and on and ON about it. I found the last half of this book to be very much like this (except for maybe the last two chapters). It seems like any time that Heinlein got a chance to "speak" through one of his characters, he did. And excessively, in my opinion. I would love to know what the last half of this book was like in the cut version.I did find that, for the most part, that Heinlein dealt with sex in good way. I'm not saying that I believe that polyamoury is something I'm interested/believe in, I just thought that he wasn't vulgar or rude. To be honest, he had more sex in his book than some of the urban fantasy type books that I love to read, but it didn't feel like the book was dripping with sex. So I don't really know what my final verdict on the book is. I truly loved the first have of the book. I think If I could cut scenes out of the second have (the ones where things actually happened, and it wasn't just jibba jabba), I would have loved the whole thing. As the uncut version stands, it's a heck of a lot of preached, balanced by some storytelling.

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!

Joe Boeke

I remember reading _Stranger In A Strange Land_ as a young high school student in the late 70s. At the time, the story appealed to my changing state (as an adult, I think I can finally admit that the adolescent young man who read this book the first time, did so because my friends told me it was filled with lots of sex scenes). I also remember that despite Heinlein's writing found it a difficult book to read as a result I "skipped" around looking for the "good" parts (which are all in the second half of the book).However some (other) passages in the book did leave an impression on me during that first read. Heinlein's railing against the parochialism of the Church (and the Catholic Church in particular) was certainly instrumental in shaping my views on religion and partially contributed to some of my more existential leanings (I'd also note that the criticism leveled at Heinlein for passing off his impressions/views/ideas as fact is certainly warranted).So, when I found myself stuck in the Charlotte, NC airport for 5 hours this weekend (awaiting a 5 hour flight home to LA) I surprised myself by deciding to buy the Ace (trade paperback) version of _Stranger In A Strange Land_ and re-read it -- in retrospect, I am ambivalent that I took the time to re-read the book.The protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, is a child born on Mars to two of the crew of the first human expedition to that planet; he is raised by the Martians when a catastrophe wipes out the adults of the expedition. Years later, another expedition to Mars results in contact with the Martians and Michael's return to Earth, completely innocent of knowledge about the planet. The greater part of the novel details his attempts to understand human nature from his Martian philosophical perspective (which is rather like that of Eastern philosophy); these end in his foundation of a new religion to help human beings achieve their full potential which hitherto has been impossible because of the straitjacket of human culture.The book makes me think, which now (that I am considerably past my adolescence) I appreciate much more. It can be slow in parts (most of the book is dialogue with very little or no action), but (and I'm not sure if it is my age, or the fact that Ace added back in 30,000 words to this edition that weren't in the copy I read 30 years ago) much more readable than the first time through.Some parts, especially in the second half of the text, result in disturbing thought patterns, even now. The concept that all human morals are arbitrary (which is how the "Martian" Valentine Michael Smith views them) and that anything that leads one to "grow closer" is good -- also leads down a slippery slope where moral objections to murder, and other heinous things, can be downplayed (in the name of the collective growing closer). While these attacks on Western culture don't seem quite as shocking as they must have been back in the 1960s, other parts of the book are just preachy and long-winded. The international intrigue and world government sub-plot of the first half of the book are more interesting to me now than they were on my first read (but ultimately unfulfilled as Valentine Michael Smith escapes to become the messiah like character of the second half of the book).It would be easy to write this classic of science fiction off as a novel of the hippie era and relegate it to the dustbin (and history could still do that). However, the somewhat unique premise of analyzing human culture from an alien point of view as well as the fact that the novel forever broke (maybe bridged) the barrier between science fiction and mainstream literature, put it into the classic (must read at least once) category. By all means, read it and form your own opinion. Or better yet, (re)read Starship Troopers :)


This is a book that it seems like I should like. It deals with issues of religion, including a strong critique of religion as we know it, presents socially progressive ideas about sex and relationships, and relies upon a fundamentally humanist, individualist philosophy. In the end, however, I can't get past a few things to really like this book. 1. The word "grok." I understand the meaning and significance of the word within the book and I understand why Heinlein chose to create a new word to carry this meaning, but "grok"? It's an ugly word and it gets used about 150 times too many in the book.2. The use of mystic religious concepts and practices. Heinlein critiques traditional, human religions, but he is unable or unwilling, finally, to leave behind the trappings of religion, relying upon them to bolster his argument. This bothers me because it feels like manipulation, like a man trying to have it both ways by using the religiosity and losing the religion. Michael admits that his philosophy, his truth, "couldn't be taught in schools" and says, "I was forced to smuggle it in as a religion--which it is not--and con the marks into tasting it by appealing to their curiosity" (419). He admits that he is manipulating his audience (just as Heinlein manipulates his) as well as admitting that the people he is trying to save are no more than marks, dupes to be conned. This is entirely too cynical for my taste and does not accord with the whole "Thou art God and I am God and all that groks is God" philosophy.3. The sexism of the text, which is inseparable from its heteronormativity and even homophobia. Despite Heinlein's progressive (especially for the time) ideas about sexuality and desire, he reinforces the gender dichotomy repeatedly, putting women and homosexuals in their place as he does so. Sometimes this is obviously negative and hard to miss, especially for a modern reader: "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault" (304). At other times this is done with apparently positive statements: "Male-femaleness is the greatest gift we have--romantic physical love may be unique to this planet" (419). A statement like this one is troubling not because of its emphasis on romantic physical love but because of its insistence on the male-female gender dichotomy as a necessary component of that love. A more substantial example arises when Jill discovers that she likes to be looked at it, that it makes her feel desirable. She says, "Okay, if a healthy woman liked to be looked at, then it follows as the night the day that healthy men should like to look, else there was just no darn sense to it! At which point, she finally understood, intellectually, Duke and his pictures" (302-3). The realization that she likes to be looked at is fine as far as it goes, although the immediate leap from there to pornography is definitely a problem (pornography of course having huge and unavoidable issues of power wrapped up in it that this analysis neatly sidesteps). Following Jill's realization of her own desire to be looked at, Mike comes to see that "Naughty pictures are a great goodness" and they go together to strip clubs to enjoy the live version. However, "Jill found that she 'grokked naughty pictures' only through a man's eyes. If Mike watched, she shared his mood, from sensuous pleasure to full rut--but if Mike's attention wandered, the model, dancer, or peeler was just another woman. She decided that this was fortunate; to have discovered in herself Lesbian tendencies would have been too much" (307). Here, Heinlein brings together his progressive, free love ideas about sex itself with his more traditional ideas about gender roles and his leaning toward homophobia. The conclusion Jill arrives at here is that a) sex and desire are good, b) women are the spectacle, never the spectator, and c) lesbianism is completely taboo, even for someone who is otherwise interested in opening herself up to sexual love in its many forms. This one scene simply brings together these ideas that recur throughout the second half of the book. Repeatedly, it is made clear that homosexual behavior is a danger for Mike to avoid and that women's role in sexual behavior is essentially passive. 4. The emphasis on self, whether in self-love, self-pleasure, self-control. There are two basic ideas here. One is stated by Patricia Paiwonski, Mike's first convert, who says, "God wants us to be Happy and He told us how: 'Love one another!' Love a snake if the poor thing needs love. Love thy neighbor . . . . And by 'love' He didn't mean namby-pamby old-maid love that's scared to look up from a hymn book for fear of seeing a temptation of the flesh. If God hated flesh, why did He make so much of it? . . . Love little babies that always need changing and love strong, smelly men so that there will be more babies to love--and in between go on loving because it's so good to love!" (288). Love is wonderful, love is a good goal, but this is a love I am suspicious of, for it is a love based on feeling good, based on happiness. There's nothing wrong with feeling good and being happy, of course, but if feeling good and being happy are the primary goals of life, then that opens the door for abuses of others in the name of love or happiness and seems a rather meaningless goal in and of itself. Hedonism alone is not enough for me. The second basic idea is Mike's final message to the people: "The Truth is simple but the Way of Man is hard. First you must learn to control your self. The rest follows. Blessed is he who knows himself and commands himself, for the world is his and love and happiness and peace walk with him wherever he goes" (429). Again, this is not a bad goal--for once, finally, Mike brings a message of personal responsibility to add to the free love and grokking that has constituted most of the rest of the book. However, to expect the rest to follow from that kind of responsibility and self-control is just silly. This is The Secret, this is "name-it-and-claim-it" theology, this is bullshit. Like the idea that God wants us to be happy so if we all try to live for our own happiness, it will all work out, this is a philosophy that believes that YOU are the center of the universe, that everything will work out for the best. This is the complete opposite of the philosophy provided in Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut also emphasizes love and finding a kind of happiness, but in his universe, those things are refuges in the midst of chaos, small things we can each do to make the world we live in a little better, a little more livable, not means to become masters of the universe. For Heinlein, God moves from out there to in here, validating each individual person's individual desire and decision; for Vonnegut, there is no God, not out there and not in here. For me, that is much more appealing.


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.


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"!

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