Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature
Stranger in a Strange Land
Author: Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)
Genre: Science fiction--cultural exploration
Type of Work: Novel
Time of Plot: An unspecified time after World War II
Location: Mars and various places in the United States
First Published: 1961
From its fairy tale, "Once upon a time" opening to its equally imaginative ending in a conventionally depicted heaven, Stranger in a Strange Land uses an unspecified future time frame to critique contemporary social mores and belief systems. Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist, is conceived on the first flight to Mars as the son of Dr. Mary Jane Lyle Smith and Captain Michael Brant, who is not her husband. Valentine Michael Smith is discovered twenty-five years later to be the only survivor, the heir of all aboard the craft and, by the Larkin decision, the owner of Mars.
Returned from Mars, where he had been reared by Martians, he is held by the World Federation in a securely guarded hospital room. Suspicious of the federation's intentions toward Smith because of his rights and vast wealth, journalist Ben Caxton induces nurse Gillian Boardman to rescue him. Unknown to Gillian (Jill), Ben is picked up by federation troops. She manages to elude federation police and eventually deposits Smith at the home of Jubal Harshaw, a doctor, lawyer, and all-around cynic of all aspects of contemporary American life. Smith becomes known as Mike within the casual household.
Jubal and his unusual domestic staff are fascinated by Mike's innocence; his supranormal powers of suspended animation, telepathy, and teleportation; and his ability to discorporate when they threaten a "wrongness." Mike attempts to share his Martian concept of "grokking," of becoming able to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed. He forms a deep bond with Jubal's household and ritualizes that bond by "sharing water." Jubal uses his considerable skills to achieve a diplomatic coup that gives Mike the support of the secretary general of the federation, Joseph E. Douglas, and wins Ben Caxton his freedom. With his photographic memory, Mike soon learns much of terrestrial life, though he does not "grok" it all.
Mike attends services at the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, services that appeal to emotions and to Mike's need to have people grow closer. He furthers his education by working with Jill in various carnivals, trying to understand human nature. On the road, they befriend Patty Pawonski, a devoted Fosterite who is covered with tattoos and drapes herself with a boa constrictor. She, like Mike, is totally loving and totally innocent. She believes that God intends that all human beings be happy and that the way to become happy is to love one another. Still trying to grok what being human means, Mike visits a zoo and finally laughs at the brutality of some monkeys. Realizing both the tragic and the divine in humanity, he finally "groks in fullness."
Having discovered the complete and somewhat contradictory nature of humanity, Mike founds the Church of All Worlds, which teaches the Martian language and the Martian concepts of grokking and growing closer to those disposed to accept. Members of the church's inner circle, Mike's "water brothers," participate in a group marriage and communal economy. Accused of sexual immorality by nonmembers, Mike is denounced and persecuted, especially by the Fosterites, after whom he patterned some of his church's structures. Following Jubal's advice to show, not merely tell, his message, Mike walks alone amid a hostile crowd, proclaiming to its members their own divine natures and capacities. Unable to accept a message of total and unconditional love and of total self-awareness, the crowd attacks him, and he discorporates. His followers escape and plan to continue to promulgate his beliefs. Mike, now in heaven, proceeds to guide events from that vantage point.
Stranger in a Strange Land appeared well after Robert Heinlein had established himself as a science-fiction writer. The novel won the 1962 Hugo Award, the third such award Heinlein had received. Much of Heinlein's work prior to this novel, especially from the period from 1947 to 1959, had been science fiction for juvenile readers.
Although many writers acknowledge their debt to Heinlein, the only writer Heinlein claimed as an influence on his own writing was Sinclair Lewis. Stranger in a Strange Land certainly replicates Lewis's concerns about the shallowness and complacency of American life, and the corrupt leadership of the Fosterite Church emphasizes some of the misgivings about religious leadership Lewis portrayed in Elmer Gantry (1927). As a young science-fiction writer, however, Heinlein, along with many others, was influenced by John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, and Campbell's policy of stressing the sociological implications of changes brought about by advances in technology.
--Christine R. Catron
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