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If any work of
fiction will earn Robert Heinlein a permanent place on the collective
bookshelf, it is going to be Stranger in a Strange Land, for the
impact it has made on American society. If a person has not managed to
read Stranger by now, then he has at least absorbed a bit of it
osmotically, for it flows throughout our cultural consciousness. Perhaps
least of all, it anticipated Nancy Reagan's reliance on astrology and
spawned the water bed and the neologism "grok," (Heinlein's Martian verb
for a thorough understanding), though "grok" would never have taken hold,
had the young rebels of the 1960s not discovered Stranger as their
counterculture bible. Some went even further and formed "nests" and churches
based on what they found in Stranger; perhaps the most famous instance
of that is the Church of All Worlds, a pagan group who lifted its name
and logo intact from the book. Stranger has also begun to be included
in many canonical college reading lists, and Billy Joel saw fit to mention
the title in his 1989 Top-40 hit about history, "We Didn't Start the Fire."
Stranger's fire was kindled in 1948
in a brainstorming session between Robert Heinlein and his wife, Virginia.
While looking for material to fit John Campbell's title, "Gulf,"
Mrs. Heinlein thought it would be interesting to explore the case of a
human raised by Martians. Heinlein thought that the idea would make a
pretty good Lettres Perses-type novel, took some notes and filed
it away for later use, finally placing the completed but abridged version
with Putnam's in 1961 (an uncut edition was released
Stranger in a Strange Land tells
the story of Valentine Michael Smith, orphaned progeny of the first manned
expedition to Mars, who has been raised by Martians and brought back to
Earth by a second human expedition. Though he is a man in his twenties,
Smith looks at absolutely everything on this new planet through the ignorant
eyes of a baby, and faces the job of learning how to be a human being.
If the world government of Earth will let him, that is, for Smith, through
a legal fluke, not only has sole survivor rights to the space drive that
his mother invented, but also to the surface of Mars. In a Byzantine maneuver
that makes Watergate seem minor, the government holds Smith hostage while
it tries to figure out how to seize his assets. Ben Caxton, a muckraking
reporter, suspects the worst and attempts to rescue Smith. The problem
is, if you can't fight City Hall, how can you even begin to fight a world
Enter Caxton's friend, Jubal Harshaw, attorney, physician, hack writer, bon vivant, curmudgeon, anarchist. He caches Smith in Freedom Hall, his Poconos enclave, and takes on the dual chore of fighting the world federation for Smith's liberty and of educating Smith in the ways of his biological race. The youth is an apt student, a strange admixture of human infant and Martian superman, and as time goes on, he manages to win more and more people over to his own alien viewpoint. He becomes a kind of messiah--with explosive results.
Given that, I leave it to the reader to
pick up Stranger in a Strange Land and revel in it. In spite of
the movements and religions it has birthed, Stranger is no bible;
it is a sprawling satire of human conceits, including marriage, love,
sex and--most importantly--religion. Satire usually aims to inform, so
if one is looking for any message in Stranger, then one take a good, long
look at Heinlein's targets and think. As Heinlein himself said in a letter
to an avid fan, ". . .I would never undertake to be a `Prophet,' handing
out neatly packaged answers to lazy minds. [. . .] anyone who takes that
book as answers is cheating himself. It is an invitation to think--not
What an invitation. ~~Beth Ager
1: "Gulf" got written as a different sort of superman story and can be found in Assignment in Eternity.
2: Letter found in Grumbles from the Grave.
Heinlein's own words:
"I've had people offer to explain Stranger in a Strange Land to me. I was simply writing a novel, but apparently I clicked. (April 1980).
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Captain van Tromp decided that it was time to throw a tantrum. "This man Smith--This 'man!' Can't you see that he is not?"
"Smith . . . is . . . not . . . a . . . man."
"Huh? Explain yourself, Captain."
"Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a man. He thinks like a Martian, feels like a Martian. He's been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us--they don't even have sex. He's a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment. . . "
Jubal Harshaw, on Jubal Harshaw:
"My dear, I used to think that I was serving humanity... and I pleasured in the thought. Then I discovered that humanity does not want to be served; on the contrary it resents any attempt to serve it. So now I do what pleases Jubal Harshaw."
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