Stranger in a Strange Land

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Stranger in a Strange Land
Stranger in a Strange Land cover
Hardcover, showing Rodin's sculpture,
Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone, which Heinlein translates as "Caryatid Fallen Under her Stone".
Author(s)Robert A. Heinlein
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Science fiction novel
PublisherPutnam Publishing Group
Publication dateJune 1, 1961
Media typePrint (hardcover & paperback)
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Stranger in a Strange Land
Stranger in a Strange Land cover
Hardcover, showing Rodin's sculpture,
Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone, which Heinlein translates as "Caryatid Fallen Under her Stone".
Author(s)Robert A. Heinlein
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Science fiction novel
PublisherPutnam Publishing Group
Publication dateJune 1, 1961
Media typePrint (hardcover & paperback)

Stranger in a Strange Land is a 1961 science fiction novel by American author Robert A. Heinlein. It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians. The novel explores his interaction with—and eventual transformation of—terrestrial culture. The title is an allusion to the phrase in Exodus 2:22.[1] According to Heinlein, the novel's working title was The Heretic. Several later editions of the book have promoted it as "The most famous Science Fiction Novel ever written".[2]

Heinlein got the idea for the novel when he and his wife had some brainstorming one evening in 1948, and she suggested a new version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, where a human child is raised by Martians instead of wolves. He decided to go further with the idea, and worked on the story on and off for more than a decade before it was complete.[3] After having finished Stranger in a Strange Land, his editors at Putnam required him to drastically cut its original 220,000-word length down to 160,067 words. In 1962, this version received the Hugo Award for Best Novel.[4]

The book was a success from the start. Over the following years word-of-mouth caused sales to rise further, requiring numerous reprintings of the first Putnam edition. Eventually Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult classic.

After Heinlein's death in 1988, his wife Virginia arranged to have the original uncut manuscript published in 1991. Critics disagree[citation needed] over which is superior: Heinlein preferred the original manuscript over the heavily-edited version which was initially published. There is similar contention over the two versions of Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars.

In 2012 the US Library of Congress named it one of 88 "Books that Shaped America." [5]



The story focuses on a human raised on Mars and his adaptation to, and understanding of, humans and their culture, which is portrayed as an amplified version of the consumerist and media-driven 20th-century United States.

Protagonist Valentine Michael Smith is the son of astronauts of the first expedition to the planet Mars. Orphaned after the crew died, Smith was raised in the culture of the Martian natives, who possess full control over their minds and bodies (learned skills which Smith acquires). A second expedition some twenty years later brings Smith to Earth. Because he is heir to the fortunes of the entire exploration party, which includes several valuable inventions (most particularly his mother's Lyle Drive, which makes interplanetary travel economical), Smith becomes a political pawn in government struggles. Moreover, despite the existence of the Martians, under terrestrial law Mars was terra nullius, wherefore according to some interpretations of law, Smith could be considered to own the planet Mars itself.

Because Smith is unaccustomed to the atmosphere and gravity of Earth, he is confined at Bethesda Hospital, where having never seen a human female, he is attended by male staff only. Seeing this restriction as a challenge, Nurse Gillian Boardman eludes guards to see Smith and in doing so inadvertently becomes his first female "water brother" by sharing a glass of water with him, considered a holy relationship by the standards of arid Mars.

When Gillian tells reporter Ben Caxton about her experience with Smith, they attempt to counteract the government's lies about Smith. After Ben disappears at the behest of the World Government, Gillian persuades Smith to leave the hospital with her; but they are attacked by government agents. Smith discards the agents irretrievably into a fourth dimension, then is so shocked by Gillian's terrified reaction that he enters a semblance of catatonia. Gillian, remembering Ben's reference to Jubal Harshaw, a famous author who is also a physician and a lawyer, conveys Smith to the latter.

Smith continues to demonstrate psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence coupled with a childlike naïveté. When Jubal tries to explain religion to him, Smith understands the concept of God only as "one who groks", which includes every extant organism. This leads him to express the Martian concept of life as the phrase "Thou art God", although he knows this is a bad translation. Many other human concepts such as war, clothing, and jealousy are strange to him, while the idea of an afterlife is a fact he takes for granted because the government on Mars is composed of "Old Ones", the spirits of Martians who have died. It is also customary for loved ones and friends to eat the bodies of the dead, in a spirit of Holy Communion. Eventually Harshaw arranges freedom for Smith and recognition that human law, which would have granted ownership of Mars to Smith, has no applicability to a planet already inhabited by intelligent life.

Now free to travel, Smith becomes a celebrity and is feted by the elite of Earth. He investigates many religions, including the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, a populist megachurch wherein sexuality, gambling, alcoholism, and similar are not considered sinful but encouraged, even within the church building. The church is organized in a complexity of initiatory levels; an outer circle, open to the public; a middle circle of ordinary members who support the church financially; and an inner circle of the "eternally saved" — attractive, highly-sexed men and women, who serve as clergy and recruit new members. The Church owns many politicians and takes violent action against those who oppose it. Smith also has a brief career as a magician in a carnival, where he and Gillian befriend the show's tattooed lady, an "eternally saved" Fosterite woman named Patricia Paiwonski.

Eventually Smith begets a Martian-influenced "Church of All Worlds" combining elements of the Fosterite cult (especially the sexual aspects) with Western esotericism, whose members learn the Martian language and acquire psychokinetic abilities. The church is eventually besieged by Fosterites for practicing "blasphemy" and the church building destroyed; but Smith and his followers teleport to safety. Smith is arrested by the police, but escapes and returns to his followers, later explaining to Jubal that his gigantic fortune has been bequeathed to the Church. With it and their new abilities, Church members will be able to re-organize human societies and cultures. Eventually those who cannot or will not learn Smith's methods will die out, leaving Homo superior. Incidentally, this may save Earth from eventual destruction by the Martians, who we are told were responsible for the destruction of Planet V.

Smith is killed by a mob raised against him by the Fosterites; but speaks briefly to Jubal from the afterlife, saving him from an attempted suicide after the horror of Smith's own death. Having consumed Smith's remains in keeping with his own wishes, Jubal and some of the Church members return to Jubal's home to re-create their former conditions. Meanwhile Smith re-appears in the afterlife to replace the Fosterites' eponymous founder, amid hints that Smith was an incarnation of the Archangel Michael.


In the preface for the re-issued book, Virginia Heinlein writes

The given names of the chief characters have great importance to the plot. They were carefully selected: Jubal means "the father of all," Michael stands for "Who is like God".


Writing in The New York Times, Orville Prescott received the novel caustically, describing it as a "disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism"; he characterized Stranger as "puerile and ludicrous", saying "when a non-stop orgy is combined with a lot of preposterous chatter, it becomes unendurable, an affront to the patience and intelligence of readers".[6]

Galaxy reviewer Floyd C. Gale gave the original edition a mixed review, saying "the book's shortcomings lie not so much in its emancipation as in the fact that Heinlein has bitten off too large a chewing portion."[7]

In 1968, Tim Zell (now Oberon Zell-Ravenheart) and others formed a neo-pagan religious organization called the Church of All Worlds, modeled after the religion founded by the primary characters in the novel.[8] Except for correspondence with Zell (a lengthy letter to Zell appears as a letter to "a Fan" toward the end of the book in Grumbles from the Grave) and a paid subscription to the Church's Green Egg magazine during the 1970s (as Heinlein refused to accept a complimentary subscription), Heinlein had no other connection to the project.[9]

Fair Witness[edit]

Fair Witness is a fictional profession invented for the novel. A Fair Witness is an individual trained to observe events and report exactly what he or she sees and hears, making no extrapolations or assumptions. An eidetic memory is a prerequisite for the job, although this may be attainable with suitable training.

In Heinlein's society, a Fair Witness is a highly reputable source of information. By custom, a Fair Witness acting professionally, generally wearing distinctive white robes, is never addressed directly, and is never acknowledged by anyone present.

The character Jubal Harshaw employs a Fair Witness, Anne, as one of his secretaries. Unlike the other secretaries, she does not use dictation equipment when Jubal speaks, and can keep track of several works at once, despite Harshaw's frequent switching among them.

Fair Witnesses are prohibited from drawing conclusions about what they observe. As a demonstration, Harshaw asks Anne to describe the color of a house in the distance. She responds, "It's white on this side"; whereupon Harshaw explains that she would not assume knowledge of the color of the other sides of the house without being able to see them. Furthermore, after observing another side of the house she would not then assume that any previously seen side was still the same color as last reported, even if only minutes before.

When Ben Caxton decides to do something that might result in litigation—namely, accusing a government official of substituting an actor for Valentine Michael Smith in a televised interview—he hires a highly respected Witness, James Oliver Cavendish, to record everything he sees, and to ensure that Ben is not accused of slander. They visit the alleged Man From Mars in his hospital suite in the hope of determining whether he is actually Smith or the actor who had apparently impersonated him the night before. Once they have left the suite Cavendish, now off duty as Witness, mentions that Ben should have looked for telltale calluses on the supposed Smith's feet. Ben immediately wants to go back, but Cavendish states that, having pointed this out to him, he can no longer serve as a Fair Witness for this case, and Ben would need to procure another Fair Witness. Frustrated by the professional ethics of the Fair Witness profession, Ben must make other plans to prove the identity of Mr. Smith.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Like many influential works of literature, Stranger made a contribution to the English language: specifically, the word "grok". In Heinlein's invented Martian language, "grok" literally means "to drink" and figuratively means "to comprehend", "to love", and "to be one with". One dictionary description was "To understand thoroughly through having empathy with". This word rapidly became common parlance among science fiction fans, hippies, and computer hackers, and has since entered the Oxford English Dictionary among others.

The phrase "I am but an egg," which came into common usage during the 1960s[citation needed], paraphrases a line from Stranger in a Strange Land: "I am only an egg".[10] The phrase means, roughly, "I am a lowly novice, barely able to understand the concepts in question".[citation needed]

A central element of the second half of the novel is the religious movement founded by Smith, the "Church of All Worlds", an initiatory mystery religion blending elements of paganism and revivalism with psychic training and instruction in the Martian language. In 1968, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (then Tim Zell) founded the Church of All Worlds, a Neopagan religious organization modeled in many ways after the fictional organization in the novel. This spiritual path included several ideas from the book, including polyamory, non-mainstream family structures, social libertarianism, water-sharing rituals, an acceptance of all religious paths by a single tradition, and the use of several terms such as "grok", "Thou art God", and "Never Thirst". Though Heinlein was neither a member nor a promoter of the Church, it was formed including frequent correspondence between Zell and Heinlein, and he was a paid subscriber to their magazine Green Egg.[citation needed] This Church still exists as a 501(c)(3) recognized religious organization incorporated in California, with membership worldwide, and it remains an active part of the neopagan community today.[11]

Stranger was written in part as a deliberate attempt to challenge social mores. In the course of the story, Heinlein uses Smith's open-mindedness to reevaluate such institutions as religion, money, monogamy, and the fear of death. Heinlein completed writing it ten years after he had (uncharacteristically) plotted it out in detail. He later wrote, "I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right."[12]

Stranger contains an early description of the waterbed, an invention which made its real-world debut a few years later in 1968. Charles Hall, who brought a waterbed design to the United States Patent Office, was refused a patent on the grounds that Heinlein's descriptions in Stranger and another novel, Double Star, constituted prior art.[13]

Heinlein reportedly named his main character "Smith" because of a speech he made at a science fiction convention regarding the unpronounceable names assigned to extraterrestrials. After describing the importance of establishing a dramatic difference between humans and aliens, Heinlein concluded, "Besides, whoever heard of a Martian named Smith?" ("A Martian Named Smith" was both Heinlein's working title for the book and the name of the screenplay started by Harshaw at the end).[14] The title "Stranger in a strange land" is taken from Exodus 2:22 "And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land"

In popular culture[edit]

Popular song
TV & film
Other books


Two major versions of this book exist:

Many printed editions exist:


  1. ^ Moses flees ancient Egypt, where he has lived all his life, and later marries Zipporah: Exodus 2:22: "And she [Zippo'rah] bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land". KJV Wikisource
  2. ^ Cover of 1974 New English Library reprint.
  3. ^ Biography: Robert A. Heinlein
  4. ^ "1962 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-27. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Prescott, Orville (August 4, 1961). "Books of The Times". The New York Times. p. 19. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  7. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1962, p.194
  8. ^ Adler, Margot (1997). Drawing down the Moon. New York: Penguin/Arkana. p. 295. 
  9. ^ Heinlein Society. "FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Robert A. Heinlein, his works.". Retrieved 25. OCT 2009. 
  10. ^ see page 109 of the 1987 edition of the novel. Retrieved 2012-01-06. 
  11. ^ "What is the Church of All Worlds?". Church of All Worlds Website. Retrieved 2009-02-24. 
  12. ^ Expanded Universe, p. 403.
  13. ^ Garmon, Jay (2005-02-01). "Geek Trivia: Comic relief". TechRepublic. Retrieved 2012-01-06. 
  14. ^ Patterson, William; Thornton, Andrew (2001). The Martian Named Smith, Critical Perspectives On Robert A Heinlein’s ‘Stranger In A Strange Land'. Nytrosyncretic Press. p. 224. ISBN 0-9679874-2-3. 
  15. ^ "Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein, Publisher: Putnam Adult". ISBNdb entry. Retrieved 2007-07-21. 


External links[edit]