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Stranger in a Strange Land

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Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land
Stranger in a Strange Land cover
Hardcover, showing Rodin's sculpture,
Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone.
Author Robert A. Heinlein
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Putnam Publishing Group
Publication date
June 1, 1961
Media type Print (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 Virginia were brainstorming one evening in 1948. She suggested a new version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894), but with a child 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.[3] His editors at Putnam then required him to cut its 220,000-word length down to 160,067 words before publication. In 1962, it received the Hugo Award for Best Novel.[4]

In 1991, three years after Heinlein's death, Virginia arranged to have the original uncut manuscript published. Critics disagree[5] about which is superior. Heinlein preferred the original manuscript and described the heavily edited version as telegraphese.[6]

In 2012, the US Library of Congress named it one of 88 "Books that Shaped America".[7]


The story focuses on a human raised on Mars and his adaptation to, and understanding of, humans and their culture. It is set in a post-demilitarized U.S., with a world government supported by Special Service (S. S.) troops.

A manned expedition is mounted to visit the planet Mars but all contact is lost after landing. A second expedition twenty five years later finds a single survivor, Valentine Michael Smith. Smith was born on the spacecraft and was raised entirely by the Martians. He is ordered by the Martians to go with the returning expedition, much against his will.

Because Smith is unaccustomed to the relatively dense atmosphere and high 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 the guards and goes in to see Smith. By sharing a glass of water with him, she inadvertently becomes his first female "water brother", considered a profound relationship by the Martians.

When Gillian tells reporter Ben Caxton about her experience with Smith, Ben explains how as heir to the entire exploration party, Smith is extremely wealthy and following a legal precedent set during the colonisation of the Moon, the Larkin Decision, he could be considered to own the planet Mars itself. His arrival on Earth has prompted a political power struggle that puts his life in danger. Ben persuades her to bug his room and then publishes stories to bait the government into releasing Smith. After Ben is seized by the S. S., Gillian persuades Smith to leave the hospital with her, but they are accosted by more S. S. troops. 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 earlier suggestion, conveys Smith to Jubal Harshaw, a famous author who is also a physician and a lawyer.

Smith continues to demonstrate 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 carnival, where he and Gillian befriend the show's tattooed lady, an "eternally saved" Fosterite woman named Patricia Paiwonski.

Eventually Smith starts a Martian-influenced "Church of All Worlds" combining elements of the Fosterite cult (especially the sexual aspects) with Planet V.

Smith is killed by a mob raised against him by the Fosterites. From the afterlife, he speaks briefly to grief-stricken Jubal, to dissuade him from suicide. Having consumed Smith's remains in keeping with his 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.


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).[8] 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 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?'".

  • Crew members of the Envoy, the first human attempt to travel to Mars. Their ship survives the trip to Mars, but then ceases transmission, and their fate is unknown for the next 20 years.
    • Mary Jane Lyle Smith — power technician. Before leaving Earth she patents technology, placed in trust, which was subsequently developed into the Lyle Drive, the principal form of spaceship propulsion. Biological mother of Valentine Michael Smith, who legally owns the fortune accrued from the profits on sales of her invention.
    • Dr. Ward Smith — ship physician and legal father of Valentine Michael Smith.
    • Captain Michael Brant — captain and biological father of Valentine Michael Smith.
    • Dr. Winifred Coburn Brant
    • Mr. Francis X. Seeny
    • Dr. Olga Kovalic Seeny
    • Mr. Sergi Rimsky
    • Mrs. Eleanora Alvarez Rimsky
  • Valentine Michael Smith — known as Michael Smith or "Mike"; the "Man from Mars", raised on Mars in the interval between the landing of his father's ship, the Envoy, and arrival of the second expedition, the Champion; about 20 years old when the Champion arrives and brings him to Earth.
  • Officers of the Champion. These people became "water brothers" to Mike on Mars or during the trip back, but this information is only revealed to Mike's earthbound human friends when they meet the officers.
    • Captain van Tromp
    • Dr. Mahmoud, nicknamed Stinky — semanticist, of Arab descent, and a devout Muslim; the second human (after Mike) to gain a working knowledge of the Martian language, though he does not "grok" the language.
    • Dr. Sven Nelson — ship's physician and personal physician to Mike at Bethesda Medical Center until he withdraws from the case in a confrontation with the Secretary General (see below)
  • Government officials — Several government officials have roles at least at the beginning
    • Secretary-General Joseph Douglas ("Joe Douglas") — the head of the Federation of Free States, which has evolved indirectly from the United Nations into a true world government.
    • Gil Berquist — assistant to Secretary Douglas. Mike makes him and a policeman disappear during a confrontation with Jill (see below).
    • Alice Douglas — (sometimes called "Agnes"), wife of Joe Douglas. As the First Lady, she controls her husband, making major economic, political, and staffing decisions. She frequently consults an astrologer, Becky Vesant (see below), for major decisions. It is implied that she is an agent of the same afterlife in which Foster, Digby, and later Mike find themselves.
    • Assemblyman Kung — de facto head of the Eastern Coalition, a political bloc opposed to Douglas in the Federation.
    • Senator Tom Boone — politician and senior member of the patriarchal Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite), who wants Mike's wealth and prestige to accrue to the faith.
  • Gillian (Jill) Boardman — frees Mike from his imprisonment at Bethesda Hospital where she is a nurse. Ben Caxton continuously proposes marriage to her throughout the book.
  • Ben Caxton — investigative journalist and potential boyfriend of Jill. He makes her aware of Mike's legal significance (potential ownership both of enormous amounts of Earthly wealth and the planet Mars itself, at least according to Federation law), and persuades her to bug Smith's hospital suite, revealing an attempt by Douglas to defraud Smith of this wealth and power.
  • James Cavendish — a Fair Witness employed by Ben in an attempt to expose a fake Man from Mars shown on stereovision. Fair Witnesses are a legal institution created to provide impartial and accurate observation of potentially contentious legal situations. The character Anne (see below) is also a Fair Witness.
  • Jubal Harshaw — popular writer, lawyer, and doctor, now semi-retired to a house in the Poconos northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Harshaw's age is never given but is probably at least 80 by indirect indications. When Ben Caxton disappears, Jill takes Mike to Harshaw to defend his rights, but succeeds only when the authorities threaten Mike. Harshaw himself is addressed as "Father" by Mike in the book's later portions, and comes to perceive himself as such after Mike's death.
  • Anne — (no last name given) oldest and tallest of three female secretaries to Harshaw. Has total recall and Fair Witness standing (see Cavendish above).
  • Archangels — provide some commentary and act quite apart from the humans. A third archangel, Michael/Mike, is introduced by Foster to Digby at the very end of the book as Digby's new supervisor.
    • Foster — The founder of the Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite); apotheosis after poisoning by Digby.
    • Digby — Supreme Bishop Digby, Foster's successor as head of the Church of the New Revelation; apotheosis to angel under Foster after Smith causes him to disappear.


Heinlein's deliberately provocative book generated considerable controversy.[9] The free love and commune living aspects of the Church of All Worlds led to the book's being excluded from school reading lists. After it was rumored to be associated with Charles Manson, it was removed from school libraries as well.[10]:269

Writing in [11]

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."[12]

Despite such reviews, Stranger won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel[13] and became the first science fiction novel to enter The New York Times Book Review '​s best-seller list.[9] In 2012, it was included in a Library of Congress exhibition of "Books That Shaped America".[14]


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.

Another term introduced in the novel is "Fair Witness," 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.[15]

A central element of the second half of the novel is the religious movement founded by Smith, the "Church of All Worlds", an initiatory California, with membership worldwide, and it remains an active part of the neopagan community today.[16]

Heinlein was surprised that some readers thought the book described how he believed society should be organized, explaining: "I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers ... It is an invitation to think -- not to believe."[9]

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."[17]

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 (1956), constituted prior art.[18]

In popular culture

  • Heinlein's novella Lost Legacy (1941) lends its theme, and possibly some characters, to Stranger. In a relevant part of the story, Joan Freeman is described as feeling like "a stranger in a strange land".[19]
  • The Police released an Andy Summers-penned song titled "Friends," as the B-side to their hit "Don't Stand So Close to Me," that referenced the novel. Summers claimed that it "was about eating your friends, or 'grocking' them as [Stranger] put it."[20]

Publication history

Two major versions of this book exist:

  • The 1961 version, which, at the request of the publisher, Heinlein cut by over a quarter. Approximately 60,000 words were removed from the original manuscript, including some sharp criticism of American attitudes to sex and religion.[9] Sales were slow at first, but after winning a Hugo award Stranger became popular among college students. The book remained in print for 28 years.[10]:269 By 1997, over 100,000 copies of the hardback edition had been sold along with nearly five million copies of the paperback.[9] None of his later novels would match this level of success.[21]
  • In 1989, Heinlein's widow, Virginia, renewed the copyright to Stranger and cancelled the existing publication contracts in accordance with the Copyright Act of 1976.[10]:269 The 1991 version, retrieved from Heinlein's archives in the University of California, Santa Cruz, Special Collections Department by Virginia and published posthumously, which reproduces the original manuscript and restores all cuts. Both Heinlein's agent and his publisher (which had new senior editors) agreed that the uncut version was better: readers are used to longer books, and what was seen as objectionable in 1961 was no longer so thirty years later.

Many printed editions exist:

  • June 1, 1961, Putnam Publishing Group, hardcover, ISBN 0-399-10772-X[22]
  • Avon, NY, 1st paperback edition, 1961.
  • 1965, New English Library Ltd, (London).
  • March 1968, Berkley Medallion. paperback, ISBN 0-425-04688-5
  • July 1970, New English Library Ltd, (London). 400 pages, paperback. (3rd 'new edition', August 1971 reprint, is NEL 2844, no ISBN quoted.)
  • 1972, Capricorn Books, 408 pages, ISBN 0-399-50268-8
  • October 1975, Berkley Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-425-03067-9
  • November 1977, Berkley Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-425-03782-7
  • July 1979, Berkley Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-425-04377-0
  • September 1980, Berkley Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-425-04688-5
  • July 1982, Berkley Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-425-05833-6
  • July 1983, Penguin Putnam, paperback, ISBN 0-425-06490-5
  • January 1984, Berkley Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-425-07142-1
  • May 1, 1984, Berkley Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-425-05216-8
  • December 1984, Berkley Publishing Group, ISBN 0-425-08094-3
  • November 1986, Berkley Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-425-10147-9
  • January 1991, uncut edition, Ace/Putnam, hardcover, ISBN 0-399-13586-3
  • May 3, 1992, original uncut edition, Hodder and Stoughton, mass market paperback, 655 pages, ISBN 0-450-54742-6
  • October 1, 1991, uncut edition, Ace Books, paperback, 528 pages, ISBN 0-441-78838-6
  • 1995, Easton Press (MBI, Inc), uncut edition, leather bound hardcover, 525 pages
  • August 1, 1995, ACE Charter, paperback, 438 pages, ISBN 0-441-79034-8
  • April 1, 1996, Blackstone Audiobooks, cassette audiobook, ISBN 0-7861-0952-1
  • October 1, 1999, Sagebrush, library binding, ISBN 0-8085-2087-3
  • June 1, 2002, Blackstone Audiobooks, cassette audiobook, ISBN 0-7861-2229-3
  • January 2003, Turtleback Books Distributed by Demco Media, hardcover, ISBN 0-606-25126-X
  • November 1, 2003, Blackstone Audiobooks, CD audiobook, ISBN 0-7861-8848-0
  • March 14, 2005, Hodder and Stoughton, paperback, 655 pages, ISBN 0-340-83795-0


  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. ^ Heinlein, Robert A. (1974). Stranger in a Strange Land. New English Library.  Cover.
  3. ^ "Biography: Robert A. Heinlein". Heinlein Society. 
  4. ^ "1962 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-27. 
  5. ^ "Virginia Heinlein, 86; Wife, Muse and Literary Guardian of Celebrated Science Fiction Writer". Retrieved 5 August 2013. 
  6. ^ "Heinlein`s Original `Stranger` Restored". Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  7. ^ "Books that Shaped America". Library of Congress. 2012. 
  8. ^ 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.  
  9. ^ a b c d e "Heinlein Gets the Last Word". Retrieved 25 May 2014. 
  10. ^ a b c Dawn B. Sova (1 January 2006). Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds. Infobase Publishing. pp. 267–.  
  11. ^ Prescott, Orville (August 4, 1961). "Books of The Times". The New York Times. p. 19. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  12. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf".  
  13. ^ Scott MacFarlane (12 February 2007). The Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture. McFarland. pp. 92–.  
  14. ^ """Library of Congress issues list of "Books That Shaped America. Retrieved 6 June 2014. 
  15. ^ Mark Herrmann (1 January 2006). The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law. American Bar Association. pp. 74–.  
  16. ^ "What is the Church of All Worlds?". Church of All Worlds Website. Retrieved 2009-02-24. 
  17. ^ Expanded Universe, p. 403.
  18. ^ Garmon, Jay (2005-02-01). "Geek Trivia: Comic relief". TechRepublic. Retrieved 2012-01-06. 
  19. ^ Heinlein, Robert A. (November 1941). "Lost Legacy". Super Science Stories.  Chapter 10
  20. ^ "'Don't Stand So Close to Me' / 'Friends'". 
  21. ^ BookCaps; BookCaps Study Guides Staff (2011). Stranger in a Strange Land: BookCaps Study Guide. BookCaps Study Guides.  
  22. ^ "Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein, Publisher: Putnam Adult". ISBNdb entry. Retrieved 2007-07-21. 


External links

  • Stranger in a Strange Land title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
  • List of Characters
  • Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
  • "Junior, you aren’t shaping up too angelically": Queerness in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, by Allyn Howey
  • Looking at "Stranger in a Strange Land" as a Modern Christological Heresy, by Jonathan Hayward
  • Human Complete Set of Working Instructions to Happiness: Life, the Paleo Diet, (Paleo) Orthodoxy, and Other Things, by Jonathan HaywardMartianThe
  • Stranger in a Strange Land at Worlds Without End
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