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Stranger in a Strange Land

A book by Robert A. Heinlein

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In the 60s everyone wanted to "grok."

  • Jul 31, 2011


In retrospect, Robert A. Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND seems quaintly sub-adult in its message, not much of a story, a very average "didactic" novel. In its decade, be it admitted, the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, STRANGER was on everyone's lips. Even today, in 2011, it is selling more strongly than probably 90% of the books still in print. What was its astonishing appeal 30 and 40 years ago? What gives it staying power, even if fading?


From what I gather, it was kids in 7th grade and higher and college students sophomore or younger who were initially most represented among those turned on by STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. The novel "liberated" them, taught them to "think for themselves." Today those same people may vaguely recall STRANGER as a seminal book in their growing up but forget the reasons why it moved them. Historians of American culture build careers by probing cultural phenomena such as STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, comic books, anime, the noir and other fashions in writing as providing insights into what nowadays seems an increasingly ancient American -- largely juvenile -- mind set.

An American raised as a Martian on Mars by Martians is brought back in young adulthood to Earth by a follow-on expedition to the earlier one of which young Valentine Michael "Mike" Smith is the only survivor. Mentally, physically and emotionally, Smith is less cross-culturally prepared to become a mainstream human among humans than is a Peace Corps volunteer for coping with baboons in the outback of Burkina Faso.

As the Mars expedition's sole survivor and heir of wealthy parents, Smith has claims to colossal wealth, which crooked politicians wish to deny him. He also has no experience of other earth people, especially earth women. 

In the remainder of STRANGER IN STRANGE LAND Smith first demonstrates alien skills such as "grokking" persons and objects, i. e., cognitively reaching their inner cores through empathetic attention paying. Mars is a dry planet and water is rare. When a nurse brings him a glass of water, Smith is bound to her through Martian water-sharing ritual. He then begins consciously to share with and teach to earth men his skills, attitudes and values. Mike taps into latent human critical abilities, making Martian values so appealing as to inspire previous non-noticers of what they have been doing all their lives to overthrow traditional values such as walking around clothed rather than nude, having sex monogamously and without guilt. Smith teaches that generally doing what one jolly well pleases is good. This culminates in Smith's new-fangled religion. the Church of All The Worlds.

In the 60s STRANGER introduced young people to systematic noticing what they were doing and then asking "why."  They grokked. They proclaimed themselves "only an egg" and assured their chums that "You are God." They solemnly shared water with one another. Socrates had done a suprerficially similar but more philosophical thing with the youth of Athens and paid for it with his life. So in the end would Mike Smith, consciously sacrificing himself to a mob with an eye to toughening up his followers to face a vague threat from Martian Ancients. For those ancients would surely do unspecified bad things to earth people once they started paying the disgusting earthlings more heed.

The book is clumsily written, abounds with cliches, postures and rhetorical strutting, one dimensional characters and is of interest primarily to literary historians. Readers would do better to tackle some Socratic dialogs of Plato or a handful tales of C.S. Lewis, take up Rudyard Kipling's JUST SO STORIES or even the Mars tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury. Far, far better, in my opinion, might they do.  -OOO-


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August 01, 2011
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More Stranger in a Strange Land reviews
Quick Tip by . February 23, 2011
posted in SF Signal
   I've only read this book oh, about 30 times - but I've been slacking of late;  I don't think I've re-read in the past five years or so.      For someone not familiar with Heinlein or his works, this novel is one of the must-reads for any SF fan who wants to seriously acquire the label.  It's considered to be a major contributor to 60's counter-culture and provides some interesting insights into our own society
review by . September 18, 2010
This was the first book by Robert Heinlein that I read and from reading the first paragraph I was sucked into the genius that is this author.      Heinlein's books are thought provoking, enigmatic and sometimes a bit wacky. They make you think then turn everything upside down and shake it around. Stranger in a Strange Land was a roller coaster of new discoveries and to this day remains one of my favorite books of all time.      Heinlein's writing …
Quick Tip by . November 06, 2010
Not for me. I had a hard time connecting with it. What did you like about it?
Quick Tip by . October 08, 2010
I told my children that they were not fully my children until they read this. They are all grateful.
Quick Tip by . October 05, 2010
What can I say? This is one of the all-time classics of all time, with pointed commentary on politics, society, religion and human sexuality.
Quick Tip by . September 29, 2010
This one was oddly addictive, embarrassingly unputdownable.
Quick Tip by . June 11, 2010
Worth reading every year or so, not just for the import of Heinlein's message, but also for the absolute FUN and joy of reading it. Never gets old. A must for any Heinlein reader - or sci-fi anti-establishment reader. ENJOY!
Quick Tip by . July 05, 2010
very interesting notion of a human minority raised by aliens and trying to adapt
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
Every person searching for himself would get a lot of help from this book. Imagine being a human on Mars, raised by Martians, then returning to Earth to see our culture (of the not-to-distant future). You'll get a completely new take on what it means to be human -- or, more accurately, "Thou art God." Read it to understand. Wonderful!
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
I loved this book -- read it a long time ago. Way ahead of its time -- has everything, including avant garde sexual orientation (with 3 sexes instead of 2 -- innovative). Discussed this book in library school a long time ago.
About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #6
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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About this book


Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth's cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mentionde factoowner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians. Ultimately, he confronts the fate reserved for all messiahs.

The impact of Stranger in a Strange Land was considerable, leading many children of the 60's to set up households based on Michael's water-brother nests. Heinlein loved to pontificate through the mouths of his characters, so modern readers must be willing to overlook the occasional sour note ("Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault."). That aside, Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the master's best entertainments, provocative as he always loved to be. Can you grok it? --Brooks Peck --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.

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ISBN-10: 0441788386
ISBN-13: 978-0441788385
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Publisher: Ace Trade
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