Stranger in a Strange Land
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|Author||Robert A. Heinlein|
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|Publisher||Putnam Publishing Group|
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|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
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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. In 2012, the US Library of Congress named it one of 88 "Books that Shaped America".
In 1991, three years after Heinlein's death, his widow, Virginia Heinlein, arranged to have the original uncut manuscript published. Critics disagree about which version is superior, though Heinlein preferred the original manuscript and described the heavily edited version as "telegraphese".
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-third world war United States, where organized religions are politically powerful. There is a World Federation of Free Nations, including the demilitarized U.S., with a world government supported by Special Service troops.
A manned expedition is mounted to visit the planet Mars, but all contact is lost after landing. A second expedition 25 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 accompany the returning expedition.
Because Smith is unaccustomed to the conditions on 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.
Gillian tells her lover, reporter Ben Caxton, about her experience with Smith. Ben explains that as heir to the entire exploration party, Smith is extremely wealthy, and following a legal precedent set during the colonisation of the Moon, he could be considered owner of Mars itself. His arrival on Earth has prompted a political power struggle that puts his life in danger. Ben persuades her to bug Smith's room and then publishes stories to bait the government into releasing him. Ben is seized by the government, and Gillian persuades Smith to leave the hospital with her. When government agents catch up with them, Smith sends 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 psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence, coupled with a childlike naïveté. When Harshaw 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 Martian society is directed by "Old Ones", the spirits of Martians who have "discorporated". It is also customary for loved ones and friends to eat the bodies of the dead, in a rite similar to 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.
Still inexhaustibly wealthy, and now free to travel, Smith becomes a celebrity and is feted by the Earth's elite. He investigates many religions, including the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, a populist megachurch wherein sexuality, gambling, alcohol consumption, and similar activities are allowed, even encouraged, and only considered "sinning" when not under church auspices. The Church of the New Revelation 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 named Patricia Paiwonski.
Eventually, Smith starts 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 thus acquire psychokinetic abilities. The church is eventually besieged by Fosterites for practicing "blasphemy", and the church building is destroyed; but unknown to the public, Smith's 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 that wealth 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 were responsible for the destruction of the fifth planet, eons ago.
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 a small portion of Smith's remains in keeping with Martian custom, Jubal and some of the Church members return to Jubal's home to regroup and prepare for their new evangelical role founding congregations. 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 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). 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 to the uncut, original version of the book re-issued in 1991, Heinlein's widow, Virginia, wrote: "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?'".
- Valentine Michael Smith — known as Michael Smith or "Mike"; the "Man from Mars", raised on Mars in the interval between the landing of his parents' ship, the Envoy, and arrival of the second expedition, the Champion; is about 20 years old when the Champion arrives and brings him to Earth.
- Gillian (Jill) Boardman — a nurse at Bethesda Hospital who sneaks Mike out of government custody; she plays a key role in introducing him to human culture and becomes one of his closest confidantes and a central figure in the Church of All Worlds, which Mike develops.
- Ben Caxton — an early love interest of Jill's, and an investigative journalist (Jill sees him as of the "lippmann" or, political, rather than the "winchell", or celebrity gossip inclination), who masterminds Mike's initial freedom from custody; he joins Mike's inner circle but remains somewhat skeptical, at first, of the social order it develops.
- Jubal Harshaw — a popular writer, lawyer, and doctor, now semi-retired to a house in the Pocono Mountains; as an influential but reclusive public figure, he provides pivotal support for Mike's independence and a safe haven for him; elderly but in good health, he serves as a father figure for the inner circle while keeping a suspicious distance from it.
- Anne, Miriam, Dorcas — Harshaw's three personal/professional secretaries, who live with him and take turns as his "front", responding to his instructions; Anne is certified as a Fair Witness, empowered to provide objective legal testimony about events she witnesses; all three become early acolytes of Michael's church.
- Duke, Larry – Handymen who work for Harshaw and live in his estate; they also become central members of the church.
- Dr. "Stinky" Mahmoud — a semanticist and the second human (after Mike) to gain a working knowledge of the Martian language, though he does not "grok" the language; becomes a member of the church while retaining his Muslim faith.
- Patty Paiwonski – a "tattooed lady" and snake handler at the circus Mike and Jill join for a time; she has ties to the Fosterite church, which she retains as a member of Mike's inner circle.
- Joseph Douglas — Secretary-General of the Federation of Free States, which has evolved indirectly from the United Nations into a true world government.
- Alice Douglas — (sometimes called "Agnes"), Joe Douglas' wife. As the First Lady, she manipulates her husband, making major economic, political, and staffing decisions. She frequently consults astrologer Becky Vesant for major decisions.
- Foster — the founder of the Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite); now existing as an archangel.
- Digby — Foster's successor as head of the Fosterite Church; he becomes an archangel under Foster after Mike "discorporates" him.
Heinlein's deliberately provocative book generated considerable controversy. The free love and commune living aspects of the Church of All Worlds led to the book's exclusion from school reading lists. After it was rumored to be associated with Charles Manson, it was removed from school libraries as well.
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 in a Strange Land 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".
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."
Despite such reviews, Stranger in a Strange Land won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel and became the first science fiction novel to enter The New York Times Book Review's best-seller list. In 2012, it was included in a Library of Congress exhibition of "Books That Shaped America".
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. 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.
Stranger in a Strange Land 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."
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."
The book significantly influenced modern culture in a variety of ways, exemplified below.
Church of All Worlds
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 Heinlein was a paid subscriber to the Church's magazine Green Egg. 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.
The word "grok", coined in the novel, made its way into the English language. 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[which?] 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.
Stranger in a Strange Land contains an early description of the waterbed, an invention that 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 in a Strange Land and another novel, Double Star (1956), constituted prior art.
In popular culture
- Heinlein's novella Lost Legacy (1941) lends its theme, and possibly some characters, to Stranger in a Strange Land. In a relevant part of the story, Joan Freeman is described as feeling like "a stranger in a strange land".
- The Police released an Andy Summers-penned song titled "Friends", as the B-side to their hit "Don't Stand So Close to Me" (1980), that referenced the novel. Summers claimed that it "was about eating your friends, or 'grocking' them as [Stranger in a Strange Land] put it".
- Billy Joel's song "We Didn't Start the Fire" (1989) mentions the novel.
Two major versions of this book exist:
- The 1961 version, which, at the publisher's request, Heinlein cut by over a quarter. Approximately 60,000 words were removed from the original manuscript, including some sharp criticism of American attitudes toward sex and religion. 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. By 1997, over 100,000 copies of the hardback edition had been sold along with nearly five million copies of the paperback. None of his later novels would match this level of success.
- The 1991 version, retrieved from Heinlein's archives in the University of California, Santa Cruz, Special Collections Department by Heinlein's widow, Virginia, and published posthumously, which reproduces the original manuscript and restores all cuts. It came about because in 1989, Virginia renewed the copyright to Stranger and cancelled the existing publication contracts in accordance with the Copyright Act of 1976. 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 30 years later.
Many published editions exist:
- June 1, 1961, Putnam Publishing Group, hardcover, ISBN 0-399-10772-X
- 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
- 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 Audio, cassette audiobook, ISBN 0-7861-0952-1
- October 1, 1999, Sagebrush, library binding, ISBN 0-8085-2087-3
- June 1, 2002, Blackstone Audio, 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 Audio, CD audiobook, ISBN 0-7861-8848-0
- March 14, 2005, Hodder and Stoughton, paperback, 655 pages, ISBN 0-340-83795-0
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