Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

Robert A. Heinlein:
Stranger in a Strange Land


Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. 1961. NY: Ace Books, 1987.


The title of the work appears among the references to cultural events and products, flattened into meaninglessness when listed without any perceivable perspective in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." The book was a countercultural phenomenon in the '60s. Its source is Moses (Exodus 2:22), naming a son Gershom, "for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land."

The book was a countercultural phenomenon in the '60s, even considered a "counterculture bible" to some who founded "nests" or real-life versions of the Church of All Worlds. (Charles Manson says he had not read the book, though some of his followers did.) Heinlein also describes the waterbed, which would not be manufactured until 1968.

Heinlein's wife Virginia, in 1948, thought the notion of a human being raised by Martians would be an interesting story. Heinlein took some notes and stored them away. When published finally in 1961, the novel won a Hugo Award. (After Heinlein's death in 1988, Virginia brought out the original unabridged version, published in 1991.)

"A Martian Named Smith" may have been a working title: Heinlein's reaction to extraterrestrials typically with unpronounceable names. Defamiliarization is at the heart of the concept, forcing a fresh look at human, and mostly American, mores and culture.

After establishing some ultimately frustrated expectations about the importance of the members of the expedition headed off to Mars, the setting of the work is primarily Earth, in an uncertain time certainly future to 1961. WWIII has taken place (5), but Jubal was beyond childhood during the Harding administration (387).

A Stranger Lexicon:
"Grok" -- intended to signify a deep mystical understanding, almost a oneness with a concept, another person, or an object. But the verb is used so often that one begins to suspect that it could just mean "understand," as in "I see" or "I dig."

"Discorporate" -- to die. The Martian outlook apparently emphasizes the living being as a corporation of cells and organs.

"I am only an egg" -- less devious than the rhetorical stance taken by Caveman Lawyer, but also conveying naïveté and inexperience.

"Waiting is, until fullness" -- more intense than procrastination.

"Thou art God" -- a greeting among Mike's cult, initially seeming like a legitimate theological utterance but ultimately becoming a mere reflex, as in "Thou art God. How do you like your eggs?" (352).

"Mike is not human, Jubal functions as a mouthpiece for the authorial voice, Jubal's three secretaries are interchangeable cardboard cutouts, and Jill is used simply as a devil's advocate against more enlightened points of view" (Wikipedia).

"The novel's structure mirrors Heinlein's career development as a writer: the first half is an adventure story, the second half a thoughtful exploration of religion and human needs" (http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue164/classic.html).

A "mid-life crisis" novel? [I'd say a later-life crisis novel.]

"He's a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment" (7).

"This, then, was 'woman.' He felt both oddly excited and disappointed" (15).

"There was so much to grok, so little to grok from" (17).

"Honey, your pal is the first interplanetary bastard of record" (24).

"Secrecy begets tyranny" (26).

[H.G. Wells reference (28).]

"Wise Girl Malthusian Lozenges" (38).

"He continued to congratulate the citizens of Earth on their successful contact with another planet, another race. He managed to imply that the exploit was the personal accomplishment of every citizen, that any one of them could have led the expedition had he not been busy with serious work" (38-39).

"But Smith had learned that these creatures could endure emotions dreadful to contemplate and not die" (57).

"Let our eggs share the same nest" (59).

"It was an unlimited acceptance, an eternal yea. Jill suddenly felt that Smith would jump out the window if she told him to" (63).

"Well, there was no use arguing with the official version" (72).

"Government! Three-fourths parasitic and the rest stupid fumbling" (95).

[Smith's course of reading (108).]

"There was one field in which man was unsurpassed; he showed unlimited ingenuity in devising bigger and more efficient ways to kill off, enslave, harass, and in all ways make an unbearable nuisance of himself to himself" (143).

"'Thou art God,' Mike repeated serenely. 'That which groks. Anne is God. I am God. The happy grasses are God. Jill groks in beauty always. Jill is God'" (144).

"My dear, I used to think 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."

After a discussion about the work "grok": "Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas" (212).

"Daughters can spend ten percent more than a man can make in any usual occupation. That's a law of nature, to be known henceforth as 'Harshaw's Law'" (218).

"Nevertheless, there it was -- one of his strangenesses, like his inability to laugh" (302; cf. 269).

[Fosterite political power (290).]

[Science (dismissed) and philosophy (309).]

[Mike laughs at monkeys (311).]

[Artist, writer (326).]

[Not a church? (347).]

[Jubal on his age (364).]

[What the commandment against coveting has wrought (366).]

"The only religious opinion I feel sure of is this: self-awareness is not just a bunch of amino acids bumping together" (368).

"Christ was crucified for preaching without a police permit" (370).

"weasel-worded" (383).

[The seriousness of the challenge (400).]

Works Cited

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. 1961. NY: Ace Books, 1987.

Science Fiction