Picture your typical Martian. He probably has a giant head, greenish skin, maybe an exoskeleton or extra set of arms. He travels in a flying saucer and lugs around a ray gun. When he does visit Earth, it's either to abduct perfectly good cows or to destroy perfectly good national monuments. Seriously, what do those guys have against Mount Rushmore?
But is that really what a Martian is? What if all those things are just external features? What if being a Martian is more of a mental state, something you develop by being born and raised on Mars? If that's the case, then wouldn't any creature raised by Martians be a Martian? Could a human be a Martian? Well, Shmoopers, those are the types of questions that started Robert A. Heinlein on the path to writing Stranger in a Strange Land.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's back up a bit and settle into the 1950s. During this decade, Heinlein began writing a story about a man raised on Mars. When this man returned to Earth, he would be more Martian than man, completely ignorant of our social mores and cultural customs. His ignorance would allow him to challenge the entire western cultural system. In effect, he'd be the ultimate social rebel—he'd make James Dean look like a prep-school geek.
Heinlein took his sweet time writing this novel and didn't publish it until 1961. Hey, he wanted to make sure it was done right—you have to respect that. The science fiction community loved it, and Heinlein received another Hugo (the science fiction equivalent of an Academy Award). Actually, Heinlein has won and been nominated for more Hugo awards for Best Novel than anyone else. Ever. He's the Titanic of science fiction writers.
Still, Stranger in a Strange Land was science fiction, so few people outside the community paid it much attention. Then this little thing happened. You might have heard of it—it's called the Sixties. A counterculture was formed, centered on things like
Sound familiar? Lucky for Heinlein, he'd written the book of the Sixties back in the Fifties, so it was already printed and on the shelf when people went looking for it.
And look for it they did. Just imagine it. You're a young adult looking for a way to express all the things you feel your parents are wrong about or don't understand. Then you find this story, and it's not only discussing those issues but it's doing so candidly, boldly. Heinlein's novel was so influential that people actually adopted phrases from the book. They borrowed things like "grok," "Thou Art God," and "I am just an egg" to discuss their new way of thinking about society, culture, and life.
The rest, as they say, is history. Well, the Sixties are history, but Stranger in a Strange Land is still with us, testing us and poking and prodding our idea of cultural norms. As for Heinlein, he went and did what any good writer would do after achieving fame, praise, and heaps of awards from an entire generation. He kept writing good books.
Like any good philosophy, Stranger in a Strange Land isn't about answers, but possibilities; it isn't about certainty, but doubt.
Deep, right? Right. And this can make Stranger a difficult book to read. Not because it's written with shiny fourteen-letter words or sentences running for miles, but because people like answers and certainty. It's in our DNA. (Disclaimer: it might not be in our DNA.) Think about it: do we want politicians who think they have some ideas for how to help our country, or do we want politicians who are certain they have all the answers to do so?
Doubt is not such an easy thing to deal with. Typically doubt brings worry, fear, and uncertainty. But don't judge it so quickly. It also carries with it something else, something that makes all the other baggage worthwhile: possibility. See, when someone is certain they have the answer to any question, then all the possibilities for a different answer disappear. But bring a little doubt into the equation and the possibilities multiply, often with unexpected and promising new answers. Sounds pretty tempting, right?
In Stranger, Mike's Martian upbringing causes him to doubt many different parts of our society: marriage, sex, politics, burial services, religion, law, order—the list goes on. Mike's doubt provides us, the readers, with an opportunity to indulge in a little doubt ourselves. The conclusions reached by Mike may or may not be to your liking, but by considering and experimenting with the ideas, you can experience new and different ways of looking at the world.