Study Guide

Stranger in a Strange Land

By Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land Introduction

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

  • questioning the conservative nature of the 50s 
  • free love
  • individual liberty
  • peace 
  • questioning the actions of government

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.

What is Stranger in a Strange Land About and Why Should I Care?

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.

Stranger in a Strange Land Resources

Websites

RAH: Robert A. Heinlein
Don't be a Stranger. (Yeah, we went there.) This site has a comprehensive bibliography of Heinlein's works, FAQs, and a great section of audio files and other bits of multimedia.

The Heinlein Society: Dedicated to Paying it Forward
This charitable website is dedicated in Heinlein's memory. And really, we're not surprised he had such an impact on so many people.

Stranger vs. Stranger
Feel like you read a different story than the one we talk about on Shmoop? It's possible that you did. Check out this excellent essay comparing the different versions of Stranger in a Strange Land and learn the nitty-gritty details.

Historical Documents

A Legit Obit
This obituary points out that "Mr. Heinlein's fictional writings repeatedly anticipated scientific and technical advances." So basically, he was a psychic genius.

An Author on an Author
Kurt Vonnegut: ever heard of him? Well, now you can read what he has to say about Stranger in a Strange Land. And you thought Shmoop was a literary authority…

Video

His Life in Pictures
This video montage has some awesome photos and great biographical nuggets about the man.

For the Academics in the Room
Really want to get intellectual about it? Check out this lecture by Heinlein's biographer, William H. Patterson.

Audio

The Voice
Here you'll find a series of brief audio clips in which Heinlein speaks on different topics, from Apollo 11 to Stranger in a Strange Land. Our favorite quote: "I'd have people 'offer' to explain Stranger in a Strange Land to me." Shmoop wasn't one of those people, we promise.

Images

Heinlein in Color
Where did he get those eyes?

Current Cover
This cover art kind of makes us want to join The Church of All Worlds. Creepy.

First Edition
Extra points if you recognize the statue on the cover.