Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Robert A. Heinlein | Biography


Early Life

Robert Anson Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, on July 7, 1907. His family relocated to Kansas City when he was a baby, and he spent his childhood there. The religious landscape of Kansas City was conservative and Christian. Heinlein's understanding of this culture is evident in his arguments against it in his novels. Like many other science fiction writers, Heinlein took an interest in space at an early age. He found astronomy fascinating, and read avidly on the topic, along with science fiction classics by British writer Arthur Conan Doyle, American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, and English writer H.G. Wells.

He attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, graduating in 1929 with a degree in engineering. He pursued a career in the navy for the next five years, serving aboard the USS Lexington and USS Roper. In 1934 tuberculosis (a bacterial lung infection) forced him to give up his naval duties. In 1929 he married Elinor Curry, though the marriage ended a year later. In 1932 he married Leslyn MacDonald. This marriage proved to be a better match. After a short stint at the University of California at Los Angeles following the end of his naval career, he decided to try his hand at politics, but he abandoned that career path after a poor result in a 1938 California State Assembly election.

Evolution of a Science Fiction Writer

In addition to a small naval pension, Heinlein needed more money to pay off his mortgage. An advertisement calling for stories from new writers gave him the idea to try writing. In 1939 his first published short story, "Life-Line," appeared in the popular science fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction. He continued to publish short stories in Astounding Science Fiction until World War II (1939–45). Heinlein served in the war but returned to writing in 1947 with more ambitious goals. He began work on his first novel, Rocket Ship Galileo, which was published in 1947, the same year his marriage to Leslyn ended. Rocket Ship Galileo was quickly followed by other books, including The Green Hills of Earth (1951), Double Star (1956), The Door into Summer (1957), Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958), and the military-themed Starship Troopers (1959). Meanwhile, he remarried—to his third and final wife Ginny.

In 1961 he published what would become one of his most well-known works, Stranger in a Strange Land. The original manuscript was far lengthier than the published version and had to be drastically cut (by about 60,000 words) because Heinlein's publisher maintained it contained material that was too cynical. It had even longer passages devoted to Heinlein's strong anti-government and anti-religious themes. The trimmed-down novel was widely criticized, both inside and outside the realms of science fiction. Still, it won the Hugo Award for best science fiction story the following year. Its positive portrayal of communal living, sexual freedom, and group marriage also struck a chord with the 60s counterculture, adding to its appeal at the time.

A Long Career

Stranger in a Strange Land was the third of Heinlein's novels to win the Hugo Award, after Starship Troopers (1960) and Double Star (1967). Heinlein continued writing award-nominated and winning works including the The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985), another novel in which Jubal Harshaw appears.

A series of health issues caused Heinlein to steadily decline, and he died on May 8, 1988, at age 80. His New York Times obituary called him "one of the country's most successful writers of science fiction." He wrote more than 35 novels and novellas, as well as several collections of short stories. His books have sold over 40 million copies and have been translated into 22 languages.

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