Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Stranger in a Strange Land | Context


The Genres of Stranger in a Strange Land

Science Fiction

Stranger in a Strange Land contains all of the basic ingredients of science fiction. It has a futuristic setting in which space travel is a reality. The novel centers on an encounter with an intelligent alien race. It features futuristic inventions such as air cars, "stereovision" (3D television), waterbeds, and telephones that include video. But it is a sprawling work that doesn't confine itself to its own plot. Most notably, the character Jubal Harshaw is given to digressions—or lectures—on a range of topics. He discusses politics, aging, marriage, morality, religion, philosophy, and art. Perhaps these digressions account for the book's scathing first New York Times review. The reviewer characterized it as a "disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism."


Satire is a technique for pointing out flaws or critiquing society or people through hyperbole (exaggeration) or irony (inverted expectations). Certainly, parts of the novel are intended to be satirical, particularly in its descriptions of American society in general and organized religion in particular. For example, descriptions of the excesses of Fosterite religion, which in the novel includes gambling, drinking, corporate sponsors of the hymns sung, and advertisements at intervals during the service, use satire to expose the consumerism of American religion.


The novel also follows the conventions of two other genres. First is the bildungsroman, a genre that traces a central character from intellectual and spiritual childhood to maturity. In the case of the human raised by Martians, this awakening centers largely on his burgeoning sexual understanding, given that his Martian teachings leave him already spiritually enlightened.

Prophet's Gospel

The novel is also an example of a prophet's gospel. This genre focuses on the life and teachings of a spiritual or religious leader. The novel begins with the words "once upon a time," and it follows Smith from his birth to his martyrdom, with an emphasis on the teachings of himself and his elders along the way.

Politics and Sex

Robert Heinlein was a man of strong political opinions. He held a mixture of individualist, authoritarian, and libertarian positions during his lifetime. Individualists are independent thinkers who tend to focus on the importance of the individual as opposed to the importance of the group or the community. Libertarians are in the same vein: they advocate individual freedom and responsibility, and frown on government regulation. Authoritarians, however, focus on obedience to those in authority—often with unwavering, unquestioning obedience. The tension between these seemingly opposed attitudes is illustrated in Heinlein's life and work. Young Heinlein was a military man, attending the Naval Academy and serving in the navy as an engineer. His novel Starship Troopers (1959), with its military themes and setting, glamorized the life of a soldier. Traces of this more authoritarian worldview can be seen in how Jubal Harshaw—a character in Stranger in a Strange Land—runs his household—as a tyrant with a clear power structure. But it is Heinlein's more individualist and libertarian leanings that really come through in Stranger in a Strange Land. Jubal is an exemplary individualist—a man unafraid to live life by his own rules and skeptical of the importance of engaging in the larger community. He fiercely protects his Poconos estate from governmental authorities, who are depicted as invaders willing to overrun citizens' rights. Jubal's main goal in life (before meeting Smith) is to make just enough money to avoid being interfered with. Later in the novel, Smith's residence for the inner circle of his religion is similarly isolated from the regulating authorities. A member of the church even becomes certified as a fire warden to avoid having an outside inspector come into the private areas.

Heinlein's opinions on sex and marriage are likewise reflected in the novel. His second marriage, to wife Leslyn, was an open relationship, with both partners having multiple lovers. On some occasions, they invited a third person into their sexual encounters. This was the case with Virginia Gerstenfeld, who joined the household in 1946, although the threesome didn't last long. Leslyn and Heinlein divorced in 1947. Heinlein married Virginia (Ginny) in another open relationship. In Stranger in a Strange Land, open relationships are depicted as normal and healthy, and Smith's "Inner Circle" is, in practical terms, a group marriage.

Sixties Subculture and Lasting Influences

Because of the novel's nonviolent attitude and advocacy of free love, Stranger in a Strange Land resonated with 1960s subcultures, such as the hippie movement, that encouraged sexual freedom, anti-war political stance, and anti-capitalist attitudes. Some in the hippie movement found the novel's descriptions of communal living and group marriage so appealing they adopted the text as a sort of handbook. In addition, the novel spawned an actual "church"—the Church of All Worlds. This Santa Cruz, California, church still exists as a self-described "neo-pagan" church; neo-paganism is a term that is used to describe spiritual traditions based on older European polytheistic religions. It uses the nine-ring structure and much of the terminology from the Church of All Worlds in Stranger in a Strange Land—the church established by Valentine Michael Smith in the novel.

Perhaps the most notable influence on the wider culture is the addition of a new English word to the lexicon: grok. In the novel the word is Valentine Michael Smith's rendering of a Martian word meaning, literally, "to drink" and figuratively, "to understand completely." The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "to understand intuitively or by empathy." It became popular as a slang term in the 1960s among the hippies who originally fell in love with the novel. It re-emerged as a popular term among the computer programmers and tech geeks of the 1990s and beyond, and is used to mean complete, deep understanding, especially of a computer programming language.


Robert Heinlein's originally manuscript was 220,000 words, which, according to Heinlein's publisher, was far too long. Reluctantly, Heinlein cut over 60,000 words from his manuscript, primarily by tightening up wordy sentences and removing words and phrases to make sentences and paragraphs shorter. The result was a novel with shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, and choppier dialogue than the manuscript. It is this shorter version that was published in 1961. In 1991, Virginia Heinlein facilitated the publication of the uncut version. This study guide is based on the original published edition of Stranger in a Strange Land, rather than the uncut edition.

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