Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Stranger in a Strange Land | Part 2, Chapters 11–12 : His Preposterous Heritage | Summary



Part 2, Chapter 11

On the "fourth pebble" of the solar system—Mars—life evolved much differently from Earth life. Young Martians hatch from eggs as nymphs. Most die. Those that survive become nestlings, reproduce, and then metamorphose into adults. Nymphs are female and adults male, so, unlike humans, there is no marriage or romance. After "discorporation" Martian adults become Old Ones—immortal beings who govern the planet. These Old Ones had sent "the human nestling" Smith to Earth to "grok what he could of the third planet" almost absentmindedly, their attention on other things, such as art. One particular work of art concerns their encounter with the people of the fifth planet of the solar system. Long ago, the Martians had "grokked them completely, and had taken action; asteroid ruins were all that remained, save that the Martians continued to cherish and praise the people they had destroyed."

Back on Earth, Smith is learning to enjoy the many new experiences and people he encounters at Jubal's. He especially loves swimming and reading. While Smith seems healthy and content, Jubal and Jill both wonder where Ben Caxton is. As they discuss the possibilities, Jill reveals what happened to Johnson and Berquist. Jubal becomes intrigued. He calls for Smith to be brought to him.

Part 2, Chapter 12

Jill and Anne (in her white Fair Witness robes) join Jubal and Dorcas in Jubal's study. Smith arrives and Jubal asks him to explain what he did back in Ben's apartment when the two men came. Smith explains: "Something is in front of me. It is a wrong thing and must not be. So I reach out ...." He says he can only make things become "not" if he groks they are a wrong thing. Jubal begins recording using two cameras. He has Jill throw a small box at his head. She does, and it disappears before hitting Jubal. Anne reports "it appeared to shrink, as if it were disappearing into the distance." In another experiment, Smith stops a falling ashtray in midair.

Smith apologizes for "wasting food" when he made the two men disappear. Jubal reflects on his own "unMartian notions of food." Smith is surprised that Jubal and the others cannot make things disappear or levitate them as he can, but he doesn't know enough English to explain how it is done. Jubal "hires" Jill to learn Martian to help clear up the confusion.

As the last demonstration, Jubal tells Smith he is going to point a gun at him. He says Smith should make just the gun disappear. Smith agrees, adding, "When you discorporate ... I hope to be allowed to eat of you myself ... until I grok you in fullness." Jubal keeps a straight face, and the demonstration is a success.


The lengthy description of the Martian life cycle in Chapter 11 helps establish the main differences between Martian and human life. These provide the groundwork for developments in the theme of humanity.

The life cycles are starkly different, but perhaps more important is that when nymphs hatch from their eggs they are not protected by the adults. Rather, they bounce "joyously around the surface, learning to live and eight out of nine dying in the process." Allowing eight out of nine babies to die would be, in any human culture, unthinkable. Another striking difference is that their genders are related to their ages and change over the course of the life cycle. Humans, in contrast, have biological gender and generally maintain it as they age. This gives rise to sexual practices and the cultural practice of marriage. Finally, the Old Ones are immortal beings. Life and death do not carry the same importance as they do on Earth, where humans do not all feel assured of their immortality. In addition, this immortal perspective gives Martians a slower sense of time passing than humans have. So, the main differences are parenting practices, sexual practices, views on immortality, and a sense of time. These are the unique aspects of humanity Smith must learn as he begins to understand his new home.

There are other, less obvious, difficulties Smith faces as he tries to understand humans. One is the concept of fiction. After reading Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Smith has questions. He asks Jubal to ask Romeo why he "discorporated too soon." Smith does not grasp the idea that this play is about fictional characters, not real people: "The concept of fiction was beyond Mike's experience; there was nothing on which it could rest." Smith's literal orientation to language is a roadblock to his understanding of human culture. Part of his process of maturing will be learning to see beyond the literal. The theme of language weaves throughout these interactions in other ways. Although no one knows what "grok" means, they all begin to use it. So as Smith learns and uses their language, they begin to learn and use his. Jubal recognizes this need for mutual language learning to further understanding. He asks Jill to learn Martian. Thus Jill becomes Smith's first language student, a detail that gains significance in later chapters.

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