Study Guide

Stranger in a Strange Land

by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Though Stranger in a Strange Land is the publisher’s title for this novel (Heinlein called it The Heretic or The Man from Mars), it expresses some of the subtleties of the title character. The “Stranger” is Valentine Michael Smith, and the “Strange Land” is human culture, for though he is human, Smith was raised by Martians, the same inscrutable race described in Red Planet and Podkayne of Mars (1963).

Probably Heinlein’s most critically acclaimed book, it is usually most praised for messages that Heinlein did not intend. Depicting a society in the near future reveling in lax sexual mores and yearning for a new religion, Stranger in a Strange Land was misunderstood as celebrating those aspects of contemporary culture. Hence, the novel became a cult classic on college campuses through the 1960’s and 1970’s, read both in and out of class. Though easily refuted, the rumor that Stranger in a Strange Land influenced the mass-murderer Charles Manson still persists in science-fiction circles: It is even reported as “fact” in some reference works.

The appeal of the book is in the character of Smith himself: more Martian than man, he has psychic and physical powers beyond those of most humans, and he trains his friends to develop those powers. The artificial “family” that Smith attracts appealed to the communal nature of the 1960’s counterculture (and led to the spurious connection with Manson). The head of the family is not Smith, who is a young man throughout the long novel, but one of Heinlein’s most fascinating creations, Jubal Harshaw.

Harshaw is one of Heinlein’s perennial mentor characters, an attorney, medical doctor, scientist, and popular author, who has amassed enough of a fortune to isolate himself from the rest of the world. When Smith is brought to Earth from Mars, where he was born when his parents made the first expedition there, the government keeps him in seclusion. When a young nurse “rescues” Smith (or “Mike,” as his friends begin calling him), Harshaw offers them both protection from overzealous government thugs.

What makes Mike an effective point-of-view character is the common science-fiction technique of defamiliarization. By presenting common aspects of his readers’ society as unfamiliar (as they would be to a human raised on Mars), Heinlein is able to bring readers to question the basic presuppositions of their culture. Tolerance of new ways of thinking, necessary for any technological or...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)

Stranger in a Strange Land Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Robert A. Heinlein was one of the most popular science-fiction writers of the twentieth century. His best-known work, Stranger in a Strange Land, is a novel that uses the traditional satirical device of observing contemporary society through the eyes of an innocent outsider.

Valentine Michael “Mike” Smith, as an infant, was the sole survivor of an expedition to Mars. Raised by native Martians for twenty-five years, he is found by the next expedition and brought to an Earth about which he knows nothing. As the only Earthling left on Mars, he is, by the Earth laws of the time, the owner of the planet, so powerful business and political interests want to control him.

Nurse Jill Boardman smuggles him out of the hospital where he is held. She takes him to the secluded retreat of Jubal Harshaw—doctor, lawyer, writer, and cynic—who becomes Mike’s protector and mentor. Among other things, Jubal saves Mike from the burden of “owning” Mars by pointing out that since Mars is already inhabited by sentient beings, it cannot be owned by Earthlings (an anticolonial approach rare at that time).

The Martians had taught Mike their language, which represents reality far better than any Earth language. Understanding Martian thus enables one to function much better, even enabling abilities (such as telepathy) considered supernatural on Earth.

Mike discovers sex with several women, and then goes out will Jill to...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Stranger in a Strange Land Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Valentine Michael Smith is conceived during a long space voyage from Earth to Mars and is born on Mars. His parents are members of the first Earth expedition to the red planet, but they are not married to each other. His mother, who is married to the expedition’s medical officer, dies during childbirth, and her husband murders Michael’s father with a scalpel and then kills himself soon afterward. The other members of the expedition also die shortly after landing, so Smith is raised by Martians. Culturally and psychologically, he becomes a Martian, much as the human Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894) becomes a wolf when he is raised by wolves.

The outbreak of World War III prevents another expedition to Mars from being mounted for twenty-five years. When a second expedition does arrive on the planet, its members find Smith fully grown and bring him back to Earth. There, he presents a dilemma to the authorities: Through his human parents, he has inherited vast wealth, but, without human cultural understanding, he is not competent to control it. Further, under a legal oddity known as the Larkin Decision, Smith can be construed in terrestrial law as the owner of the entire planet Mars. To Joseph Douglas, the secretary-general of Earth’s global government, the World Federation of States, Smith poses a potential threat. This potential causes Smith to be isolated—as a kind of prisoner—under various ruses. The first such ruse is medical, as Smith is kept at Bethesda Medical Center.

Ben Caxton, an investigative reporter, accuses Douglas of limiting the freedom of the man from Mars and attempts to help Smith escape government custody. When Caxton’s girlfriend, Gillian Boardman, a nurse at Bethesda, stumbles on Smith’s heavily guarded hospital room, she effects the escape by disguising Smith as a nurse and taking him out of the hospital. Gillian takes Smith to Ben’s apartment, but Federation authorities have already nabbed Ben, and they close in on her and Smith. Although the agents are armed, Smith easily overcomes their force with his Martian mental powers which cause his attackers simply to disappear. Frightened, Gillian flees with Smith to the Poconos retreat of Jubal Harshaw, a famed attorney, physician, and popular author with a reputation for standing up against powerful bullies if the...

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Stranger in a Strange Land Overview

Stranger in a Strange Land depicts a future world that is oriented as much toward social and religious concerns as it is toward...

(The entire section is 314 words.)

Stranger in a Strange Land Chapter Summaries

Chapters 1-4 Summary

Four married couples, tested for compatibility by computers, journey to Mars on the rocket ship Envoy as the first human colonists. As they park in orbit around the Martian moon Phobos, a message is sent to Earth that the crew will land the next day. This is the last message that is ever received.

It is twenty-five years before humans land once again on Mars. An unmanned probe earlier reveals that the Martian “canals” are engineering works, along with the ruins of cities. World War III breaks out before a manned mission can be sent. At last, a crew of all male spacemen arrives. They send back a message that the remains of the Envoy have been found, but there are no survivors. A second message reports that Mars is...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Chapters 5-8 Summary

Jill cannot fathom the fact that Valentine Michael Smith is the sole owner of Mars. Ben Caxton gives her a recording device to attach to the wall outside of Smith’s room. She does so and manages to record a couple of days’ worth of conversations. She returns it to Ben, who silently lets her know that his apartment might be bugged. He hands her his newspaper article, which accuses the government of holding Smith as a political prisoner. He also gives her the transcript of the recorded conversations, which are between Smith and the Secretary General. When the Secretary General tried to get Smith to sign away his rights to Mars, Smith went into one of his coma-like withdrawals. Going for a taxi ride, Ben and Jill discuss the...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Chapters 9-11 Summary

Secretary General Douglas tells his wife, Agnes, of Smith’s disappearance. She urges that he discredit Berquist, one of the men who went to arrest Jill, because she thinks he has sold them out and to call out all the police to find Smith. Douglas tells her that this is impossible since they have already presented the false Smith to the world. Agnes calls her astrologer and asks for new horoscopes for herself, her husband, and Smith. Madame Vesant is troubled about making a chart for Smith since he was not born on Earth, but she manages to come up with something believable. She urges Agnes to stay calm and Smith will return soon, since it was necessary for him to “disappear” for a while. Agnes begins her campaign against...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Chapters 12-13 Summary

Ben intends to test out Jill’s report of Smith’s ability to make people, and perhaps things, disappear. He resents her attempts to force Smith into Earth customs, such as getting dressed, but he realizes that it is necessary in order for Smith to function on this planet.

Anne, one of Jubal’s secretaries, functions as a Fair Witness to the test. Jubal asks Smith to make a box disappear, but Smith says that he cannot, since it is not a “wrong thing.” Jubal then throws the box at Jill, and the box disappears. Anne reports that it did not simply disappear but shrank as if it were going a great distance somewhere. Jubal asks Smith to try it again with an ashtray, but Jill sees that Smith is upset at two of his...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Chapters 14-15 Summary

Jubal tries to contact the Secretary General and asks to speak to Gilbert Berquist. He is given the run-around, which anticipates since Jill told him that Berquist is one of the men whom Smith made disappear. As he talks on the telephone, he sees that Smith is watching a broadcast of a service of the Fosterites, a religious group that has grown in power and influence. Jubal thinks about stopping Smith from watching it but decides to let him and talk to him later. The Fosterite preacher announces that a couple has been given the word that they may “go to heaven” in a few days; there will be a funeral afterward. Smith sees this as identical to the Martian concept of voluntarily discorporating.

Jubal asks Smith about...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Chapters 16-17 Summary

Jubal recovers from the shock of seeing a group of men and two air cars disappear. He calls Thomas Mackenzie, who works for the New World Networks. Jubal had several news crews placed around his compound in case of some such attempt on his home, but the panic button he had pushed did not seem to work. Jubal asks Tom Mackenzie how he would get in contact with the Federation Secretary General Douglas if he needed to talk to him personally. Tom tells him that no one calls Douglas; Douglas calls them. Jubal cannot believe that a man that powerful is kept in total isolation. Tom explains that Douglas’s wife Agnes discourages him from having close friendships. This makes Tom think of a way that Jubal may get in contact with Douglas. He...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Chapters 18-19 Summary

Ben again asks Jill to marry him, but she puts him off, saying that she has responsibilities. Ben realizes that, as a nurse, she feels maternal toward her patients, but he struggles against jealousy of Smith. Jubal tells Ben that he has decided to fight for Smith’s rights after all. He fears that Smith will be killed, though he insists that assassination has never been America’s official policy. He is not interested Smith’s property rights, since Martians do not have a concept of property. They believe that, if anyone owns anything, it is the Old Ones. Smith cannot understand being the heir of the Lyle Drive and Lunar Enterprises because these belonged to someone who has since died, thus becoming an Old One. Ben asks Jubal...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Chapters 20-21 Summary

As Douglas enters, the Federation anthem is played and all stand. After everyone is seated, Jubal is pleased to hear Holst’s “Mars: Bringer of War” played. Everyone rises, except for Smith, who remains seated as is proper for a sovereign ruler. Smith gives greetings in Martian and immediately translates, using the term “Ancient Ones” instead of “Old Ones” at Jill’s suggestion. Jubal thinks this sounds even more intimidating.

On behalf of Smith, Jubal explains that he is old and might not be able to handle the business affairs of the Man from Mars effectively, so he requests Douglas to accept the role. If he does not want to, this position will go to Ben Caxton. Douglas is thrown off balance by this...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Chapters 22-23 Summary

After Secretary General Douglas guarantees Valentine Michael Smith his privacy, the press gradually backs off. However, Smith receives a massive amount of mail. One package contains a bomb, which explodes at the post office, but most include offers of some kind. A woman, Cynthia Duchess, volunteers to be the mother of his baby (by surrogate) and includes a naked picture of herself to advertise her abilities. Jubal orders Smith’s mail to be separated and organized, with only the personal letters from people he knew to be delivered to Smith.

Smith quickly learns the value of money after Douglas, who is manager of his finances, sends him a check book. Smith uses his money to buy gifts for his friends. He wants to by...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapters 24-25 Summary

On the way home from the Fosterite service, Jubal asks Smith what Bishop Digby said. Smith tells him he wants to think about it before he responds. Jubal can see that Smith is truly disturbed by what he experienced. He and Jill talk about religion in general, and how it would be seen from a Martian’s point of view. Jubal criticizes organized religion in general. He points out how many “righteous” men in the Old Testament did horrible things but were still considered righteous. The Koran as well has been used as validation for human discrimination. Dr. Mahmoud is concerned over their letting Smith be alone with Digby, but Jubal justifies the choice that Smith has to face life on Earth and decide how to deal with it.

...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Chapters 26-27 Summary

Mike Smith and Jill join a carnival company, presenting themselves as a magician and his assistant. Smith now can use his powers to make things disappear on objects without his having sensed their “wrongness.” Among the company is Patty Paiwonski, the tattooed lady who is also a Fosterite. Mike and Jill are eventually let go, however, because Mike does not have showmanship.

Mike and Jill leave Jubal’s and are hounded when people recognize them. Eventually, Mike manages to change his physical appearance slightly by giving himself a more mature look. He has matured, not only in appearance but in his understanding of Earth and his place in it. They work in a diner for a while, where Mike washes dishes in his own...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Chapters 28-29 Summary

The spirits of Foster and Digby argue over the direction Mike Smith is taking. They watch as Patty tries to lead them into Fosterism. Foster is impressed with his protégé, Patty, though he notices that she is getting older. He is disturbed by her belief in the Man from Mars as the Archangel Michael in human form. He is not sure whether he is or not, but he chides Digby for being preoccupied with him, especially since Mike gave him the slip during his visit to Digby’s church during the latter’s lifetime. Foster sends Digby on a mission as a Guardian-in-Training.

As Patty leaves, Jill and Mike talk about the symbolism of tattoos. Mike announces that they are ready to leave, but Jill wishes that they could take Patty...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapters 30-31 Summary

Jubal is troubled by the life Mike and Jill are living. While they frequently come home, they do not stay long. Mike joined the Union Theological Seminary but was attacked by theologians as well as atheists. He joined the army as “Private Mike” but lasted only three weeks. On his last day on the parade ground, Mike caused the commanding general and his staff to be buried hip deep in horse manure. Jubal regrets that Mike has acquired a sense of humor.

Their latest venture has caused Jubal the most concern. Mike has become “The Reverend Doctor Valentine M. Smith,” founder and pastor of the Church of all Worlds. Ben Caxton arrives, and Jubal shows him the home's latest additions, including a galley for his...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Chapters 32-33 Summary

Ben Caxton awakens to find himself sleeping alone. He wonders where Dawn went. When he calls out, she replies as the lights come up. They talk of their night together, and Dawn says that she was not upset when Ben called out Jill’s name instead of hers as they made love.

Ben is hungry and goes down to the kitchen to find something to eat. He finds that Duke is cooking. Duke explains that Mike can do amazing repairs with just his mind, so there is little work for a mechanic to do. Mostly, Duke is the fire warden and safety inspector, which allows him to do the inspections without letting outsiders in. Duke explains that Ben is going to have his Water-Sharing that night. Duke tells Ben that his life will now be...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Chapters 34-35 Summary

There is public reaction against Mike Smith’s Church of All Worlds. Religious leaders are preaching against him as a cult leader and the Antichrist. Jubal has heard about this since he has broken his self-imposed exile from the news, though he has increasingly isolated himself, focusing on his household and the new babies that have arrived. He wonders if there is any significance in the names his “girls” have given their babies. Anne breaks the news to him that Mike has been arrested once again. Larry rushes in to tell him that Mike’s church has burned down. As they watch the news program, Ben calls to tell them that everyone is all right. Mike is still in prison, but everyone in the innermost circle escaped. It will be...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Chapters 36-37 Summary

Jubal awakens the next morning, feeling more alive than he has in years. He encounters Jill waiting outside his door. She tells him that there was a Sharing-Water ceremony while he and Dawn were making love, so all of them were taking part. She explains that sex is more than just reproduction, but a joining of spirits. She tells Jubal that she is pregnant. Jubal meets Captain Van Tromp and his wife, who are also part of the inner circle. Madame Vesant wants to know the exact moment of Jubal’s birth so that she can do his horoscope, but he avoids her probing. Mike greets him ecstatically. They sit down to examine Mike’s progress. Mike tells him that he has finally realized that he is a spy for the Martian Old Ones. All his...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Chapters 38-39 Summary

Jubal is overwhelmed at the death of Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from Mars. The other followers, however, seem unaffected. All are dry-eyed. Jill explained that Mike is not dead since no one can be killed, nor can he ever be away from them. Jubal wants to be alone, so he leaves the others as they go on with their daily business and returns to his room. He takes three pills that he has always carried since Secretary General Douglas had his stroke. He lies down and prepares to die. But he is awakened by Mike, who tells him that the Fullness is not yet. Mike takes Jubal into the bathroom and forces him to vomit out the pills. Jubal thanks him and Mike leaves, explaining that he has some things to attend to.

Jubal goes...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster