The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
From its fairy tale, “Once upon a time” opening to its equally imaginative ending in a conventionally depicted heaven, Stranger in a Strange Land uses an unspecified future time frame to critique contemporary social mores and belief systems. Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist, is conceived on the first flight to Mars as the son of Dr. Mary Jane Lyle Smith and Captain Michael Brant, who is not her husband. Valentine Michael Smith is discovered twenty-five years later to be the only survivor, the heir of all aboard the craft and, by the Larkin decision, the owner of Mars.
Returned from Mars, where he had been reared by Martians, he is held by the World Federation in a securely guarded hospital room. Suspicious of the federation’s intentions toward Smith because of his rights and vast wealth, journalist Ben Caxton induces nurse Gillian Boardman to rescue him. Unknown to Gillian (Jill), Ben is picked up by federation troops. She manages to elude federation police and eventually deposits Smith at the home of Jubal Harshaw, a doctor, lawyer, and all-around cynic of all aspects of contemporary American life. Smith becomes known as Mike within the casual household.
Jubal and his unusual domestic staff are fascinated by Mike’s innocence; his supranormal powers of suspended animation, telepathy, and teleportation; and his ability to discorporate when they threaten a “wrongness.” Mike attempts to share his Martian concept of...
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Stranger in a Strange Land (The Sixties in America)
In Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith, a human orphan raised by Martians, returns to Earth, where a gestapo oversees a totalitarian federation of nations. Lacking familiarity with human customs, Smith, like fugitive Moses, is “a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22). Smith is instructed by Jubal Harshaw, an aged, individualistic father figure who represents Heinlein’s views. Smith possesses special Martian-tutored mental powers (including telekinesis, levitation, and telepathy), and his educational use of them provides the plot for the novel. He founds a church based on the perception of the individual self as divine, the nonpossession of property (including spouses), the freedom of sexual expression, the merging of bodies and souls, and the mysticlike communion (“grokking”) that dissolves personal identity through a sympathetic merging with others. Smith demonstrates a Christ-like, infallible judgment and a miraculous capacity to cause the unworthy to die painlessly. Nevertheless, at the close of the novel, he is murdered (martyred) by a mob fearful of his messianic repudiation of the conventional Judeo-Christian moral code.
Although Stranger in a Strange Land was awarded a Hugo Prize, it was not immediately popular. The novel, filled with ideas indebted to H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet (1906), was an unlikely candidate for wide...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Mars. Fourth planet from the Sun and the birthplace of Valentine Michael “Mike” Smith, the title character and only survivor of the first human expedition to that planet. All the original members of the expedition die shortly after Mike is born, but native Martians raise him to physical adulthood. World War III prevents a second expedition until twenty years later. When that expedition returns to Earth, they bring Mike home with them.
When Heinlein finished his juvenile novel Red Planet (1949), he felt he had enough unused background material on Mars for another book, which became Stranger in a Strange Land. This novel was one of the last major science fiction stories published before the NASA probes of the 1960’s. As in the earlier novel, Heinlein incorrectly postulated that there are canals carrying scarce water from the poles to the equatorial region and that the planet is inhabited by a super-intelligent species. A typical Martian household, called a nest, consists of eggs, nestlings, adults, and Old Ones.
Since Heinlein’s purpose is satire, the story would be the same whether the planet was Mars or one in a distant galaxy. The main point is that Mike spent the first twenty years of his life on a planet where water was scarce.
*Bethesda Medical Center
*Bethesda Medical Center. U.S. Navy hospital in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. In Stranger in a...
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The novel takes place on Earth, sometime in the future, when government is vastly different, and technology has given humanity both new conveniences and complications. Into this complex political and social environment comes Valentine Michael Smith, a human being who was left alone on Mars by a failed exploratory expedition. He was raised, educated, and socialized by Martians, not humans, and does not understand most human behavior and motivation. He is befriended by Jill Boardman, a nurse, and Ben Caxton, a journalist, who enlist the help of Jubal Harshaw, a powerful writer. Their efforts to protect Michael from exploitation by the political and religious forces of the day provide the interest and adventure of the plot. Michael's determination to take his own place in the world and his desire to demonstrate the value of his unique abilities and perceptions provide the resolution of the problems that Michael and others face every day.
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Stranger in a Strange Land initially seems to be an allegory of human religious belief, one that consciously uses an aspect of traditional religious literature, such as the Bible. Heinlein provides support for this approach in the way he presents the character of Michael. He is a "new" man, innocent and unspoiled by human society. He offers a different form of the promise of salvation. After examining the entire spectrum of human religious endeavor, he invents a new religion that, to him, will realize the potential he sees in humanity.
He is guided in this process by the character who he considers his "father," Jubal Harshaw. He tries to correct those religions he considers false and, finally, succumbs to the lack of understanding found in the very people he hopes to instruct. These facets of the book suggest a conscious effort by Heinlein to create a modern religious story, one paralleling the story of Christ's life.
The danger of this assumption, however, is that the parallels are not exact, and the sympathies of the author do not necessarily lie exclusively with Mike, the Christ-figure. Instead, Heinlein's sympathies seem to lie with Jubal, who is a "devout agnostic," who does not accept the "random chance" theory of creation. Jubal sees a humble admission that people do not know the source of creation as more honest than any contentions that people do know. For Jubal, the ultimate "unreligious" attitude attempts to convert others to...
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In Stranger in a Strange Land Heinlein frankly discusses issues that are always emotionally charged. Since the novel deals without shame or preconceived ideas with American culture's attitudes about religion and sexuality, parents and teachers should be aware that this is not a typical "juvenile" science-fiction novel. In fact, it is one of Heinlein's more mature and provocative works, suitable for young adults who are able to appreciate social structures and institutions as well as question them.
Stranger in a Strange Land quickly earned a reputation far outside the boundaries of science fiction. It became associated with the youth movement of the 1960s and was considered an element of the ideology of rebellion against authority and traditional ideas.
Valentine Michael Smith, after examining the habits and values of humans, decides that they are hypocritical and that sexuality is an expression of love that should be essentially unrestricted in its enjoyment. He decides that nakedness is a kind of purity. He believes in the power of the body to heal itself and that all people are God.
He is not, however, presented as a messiah for all people. He possesses abilities that ordinary humans do not have. His opinions and attitudes—the tenets of his "church"—are arrived at as much from confusion and misunderstanding of humans as they are from logical thought. Most importantly, they are not arrived at without...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Michael does not fear death. In fact, he believes it to be a change that should be under our control. Is this how we should all view death?
2. Jill's first encounter with Michael involves immersing him in water. What religious ritual does this suggest? Discuss the reasons Heinlein may have had for inserting this scene.
3. Jubal uses his astrologer friend to help him help Mike. What does Heinlein suggest by the presence of an astrologer in a society that is so technologically advanced?
4. Jubal tells Jill that he once thought he was serving humanity, but that he "discovered that humanity does not want to be served; on the contrary it resents any attempt to serve it." How does this observation apply to Michael later in the book?
5. At one point the astrologer Madame Vesant lies to her advisee about the "facts" of her forecast. She provides a justification for the deception. Is it sufficient? Is religious deception ever justifiable?
6. What features of the Fosterite religion does Jubal object to? Do you share these objections?
7. What aspects of the Fosterite religion does Michael adopt for his own religion? Do you agree that they are worthy of consideration?
8. In what areas of religious thought do the opinions of Jubal and Mike become similar as the story progresses? What is the significance of this agreement?
9. Mike makes a "confession" to Jubal near the end of the...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Jubal says of Mike:"Mike has never tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil ... so we don't understand what makes him tick." Relate Mike's position in the book to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
2. Jubal, in a conversation with Duke, states that he "will not compare one form of ritual cannibalism with another." To what ritual does he refer? To what degree do the beliefs of Michael regarding "who is God" agree with those of traditional religion?
3. Jubal also says, in defense of his right to associate with whom he pleases: "I dine with publicans and sinners, that is my business. I do not break bread with Pharisees." Report on who the Pharisees were, and why Jubal brings them up in this context.
4. Late in the story, Mike tells Jubal that his commonly-used statement, "Thou art God," is "not a message of cheer and hope . . . It's a defiance—and an unafraid unabashed assumption of personal responsibility." How does this relate to the opinions of religious prophets you are familiar with?
5. Using recent newspapers and magazines in the library, try to find descriptions of religions that appear to be similar to Mike's or the Fosterites'.
6. Compare the presentation of the Martian way of life in this novel with that presented in Heinlein's Red Planet. Is the description consistent? How does knowledge of the Red Planet accounts affect your opinion of Mike?
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Stranger in a Strange Land is similar to many other Heinlein books in the central character of Jubal Harshaw. His gruff manner and insistence on independent living are a staple feature of the main characters of many later Heinlein books, such as Time Enough for Love (1973). In an earlier book, Red Planet, Heinlein provides a look at the Martian way of life.
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For Further Reference
Panshin, Alexei. Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis. Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1968. An overview of Heinlein's works to the time of publication. An accessible critique for young readers.
Patrouch, Joseph. "Robert A. Heinlein." In Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers, edited by David Cowart and Thomas L. Wymer. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. A good introduction to the range and scope of Heinlein's work.
Slusser, George Edgar. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1977. A good source of some of Heinlein's most enduring themes, particularly applicable to Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land.
Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in His Own Land. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1976. A slightly scholarly but very good assessment of Heinlein's more modern works.
Williamson, Jack. "Youth Against Space: Heinlein's Juveniles Revisited." In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg. New York: Taplinger, 1978. A very good summary of most of Heinlein's books for young adults. The collection itself is a good introduction to major aspects of Heinlein's writing. Does not directly address Stranger in a Strange Land.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. This general treatment of Heinlein’s fiction is more an attack on Heinlein’s belief system, as well as America in general, than literary criticism. Its section on Stranger in a Strange Land suggests that the novel is adversely affected by a tacit Calvinism.
Heinlein, Robert A. Grumbles from the Grave. Edited by Virginia Heinlein. New York: Ballantine, 1990. This posthumously published selection of Heinlein’s letters mentions Stranger in a Strange Land throughout. Chapter 14 contains letters about the novel itself, chapter 15 about reactions to the novel.
Panshin, Alexei. Heinlein in Dimension. Chicago: Advent, 1968. Critiques Heinlein’s work in terms of craftsmanship, though most of it boils down to a complaint that Heinlein did not write his stories the way Panshin would have. Five pages are devoted to Stranger in a Strange Land.
Plank, Robert. “Omnipotent Cannibals in Stranger in a Strange Land.” In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by J. D. Olander and M. H. Greenburg. New York: Taplinger, 1978. This psychoanalytical study of Heinlein’s novel examines the implications of the philosophy presented in the book, which Plank sees as Utopian fantasy....
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