Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044
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 cultural advance, is the result Heinlein desires.
One vehicle for conveying the idea of tolerance is the minor character Duke, a handyman employed by Jubal Harshaw. Duke is revulsed by Mike’s “inhuman” ideas, and he says so bluntly. Jubal, though he is fond of Duke, will not tolerate intolerance and offers an ultimatum: Accept Mike as he is or leave Jubal’s employ. Duke stays and becomes one of Mike’s closest friends.
Because much of the book’s thrust is social, not scientific, it does not contain much of Heinlein’s famous scientific explanation. What little there is, however, is interesting: When Mike first comes to Earth, he has to be kept in a hydraulic bed to protect him from the strain of Earth’s gravity—two and a half times that of Mars. The bed, described in detail, is what is now known as a “water bed.” Heinlein had invented it when hospitalized for tuberculosis after his discharge from the Navy, but he never patented it. Although the first commercial versions were made from Heinlein’s specifications, the patent courts ruled the invention to be in the public domain.
Of psychology and sociology, on the other hand, there is much in this book. Heinlein’s attempt to produce a truly alien psychology—with the ironic twist of placing it in a biologically human frame—is a masterpiece of the genre. It introduced the word “grok,” which became a catchphrase in the counterculture of the 1960’s. The novel’s hesitation in translating this word shows Heinlein’s understanding of the intimate connection between language and thought. Much of Mike’s Martian philosophy/psychology/theology cannot be expressed in English. Consequently, Jubal orders his “family” to learn Martian.
The meaning of “grok,” as it slowly unfolds in the course of the book, is manifold. While it seems to have no English equivalent, some approximations are offered: “to understand, “to cherish,” “to become one with.” Its implications seem to be metaphysical: When one enters the essence of a thing, one “groks” it. The ceremony by which this term is introduced is a Martian “Water Sharing.” This invention of Heinlein’s, referred to also in Red Planet and Podkayne of Mars (the Martians of Double Star are totally different), is akin to the Christian Eucharist. By sharing water—sipping water from the same source—two individuals become one. One is expected to perform any duty for a “water brother”—even to die.
It is not wide-eyed innocent Valentine Michael Smith but the cynical huckster Jubal Harshaw who suggests making a religion out of the water ceremony. His motives are not pious but mercenary: He rightly observes that religion is big business in his corrupt culture. The curious relationship of Smith and Harshaw modulates Harshaw’s position as a mentor character. Though Smith’s primary importance to the people on Earth lies in what he can teach them, and though he brings the ancient wisdom of a culture much older and more advanced than anything on Earth, he turns to Jubal to learn about his human heritage. Still, Jubal learns as much from him as he does from Jubal.
The structure of the novel is a function of Mike’s learning process. Many critics have observed that this most “adult” of Heinlein’s novels fits the pattern of his juvenile series. It is divided into five parts, all of whose titles describe Mike’s maturing process: “His Maculate Origin,” “His Preposterous Heritage,” “His Eccentric Education,” “His Scandalous Career,” and “His Happy Destiny.” The book’s structure has often been criticized as episodic and aimless, but Heinlein revealed in Expanded Universe that this is the only novel he ever outlined before writing. Every piece fits in this novel, which won for Heinlein his second Hugo award and his first appearance on The New York Times best-seller list.
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