The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Stranger in a Strange Land

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

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 success. However, by the mid-1960’s, it had become a cult book popular among students attracted to its counterculture critique of bourgeois social...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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 Strange Land, the hospital is affiliated with the Federation, because there is no longer a U.S. Navy. The name Bethesda has connection to both water and religion, because it was the name of a pool in biblical Jerusalem believed to have healing powers.

When Mike arrives on Earth, he is held incommunicado in a hospital suite with no windows supposedly because of Earth’s stronger gravity and to protect him from the press. In reality, he is a prisoner. Jill Boardman, the female lead of the novel, is a nurse who brings him water. Unknown to her, the sharing of water is an important bonding ritual on Mars. She and Michael become “water brothers,” and Michael trusts her absolutely although they have just met.

Harshaw’s home

Harshaw’s home. Fourteen-room house in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, a rural resort area noted for religious tolerance. The house sits on several acres and is surrounded by an electric fence. One of the world’s leading dissidents, Jubal makes a living by writing stories, which he dictates to three beautiful female secretaries who live there. They also cook the meals and clean the house. Heinlein based the setup on the household of mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of...

(The entire section is 1111 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The novel takes place on Earth, sometime in the future, when government is vastly different, and technology has given humanity both new...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Stranger in a Strange Land initially seems to be an allegory of human religious belief, one that consciously uses an aspect of...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In Stranger in a Strange Land Heinlein frankly discusses issues that are always emotionally charged. Since the novel deals without...

(The entire section is 364 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 281 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Stranger in a Strange Land is similar to many other Heinlein books in the central character of Jubal Harshaw. His gruff manner and...

(The entire section is 62 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Panshin, Alexei. Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis. Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1968. An overview of Heinlein's works to the...

(The entire section is 179 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 231 words.)