Stranger in a Strange Land

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Stranger in a Strange Land
Written by: Robert A. Heinlein
Central Theme:
First published: June 1, 1961
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Stranger in a Strange Land is an influential 1961 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, which won a Hugo Award. Though written well before the 60s, it was finally published at the beginning of the hippie movement because "the time was right". As a result, it had a huge, huge influence on the sexual and social revolution that followed. Two versions exist: a censored one and an uncensored one.

The protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, is raised on Mars by Starfish Aliens and travels to Earth where he learns how to be human, then rejects the irrationality of his warlike human ancestors and starts a peace-and-love cult.

This book is the source of the word 'grok', which indicates a complete understanding of a person or idea, like Kant's Neumenon. Like with A Clockwork Orange, Heinlein's new word spread into pockets of popular culture, often to the point that those using it do not recognize its provenance.

The book has never been out of print.

Tropes used in Stranger in a Strange Land include:
  • All Myths Are True: It seems all religions are, at least to Mike, and human angels appear to exist alongside Martian "Old Ones".
  • Alternative Number System: The Martians apparently have a numerical system based on three and powers of three. "Three fulfilled," they call it...
  • Arc Words: "Water brother", "grokked a goodness/wrongness" "grokked the fullness", "thou art God".
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: What Martians do when they "discorporate", becoming bodiless intellects and so does Mike at the end.
  • Author Appeal: Jubal's harem of secretaries.
  • Author Avatar: Jubal, a pulp writer who more or less exists to expound upon Robert A. Heinlein's ideas on society, religion and women.
  • Author Filibuster: Jubal delivers a few Wall of Text speeches, as does Michael once he becomes fluent in English.
  • Author Tract: Like many of Heinlein's novels, promotes the author's ideals of polyamory and nudism.
  • Badass Pacifist: Mike doesn't actually use physical force at any point in the novel; he either resists peacefully or uses his Psychic Powers to "remove" potential threats. And also lets the mob of Fosterites kill him at the end.
  • Big Eater: Duke, and Mike (when he doesn't forget to eat).
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The Martians are collectivist, practice eugenics (and cannibalism), and contemplate destroying other planets because it would be "a goodness". Michael comes to a sort of middle ground between the Martian and human viewpoints and morality.
  • Can Not Tell a Lie: Anne is a Fair Witness, a legal consultant who has undergone intensive training to observe events completely impartially. This skill comes in handy a few times throughout the story.
  • Character Filibuster: Jubal gives a few of these, notably one attacking the perceived skewed morality of The Bible.
  • Church of Happyology:
    • While it obviously has a televangelist aspect, some think that Smith's religion also has aspects of Scientology (Heinlein and Hubbard were friends).
    • Within the story, at least, Smith deliberately borrows from a televangelist religion as it was the ideal way to get his message across, but he's only using religion as a mask to deliver the true message and make it more palatable. What's even more interesting is that there really is a higher order of existence, but none of the characters are aware of it.
    • Other inspirations for the Fosterites are very likely Robert H. Schuller (with his lavish megachurch, syndicated TV program and "happy" message) and the Mormons (for their often-violent origin story and elaborate organizational structure).
  • Corrupt Politician: Jubal's glad to learn that Secretary Douglas is the sort of politician who, once bought, stays bought.
  • Cuckoo Nest: There's some debate whether Michael actually exercised power from beyond the grave to prevent Jubal from overdosing on pills, or if this was just a hallucination
  • Dark Messiah/Ubermensch: Michael is pretty nice compared to the examples on those pages, but he does conjure up Nietzsche's idea of a Dionysian worldview as opposed to Christianity's Apollonian one. The novel also contains the Fosterites (a direct inspiration for Michael's "church"), who are essentially a Dionysian Christian sect, as opposed to the usual Apollonian ways of such sects.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Not only does Michael receive fan mail from potential female sexual partners, he also gets it from gay men and modifies his appearance to be more masculine to ward off these attentions.
  • For Happiness: Patricia Paiwonski, who "wanted to sacrifice herself on an altar of happiness for the world."
  • A God Am I: Or rather, everyone is.
  • Grokking the Horrorshow: Former co-namer of the trope we now simply call Neologism, for 'grok'.
  • How Do I Used Tense: Mike's initial attempts to speak English are, realistically, full of innocent grammatical errors.
  • Humans Are Flawed: But capable of becoming far better.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Standard practice on Mars is to eat the dead, which squicks out a few characters when Michael talks about doing the same and refers to dead humans as "food". It's mostly symbolic, though--Martians don't feel any sentimental attachment to corpses because they believe that the body is just a vessel for the soul.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Ben Caxton.
  • I Thought Everyone Could Do That: Michael doesn't realize at first that other people can't levitate objects. He can teach them to using Martian, though.
  • I Want My Jetpack: Where are the flying cars?
  • Language of Magic: When Mike attempts to explain his astonishing Psychic Powers to Jubal, he realizes that English lacks the necessary concepts, so later in the story he starts teaching people Martian. Sure enough, it turns out that all humans can do these things, but only by first teaching themselves the mental framework that goes along with speaking the Martian language.
  • The Messiah: Mike. Just in case you didn't get the message, he sacrifices himself at the end and his followers consume a symbolic amount of his flesh.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: In-universe version; Mike teaches other members of his nest Martian. At one point, he mentions that one member has a great grasp of the language but for reasons unfathomable even to Mike (who is at this point nearly omniscient), he manages to speak Martian with a Brooklyn accent.
  • Path of Inspiration: The Fosterites.
  • Raised by Natives: Of Mars.
  • The Red Planet: Which unfortunately we now know contains no sentient life.
  • Religion of Evil: The Fosterites, who are exploitative and at times violent (and resemble the Church of Happyology in more than one way).
  • Sarcastic Confession: When Jill smuggles the Man from Mars out of Ben's house in a large trunk, a man asks her what the trunk contains. She replies, truthfully, "A body"... he considers it a joke and lets her pass.
  • Sex by Proxy: Jubal finds out that having sex with one cult member is slightly awkward when his partner is mentally linked to all of them.
  • Society Marches On: Although far from a free love utopia, open relationships are considerably more acceptable today than they were in Heinlein's time, as well as homosexuality. Women are also generally not secretaries who enjoy being patronized.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Free love will give you Martian superpowers, apparently.
  • Spock Speak: Mike catches up on Earth history by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, among other things, and talks like he's reading from a legal contract at some points. This is early on, when his grasp of English and Earth concepts is incomplete; when he doesn't know something, he sticks to the books he's read, and he has an eidetic memory.
  • Stage Magician: Michael uses his powers to this end at one point in the novel with Jill as his "lovely assistant".
  • Starfish Aliens: The exact physical form of Martians is never described, but it's clear they are completely unlike humans in appearance, behavior and culture.
  • Touched by Vorlons: Mike's entire worldview is shaped by his Martian upbringing.
  • Twenty Minutes Into the Future: Preconceived '60s counterculture (and waterbeds).
  • The Unpronounceable: Martian in general, by humans. However, it's still learnable with effort.
  • Unusual Euphemism: While "grok" has several meanings, one of them is definitely "fuck".
  • What Is This Thing You Call Love? - Michael takes a long time to catch on to human emotions. He has the most difficulty with love and humor.
  • Zeerust: Tape recorders and typewriters are not in common use anymore, and Heinlein's use of miniaturized nuclear reactors instead of rechargeable batteries comes across as...quaint.