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Literature / Stranger in a Strange Land

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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 in 1961note  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: the version originally published in 1961, heavily edited (more for length than for content) by Heinlein himself, and the 1991 "Uncut Original Manuscript" Edition, released posthumously. Rather, interestingly, Heinlein personally considered the abridged version of the novel as superior.

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 (what looks like, but isn't) 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 Noumenon. As 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.

This novel provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Preconceived '60s counterculture (and waterbeds).
  • All-Loving Hero: Michael
  • The Almighty Dollar: Whatever god the Fosterite church worships obviously loves money, to the point that the churches have gambling machines in them.
  • 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," "I am only an egg," "waiting is."
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: What Martians do when they "discorporate", becoming bodiless intellects and so does Mike at the end.
  • Astrologer: Becky Vesey, who uses the stage name Alexandra Vesantnote  She mostly draws up astrological charts using her late husband's (book of) figures. Subverted in that these signs are the means through which she can use Michael's discipline.
  • Author Appeal: Jubal's harem of secretaries: Anne, Miriam and Dorcas.
  • 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 and is even dismissed from the military; 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.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Those who understand the Michael's Martian philosophy soon look decades younger, are cured of all diseases, and can adjust their bodies at will, which for women results in a "distinctly female" body type.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Jubal has three secretaries. One of them is indifferent to Mahmoud. The second is happy to be his submissive sex bunny. The third is a feminist who hates the idea of being submissive and never stops insulting him. Guess which one he marries?
  • Big Eater: Duke, and Mike (when he doesn't forget to eat).
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: The Martians are reported to have a very different way of thinking than us, including the concept of "grokking" something: to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed, to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Anne (blonde), Dorcas (brownhead) and Miriam (redhead).
  • 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.
  • But Not Too Gay:
    • Gays are "confused" and "poor in-betweeners" who will "never be offered water" in this story. Heterosexuality is the standard. Jubal points out that men do share the "kiss of brotherhood" in the Church of All Worlds, but the man he's speaking to hastens to explain that it's "not a pansy gesture".
    • Similarly, when she worked as a showgirl in Las Vegas, Jill is happy she can't see the other showgirls from Mike's eyes since she fear she might discover lesbian tendencies.
    • Mike is advised to adjust his appearance away from initial androgynous beauty towards distinctly masculine good looks to avoid awkward situations with any male homosexuals that may inadvertently be around.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie:
    • Anne is a Fair Witness, a legal consultant who has undergone intensive training to observe and recall events completely impartially. This skill comes in handy a few times throughout the story.
    • Indeed, Fair Witnesses are trained to only report on certain facts: for exemple, Anne wouldn't even say one meteorological event has been caused by clouds being lightened by the sun, since another source of light could have caused this.
    Jubal: Watch. Anne, what color is that house?
    Anne: [looks at it] This side is painted white.
    Jubal: See?
    Jillian: Wait, Anne is a Witness?
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: It's very heavily implied that Michael, while looking in on Jubal one night via his psychic powers, found him in the act and had to ask Jill for an explanation.
  • 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 and reputedly entered into a competition to see whose fake religion would catch on best.
    • 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).
  • Commune: "The nest", the free-love nudist Church of All Worlds commune that Mike founds and lives in with his friends.
  • Condescending Compassion: At first, Duke thinks of Mike as being an "innocent savage" who needs to be civilized. Jubal, however, manages to cure him of such judgmental notions.
  • Corrupt Politician: Jubal's glad to learn that Secretary Douglas is the sort of politician who, once bought, stays bought.
  • Crossover Cosmology: It seems all religions are, at least to Mike, and human angels appear to exist alongside Martian "Old Ones".
  • 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/√úbermensch:
    • 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.
  • Disguised in Drag: Jill sneaks Michael out of the hospital by disguising him as a female nurse.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: A young lady fan of Jubal's slips into bed with him; after he orders her out, she refuses to leave and simply lists all the reasons she wants to sleep with him, until he "gives in to the inevitable". Now, for the "rape" element, picture this scene the other way around. We dare you.
  • 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.
  • Fantastic Anthropologist: Michael finds out he was one unknowingly when the Martian Old Ones download his memories of his experiences of Earth and cut the monitoring mindlink they had established with him.
  • For Happiness: Patricia Paiwonski, who "wanted to sacrifice herself on an altar of happiness for the world."
  • Free-Love Future: Heavily implied by Jubal predicting that Mike's free-love cult of superhumans will supersede humanity.
  • Future Society, Present Values: 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 and "girls" who enjoy being patronized.
  • A God Am I: Once Mike groks the concept of human religion, he insists to everyone that "thou art God". Despite the concerns of his friends, he is not on a megalomaniacal power trip; it's a basic part of Martian philosophy.
  • Greedy Televangelist: This work contrasts two types of religions. One, the Fosterites, are a violent sect that uses lavish churches and beams their fundraising message via television into the homes of their followers. The other, the Church of All Planets, is led by a human male named Michael Smith who was born and raised on Mars by Martians. He bases his faith on the alien philosophy he was taught, and his simple creed "thou art God" doesn't sit at all well with the Fosterites.
  • Harem Seeker: Mike actively cultivates a polyamorous lifestyle.
  • Hollywood Law: Invoked as a bit of Heinlein's Author Appeal. Valentine Michael Smith ends up owner of Mars thanks to his descent from the Envoy crew and by right of discovery, a contract enacting common property, and the fact he was the sole surviving descendant of the crew. On top of that, he was also legally the heir to three of the colonists as their biological son... because two of them were married and one of them had an affair. One state didn't care who the biological parents were and another didn't care about marital status.
  • Humanity on Trial: Mike, a human raised by Martians, is sent back to Earth to grok humans and gather that information for the Martians. Humanity is never aware they're on trial, nor are the reasons made clear (though it's closest to the "dangerous neighbor" rationale), and Mike isn't fully aware himself, though some of his friends suspect something. It's revealed that the Martians already destroyed the original fifth planet and its inhabitants, creating the Asteroid Belt and making Jupiter the new fifth planet. Luckily Martians can take hundreds of years to make such a big decision, by which time humanity (with Mike's help) may be too powerful to destroy.
  • 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. Michael's cult takes up this practice as well, though this may be entirely symbolic (like the Lord's Supper for Christians). Or not.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Ben Caxton. He's earned himself enemies in the highest levels of government. Fortunately, he's usually careful enough that they can't kidnap him, torture him, and murder him. Usually.
  • 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 the Martian language, though.
  • I Want My Jetpack: There are aircars, including self-driving ones, all the way through the book. (Ben Caxton is kidnapped in a robot cab.) Elevators have been replaced by antigravity bounce tubes. Jill reads books on "spools" that project the words onto a surface and turn themselves off when you put them down. TV is now 3D stereovision, watched via a "tank", but is otherwise as annoying as ever. By the time somebody uses a phone, you expect it to be a Video Phone, and it is. Of all this technology, the only one we've surpassed is the phones.
  • 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.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From The Bible, Exodus 2:22.
  • Martians: Although the members of the intelligent but very non-human native species of Mars mostly don't themselves appear in the book, their influence is found throughout the story. Having been raised by the Martians—and knowing their language—gives Mike (and eventually his followers) a very distinctive outlook on life, along with a wide range of psychic powers.
  • Meaningful Name: "Michael" means "who is like God?".
  • Messianic Archetype: 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. See also his Meaningful Name.
  • More than Three Dimensions: Used as a significant plot point. Michael Smith, a human born on Mars and raised by Martians, has the ability to send objects to an unknown fourth dimension that is "ninety degrees away from everything else". He disappears two government Mooks by sending them to this mysterious dimension. Later, when he establishes a new religion with a Free-Love Future as one of its central tenets, he uses as part of his show a little stunt in which he makes people's clothes disappear, sent to the fourth dimension.
  • Neologism: Former Trope Namer, via "grok".
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Coming as early as it did, the book even presages some weirdness (perhaps created it), but a lot of it was drawn directly from Heinlein's observations. The Fosterites are a combination of Scientology, Mormonism, and Southern Baptists (mega-churches wouldn't be a thing for decades). A politician with an astrologer? That was Reagan, even back then. Mike's church combined Scientology (again) with pyramid scams and secret societies, as well as Heinlein's own love of nudity.
  • 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 Bronx accent.
  • Path of Inspiration: The Fosterites.
  • Planet Baron: Valentine Michael Smith ends up owner of Mars thanks to his descent from the Envoy crew and by right of discovery, a contract enacting common property, and the fact he was the sole surviving descendant of the crew.
  • Polyamory: One of the most influential texts.
  • Posthuman Nudism: Valentine Michael Smith's exposure to Martian philosophy has evolved his mind and body beyond the need for clothing. He also teaches this philosophy to his followers, allowing them to transcend modesty as well.
  • Putting on the Reich: The appropriately named Special Service (S.S., and yes they refer to themselves with that acronym) operators of Federation. One of their squads is even led by Captain Heinrich.
  • Raised by Natives: Of Mars.
  • Religion of Evil: The Fosterites, who are exploitative and at times violent. Not all of them are this way, but enough to enable to them to be roused to full-on mob hysteria against Mike's religion.
  • Sacrificial Planet: The book has a brief passage from the perspective of the Martians who adopted Valentine Michael Smith. From their perspective he's evaluating humanity, and if they don't measure up, well ... Jupiter used to be the sixth planet and Mars was always fourth.
  • 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.
  • Sex Magic: Having sex with Michael will give the person his Psychic Powers, which include Astral Projection, telekinesis and making things disappear.
  • Sexy Secretary: Jubal has a harem of three of these: Anne, Dorcas and Miriam, although Miriam leaves to marry Dr. Mahmoud.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Free love will give you Martian superpowers, apparently. That's not really how it works in the book, but many readers, dazed by all those descriptions of perfect-bodied "willing tarts" with their clothes vanishing, etc., may have misunderstood.
  • 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". His act, despite being genuinely magical, falls totally flat because he does not fully understand humor and showmanship yet.
  • Starfish Aliens: The exact physical form of Martians is never described, but it's clear they are completely unlike humans in appearance, behaviour and culture.
    • Adults (who are all male) are likened to large ice ships at full mast, as the nearest human means of comprehending them, and move slowly.
    • Nymphs (juveniles, who are all female and become male after fertilization) are like fat furry spheres.
  • Touched by Vorlons: Mike's entire worldview is shaped by his Martian upbringing.
  • True Companions: This is the bond between water brothers. They don't lie to each other, they share all things equally, and they are completely loyal and responsible to one another no matter what.
  • 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". In this, it works much the same way as the biblical "know", used as an expletive only by people who take Martian As A Second Language and either don't grok "grok" or use it as an example of Memetic Mutation.
    • Mike uses several others: "discorporate" for "die", "nestling" for "children", etc., all due to his Martian upbringing.
  • 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.