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Book Review: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

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A couple of days before vacation, and I made a quick trip to the library for some reading material. While cruising down the aisle that held Sci Fi on one side and Mysteries on the other, I saw Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, published in 1961. It was a book on my mental list of “Hey, you should try to read this some day” books, so I picked it up and was immediately fascinated.

The first trip by humans to Mars, since it was so long, was undertaken by four married couples. Valentine Michael Smith, who was conceived during the trip (but whose mother and father were married to other astronauts) was the only survivor of this voyage. He was raised by Martians, and endowed with some of their powers, which are supernatural in terms of Earth. The second voyage to Mars, 25 years later, finds him and brings him back to Earth. The book is about his struggle to adjust, and then dominate, and then die here after founding his own Martian-based religion.

It is a fascinating book on many different levels. There are clear parallels to Kipling’s The Jungle Book, of a human raised by non-humans. It is a study of semantics; when asked “Feel like breakfast?” he thinks he may be the main course. (By the way, being eaten is not considered bad if you are a Martian.) It is a study of philosophy and religion, along with the science fiction There’s also a touch of Elmer Gantry in it. Rather than write another straightforward review of a 45-year-old classic, let’s take advantage of the fact that its a look into the future from 45 years ago, and see how close the technology and “history” in the book worked as predictors of what’s actually taken place. To do that, we have to estimate when the events of the book take place.

There is no specific date given in the book&#8212it’s not the year 2525, or anything like that. However, we are given a year relative to when the first lunar colony was established. What year might that have been to Heinlein, writing in the late 1950s for a book released in 1961? JFK’s speech pledging to reach the moon within the decade was given on September 12, 1962, approximately one year after the book was released. But it could certainly be a reasonable assumption that Heinlein could have envisioned a moon landing by 1970 or so. If we could make it to the moon by 1970, then a reasonable SF writer may assume that by 1980 a lunar colony would have been established. (After all, why expend all that effort to get to the moon, and then just ignore it? That would be foolish.) The first trip to Mars was eight years after the colony was established, so now we are approximately up to 1988. The second trip to Mars was 25 years after that – part of the interruption was caused by World War III. So that brings us to 2013, approximately eight years into the future from now, as one estimate of when the events took place. By being more optimistic on the speed to the moon, or the establishment of a colony, you may even be able to get the envisioned time frame of the book to approximately now. A little bit pessimistic, and it is further out. But I think it’s safe to say that the events in the novel take place within our technological ballpark.

So, how good was Heinlein’s vision&#8212or looked at another way, have we kept pace with his vision? Let’s look at the technology first.

Well, we made it the moon eight years after the book was published, but we are nowhere close to establishing a colony. It would probably take a major effort over five or ten years just to go back and stand in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps, much less start a colony. And that’s if we could generate the political will to want to do it. In fact, at this moment, Americans can’t even get into low-earth orbit. That’s not because of a failure of technology, however, it’s because of fear. And Mars? Forget about it. Heinlein’s first Mars voyage took place using technology somewhat similar to what we have now; he said it would take 285 days each way, plus a wait of a little more than a year while on Mars to wait for a good planetary alignment. By the second trip, which would be taking place around this time, a new technology (he called it Lyle drive, instead of warp drive or hyperdrive) had shortened the trip to 19 days each way. In other words, we’re not even close.

How about earth transportation? Flying cars, buses, and taxis are the norm in the book. They are even unpiloted&#8212you just punch in your destination and off you go. Well, we have cruise control and OnStar, and DVD players for the kids in the back seat. Reality is still lagging behind.

Instead of TV, there is sterovision. There’s no real detail, but I’m assuming that the stereo part means a three-D image or holograph, instead of a TV with surround sound. Since it is also referred to as a tank, or is disguised as an aquarium, it’s probably the former. So we are somewhat lagging here, but big screen HDTVs probably keep us close. And phones have telescreens in the book&#8212you can make video calls. We could do that now&#8212but speaking as a typical home office worker, that would mean getting dressed and presentable before making calls. Not all advancement is an improvement.

The one place technologically that puts us far ahead of the book is in computer technology and the Internet. Nothing close to the Web is in the book; you can get books (recorded electronically in some fashion) that project their text and allow high-speed scanning, but it appears that you have to get a physical copy of the text. We are far ahead in digitalization of information.

Technologically, Heinlein was more optimistic than reality. How about some of the political and cultural trends?

Politically, there is a World Federation, led by a Secretary General, that presumably morphed out of the UN, and it has the real political power in this country along with most others. There’s some distinct totalitarian undertones to the police force, although they have to operate out of the glare of publicity to do their dirty work; this is not a dictatorship. Obviously, this is nowhere close to taking place in the real world; in fact, Europe just took a big step back from this last month in the French and Dutch elections. Whether this means we are more advanced or less advanced than the book depends on the individual.

There was a World War III in the book, while we haven’t moved past II; some commentators may say that the current conflict between some of the Western democracies and Islamic extremists is in fact a world war, although one of low intensity.

There’s some large organized religions, with some shady business practices, that wield power in the book. One, the Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite) would probably make Tom Cruise feel right at home.

There are still traveling carnivals with side shows in the book. In reality, they withered out long ago. Looked at it another way, we still have the sideshows, they just get piped right into the living room via Jerry Springer, the Michael Jackson trial, Fear Factor, etc.

In the book, the wife of the Secretary General of the Federation relies heavily on an astrologer, and uses advice from the astrologer to help mold her husband’s actions. Yeah right, like that could really happen.

One thing that was somewhat disconcerting is that some of the dialog seemed to rely heavily on a 1950’s pattern or slang, especially in some of the man-woman date scenes. It’s natural, since that’s how people talked when the book was written, but the slang seemed a little odd, projected into the future. Another way this shows up&#8212some newspaper columnists are referred to as “winchells” while some others, considered more prestigious, are called “lippmans”. To many readers today, these terms would be mysterious; but Walter Winchell was a famous gossip columnist while Walter Lippman was a more prestigious columnist who wrote about foreign affairs and politics.

Even if you don’t want to use the book to give a grade to our civilization, it’s still a highly worthwhile read. In fact, a whole lot of Heinlein books have been added to my “must read” list.

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About Bruce Kratofil

  • lucas

    i am reading this book it is very weird. i could not realize how different some one would act from a different planet. we are going to the moon but not to mars, yet. this book is weird having a grown man learn most what a baby knows. i am still reading it. this book is really good.

  • CP

    I’ve just read ‘stranger’, the first Heinlein book i’ve ever read. I picked the book in a second hand shop at random, not realising the importance of Heinlein… Well, now i Grok how great an author he is… for a couple of days after finishing ‘stranger’ i kept using grok in conversation by accident, and people gave me funny looks…fair enough!
    The ‘religion’ of water brothers is pretty impossible, but would be great, in an ideal world.

    The book has some great observations of religion, faith and just about everything, but it certainly doesn’t offer a solution…unless his prediction of marshun lifestyle is as accurate as his other ‘predictions’… which of course it is not. It is certainly not a novel to be taken too literaly in that respect!

    Also it is really funny! When it starts describing the ‘gods’ looking down on earth it, straightening their halos, it is a reminder to not take the whole thing too seriously. Apparently some people set up cults based on Michael’s ideas. Pretty dumb really! They missed the point i think… If there is a point as such… i’m not so sure there is you know, beyond telling the truth as Heinlein sees it. Great book though. It reminds me of the problem posed at the end of Asimov’s foundation and earth. And Michael is a similar character to R. Daneel Olivaw don’t you think? From innocence to omnipotence.

  • Bennett

    As you said, he overestimated some technology, and didn’t plan on having Senator Proxmire kill off funding for NASA in the 80’s.

    I’d say 2030 is a good bet for both the societal feel, as well as where our space program will be. What scares me is that we may have to go through a version “If This Goes On” where the government becomes a Religious Dictatorship. That story is in “Future History”, a great collection of Heinlein at his best.


    Tunnel In The Sky
    Farnham’s Freehold
    Glory Road
    Orphans Of The Sky
    The Door Into Summer

    All stand outs.

  • It appears we have some real Heinlein fans here.

    Anyone else want to take a crack at what year the story takes place?

  • Jan

    Thanks for this review. What memories it raises about the whole Heinlein list. If you liked this, be sure to check out:
    Time Enough for Love
    The Past Through Tomorrow
    I Will Fear No Evil

    I found them tremendously mind stretching re cultural assumptions of gender, family identity, and lots of steamy stuff for a late teen of my day [the 70s]. I think many of us thought of his stuff as really ‘underground’ then.

    Complete bibliography at:

    I think I’ll check my library and rethink what the stories were really about. I would imagine I’ll have a completely different reaction as a middle-aged adult!

  • my copy of the unabridged is a red leather bound and gilt edged pages

    i also have a first edition, as well as the same paperback shown in the Post

    if memory serves, the unabridged is about 80,000 words longer, and the biggest difference is in the conversation between Jubal and Ben concerning what happened in the Nest one evening that made Ben run away

    a bit racy for 1961, but would earn a PG at best today

    read the book

    nuff said?


  • Michael

    The unabridged has a black cover and explicitly states that it is the “complete and unabridged” version. It won’t offer any huge differences in the story, merely extending and enhancing it a bit.

  • Bennett


    Dead nuts on gonzo. Thanks for saying the things I would have said had I been you.

  • folks,


    it is my Opinion that Heinlein is to the 20th century what Twain was to the 19th

    i consider him one of the most Important authors from America, and if there can be said to be a single individual that inspired our space program, it would be RAH…

    over 80% of NASA staff up until the mid 90’s state that they got into space tech because of Heinlein

    he was so influential that the other authors of sci fi had to invent the “Grand Master” award

    this book, originally titled “the Sound of his Wings” was a project he worked on and stepped away from for most of his earlier career, and makes a demarcation between his earlier “hard science” fiction and his creation of what he called “speculative fiction”

    this book was not so much about tech and hardware as it was about speculation and observation of sociopolitical trends and cultural observations, and is clearly a step into Literature as opposed to the genre’s pulp origins

    i consider it not only an Important work in american literature, but also the only example of an Objectivist Gnostic Myth

    his “Universal Church of Truth” provided repeatable and observable “miracles” which anyone could learn once they had mastered the Knowledge of the Martian language…and the “mythological” twist of the main Protagonists ultimate Fate is a metaphysical dual edged sword that may take some people more than a single reading to “grok in fullness”

    this is a modern “Passion” displayed as nothing more than engaging and entertaining Literature…what more can one ask from a book?

    two other “must reads” from this Author are shown at the bottom of the Post…

    the Moon is a Harsh Mistress is another sociopolitical exploration that teaches about civics, revolution and politics…all the while being one hell of an entertaining Story

    and Job: a Comedy of Justice is both a poke at dogma and an inspiring love story that can stand with anything

    so sayeth yer gonzo


  • This is the book in which Heinlein invents the waterbed.

  • The version from ’95 is the original (edited) release. The “author’s original” version (I’ve reread both recently) is proof positive that even a great writer like RAH needed an editor…

  • Michael —

    I read the version that’s pictured on the page above; or at least, that’s what the cover looks like. The date, which comes up automatically from Amazon, says 1995 here, although the printing date on the copyright page of the book says 1987. The copyright date is still 1961.

    As I was reading it, I thought it was somewhat sexually charged for 1961, althrough it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today. Maybe I read the unabridged, but I don’t know.

  • Michael

    Which version did you read? His widow released an “Unabridged” version in the 90s that adds about another 1/3 to the book, much of it sexually-charged. It makes Michael Valentine a more complete person… even if a horn-dog.

  • Bennett


    Too true, but with a new NASA administrator in place, one who understands risk vs accomplishment, the environment at NASA is changing rapidly.

    Here is a short BC post on this.

    And with private industy being encouraged to take up some of the action that historically was kept within NASA, things are beginning to move very fast indeed.

    We live in exciting times.

  • Bennett,

    If we are mounting a huge effort, it’s flying under my radar. I actually thought about mentioning the Chinese, but the review was just getting too long.

    I think a problem with the space effort, at least as far as govt. efforts, is that the number one goal is to never have anything go wrong and never have an astronaut die. That makes secondary goals, like the Moon or Mars, hard to reach.

  • Bennett

    It’s funny that you mention Scientology, as the story is that Hubbard and Heinlein were knocking back a few and decided to see who could write a better book about a “new religion”.

    Heinlein wrote “Stranger”, L.Ron started Scientology.

    I do have to objet to your representation of where we stand regarding a moon colony.

    We ARE mounting a huge effort, there IS the political will to get it done (mainly to preempt China I think), and NASA’s Return to Earth Orbit happens on July 13th.

    Otherwise I enjoyed your review of a book I must have read 5 times, at least. It’s highly entertaining!

  • The Theory

    man, i read this back when I was, like, 14… since it’s been, what? 6 years since then I don’t really remember the book. I just remember enjoying it.

    I should re-read that, actually.