Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land  
Stranger in a Strange Land cover
Hardcover, showing Rodin's sculpture,
Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone, which Heinlein translates as "Caryatid Fallen Under her Stone".
Author(s) Robert A. Heinlein
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Putnam Publishing Group
Publication date June 1, 1961
Media type Print (hardcover & paperback)
ISBN 9780441790340

Stranger in a Strange Land is a 1961 science fiction novel by American author Robert A. Heinlein. It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians. The novel explores his interaction with—and eventual transformation of—terrestrial culture. The title seems an allusion to the phrase in Exodus 2:22 (in the Biblical Book of Exodus).[1] According to Heinlein, the novel's working title was The Heretic. Several later editions of the book have promoted it as "The most famous Science Fiction Novel ever written"[2].

When Heinlein first wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, his editors at Putnam required him to drastically cut its original 220,000-word length down to 160,067 words. In 1962, this version received the Hugo Award for Best Novel.[3] After Heinlein's death in 1988, his wife Virginia arranged to have the original manuscript published in 1991. Critics disagree over whether Heinlein's preferred original manuscript is superior to the heavily-edited version originally published. There is similar contention over the two versions of Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars.

While initially a success among science fiction readers, over the following years word-of-mouth caused sales to build, requiring numerous subsequent printings of the first Putnam edition. Eventually Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult classic.



The story focuses on a human raised on Mars and his adaptation to, and understanding of, humans and their culture, which is portrayed as an amplified version of the consumerist and media-driven 20th-century United States.

Protagonist Valentine Michael Smith is the son of astronauts of the first expedition to the planet Mars. Orphaned after the crew died, Smith was raised in the culture of the Martian natives, who possess full control over their minds and bodies (learned skills which Smith acquires). A second expedition some twenty years later brings Smith to Earth. Because he is heir to the fortunes of the entire exploration party, which includes several valuable inventions (most particularly his mother's Lyle Drive, which makes interplanetary travel economical), Smith becomes a political pawn in government struggles. Moreover, despite the existence of the Martians, under terrestrial law Mars was terra nullius, wherefore according to some interpretations of law, Smith could be considered to own the planet Mars itself.

Because Smith is unaccustomed to the atmosphere and gravity of Earth, he is confined at Bethesda Hospital, where having never seen a human female, he is attended by male staff only. Seeing this restriction as a challenge, Nurse Gillian Boardman eludes guards to see Smith and in doing so inadvertently becomes his first female "water brother" by sharing a glass of water with him; ––– considered a holy relationship by the standards of arid Mars.

When Gillian tells reporter Ben Caxton about her encounter with Smith, they attempt to counteract the government's lies about Smith. After Ben disappears at the behest of the World Government, Gillian persuades Smith to leave the hospital with her; but they are attacked by government agents. Smith discards the agents irretrievably into a fourth dimension, then is so shocked by Gillian's terrified reaction that he enters a semblance of catatonia. Gillian, remembering Ben's reference to Jubal Harshaw, a famous author who is also a physician and a lawyer, conveys Smith to the latter.

Smith continues to demonstrate psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence coupled with a childlike naïveté. When Jubal tries to explain religion to him, Smith understands the concept of God only as "one who groks", which includes every extant organism. This leads him to express the Martian concept of life as the phrase "Thou art God", although he knows this is a bad translation. Many other human concepts such as war, clothing, and jealousy are strange to him, while the idea of an afterlife is a fact he takes for granted because the government on Mars is composed of "Old Ones", the spirits of Martians who have died. It is also customary for loved ones and friends to eat the bodies of the dead, in a spirit of Holy Communion. Eventually Harshaw arranges freedom for Smith and recognition that human law, which would have granted ownership of Mars to Smith, has no applicability to a planet already inhabited by intelligent life.

Now free to travel, Smith becomes a celebrity and is feted by the elite of Earth. He investigates many religions, including the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, a populist megachurch wherein sexuality, gambling, alcoholism, and similar are not considered sinful but encouraged, even within the church building. The church is organized in a complexity of initiatory levels; an outer circle, open to the public; a middle circle of ordinary members who support the church financially; and an inner circle of the "eternally saved" — attractive, highly-sexed men and women, who serve as clergy and recruit new members. The Church owns many politicians and takes violent action against those who oppose it. Smith also has a brief career as a magician in a carnival, where he and Gillian befriend the show's tattooed lady, an "eternally saved" Fosterite woman named Patricia Paiwonski.

Eventually Smith begets a Martian-influenced "Church of All Worlds" combining elements of the Fosterite cult (especially the sexual aspects) with Western esotericism, whose members learn the Martian language and acquire psychokinetic abilities. The church is eventually besieged by Fosterites for practicing "blasphemy" and the church building destroyed; but Smith and his followers teleport to safety. Smith is arrested by the police, but escapes and returns to his followers, later explaining to Jubal that his gigantic fortune has been bequeathed to the Church. With it and their new abilities, Church members will be able to re-organize human societies and cultures. Eventually those who cannot or will not learn Smith's methods will die out, leaving Homo superior. Incidentally, this may save Earth from eventual destruction by the Martians, who we are told were responsible for the destruction of Planet V.

Smith is killed by a mob raised against him by the Fosterites; but speaks briefly to Jubal from the afterlife, saving him from an attempted suicide after the horror of Smith's own death. Having consumed Smith's remains in keeping with his own wishes, Jubal and some of the Church members return to Jubal's home to re-create their former conditions. Meanwhile Smith re-appears in the afterlife to replace the Fosterites' eponymous founder, amid hints that Smith was an incarnation of the Archangel Michael.


  • Crew members of the Envoy, the first human attempt to travel to Mars. Their ship survives the trip to Mars, but then ceases transmission, and their fate is unknown for the next 20 years.
    • Mary Jane Lyle Smith — power technician. Before leaving Earth she patents technology, placed in trust, which was subsequently developed into the Lyle Drive, the principal form of spaceship propulsion. Biological mother of Valentine Michael Smith, who legally owns the fortune accrued from the profits on sales of her invention.
    • Dr. Ward Smith — ship physician and legal father of Valentine Michael Smith.
    • Captain Michael Brant — captain and biological father of Valentine Michael Smith.
    • Dr. Winifred Coburn Brant
    • Mr. Francis X. Seeny
    • Dr. Olga Kovalic Seeny
    • Mr. Sergi Rimsky
    • Mrs. Eleanora Alvarez Rimsky
  • Valentine Michael Smith — known as Michael Smith or "Mike"; the "Man from Mars", raised on Mars in the interval between the landing of his father's ship, the Envoy, and arrival of the second expedition, the Champion; about 20 years old when the Champion arrives and brings him to Earth.
  • Officers of the Champion. These people became "water brothers" to Mike on Mars or during the trip back, but this information is only revealed to Mike's earthbound human friends when they meet the officers.
    • Captain van Tromp
    • Dr. Mahmoud, nicknamed Stinky — semanticist, of Arab descent, and a devout Muslim; the second human (after Mike) to gain a working knowledge of the Martian language, though does not "grok" the language.
    • Dr. Sven Nelson — ship's physician and personal physician to Mike at Bethesda Medical Center until he withdraws from the case in a confrontation with the Secretary General (see below)
  • Government officials — Several government officials have roles at least at the beginning
    • Secretary-General Joseph Douglas ("Joe Douglas") — the head of the Federation of Free States, which has evolved indirectly from the United Nations into a true world government.
    • Gil Berquist — assistant to Secretary Douglas. Mike makes him and a policeman disappear during a confrontation with Jill (see below).
    • Alice Douglas — (sometimes called "Agnes"), wife of Joe Douglas. As the First Lady, she controls her husband, making major economic, political, and staffing decisions. She frequently consults an astrologer Becky Vesant (see below), for major decisions. It is implied that she is an agent of the same afterlife in which Foster, Digby, and later Mike find themselves.
    • Assemblyman Kung — de facto head of the Eastern Coalition, a political bloc opposed to Douglas in the Federation.
    • Senator Tom Boone — politician and senior member of the patriarchal Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite), who wants Mike's wealth and prestige to accrue to the faith.
  • Gillian (Jill) Boardman — frees Mike from his imprisonment at Bethesda Hospital where she is a nurse. Ben Caxton continuously proposes marriage to her throughout the book.
  • Ben Caxton — investigative journalist and potential boyfriend of Jill. He makes her aware of Mike's legal significance (potential ownership both of enormous amounts of Earthly wealth and the planet Mars itself, at least according to Federation law), and persuades her to bug Smith's hospital suite, revealing an attempt by Douglas to defraud Smith of this wealth and power.
  • James Cavendish — a Fair Witness employed by Ben in an attempt to expose a fake Man from Mars shown on stereovision. Fair Witnesses are a legal institution created to provide impartial and accurate observation of potentially contentious legal situations. The character Anne (see below) is also a Fair Witness.
  • Jubal Harshaw — popular writer, lawyer, and doctor, now semi-retired to a house in the Poconos northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Harshaw's age is never given but is probably at least 80 by indirect indications. When Ben Caxton disappears, Jill takes Mike to Harshaw to defend his rights, but succeeds only when the authorities threaten Mike. Harshaw himself is addressed as "Father" by Mike in the book's later portions, and comes to perceive himself as such after Mike's death.
  • Anne — (no last name given) oldest and tallest of three female secretaries to Harshaw. Has total recall and Fair Witness standing (see Cavendish above).
  • Archangels — provide some commentary and act quite apart from the humans. A third archangel, Michael/Mike, is introduced by Foster to Digby at the very end of the book as Digby's new supervisor.
    • Foster — The founder of the Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite); apotheosis after poisoning by Digby.
    • Digby — Supreme Bishop Digby, Foster's successor as head of the Church of the New Revelation; apotheosis to angel under Foster after Smith causes him to disappear.

In the preface for the re-issued book, Virginia Heinlein writes

The given names of the chief characters have great importance to the plot. They were carefully selected: Jubal means "the father of all," Michael stands for "Who is like God"



Writing in The New York Times, Orville Prescott received the novel caustically, describing it as a "disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism"; he characterized Stranger as "puerile and ludicrous", saying "when a non-stop orgy is combined with a lot of preposterous chatter, it becomes unendurable, an affront to the patience and intelligence of readers"[4].

Galaxy reviewer Floyd C. Gale gave the original edition a mixed review, saying "the book's shortcomings lie not so much in its emancipation as in the fact that Heinlein has bitten off too large a chewing portion."[5].

In 1968, Tim Zell (now Oberon Zell-Ravenheart) and others formed a neo-pagan religious organization called the Church of All Worlds, modeled after the religion founded by the primary characters in the novel.[6] Except for correspondence with Zell (a lengthy letter to Zell appears as a letter to "a Fan" toward the end of the book in Grumbles from the Grave) and a paid subscription to the Church's Green Egg magazine during the 1970s (as Heinlein refused to accept a complimentary subscription), Heinlein had no other connection to the project.[7]

Fair Witness

Fair Witness is a fictional profession invented for the novel. A Fair Witness is an individual trained to observe events and report exactly what he or she sees and hears, making no extrapolations or assumptions. An eidetic memory is a prerequisite for the job, although this may be attainable with suitable training.

In Heinlein's society, a Fair Witness is a highly reputable source of information. By custom, a Fair Witness acting professionally, generally wearing distinctive white robes, is never addressed directly, and is never acknowledged by anyone present.

The character Jubal Harshaw employs a Fair Witness, Anne, as one of his secretaries. Unlike the other secretaries, she does not use dictation equipment when Jubal speaks, and can keep track of several works at once, despite Harshaw's frequent switching among them.

Fair Witnesses are prohibited from drawing conclusions about what they observe. As a demonstration, Harshaw asks Anne to describe the color of a house in the distance. She responds, "It's white on this side"; whereupon Harshaw explains that she would not assume knowledge of the color of the other sides of the house without being able to see them. Furthermore, after observing another side of the house would not then assume that any previously seen side was still the same color as last reported, even if only minutes before.

When Ben Caxton decides to do something that might result in litigation—namely accusing a government official of substituting an actor for Valentine Michael Smith in a televised interview—he hires a highly respected Witness, James Oliver Cavendish, to record everything he sees, and to ensure that Ben is not accused of slander. They visit the alleged Man From Mars in his hospital suite in the hope of determining whether he is actually Smith or the actor who had apparently impersonated him the night before. Once Ben and the fair witness have left, and the Mr. Cavendish's Fair Witness persona goes off duty, Mr. Cavendish shows a fundamental problem with a human Fair Witness by mentioning that Ben should have looked for telltale calluses on the supposed Smith's feet; He then realized his mistake when Ben immediately wants to go back, therefore he states that he can no longer serve as a Fair Witness for this case and Ben would need to procure another Fair Witness. Frustrated by the professional ethics of the Fair Witness profession, Ben must make other plans to prove the identity of Mr. Smith.

Literary significance and criticism

Like many influential works of literature, Stranger made a contribution to the English language: specifically, the word "grok". In Heinlein's invented Martian language, "grok" literally means "to drink" and figuratively means "to comprehend", "to love", and "to be one with". One dictionary description was "To understand thoroughly through having empathy with". This word rapidly became common parlance among science fiction fans, hippies, and computer hackers, and has since entered the Oxford English Dictionary among others.

The phrase "I am but an egg," which came into common usage during the 1960s, paraphrases a line from Stranger in a Strange Land: "I am only an egg".[8] The phrase means, roughly, "I am a lowly novice, barely able to understand the concepts in question"[9].

A central element of the second half of the novel is the religious movement founded by Smith, the "Church of All Worlds", an initiatory mystery religion blending elements of paganism and revivalism with psychic training and instruction in the Martian language. In 1968, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (then Tim Zell) founded the Church of All Worlds, a Neopagan religious organization modeled in many ways after the fictional organization in the novel. This spiritual path included several ideas from the book, including polyamory, non-mainstream family structures, social libertarianism, water-sharing rituals, an acceptance of all religious paths by a single tradition, and the use of several terms such as "grok", "Thou art God", and "Never Thirst". Though Heinlein was neither a member nor a promoter of the Church, it was formed including frequent correspondence between Zell and Heinlein, and he was a paid subscriber to their magazine Green Egg.[citation needed] This Church still exists as a 501(c)(3) recognized religious organization incorporated in California, with membership worldwide, and it remains an active part of the neopagan community today.[10]

Stranger was written in part as a deliberate attempt to challenge social mores. In the course of the story, Heinlein uses Smith's open-mindedness to reevaluate such institutions as religion, money, monogamy, and the fear of death. Heinlein completed writing it ten years after he had (uncharacteristically) plotted it out in detail. He later wrote, "I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right"[11].

Stranger contains an early description of the waterbed, an invention which made its real-world debut a few years later in 1968. Charles Hall, who brought a waterbed design to the United States Patent Office, was refused a patent on the grounds that Heinlein's descriptions in Stranger and another novel, Double Star, constituted prior art.[12]

Heinlein reportedly named his main character "Smith" because of a speech he made at a science fiction convention regarding the unpronounceable names assigned to extraterrestrials. After describing the importance of establishing a dramatic difference between humans and aliens, Heinlein concluded, "Besides, whoever heard of a Martian named Smith?" ("A Martian Named Smith" was both Heinlein's working title for the book and the name of the screenplay started by Harshaw at the end).[13] The title "Stranger in a strange land" is taken from Exodus 2:22 "And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land".

In popular culture

References in Popular Song:

  • "Stranger in a Strange Land" is the name of a song on Iron Maiden's 1986 album Somewhere in Time.
  • "Stranger in a Strange Land" is the name of a song on 30 Seconds to Mars's 2009 album This Is War.
  • "Stranger in a Strange Land" is the name of a song on Spock's Beard's 2002 album Snow.
  • The 1968 Jefferson Airplane song "Triad" by David Crosby contains the lyric, "Sister lovers...water brothers". Crosby had worked on an instrumental entitled "Stranger In a Strange Land" for the Turn! Turn! Turn! album when he was with The Byrds, but it was rejected from inclusion on the album.
  • The 1989 Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire" references the book in the sung list of items that played an important role in controversy through history.
  • The 1971 Leon Russell song "Stranger In A Strange Land" is about this book. He makes several references to space travel. The song is also sung from the perspective of an outsider attempting to change humanity.

References in TV:

  • A season 3 episode of the TV series Lost is titled "Stranger in a Strange Land" and seems to mirror some of the novel's themes.
  • The 2009 movie Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder contains a character using the word grok, until Fry stops him.
  • On the TV series Cheers, the character Cliff Clavin would occasionally use the term "grok", as in "I can grok that".

References in other Books:

  • Author Jon Peniel in the book "The Children of the Law of One & the Lost Teachings of Atlantis" makes a personal reference to "Stranger in a Strange Land", a book he read prior to his travels to Tibet. He also references "groking" at the Tibet monastery; another monk then states that it is a word that is worthy of being kept in their vocabulary.
  • Author Arthur C. Clarke in the book "3001: The Final Odyssey," Frank Poole mentioned being a "stranger in a strange time" which was a direct reference to "Stranger in a Strange Land".


Two major versions of this book exist:

  • The 1961 version, which was cut 27.24% from Heinlein's original manuscript by the publisher due to the excessive length and to excise objectionable material.
  • The 1991 version, retrieved from Heinlein's archives in the University of California, Santa Cruz, Special Collections Department by his widow and published posthumously, which reproduces the original manuscript and restores all cuts. Both Heinlein's agent and his publisher (which had new senior editors) agreed that the uncut version was better: readers are used to longer books, and what was seen as objectionable in 1961 was no longer so thirty years later.

Many printed editions exist:


  1. ^ Moses flees ancient Egypt, where he has lived all his life, and later marries Zipporah: Exodus 2:22: "And she [Zippo'rah] bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land". KJV Wikisource
  2. ^ Cover of 1974 New English Library reprint.
  3. ^ "1962 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-27. 
  4. ^ Prescott, Orville (August 4, 1961). "Books of The Times". The New York Times: p. 19. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  5. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1962, p.194
  6. ^ Adler, Margot (1997). Drawing down the Moon. New York: Penguin/Arkana. p. 295. 
  7. ^ Heinlein Society. "FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Robert A. Heinlein, his works.". Retrieved 25. OCT 2009. 
  8. ^ see page 109 of the 1987 edition of the novel
  9. ^ 31 December 2007 blog entry in
  10. ^ "What is the Church of All Worlds?". Church of All Worlds Website. Retrieved 2009-02-24. 
  11. ^ Expanded Universe, p. 403.
  12. ^ [1][dead link]
  13. ^ Patterson, William; Thornton, Andrew (2001). The Martian Named Smith, Critical Perspectives On Robert A Heinlein’s ‘Stranger In A Strange Land'. Nytrosyncretic Press. p. 224. ISBN 0-9679874-2-3. 
  14. ^ "Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A. Heinlein, Publisher: Putnam Adult". ISBNdb entry. Retrieved 2007-07-21. 


  • Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1995). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 1386. ISBN 0-312134-86-X. 
  • Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1995). The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (CD-ROM ed.). Danbury, CT: Grolier. ISBN 0-7172-3999-3. 
  • Nicholls, Peter (1979). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. St Albans, Herts, UK: Granada Publishing. p. 672. ISBN 0-586-05380-8. 
  • Jakubowski, Maxim; Edwards, Malcolm (1983). The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists. St Albans, Herts, UK: Granada Publishing. p. 350. ISBN 0-586-05678-5. 
  • Panshin, Alexei (1968). Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis. Chicago: Advent Publishers. p. 214. ISBN 0-911682-12-0. 
  • Patterson, Jr, William H.; Thornton, Andrew. The Martian Named Smith: Critical Perspectives on Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Sacramento: Nitrosyncretic Press. ISBN 0-9679874-2-3. 
  • Pringle, David (1990). The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction. London: Grafton Books. p. 407. ISBN 0-246-13635-9. 
  • Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent Publishers. p. 136. ISBN 0-911682-20-1. 

External links

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