Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Anson Heinlein

Robert Heinlein in repose (image source:
"Thou art God." - Valentine Michael Smith, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Stranger in a Strange Land is a best-selling novel written by award winning science fiction author Robert Anson Heinlein in 1961. The story follows the life of an earthling born and raised on Mars. After an expedition to Mars by a united Earth federation goes horribly wrong, the lone survivor is Valentine Michael Smith- the child of two Mars astronauts. His existence is discovered on a later trip to Mars and he is promptly brought back to Earth. The novel primarily explores his immersion into Earth culture and customs. Over the years, Stranger has gained quite a cult following, even sprouting a Church of All Worlds (named after Smith's cult in the book). Many have called Stranger Heinlein's greatest work. Its exploration of the human thought process, vilification of organized religion, and its message of peace and love made it incredibly popular among members of the 1960s hippie movement. Since its publication in 1961, it has never gone out of print. Its influence across the spectra of American culture and the science fiction genre has been profound to say the least [2].

Author Background

Robert Anson Heinlein was born July 7, 1907 in Butler, Missouri. Raised with a strong Christian background, Heinlein would later challenge the issues he grew up with in such works as Stranger in a Strange Land. In 1929, he graduated from the United States Naval Academy and served as an officer in the navy. His first marriage in 1929 to Eleanor Curry failed after a year. In 1932, he married Leslyn Macdonald, a self proclaimed poltical radical (i.e. socialist), whose values and ideas heavily influenced both Heinlein and his works. In the 30s, he helped with Upton Sinclair's "End Poverty" campaign for governor of California. After an unsuccessful campaign for Sinclair, and later himself for the state assembly of California, a broke Heinlein turned to writing to make up for his debt. His socialist political background led him to the left of many political movements, and often showed up in his writings henceforth. His most famous work, Stranger in a Strange Land, is considered by many to be the "bible," of the hippie movement in the 60s. After writing many novels, being involved with innumerable movements, on May 8, 1988, Heinlein passed away from heart failure [2].

Plot Summary

Mankind's first trip to Mars was a failure, with all eight of the original crew members dead. Twenty-five years later, another crew is sent to complete the original's mission. However, a surprise is waiting for them upon landing, in the form of the only human survivor, the ninth crew member, Valentine Michael Smith.His existence is seen as a great threat to the governments and shareholders of the many patents and companies he legally owns by his birthright. He also has a claim to Mars, being the first of humankind to inhabit its apparent Martian-filled landscape. However, he neither knows nor cares for such things. Upon arrival to earth, he is promptly sent to a medical facility where he is taken care of until he becomes accustomed to Earth's gravitational pull. A strapping young reporter named Ben Caxton takes a special interest in his story and tries to do everything in his power to restore his legal rights. After evidence of suspicious activity on the part of the government, Ben's girlfriend, Gillian Boardman, a nurse at the hospital Michael is staying at, springs him from his venerable prison and takes him to the estate of Jubal Harshaw, a prominent and wealthy individual. Jubal takes a special interest in Michael and sets about discussing all sorts of Earthly concepts and ideas. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Michael is superhuman. His ability to lower his heartrate to an almost deathlike state allows him to stay underwater for extended periods of time. He also has a talent for making objects levitate and to disappear.

However, Earth's secretary general, Joseph Douglas, cannot leave things alone. His persistence in getting the "Man from Mars" to sign his rights away leads Jubal into refuting Michael's claim to Mars and getting Douglas to side with Michael's business interests.
Mike's interest in religion tempts Jubal into taking him to the Church of the Fosterites, a large breakaway sect of Christianity that emphasizes love and happiness through indulging our senses with certain vices. Bars and gambling sites are integrated with the church, and many of the church leaders entice celebrities and sports athletes to speak to the congregation. Mike gets to meet the Supreme Bishop of the Fosterites, but after feeling it was the right thing to do, Mike makes him disappear.

Mike's encounter with the Bishop sets off an urge to break away from Jubal's protection and see the world. He runs off with Gillian, travelling through town after town, working part time jobs and meeting new people along the way. Over time, Gill learns to communicate and grok like a Martian, even adopting some of Mike's superpowers. An encounter with an exhibit of monkeys at a zoo allows Mike to grok humans for the first time. He decides to try and reform mankind's petty grievances by forming his own church, called the Church of All Worlds. His church gains a very devout following, even forming circles of memberships, where the ninth circle (the closest to Mike) learn Martian and gain superpowers. However, the group's practices of communal living, sex, partner swapping, and nudity gains considerable negative attention. Jubal, scared for Mike's safety rushes over to discuss his goals for the church. Mike questions the validity of his actions, and as a dissenting mob gathers outside his hotel, he walks out completely naked in saint-like fashion, bringing peace and love to his enemies. Unprotected, he is promptly murdered. The book ends with Mike's ascension to heaven and sainthood.



In Stranger, grokking is a Martian concept. To grok means literally to drink. On a more metaphysical sense, it is to become one with; to completely understand, empathize, love, hate, and feel. The total oneness is a concept inherent to the practice of drinking water with another. This ritual, upon which after completion, the two involved are "water brothers," is one of the most sacred rituals to Martians. The practice of sharing water is a rare experience for Martians, most likely due to the fact that water is scarce on Mars. When Mike becomes water brothers with Gillian, he is entrusting himself to her, and herself to him. [8] Grokking is stronger than love. Mike cannot act on something he does not grok. When he employs his powers to make something disappear, he must first grok its wrongness, and acknowledge that making it "not," is the best way to navigate the situation. Mike's philosophical journey in Stranger is to grok God, and more importantly to grok humans [9]. His Martian upbringing alienates him from such things as laughter, and only until he witnesses monkeys beating on each other does he purport that he truly groks humans. His phrase, "Thou art God," is a key tenet to the Church of all words, the meaning of which is logically derived from grokking.

Mike as Messiah

Stranger is littered with parallels between Mike and Jesus Christ. Heinlein titled Part 1, as His Maculate Conception (a play off of Christ's "immaculate conception"). Mike was literally born in the heavens, just as Jesus Christ was said to have been born of the heavens. [5] Their unique backgrounds and simple lives eventually led to both preaching a message of peace and love. Having attracted quite a large following, Jesus' church and Mike's Church of All Worlds also garnered attention from certain unruly organizations. In Jesus' case, the Roman government saw his following as a threat to their security, and had him crucified. In Stranger, the Fosterite Church viewed Mike as a heretic, and assassinated him. As Mike falls to his death, he positions himself in such a way so that the light struck him to create the appearance of a halo crowning his head. His final words are "I love you," and "Thou art God," - spoken to a grasshopper. Mike's ascension to a heaven-like plane puts him next to the Archangel Foster and Digby (both prominent members of the Fosterite Church). One interpretation of Stranger is that Mike is really the archangel Michael, sent back to Earth in human form [5]. In fact, Michael literally means "One who is like God," a translation which would give credence to Mike's most famous of sayings, "Thou Art God." [1]

Church of All Worlds

Mike's inability to grok how their can be so many religions that disagree with each other, yet all of them claiming they have found truth, urges him to start his own cult following. Mike incorporates instruction in the Martian language to his most devout followers, further enabling them to develop psychic powers similar to his own. He encouraged communal living, including the acceptance of nudity, exchange of sexual partners, food, money, and all other worldly possessions. The concept of the nest is most clearly Heinlein's vision of utopia [3]. Within a nest reside 10-15 men and women who share love and sex with each other. The ritual of water sharing is taken very seriously, and the point of the nest is in itself a "growing-closer." The point of the nest is to completely grok every other individual in it. The nest places everyone on an equal level. Everyone is naked, everyone has sex, and everyone groks. Heinlein's socialist leanings are most clearly represented through his description of the nests.

Critical Perspectives/Analysis of Stranger

Heinlein's Stranger was written during a very auspicious period of time. The 60s saw great change in the United States. Rock, sex, and drugs were all in the air. The hippie generation grew off of the prior decades' beatniks. Their message of free love drew upon various cultural pushes and pulls. Stranger's publication in 1961 was no coincidence. The hippie movement jumped on Mike's message of peace and understanding; some even claimed it as the unofficial bible of the movement. [2]

Homophobia in Stranger

Some critics strongly dispute the legitimacy of Heinlein's message of peace and love to everyone, as certain discussions and events in Stranger come off as homophobic [5]. Gillian, fearing that Michael's boyish looks would attract unwanted advances, attempts to warn Michael against pursuing homosexual activities. Michael even groks wrongness in homosexuality, and bans homosexuals from entering his inner most circle within the Church of All Worlds. Reasons for this homophobia are never explicitly given, and the reader is left lost at the apparent hypocrisy within the novel. [8]

Misogyny in Stranger

Feminists have often attacked Stranger, citing that it perpetuates a view of women that is nothing more than as secretaries or housewives. Jubal Harshaw, Michael's mentor and pseudo-father ('Jubal' literally means "father of all,") effectively keeps a harem; employing 3 women to manage his affairs, cook his meals, and clean his house. Although his attitude towards them is no more disrespectful than a father would act around his daughters, critics have pointed out that the only other main female character is Gillian Boardman, a nurse who is even described as being not as smart as her male counterparts. Her role in the novel is never developed, as her key sequence happens towards the beginning of the novel as she rescues Mike from the hospital. Following that, she is simply directed around by the more headstrong Mike and Jubal. [6]


Heinlein wrote Stranger in an effort to challenge our social mores. It reads like an anthropological study; a man who is not at all accustomed to human culture or emotion, suddenly finds himself immersed in it. This man is given the chance to start over from a blank slate. The human culture in Stranger is cleverly homogenized; the world is now the Federation, under the Secretary General. National borders of old have become extinct, and with them so have our cultural differences. Instead the reader is exposed to an arguable cesspool of beliefs and religions, all of which are lumped together in Mike's mind. Heinlein only gives Mike the tool of logic, and expects him to deduce from his experiences the "just" way to live. In this sense, the reader is simply given a list of Heinlein's own beliefs in the guise of a story. The novel's plot is boiled down to a simple "to-do list." If Mike groks wrongness in any belief, it is simply not. Heinlein's genius comes through only in the creation of this scenario. While it may not be plausible, it certainly raises very important questions about Western Society.

In the Church of All Worlds, Heinlein develops the world's first commune. His descriptions of groups of people who completely grok each other is beautiful and endearing. The bond they feel to each other is so strong, that such modern institutions as the wearing of clothes and the choosing of a single sexual and filial partner are abolished. It is all a part of a "growing-closer," started with the sharing of water, and ending with a complete grokking. Heinlein centers his entire utopic vision around this idea of "grokking." Mike even suggests that his job as a mortal is to grok God, and once that is accomplished, whether or not his body continues to exist is inconsequential. The body is not revered in Heinlein. Mike does not have any qualms about killing or making others (including himself) disappear. He would willingly discorporate at the command of any water brother, for only water brothers (the term for a pair who have shared water) completely grok each other, and thus can make life or death decisions on a whim. Heinlein discredits the institution of marriage for not providing as much as waterbrotherhood does.

Heinlein's disdain for organized religion and political juggernauts is most evident in his description of the Fosterite Church. The Fosters are a splinter sect of Christianity, renowned for recognizing a new messiah in their first Archbishop, named Foster. Foster's message was one of peace and love towards all, that everyone can be saved, and that vices are to be indulged and not prohibited. He set up megachurches in the spirit of casinos; gambling, drinks, and women, with a little God on the side. The Fosterite Church in Stranger is a multimillion dollar enterprise, and the Archbishop Digby finds Mike to be an intriguing business prospect. Mike's experience talking with Digby is the catalyst for the creation of the Church of all Worlds. Heinlein sets up Mike as Jesus and the Fosterites as the Romans. When Mike's church threatens the existence of the Fosterite church, the Fosterites bear arms and descend upon Mike and his followers in droves. Heinlein kills off Mike and effectively villifies the Fosterite church, which at a most general stance, can be viewed as Western Culture in its entirety.

Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is a historically important, culturally transmogrifying, and ingenious tale. It's lessons of love and goodwill towards all men, while although hypocritical at times, are things to be reminded of daily. Heinlein seems to have taken a philosophy lesson and coated it with a Scifi frosting, but the important thing is that it works.


  1. Blackmore, Tim. “Talking With ‘Strangers’: Interrogating the Many Texts that Became Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.’” Extrapolation 36.2 (1995): 136(15). Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Illinois. 6 Mar. 2009 <‌itweb/‌?db=AONE>.
  2. Blanchard, Rebecca. “Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988).” Children’s Literature Review 75 (2002): 15-122. Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Illinois. 6 Mar. 2009 <‌itweb/‌?db=AONE>
  3. Esterbrook, Neil. “State Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany.” Political Science Fiction. By Hassler M. Donald and Clyde Wilcox. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. 43-75.
  4. Heinlein, Robert Anson. Interview with J. Neil Schulman. The Robert Heinlein Interview. By J Neil Schulman. Mill Valley, CA: Inc., 1999.
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  9. Vonnegut, Kurt. “Heinlein Gets the Last Word .” New York Times Book Review 9 Dec. 1990. New York Times on the Web. 1999. New York Times. 6 Mar. 2009 <‌books/‌97/‌09/‌28/‌lifetimes/‌vonnegut-stranger_heinlein.html>.
  10. Wolk, Anthony. “Challenge the Boundaries: An Overview of Science Fiction and Fantasy.” The English Journal 79.3 (1990): 26-31. JSTOR. 20 Mar. 2009 <‌stable/‌819230?seq=1>.