by S.P. Hendrick, contributing writer
Published in 1961 and earning a Hugo Award in 1962, Stranger in a Strange Land is a bold novel: one of Robert A. Heinlein’s future histories, taking place sometime after an attempt at the colonization of Mars. It’s a look at mankind from the view of someone not totally human, a man brought up on Mars by its inhabitants, who are very different from homo sapiens and see things in a totally different light. Valentine Michael Smith, brought back from Mars to Earth, has no concept of humanity. He lets us all see ourselves in a whole different way: a way which so alienated some folks that it was banned as reading material in schools in Texas until 2003.
Raised in a world in which it takes three Martians to procreate, it’s no wonder that the Man from Mars (as he is sometimes known) has no concept of the sexual mores of any of Earth’s human cultures, nor does he understand the concepts of the religions of the world in which he finds himself. Indeed, one may wonder which of the two subplots, the rampant sexuality of the characters or the satirical look at the big business of religion as blatantly practiced by the Fosterites did more to get the book banned.
From its early description of water beds, a concept with which Heinlein had been toying for several years before this was published, to the polyamory, to the blatant calling-out of society as a whole as being corrupt, this book became the textbook for the young people of the 1960s, a fact which never quite did sit well with its author.
According to one biography, Heinlein started off in his early career and with his first wife, Leslyn, as a Left-wing New Dealer with an open marriage and an open mind, but somewhere along the line his politics shifted far to the right. He and his first wife divorced and he wed Virginia whose politics were close to what his had become. This explains in part the dichotomy of his writings: Starship Troopers hardly has the same philosophy as Stranger In A Strange Land.
It has often been said that Heinlein and his friend L. Ron Hubbard had a contest. One of them would write about religion, the other would start a religion, and they would see which one did better with his project. Heinlein wrote Stranger In A Strange Land; Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology. It didn’t quite end there.
As it turns out, Heinlein inadvertently did both. A group of folks who had read Stranger In A Strange Land took the religion founded by Valentine Michael Smith to heart and the Church of All Worlds stepped off the pages of the novel into a real-life religion. Its founders, Oberon (Otter) and Morning Glory Zell took it well into the 21st Century, though Morning Glory Zell passed away early in 2014.
All in all, this novel was considered by no less than the Library of Congress to have been one of the books that shaped America, having had a profound effect on our lives. It is also one of the few novels to be available both in the original, edited edition and also in the form that the author had originally wanted it, which is about a third longer. Make up your own mind which version is better.
S. P. Hendrick is the author of two acclaimed fantasy series, The Glastonbury Chronicles and Tales Of The Dearg-Sidhe. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Jay Mayer, too many cats, and thirty-two overflowing bookcases.
It’s interesting how things change. If I recall correctly, I read this book in the summer after I graduated from high school. The sexual stuff in the book didn’t particularly stand out to me–but then again, when I read it, 1961 was long over.
What I remember is the different perspectives it put on things, seeing Human society from a “Martian” point of view. And “grok.”