Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein was my first book for 2022. I added it and Time Enough for Love to my KIndle when one of them came up as a BookBub deal in December 2020. I was a big Heinlein fan in college and decided to reread these to see if I would feel differently about them now. Time Enough for Love was the first book by Heinlein that I read when the paperback was released in 1974. I was in my sophomore year college and worked at the college bookstore that was run by B&N. We had a small shop in the student union that I worked at. Heinlein’s books dominated our science fiction shelf. After finishing Time Enough for Love, I started working my way through Heinlein’s other books.
I think that Stranger in a Strange Land (called SISL by fans) was one of the next Heinlein novels I read. The story idea was actually proposed by Heinlein’s wife. It is based on Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The main character is Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being raised by Martians. The version of SISL that was released in 1961 was heavily edited to tone down the more controversial passages and make it a commercially viable length. Heinlein’s widow actually released a version based on the longer original manuscript in 1991.
Heinlein was controversial during his writing career and still is today. For books that had commercial success, many of his books have very complex structures and flaws in how they were written that can make them difficult to read. As much as Heinlein challenged the prevailing social and cultural norms of the time with SISL, most contemporary readers will find his writing and some of his implicit attitudes as regressive and anachronistic. Many will also find things in the writing or about Heinlein personally that are outright offensive to them.
Despite all of that, I think SISL and Heinlein’s other novels are important works that significantly influenced and reflect the changes in American literature and culture that happened during the sixties and seventies. SISL even added the word “grok” to modern English. Heinlein wrote stories to make the reader challenge their own preconceptions. I think he would do the same for some of his own if he were still alive today. While reading SISL now was a very different experience than when I read this in my late teens, I think that SISL and Heinlein’s other books deserve to be read and understood.
Stranger in a Strange Land
By Robert Heinlein
Raised by Martians on Mars, Valentine Michael Smith is a human who has never seen another member of his species. Sent to Earth, he is a stranger who must learn what it is to be a man. But his own beliefs and his powers far exceed the limits of humankind, and as he teaches them about grokking and water-sharing, he also inspires a transformation that will alter Earth’s inhabitants forever…
Published May 15, 1987
610 pages (print)