Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein
1961

A “disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism”, said the New York Times of Stranger in a Strange Land, a book that has since been called by more than one critic the most famous piece of science fiction ever written. Now, that may be an overstatement. But it is certainly a seminal text of the genre, and of 20th century fiction more generally, and Heinlein remains a giant among sci-fi writers, his importance rivaled only by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And without him, we wouldn’t have the word grok.

Valentine Michael Smith is the orphaned son of astronauts who died on an early exploration of Mars. Raised by martians, he returns to Earth some twenty years later, where he is confined to a hospital and the target of intensive manipulation and political wrangling by various government forces. But Smith has his share of psychic powers taught him by his adopted people. He escapes his medical/ political imprisonment, of course, and attains a wide celebrity for his powers, his insights, his experience. He explores human religious and cult existence, and eventually establishes a church of his own – sex, individual achievement, Martian language, and psychic ability being among its central elements. It is, he suggests, the premise for and promise of not only a new human order but a new humanity, homo superior. Hmm. Let’s see how this ends.

Stranger in a Strange Land is Heinlein exploring his own thoughts on metaphysics, the spirit, human nature and human potential. Particularly resonant with readers in the libertarian counterculture, it achieved widespread acclaim and became one of the most popular books the genre ever produced. Free love, individual liberty, self-reliance and personal responsibility – and a profound individualism. Perhaps it would be too much of a stretch to call him an Ayn Rand-ite, but there is more than a little yearning for her version of the uberman here, and Heinlein certainly was influenced by Rand and connected his literary work directly to American anti-communism. I know, kinda sickening. But no one ever said you needed good politics to write a good book.

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