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Few books deserve the title of “Cult Classic” more than Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel about a Martian-raised human who returns to earth and ends up transforming human culture in profound ways. Although it started out as a minor hit in the science fiction world, Stranger in a Strange Land would eventually became a crossover success – attracting a devoted following among the counterculture movement of the 1960’s due to its emphasis on free love, liberty and the shared human experience. And while it may not seem as controversial and groundbreaking today as it did back then, it still has a lot to say about our current culture of consumerism and our reliance on organized religion to dictate our social and spiritual interactions.
Stranger in a Strange Land Summary
The novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the offspring of the first human astronauts to reach the planet Mars. After the death of the crew, Smith becomes an orphan and is raised by the native Martians as if he were one of their own. During his time there, he acquires a number of the traits of the Martian culture, including the ability to read minds and control matter in strange and unusual ways. When he is eventually found and brought back to earth by a second expedition to Mars, he becomes an instant celebrity as the only known human to have made contact with the Martians and returned to Earth.
Valentine’s acclimation to human customs and mores (as well as Earth’s gravity and physical constraints) is slow and awkward – helped along by a Nurse named Gillian Boardman who inadvertently becomes Smith’s first “Water-Brother.” After escaping the grasp of leaders who wish to use him for their own personal gain, Valentine and Gillian (along with the help of the famous author and bon vivant Jubal Harshaw) are able to set about constructing a religion of their own based on the principles and teachings of the Martian way.
While some of the overall themes may seem a little heavy-handed to a modern audience, I can see how they may have caused a stir when they were first published.
Stranger in a Strange Land Quotes
“Smith is not a man. He is an intelligent creature with the genes and ancestry of a man, but he is not a man. He’s more a Martian than a man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a human being. He thinks like a Martian, he feels like a Martian. He’s been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us. Why, they don’t even have sex. Smith has never laid eyes on a woman — still hasn’t if my orders have been carried out. He’s a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment.”