Robert Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land


Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, New York: Ace/Putnam, 525 pages, $24.95

The original version of Robert Heinlein's classic novel was published earlier this year, including more than 50,000 words he was required to cut.

The book caused quite a sensation when it was published in 1961. The best-known and most notorious of Robert Heinlein's numerous novels, it is a social/political satire of some of the basic premises of today's civilization—in Heinlein's own words, challenging the "two untouchables" of monogamy and monotheism (although it also challenges many prevailing notions of politics and government).

Readers seeking previously undisclosed sexual episodes or more blasphemous treatment of received wisdom will not find them in this restored edition. What they will find, however, is greater elaboration on Heinlein's characters' challenges to conventional wisdom, making the whole enterprise more comprehensible and, in my judgment, better done. Thirty years after its publication, the book holds up very well, both as criticism and as science fiction.

In Stranger, some sort of (non-all-out-nuclear) World War III has led to a New World Order in which a U.N.-type Federation government is the dominant political authority on the planet. The U.S. president is reduced to one among many statesmen, with the Federation secretary general the numero uno world leader—the George Bush of the day. As if the story were concocted from today's headlines, we find the secretary general (who happens to be an American) manipulated on many matters of state by his ambitious wife, who turns for advice to her trusted astrologer. We have a world (conceived in the '50s) with such commonplaces as water beds, fax machines, stereo TVs, socially acceptable single motherhood, populist preachers as politically powerful figures, and exceedingly powerful and pervasive government.

All this provides the backdrop for Heinlein's literal use of the "man from Mars" device to highlight and question the received wisdom on sex, religion, and politics. He posits a human infant, the sole survivor of the first manned Mars mission, raised to adulthood by a very alien race of Martians with "psi" powers and without gender and sexual reproduction. The book follows the career of Valentine Michael Smith, from his return to Earth as a young adult to his evolution into a cult figure, religious leader, and martyr.

Though ideas figured prominently in most of Heinlein's fiction, he often stated that his main reason for writing was to make a living by telling stories. With Stranger, he made an exception. This was the book, more than any other, in which he wished to express ideas, to say his piece, to make people think. After 30 years, it's clear that he succeeded.