Heinlein Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The subversive and irreverent science-fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land gained a cult following, especially among students, even though Robert A. Heinlein was in many ways dissimilar to his counterculture admirers.

Summary of Event

By 1961, Robert A. Heinlein was considered the dean of American science fiction. An Annapolis graduate, his first career was as a naval officer. After retiring for medical reasons in 1934, he did graduate work in physics and mathematics at the University of California at Los Angeles. His writing career began when Astounding Science Fiction Astounding Science Fiction (periodical) published his first story, “Life-Line,” "Life-Line" (Heinlein)[Life Line (Heinlein)] in 1939. Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein) Science fiction [kw]Heinlein Publishes Stranger in a Strange Land (June 1, 1961) [kw]Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein Publishes (June 1, 1961) Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein) Science fiction [g]North America;June 1, 1961: Heinlein Publishes Stranger in a Strange Land[06970] [g]United States;June 1, 1961: Heinlein Publishes Stranger in a Strange Land[06970] [c]Literature;June 1, 1961: Heinlein Publishes Stranger in a Strange Land[06970] Heinlein, Robert A. Campbell, John W., Jr. Manson, Charles

At that time, science fiction was a minor literary form read mainly by dedicated fans. Much of it was space opera—epic adventure stories that involved spaceships and alien monsters. Some writers and editors attempted to popularize science and technology through fiction. Among them was Hugo Gernsback Gernsback, Hugo , who founded Amazing Stories Amazing Stories (periodical) magazine in 1926 to popularize what he called “scientifiction.”

John W. Campbell, Jr., a science-fiction writer himself, had assumed the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and continued in that role until 1950. He is credited, as an editor, with moving science fiction toward its modern form. Under Campbell’s influence, science-fiction writers grounded their stories in scientific concepts but then speculated about how technology might affect the lives of ordinary people and society in general. Heinlein’s fiction fit into this more sociological mode.

From 1947 to 1959, Heinlein produced sixteen novels, winning Hugo Awards Hugo Awards for Double Star Double Star (Heinlein) (1956) and Starship Troopers Starship Troopers (Heinlein) (1959). Many were written for juvenile readers. His early novels emphasized adventure. In many ways, Heinlein was a conservative, and conservative views often were apparent in his work. In Starship Troopers, he preached the value of law and order and the need for military force. He also set forth the idea that some people, in this case the military, constitute a natural elite. In this vision of the future, only military veterans could vote or hold political office. As in his other early books, there were almost no female characters.

The audience for science fiction was growing, perhaps because of real scientific advances and the space program, but the genre still was being read mainly by a select group of fans. On June 1, 1961, after Heinlein had edited some sixty thousand words from his original text, Putnam published Stranger in a Strange Land. At 408 pages, it was his longest book so far. Released in paperback in 1968, it became the most successful science-fiction novel ever published and the first to appear on the best-seller list of The New York Times Book Review. A new, 525-page edition with all the deleted passages restored was published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1991.

Heinlein did win a third Hugo Award for Stranger in a Strange Land, but this book differed dramatically from his other work. It received strong critical reaction, both positive and negative. In his earlier fiction, Heinlein seemed unsure of whether to emphasize adventure or ideology; Stranger in a Strange Land definitely emphasized ideology, satirizing American sexual mores and religion. Some critics saw the sexual content as cheap eroticism.

The “stranger” of the title is Valentine Michael Smith, child of two members of the first expedition to Mars. He is reared by Martians in their culture after all the humans on Mars have died. When he is twenty-five years old, a second Mars expedition discovers him and brings him back to Earth. Mike is young, naïve, and an outsider. Although he is physically human, Earth’s culture is strange to him. Saved from manipulative politicians by a young nurse, Jill, he is sheltered and educated by Jubal Harshaw, an old doctor, lawyer, and successful writer. Harshaw’s open mind is not limited by the culture in which he lives, and critics agree that his voice is Heinlein’s voice.

Mike’s Martian training has given him paranormal powers, including telepathy, psychokinesis, and the ability to make any human or object cease to exist. Because everything is alien, however, he seems helpless at first. As he learns English, he grows more human. He reads copiously from Harshaw’s library and is socialized by Harshaw, Jill, and Harshaw’s young employees. He matures when he discovers sex. Martians are different from humans, in that all adult Martians are males and all children are females. Sex is solely for the propagation of the species, with no other interaction. Adult Martians grow closer through mental telepathy and sharing water, a precious resource on Mars. Mike realizes that sex is a way for humans to grow closer. Because human males and females are polar opposites, theirs is a dynamic relationship and therefore superior to that of Martians.

In the second half of the book, Mike starts a new religion based on Martian philosophy. Only certain humans are selected for this elite fellowship, and they must struggle to learn the Martian language so they can understand the Martian view of the universe. With proper discipline and instruction, Mike’s male and female disciples, called “water brothers,” begin to develop the same abilities that he has. The water brothers share everything, including bed partners. Since sex is a way of growing closer, it is a good thing and logically is shared among water brothers freely and without jealousy.

Because of its sexual content, Stranger in a Strange Land seems a radical departure from Heinlein’s earlier works. His basic philosophy, however, still comes through. Heinlein believed that a free society would allow a natural elite to rise in a sort of social Darwinism. Mike’s water brothers are a select group, better than the rest of humanity. The elite may use force for the good of society, illustrated by Mike using his powers to weed out people in whom he senses wrongness.

Two later Heinlein novels explore sexual themes: I Will Fear No Evil I Will Fear No Evil (Heinlein) (1970) and Time Enough for Love Time Enough for Love (Heinlein) (1973). The first is about Johann Smith, an elderly white male who, when he dies, has his brain transplanted into the body of Eunice, his beautiful young black secretary, whose consciousness is somehow preserved. A dual male-female consciousness in a female body presents interesting problems of sexual identity. To further complicate matters, Johann has this body impregnated with his frozen sperm. Both consciousnesses die when giving birth.

Time Enough for Love recounts the life of Lazarus Long, who lives sometime in the future, when medical science has made humans virtually immortal. Long has many sexual adventures, but all the major characters turn out to be some form of himself. Long has himself cloned into female twins and then has sex with them, an act which is not so much incest as masturbation. He also travels back in time, falling in love with and having sex with his own mother.

George Edgar Slusser, a noted science-fiction critic, describes I Will Fear No Evil as one of the worst things Heinlein ever wrote. Time Enough for Love was not well received either. Stranger in a Strange Land was Heinlein’s best attempt at philosophical fiction and by far the most widely read.


Read at first almost exclusively by science-fiction fans, Stranger in a Strange Land eventually found a wider audience, especially after the paperback edition was released in 1968. It has been popular among college students and other young adults ever since.

Stranger in a Strange Land has been described as a book that readers can interpret as they wish. It appeals to young people, who may identify with Mike because he is different from other people and seemingly helpless at the beginning of the book but possessing special powers. They may wish for the type of friends that Mike has in his water brothers, people who care about and accept one another totally.

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, many readers considered the book a blueprint for a whole new way of living. Although Heinlein claimed that he was not giving answers, merely posing questions and challenging his readers’ preconceptions, many of the ideas espoused by Valentine Michael Smith seemed to dramatize the values of the counterculture United States;counterculture Counterculture;literature that emerged in the 1960’s.

One example is the sexual revolution. Mike perceives that sex is a way for people to grow closer and that it should be shared without jealousy. Monogamy and the confines of traditional sexual mores do not apply. This matched closely the “free love” philosophy that spread in the 1960’s.

Valentine Michael Smith’s new religion seemed to incorporate aspects of the changing attitudes toward religion. Unlike the Fosterites, the largest religious group in the book, Mike and his followers do not value material success. Mike himself is a modern Christ figure, rebelling against established authority. Some elements of the Martian religion appear to stem from Zen Buddhism. For Mike, God is not a separate being but is present in all creatures—himself, his followers, the police, the cat, even the rose bushes. When Mike sends into nonexistence a human who is threatening his group, he is merely sending that individual back to the starting line to try again, in a sort of reincarnation. Like the Zen Buddhists, Mike and his followers meditate to reach insights and deepen their understanding.

Mike’s superhuman abilities appealed to the counterculture’s interest in parapsychology. His psychokinetic and telepathic talents, his ability to make something happen by wishing it, and his willingness to teach other humans attracted those who rejected the avowed objectivity of conventional scientists.

The strangest and most grotesque influence of the book was on Charles Manson, whose “family” murdered actor Sharon Tate and six other people in 1969. From 1961 to 1967, Manson was incarcerated in McNeil Island Penitentiary, where he read heavily. He was influenced greatly by Scientology, Church of Scientology a religion that believes in reincarnation and was founded by L. Ron Hubbard Hubbard, L. Ron , another author who wrote for Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. Manson read Stranger in a Strange Land and identified with Valentine Michael Smith.

When he started his “family” in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, Manson borrowed some of the terminology and ceremonies from the book. It is reported that his followers held water-sharing ceremonies, as well as orgies. He referred to his parole officer as “Roger Smith Jubal,” after Jubal Harshaw, Mike’s mentor. When Mary Theresa Brunner, one of Manson’s followers, gave birth to a baby boy in 1968, Manson named the child Valentine Michael Manson.

In the book, Smith uses his paranormal powers to eliminate people and things that he senses are wrong. Manson apparently felt qualified to make similar judgments and to eliminate those that he thought deserved nonexistence. It is ironic that Heinlein, who in Starship Troopers promoted the value of law and order, including such punishments as public floggings for drunk driving, should have created the model for a psychotic mass murderer.

Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult book for members of the counterculture, even though Heinlein himself was essentially conservative. It has outlasted that period. It was the first science-fiction book to find a wide audience outside the community of science-fiction fans, and it helped usher in an era in which other science-fiction books as well as television programs and movies would be accepted by the general public. Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein) Science fiction

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Budrys, Algis. “An Essay on Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988).” Fantasy and Science Fiction 75 (September, 1988): 26-32. Written shortly after Heinlein’s death, this essay discusses Heinlein’s life, his work, and his place in the science-fiction genre. The influences of others in the field, especially Joseph Campbell, are mentioned.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A critical discussion of Heinlein’s work. Includes helpful biographical and bibliographical information. The author divides Heinlein’s work into five periods: early fiction, new frontiers (1947-1959), a voice of the 1960’s, the private worlds of the 1970’s, and the last years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“A Martian Model.” Time 95 (January 19, 1970): 44-45. Reports the discovery that Manson tried to emulate the lifestyle of Heinlein’s man from Mars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicholls, Richard E. “The Biggest, Fattest Sacred Cows.” The New York Times Book Review (December 9, 1990): 13. A brief background of the writing of Stranger in a Strange Land and the effect the book had.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenburg, eds. Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Taplinger, 1978. A collection of critical essays on Heinlein’s work. Each essayist focuses on a different theme, ranging from Heinlein’s juvenile novels to the social Darwinism evident in his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schulman, J. Neil. The Robert Heinlein Interview and Other Heinleiniana. Mill Valley, Calif.: Pulpless.com, 1999. Includes a telephone interview conducted with Heinlein in 1973, as well as criticism of the writer’s work. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slusser, George Edgar. Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in His Own Land. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1976. A critical discussion of Stranger in a Strange Land and other later works. The author shows how these books, although different from Heinlein’s previous works, are consistent with his general philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. “Heinlein Gets the Last Word.” The New York Times Book Review (December 9, 1990): 13. A review of the unabridged version of Stranger in a Strange Land. The author also discusses the importance of the work.

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