Places: Stranger in a Strange Land

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Science fiction

Time of work: Early twenty-first century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Mars

*Mars. Stranger in a Strange LandFourth planet from the Sun and the birthplace of Valentine Michael “Mike” Smith, the title character and only survivor of the first human expedition to that planet. All the original members of the expedition die shortly after Mike is born, but native Martians raise him to physical adulthood. World War III prevents a second expedition until twenty years later. When that expedition returns to Earth, they bring Mike home with them.

When Heinlein finished his juvenile novel Red Planet (1949), he felt he had enough unused background material on Mars for another book, which became Stranger in a Strange Land. This novel was one of the last major science fiction stories published before the NASA probes of the 1960’s. As in the earlier novel, Heinlein incorrectly postulated that there are canals carrying scarce water from the poles to the equatorial region and that the planet is inhabited by a super-intelligent species. A typical Martian household, called a nest, consists of eggs, nestlings, adults, and Old Ones.

Since Heinlein’s purpose is satire, the story would be the same whether the planet was Mars or one in a distant galaxy. The main point is that Mike spent the first twenty years of his life on a planet where water was scarce.

*Bethesda Medical Center

*Bethesda Medical Center. U.S. Navy hospital in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. In Stranger in a Strange Land, the hospital is affiliated with the Federation, because there is no longer a U.S. Navy. The name Bethesda has connection to both water and religion, because it was the name of a pool in biblical Jerusalem believed to have healing powers.

When Mike arrives on Earth, he is held incommunicado in a hospital suite with no windows supposedly because of Earth’s stronger gravity and to protect him from the press. In reality, he is a prisoner. Jill Boardman, the female lead of the novel, is a nurse who brings him water. Unknown to her, the sharing of water is an important bonding ritual on Mars. She and Michael become “water brothers,” and Michael trusts her absolutely although they have just met.

Harshaw’s home

Harshaw’s home. Fourteen-room house in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, a rural resort area noted for religious tolerance. The house sits on several acres and is surrounded by an electric fence. One of the world’s leading dissidents, Jubal makes a living by writing stories, which he dictates to three beautiful female secretaries who live there. They also cook the meals and clean the house. Heinlein based the setup on the household of mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason.

When Jill realizes that Mike’s life is in danger, she helps him escape to Jubal’s house, where Mike learns to read and write English, dress himself, and eat with a knife and fork. Mike uses Jubal’s extensive library of medical and legal textbooks to gain a theoretical knowledge about human beings. After Mike and Jill’s arrival, the household resembles a Martian one, where Mike is the egg, Jill the nestling, the secretaries and other staff adults, and Jubal the Old One.

Harshaw’s home has a swimming pool, which Mars-born Mike considers the ultimate in luxury. Everyone who swims with him becomes his “water brother.”

Archangel Foster Tabernacle

Archangel Foster Tabernacle. Headquarters church of a new religion, the Church of the New Revelation, also known as the Fosterites. Supreme Bishop Digby, the head of the church, invites Mike to a service, which he attends with Jubal and Jill. Heinlein uses the visit to satirize all churches, temples, and mosques as forms of entertainment. They enter through the Happiness Room, where they find slot machines and a bar. Then they visit the Happy Thoughts meditation chamber, where they see the preserved corpse of Foster, the religion’s founder. For the service itself, they sit in a luxury box, which has adjustable seats, ashtrays, and refreshments. Although hidden from view during the service, they are told there is a giant television screen that allows the church to double as a sports bar. The service itself includes a snake dance, a sermon, and hymns. Each hymn has a different corporate sponsor.

*San Francisco

*San Francisco. California city named for Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order, that stands on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. These connections give the city both religious and water connections. While visiting the zoo there, Mike has an epiphany at the Monkey House. When he observes the behavior of the monkeys, he finally grasps the human concepts of comedy and tragedy and, consequently, what it means to be a human being.

Mike’s nest

Mike’s nest. Informal name for Mike’s Church of All Worlds in St. Petersburg, Florida. Heinlein chose this city because it literally means “city of Saint Peter,” Christ’s leading disciple and the first Pope, and, like San Francisco, it lies on a peninsula between two bodies of water, the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. The church contains an auditorium for public meetings, smaller rooms for invitational meetings, a large library, a swimming pool, and living quarters. Like Harshaw’s household, it is organized like a Martian one, in which the beginning disciples are eggs, intermediate ones are nestlings, advanced disciples adults, and Mike is the Old One.

Mike and his disciples have a group marriage and live there until an incendiary bomb forces them to flee to the Sans Souci Hotel, elsewhere in St. Petersburg, which Mike secretly owns. Sans Souci is French for “without worry,” and they feel safe inside. Mike and his disciples have a kind of Last Supper there.


Heaven. The afterlife. It too is organized like a Martian household. Ordinary humans are eggs, saints are nestlings, angels and archangels are adults, and God is the ultimate Old One. Heinlein’s Heaven is an ecumenical one. Mike enters at the Archangel level. Bishop Digby, who died shortly after their meeting, is already there and becomes Mike’s assistant, despite the differences in their religions. When they need rest and recreation, they can visit the Muslim Paradise for unlimited food, drink, and sex.

Heinlein describes Heaven in greater detail in Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984). However, any similarity is superficial. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Heaven is a vigorous place in which the organization has constructive purposes, such as building new universes and saving souls on the Earth and other planets. In the later book, it is a decadent place with a rigid class system for which the abiding principle is “Rank Hath Its Privileges.”

BibliographyFranklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. This general treatment of Heinlein’s fiction is more an attack on Heinlein’s belief system, as well as America in general, than literary criticism. Its section on Stranger in a Strange Land suggests that the novel is adversely affected by a tacit Calvinism.Heinlein, Robert A. Grumbles from the Grave. Edited by Virginia Heinlein. New York: Ballantine, 1990. This posthumously published selection of Heinlein’s letters mentions Stranger in a Strange Land throughout. Chapter 14 contains letters about the novel itself, chapter 15 about reactions to the novel.Panshin, Alexei. Heinlein in Dimension. Chicago: Advent, 1968. Critiques Heinlein’s work in terms of craftsmanship, though most of it boils down to a complaint that Heinlein did not write his stories the way Panshin would have. Five pages are devoted to Stranger in a Strange Land.Plank, Robert. “Omnipotent Cannibals in Stranger in a Strange Land.” In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by J. D. Olander and M. H. Greenburg. New York: Taplinger, 1978. This psychoanalytical study of Heinlein’s novel examines the implications of the philosophy presented in the book, which Plank sees as Utopian fantasy.Slusser, George Edgar. Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in His Own Land. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1976. Touches on all of Heinlein’s fiction, and the middle third deals exclusively with Stranger in a Strange Land.
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