Stranger in a Strange Land
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554 of 597 people found the following review helpful
Reviewing Stranger in a Strange Land is quite a challenge. Is it the best science fiction novel ever published? I would say yes. Is it my favorite? No; it's not even my favorite Heinlein novel. To add a little more irony to the pot, Heinlein himself insisted that the book is not really science fiction to begin with. Stranger really marks a huge turning point in Heinlein's career. Unhappy with the brand of "juvenile" writer and the editing that position constantly entailed, Heinlein was determined to write a truly adult novel, one with no taboos, no limits, and no restrictions of any kind. With Stranger in a Strange Land he accomplished that in spades, basically taking on the heretofore sacrosanct subjects of sexuality and religion. Heinlein was not sure that anyone would even publish this story that took him 12 years to write; what was published was a mere figment of the original manuscript, 60,000 words having been cut out. Even though Heinlein did the editing himself, it had to have felt like jabbing an ice pick into his own heart to do it. Thankfully, we can now read the complete, original manuscript the way Heinlein intended the story to be told.
The plot is deceptively simple. The first manned mission to Mars never made it home to Earth. The second mission, twenty years later, found Valentine Michael Smith, an infant born on Mars and the only surviving member of the ill-fated first mission. Having been raised by Martians, Smith is literally a stranger in a strange land when he is brought back to earth with "miraculous" abilities and a Martian philosophy of life. The Federation government basically hides him away from prying eyes, partly in fear of the legal and political dangers posed by his unique status. Having been raised by Martians, the human experience is completely new and rather frightening to him. He has never even met a woman until nurse Jill Boardman sneaks into his room to get a glimpse of him. Fearful that the government is going to keep Michael basically imprisoned (or worse), Jill helps sneak him out of the hospital, and the two of them end up at the home of Jubal Harshaw. Jubal is an outspoken, older man who lives a thoroughly individual lifestyle, but he commits himself to helping Michael escape his perilous situation. Michael quickly begins to absorb human knowledge and, less quickly, begins to understand the confusing mentality of human beings.
Halfway through the novel, you may be asking yourself why the book was so controversial; the answer becomes clear as Michael now steps out into the wider world. He and Jill move around incognito, and Michael learns more about people. After a stint as an unsuccessful magician, he eventually decides to become a preacher. He's not preaching a religion, though; he offers humans a new way of living and thinking, one based on the Martian system he grew up in. This new lifestyle involves a lot of nudity, a lot of open fornication, and the constant repetition of a mantra of sorts naming yourself and those around you God. The "I am God, you are God" theme is essentially Heinlein's means of emphasizing the personal responsibility of each individual for his own life. It is not strictly antireligious, but certainly it is not an idea that would go over well among most fundamentalists. I say most because I am a fundamentalist myself, but I understand what Heinlein was saying and recognize the fact that, after all, this is fiction. Frankly, though, the free love theme bothers my sensibilities and causes my viewpoint of the novel to change somewhat. Even though disapproval began to temper my enthusiasm toward the end, I certainly cannot give this book less than five stars.
Science fiction readers had never read anything quite like Stranger back in 1961; its originality, bold themes, and fearless writing hit with the force of a hurricane, and science fiction has never been quite the same. The Hugo Award this novel rightfully won barely begins to give it the honor and acclaim it deserves. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, albeit I must enclose a caveat with my endorsement. This book has the power to shock readers even today; do not let your own beliefs take away from the wonder to be found in the pages of this novel. Stranger requires and deserves a completely open mind from anyone who would approach it; it also requires multiple readings to even begin to plumb the depths of its riches.
Anyone wanting to understand and get a true appreciation of the genius of Robert Heinlein really must read Stranger, but I would not recommend picking this book up before you have sampled some of Heinlein's other wares. It would be a real shame to let any adverse emotional reaction to the themes of this novel deprive you of the joy and wonder to be found in countless other Heinlein stories and novels.
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170 of 198 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2005
This novel was way ahead of its time in many ways, and yes, stuck in the 50s in other ways. Reading some people's negative reviews here has been amusing.

Most of them presume that Heinlein was writing from their 90s or post-2000 perspective for some insane reason. Take note: He wrote this *before* the so called "free-love" movement had become widespread in the 60s. Take further note: The water-brother mini-society he created in the novel wasn't "free-love" at all, but had a quite high barrier to entry.

Other negative posters are clearly unable to escape their ethnocentric viewpoint, finding the relationships constructed by Heinlein to be distasteful based on their societal values. If you are unable to think about a society that practices polyamory without feeling embarassment or nausea, or really think that it is simply "unnatural", then don't read this book. (...)

Most of all, remember this is science fiction. It's intended to portray an alternate reality, and I think it does a fine job of that while satirizing our reality at the same time. I could go on about other particulars of the book, but I won't: In short, this is one of the finest books ever written.
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61 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 1999
When I first picked up _Stranger in a Strange Land_ I wasn't expecting much. I had read _Starship Troopers_ and _The Puppet Masters_ and thought they were O.K. But this book just blew me away. Not so much because of its science fiction extrapolations, but rather for how funny, intelligent and true the book rang. _Stranger..._ shows human beings through the eyes of one Valentine Michael Smith, a Martian with human origins. He is so child-like, so innocent, so funny and calm in every situation even though he has such awesome powers--it's amazing to read about him. Along with Gully Foyle, in _The Stars My Destination_ I think he is one of the best SF protagonists ever written. And the way he learns and evolves from the strange cast of human characters--I also really liked Patty and Jubal Harshaw--is wonderful to read. The ending is so unforgettable. And how Heinlein came up with such a cool word like grok I'll never know. Also, he brings the interesting concept of water brothers into the story, and shows how humanity should love each other without resorting to meaningless violence. Sometimes Heinlein gets a bit too wordy and some of his views about God and woman I find hard to swallow--I can see why this book is so controversial. But aside from those minor flaws, _Strange..._ is a great book to read not only because it is enjoyable by itself as literature, but also because it has the intelligence and audacity to pose such difficult questions and firm beliefs about humanity, God and our place in the universe when now such concerns are ignored by most current SF.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
This book is Heinlein's most famous effort, still selling very well today in both its original (1961) 'cut' version, and in the 'uncut' version (about 60,000 words longer), released after his death by his wife, Virginia Heinlein. It is an extremely complex satirical book, with multiple literary and philosophical allusions and referents, and with attacks and comments on many of the basic tenents of American life and social structure, including sex, love, marriage, politics, government, religion(s), economics, tattoos, art, writing, astrology, journalism, TV, military, inheritance laws, cannibalism, prejudice, prisons, and carnival life. Heinlein's aim was for this book to create questions about all of a reader's basic assumptions, to gore every sacred cow, to upset all the apple-carts. In some ways, he succeeded beyond his dreams, as the book was 'adopted' as their bible by many of the '60s counter-culture movement, even to the point that several churches were established with this book as their basis (most notably the Church of All Worlds). Heinlein himself was rather terrified by this use, as he never intended the book to provide answers, only to force questions.

The plot line is fairly simple: A child born to the first Martian expedition, Valentine Michael Smith ("Mike"), is raised by the Martians and brought back to Earth as a young man, where he receives a rather eccentric education into the ways of man by those who befriend him. Once he feels that he understands humanity, Mike undertakes to educate humans in the philosophy of "Thou art God" in such a way that the truth of that statement is a provable tautology. As such, he becomes a self-proclaimed messiah, with the usual fate of messiahs that upset everyone's idea of what is 'right'. But those who have accepted his 'education' will continue on...

The book makes heavy use of irony and contrasting poles of thought, such as Mike (the innocent) vs Jubal Harshaw (the voice of experience), the Church of All Worlds (Appolonian) vs the Fosterites (Dionysian), the Carnival (heaven ) vs the Zoo (earth). Most of the character's names are important in terms of their 'meaning', elucidating and enhancing many of Heinlein's points. Due to its structure and theme, this is one of the few SF books that has been subjected to a fair amount of academic analysis, a process that continues to this day. Some critics have gone so far as to say that the book is not science fiction, but rather a modern example of a satire, belonging in the same realm as something like Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal".

This book has contributed some new words to the English language, most notably "grok" and "water-brother", and may have the best simple definition of love found anywhere: "Love is that condition in which the happiness of another is conditional to your own". (Note: this definition appears only in the 'cut' version, apparently thought up while he was editing the original version of the book down to what was at the time 'publishable' length).

Although this book reads very easily, with Heinlein's typical unforced, everyday American prose style, the concepts and questions he presents are neither simple nor trivial. Not all of his points are directly explicated - it is worthwhile for the reader to carefully look for some of the hidden, non-obvious parallels and historical referents that are scattered throughout this book. You don't need to agree with all his points, but reading this will make you examine of your own assumptions and beliefs, take a look with new eyes at the world around you, and find your own answers.
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28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2000
I won't go so far as to say that this is the greatest work of fiction ever written - it is not. It suffers on several counts, not least of which is that it marks the real beginning of Heinlein's later descent into rambling on at too great a length propounding on the benefits of free love at the expense of gripping storytelling.
That said, it nevertheless earns 5 stars not just for its well-deserved place near the top of the SF pantheon of 'must reads' but on its merits. This is no mere rayguns-and-aliens space opera and as such it was, in and of itself, also a contributor to a fundamental shift in the nature of all SF published afterward. I don't think it's going to far to say that this book reshaped the genre permanently.
One thing is certain: If you haven't read this book - or much of what Heinlein wrote after - it is very different form what you're expecting. At times it seems a simple enough story. But by taking Micheal Valentine Smith and raising him in an alien culture, Heinlein is able to draw out much of what it means to be human - his main character, after all, is an alien human who must learn for himself how his fellows work to try to fit in among them. A monumental endeavour for its time and no less relavent today. And, at the risk of repeating myself, this effort continues to this day in much of the better SF being published. The newer takes on the subject may not agree with Heinlein's point of view on the nature of humanity, but they cannot ignore it and in many ways they owe their ability to approach the issue in print to this book.
So, it's important. Does that also translate into a good read? Yes, it most certainly does. This novel is packed with fun and interesting characters interacting with panache and an ever-present hint of heresy that stimulates the mind to explore new ground even as it makes you laugh and/or nod your head in fervent agreement.
So, if you're a fan of SF you need to read this book not only b/c no SF collection is complete without it but also b/c it's great fun.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2000
Okay, I'll admit that to '90's sensibilities some of Stranger is kind of silly. Valentine Michael Smith, born on Mars and raised with Martian mind-over-matter powers, comes to earth to bring humans the enlightened truth: people should live in large communal groups, naked most of the time, swapping sexual partners willy-nilly. It's a very 60's thought and in the AIDS era, it seems downright dangerous.
Fortunately, the swinging isn't the central point of the novel. Most importantly, Heinlein lets the characters drive the story instead of vice versa, taking us into Valentine's head and making him a sympathetic hero. Like Christ (a clear parallel), he just wants people to be nicer to each other and live in harmony with the world. Like Christ, he discovers that people prefer conflict and ecological pillaging.
There are scathing riffs on popular religion (churches of the future feature bars and casinos), politics, and human nature. It's all wrapped up in a funny, easy read. You may not build yourself a nudist commune after reading this, but your consciousness will definitely be expanded.
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45 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 1999
I was not a born science fiction fan. Truth be told, I always thought it all a bit silly, but at the urging of a friend I sat down and read "Stranger In A Strange Land." Well, ten years later, I have read every book Robert Heinlein ever wrote. He is a science fiction writer, but his stories center around the human condition, using science only as a windowdressing to his fine dramas.
All detractors aside, Heinlein is a grand master, his prose elequently (and timeslessly I might add) speaking about what it is to be human. And "Stranger In A Strange Land" is a great example of this. The protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians, becomes through the course of the book the most human character of all, despite is otherworldly upraising. And eventhough the book was written in the late '50s, it reads as though it came off the presses not too long ago.
As for those who would speak ill of Heinlein and his works, especially this book, you either did not fully understand what it was he was trying to say (unlike the millions of others who did), or you can't see past the science fiction trappings to the inner story. It sparked an entire generation of people to be free and to love, and it continues to do so to this day. In the end it is a book about true love, pure love, and every time I read it I am reminded of what it means to be human. If you want a reminder too, read this book. It isn't a dearly loved classic for nothing...
PS: And just so you know, I am a member of Generation X, and it is just as relevant to me as it was to those who came before me.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 1997
I once made a joke to my English teacher regarding this book. Looking through a catalog of books while my teacher was deciding what to order for her students to read next year, my eyes alighted on Stranger in a Strange Land. "Get this for the summer reading" I told her, "and come September you'll have an entire class of liberals!"

That's how subversive this book is. I can see how it got a cult following and reading it is like brainwashing yourself. Heinlein makes some great ideas that probably wouldn't work in the real world but the great thing about fiction is that you can make your ideas always come out on top. His story of Valentine Michael Smith is a delightful satire on the world and most of it sadly still applies today. While I wouldn't consider it his best (that honor belongs to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, probably even more subversive, if that's possible), it's certainly an excellent novel and a watershed in the history of science-fiction.<P
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45 of 59 people found the following review helpful
A great many people have read Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND since it was first published in 1961--but while almost everyone enjoys the story, very few seem to actually get the point or indeed even understand what the novel is.

The story concerns Valentine Smith, a child born during Earth's first and failed attempt to establish a colony on Mars. The child is raised by Martians and absorbs Martian civilization, teachings, and training as if he were of the race. When a later expedition discovers Smith, he is "rescued" and returned to earth--and promptly begins a series of adventures that would put Voltaire's CANDIDE to shame.

Given the novel's premise many have described it as science fiction, but it is really nothing of the kind; futuristic concepts play only minor roles in the construct and imaginings based on science are more minor still. In fact, STRANGER IN A STRANGER LAND is essentially a satire, and like CANDIDE it focuses upon avarice, power, ignorance, and hypocrisy--and religious hypocrisy in particular.

In short order Smith is kidnapped by the government that claims to have "saved" him--and becomes a pawn in a series of political power plays designed to strip him of both his legal rights and his inherited wealth for the benefit of the status quo. No sooner does Smith escape this ordeal than he finds himself plunged into organized religion of the most vulgar description imaginable, complete with slot machines in the narthex, bar service in the sanctuary, and a stripper in every corner.

Unable to comprehend the motives of man, Smith goes underground in an effort to more fully understand the race--and after an unexpected turn emerges as a quasi-religious figure himself, preaching a philosophy that merges Martian and Earthly thought. But Smith proves all too human and is no more immune to human vices than those whose vices he seeks to correct, and the twin demons of government authority and religious fanaticism soon rise up to meet him.

Changing mores have left STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND with a slightly dated feel, and in some respects it reads as slightly sexist and faintly homophobic. Even so, the unfolding plot, the memorable characters, and Heinlein's bold style command attention; it is a page-turner if ever there was one. And the novel's razor-like derision of man's social inventions remains as bitterly comic--and as bitterly compelling--as ever. Strongly recommended.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2006
I am shocked at some of the bad reviews below.... I guess the book was set up well for me because I can see how someone just picking this up at random could find it quite boring. I was suggested to read this from a friend who told me it was one of the best books she has ever read in her life, but yet one of the worst stories. I love the book, though. Jubal makes a great comment that really relates how I view "Stranger in a Strange Land"

"Anybody can see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl she used to be. A great artist can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is... and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be... more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo see that this lovely young girl is still alive, prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart... no matter what the merciless hours have done."

The story and plot itself is, honestly, a boring old woman compared to other stories "meant" to excite you. I feel I see so many of the points behind the actual story itself, though. If you really analyze this book as you read (which isn't hard because Heinlein does a great job of almost forcing you to think and relate), you will see so many relevancies to so many things. Beyond that, the concept, if read and understood from start to finish, is quite genius.

Buy this book and be prepared. This is a trip and a work of art. You must treat is as a work of art and give it the attention it deserves. The more attention you put into it, the more you will get out of it at the end. Enjoy!
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