enhanced] DD-B

Book Note: Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

I read this book about 6-Aug-2001. I've read this book before. The book is copyright 1961. This note was last modified Saturday, 10-Jul-2010 09:07:49 PDT.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


Since I just finished The Martian Named Smith (a critical study of Stranger), it seemed only right to read the book itself.

Uncut, as-written, version [order from Amazon.com]

I've chosen to read the as-originally-published version; both that version, and the as-written version, are still in print. I last read the as-written version, and while it was about 60,000 words longer, I didn't feel it was more complete, deeper, or better particularly. And I believe that Heinlein did some of his own final polish at the same time he made the editorial (and his own) cuts; so the as-written version lacks some polish. The copy I'm actually reading shows a cover price of $1.25. It seems to be the 18th Berkeley printing, from February of 1972.

Things that Have Aged Poorly

I'm going to pull a bunch of things that stand out as coming from a future other than the one we got in this book; mostly for amusement.

Computers, as Usual

Nearly every book written that far back completely missed computers and networking (or perhaps "information technology") as the coming big thing, and it makes them read strangely to people today. Aircars people can accept. Portable phones not being called "cell phones" people can accept (though if they're paying attention, they'll notice they're in cabs and things, but not man-portable). But the ubiquity of computers today is completely missing from all sorts of old science fiction.

(The Mote in God's Eye (#2) probably came closest to getting this right, and it was published in 1973, 12 years later than Stranger. It's still a notable achievement.)

There is a mention of a moving map on a "lap board" on the rented flying Greyhound bus. There are programmable controls on the phone (Jubal sets it for 10 minutes refusal at one point, for example). Jill's bed the first night at Jubal's house has controls in the headboard for all sorts of things. These look like they'd be implemented by computer technology to us, today; Heinlein doesn't mention how they are achieved.

Types of Commentators

Ben Caxton casually refers a "winchells" and "lippmanns" (note the lack of capitalization) on page 24, and Jubal refers to Ben by the wrong term (and Jill corrects him hotly) later on. These two refer to actual commentators from the 40s and 50s. But the names were unfamiliar to me when I read the book (in the mid to late 60s the first time, I believe). Their iconic importance, obvious to Ben, and I believe intended by Heinlein to be obvious to me, had completely gone away.

Walter Winchell

Walter Winchell (1897-1972) was a newspaper gossip columnist and then a radio commentator as well, purveying the same material. He apparently had a very rapid delivery, and a razor-sharp wit. He ruled the New York "club" scene with an iron tongue, or something; and made a lot of enemies. When the club scene collapsed, and when his support for Senator McCarthy became politically incorrect, his reputation pretty much evaporated.

Walter Lippmann

(1889-1974) A journalist and author, he held socialist views, then rejected them (in 1914) and supported more mainstream Democratic positions. He became more liberal later in life, and opposed the Korean war, Senator McCarthy, and the Vietnam war.

Lippmann was clearly the more respectable of the two, and probably less powerful and well-known even in his time.


Jill gives Mike instructions for avoiding passes (p. 289) and he "re-thinks" his face into more masculine lines, to avoid possible confusion on this topic. "But Jill was not sure that Mike would refuse a pass, say, from Duke--fortunately Mike's male water brothers were decidedly masculine, just as his others were very female women. Jill suspected that Mike would grok a 'wrongness' in the poor in-betweeners anyhow--they would never be offered water." And then on p. 293, Jill is glad not to have discovered latent Lesbian tendencies in herself; it "would have been too much".

This might have been pretty tolerant treatment by the standards of some of the times Heinlein grew up (like the Naval Academy, I guess 1925-1929). On the other hand, it stands out as badly skewed today.

I will Fear No Evil [order from Amazon.com]

Time Enough For Love [order from Amazon.com]

This is an issue on which the attitudes in Heinlein's books actually changed a lot over time. In I Will Fear No Evil (1970) there's a pair of lawyers (at least one is a judge) who are gay, and nothing much is made of it. And in Time Enough For Love (1973), Galahad and Ishtar get committed to "Seven Hours of Ecstacy" in a negotiation in which they don't know each other's sexes; the question is brought up once, but dismissed quickly as irrelevant. (On the other, hand they express pleased surprise to discover that they are of opposite sexes.)


Nobody would believe the wife of the leader of the free world guiding his actions based on the advice of her astrologer, would they? I mean, it's just too crazy. It's completely ridiculous.


When discussing the possibility that Mike might be assassinated (p. 178), Jubal mentions a couple of historical cases -- but none of the ones that modern readers will remember, since the book was written before Kennedy, Kennedy, King, and X (which I remember as the big shocks of the 60s). Well, okay, I do remember learning that Huey Long was assassinated, but it was historical when I learned about it, and something of a footnote.


Error: no default data, no specificed link text certainly got me thinking about various issues about the book. Between their own issues, and the issues they imported from earlier critics, they cover a lot.

Martian Magic

A lot of critics have worried at the impracticality of the situation created within the inner circle of the Church of all Worlds. It depends on Martian magic to give them their powers and to keep them honest.

Patterson & Thornton say that because the book is a satire, we aren't to look for realistic proposals (at least that's what I get out of their various statements on the topic). I don't find this fully convincing either.

A good amount of space is spent in Stranger in describing the powers and ethical limitations of the inner circle. They drive a lot of the action, too, especially at the blow-off. Mike rids a city of jails and of criminals, escapes from jail himself, and disposes of many vehicles and squads of soldiers.

This connects to the "Thou art god" mantra. Each is god, and is personally powerful and personally responsible. Allegedly the degree of self-knowledge required to attain this power makes one inherently ethical. This suggests that ethics is somehow an absolute (though not god-given; at least the ethics aren't based on any actual religion, and the Church of all Worlds is explicitly not a religion, it's just organized that way for legal benefit. Is this a significant part of the content of the book, or is it Heinlein's attempt to deal with the major difficulties of the scheme, which he knew would be obvious to science fiction readers? (Remember, any member of the innermost circle has the power to destroy the Earth.)

One possible reading is that it's there to highlight the places where real human beings don't come up to the idealized standards of the inner circle.

I'm not sure I'm happy with that reading, either. If the book is about the hopeless state of humanity, the shape and feeling is all wrong.

What I end up taking from this book (and note I'm not blaming Heinlein for it; it could be all in my own head) is a strong belief in the importance of personal responsibility, and a devout hope that personal power will not continue to outpace personal responsibility. Now that I see it this way, there's an interesting parallel to Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution books, in which it's possible for people to buy personal nuclear deterrance (on a contract basis from one of the former Soviet client states).

Is it Science Fiction?

Yes, of course it is. Many of us point to it while we say "science fiction", so it is. It won the Hugo award in 1962; lots of us think it is. That they could even entertain this question, much less reach the conclusion that it is not, is very puzzling.

Why might it not be? Possibly because Patterson & Thornton don't actually understand science fiction (though that seems unlikely, having chosen to write a book on such a famous work, and clearly being familiar with at least Heinlein's other work).

Perhaps because they misunderstand what SF is? Science fiction is a way of thinking. It's following through the consequences of your ideas, the changes you make in your world. Thus it is in some sense orthogonal to ordinary genres. We have science fiction mysteries, and science fiction historicals (alternate history), and science fiction action adventure (space opera), and science fiction romance (no genre name). In all these cases, some are written by authors from the SF side, and some are written by authors from the genre side. And to my taste, the authors from the SF side consistently do a much better job. Of course I am from the SF side.

So Stranger is an SF satire.

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David Dyer-Bennet