If any work of fiction will earn Robert Heinlein a permanent place on the collective bookshelf, it is going to be Stranger in a Strange Land, for the impact it has made on American society. If a person has not managed to read Strangerby now, then he has at least absorbed a bit of it osmotically, for it flows throughout our cultural consciousness. Perhaps least of all, it anticipated Nancy Reagan's reliance on astrology and spawned the water bed and the neologism 'grok,' (Heinlein's Martian verb for a thorough understanding), though 'grok' would never have taken hold, had the young rebels of the 1960s not discovered Stranger as their counterculture bible. Some went even further and formed 'nests' and churches based on what they found in Stranger; perhaps the most famous instance of that is the Church of All Worlds, a pagan group who lifted its name and logo intact from the book. Stranger has also begun to be included in many canonical college reading lists, and Billy Joel saw fit to mention the title in his 1989 Top-40 hit about history, 'We Didn't Start the Fire.'
Stranger's fire was kindled in 1948 in a brainstorming session between Robert Heinlein and his wife, Virginia. While looking for material to fit John Campbell's title, 'Gulf,' Mrs. Heinlein thought it would be interesting to explore the case of a human raised by Martians. Heinlein thought that the idea would make a pretty good Lettres Perses–type novel, took some notes and filed it away for later use, finally placing the completed but abridged version with Putnam's in 1961 (an uncut edition was released in 1991).
Stranger in a Strange Land tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, orphaned progeny of the first manned expedition to Mars, who has been raised by Martians and brought back to Earth by a second human expedition. Though he is a man in his twenties, Smith looks at absolutely everything on this new planet through the ignorant eyes of a baby, and faces the job of learning how to be a human being. If the world government of Earth will let him, that is, for Smith, through a legal fluke, not only has sole survivor rights to the space drive that his mother invented, but also to the surface of Mars. In a Byzantine maneuver that makes Watergate seem minor, the government holds Smith hostage while it tries to figure out how to seize his assets. Ben Caxton, a muckraking reporter, suspects the worst and attempts to rescue Smith. The problem is, if you can't fight City Hall, how can you even begin to fight a world government?
Enter Caxton's friend, Jubal Harshaw, attorney, physician, hack writer, bon vivant, curmudgeon, anarchist. He caches Smith in Freedom Hall, his Poconos enclave, and takes on the dual chore of fighting the world federation for Smith's liberty and of educating Smith in the ways of his biological race. The youth is an apt student, a strange admixture of human infant and Martian superman, and as time goes on, he manages to win more and more people over to his own alien viewpoint. He becomes a kind of messiah–with explosive results.
Given that, I leave it to the reader to pick up Stranger in a Strange Land and revel in it. In spite of the movements and religions it has birthed, Stranger is no bible; it is a sprawling satire of human conceits, including marriage, love, sex and–most importantly–religion. Satire usually aims to inform, so if one is looking for any message in Stranger, then one take a good, long look at Heinlein's targets and think. As Heinlei