While Robert A. Heinlein had put together a healthy bibliography throughout the 1940s and ’50s, he broke new ground with the publication of his 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. The apex of Heinlein’s career and a cornerstone of its genre, the sociopolitical allegory is now recognized as a landmark of American literature. Despite the novel’s prominence, there are a few facts about its conception, writing, and extensive rewriting that might have eluded you.
1. THE BOOK’S ORIGINAL TITLE WAS NOT AS BIBLICAL.
The novel takes its title from the scriptural verse Exodus 2:22 and Moses’s reflections on fleeing Egypt and producing a son with his wife Zipporah: “For he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Before adopting the passage as the name of his book, Heinlein considered the decidedly less religious title The Heretic. The author also tinkered with working titles including A Martian Named Smith and The Man from Mars.
2. THE AUTHOR’S WIFE CAME UP WITH THE IDEA THAT INSPIRED STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.
While Heinlein brought the interplanetary exploits of Valentine Michael Smith to life, his third wife, Virginia, provided the basic idea from which the novel sprang. What’s more, Ginny Heinlein—an accomplished biochemist and engineer—drew inspiration for the concept that would become Stranger in a Strange Land from the works of author Rudyard Kipling. She summarized the idea as a variation on The Jungle Book with the Mowgli character raised by Martians rather than animals.
3. THE STORY’S DEVELOPMENT TOOK 13 YEARS.
The idea first came to the Heinlein household in 1948, but Robert Heinlein shelved the concept in favor of projects that promised quicker turnarounds. Throughout the early 1950s, Heinlein accumulated bits and pieces of the overall “boy from Mars” story before finally starting to assemble a coherent manuscript in 1955—albeit one he quickly abandoned.
The late 1950s saw Heinlein devoting his focus to projects like running ads in favor of nuclear testing and the novel Starship Troopers, with occasional returns to what would ultimately become Stranger in a Strange Land. He completed the novel by 1960 before spending a year answering his publishers’ demands for revision.
4. HEINLEIN FOUGHT TO KEEP THE MORE “CONTROVERSIAL” MATERIAL IN THE NOVEL.
Publishing group G.P. Putnam’s Sons initially urged Heinlein to ditch some of the book’s more controversial passages, particularly content that touched on sexual or religious themes. Heinlein remained unconvinced that his story could survive without these elements. The author famously remarked in a letter to longtime friend and literary agent Lurton Blassingame, “If I cut out religion and sex, I am very much afraid that I will end with a nonalcoholic martini.”
Heinlein continued, “This story is supposed to be a completely free-wheeling look at contemporary human culture from the nonhuman viewpoint of the Man from Mars (in the sense of the philosophical cliche)…No sacred cows of any sort…But, in addition to a double dozen of minor satirical slants, the two major things which I am attacking are the two biggest, fattest sacred cows of all, the two that every writer is supposed to give at least lip service to: the implicit assumptions of our Western culture concerning religion and concerning sex.”
Summing up his stance, Heinlein proclaimed, “I don't see how to take out the sex and religion. If I do, there isn't any story left.”
5. EDITORS SUCCEEDED IN GETTING HEINLEIN TO TRIM THE NOVEL’S SPRAWLING LENGTH
The initial draft that Heinlein turned in to Putnam tipped the scales at a whopping 220,000 words and 800 pages, far too long for the publisher’s tastes. While Heinlein was ultimately permitted to keep the sexual and religious content, he did agree to cut over a quarter—approximately 60,000 words—of his text.
6. HEINLEIN WAS DISAPPOINTED BY THE PRINTED VERSION.
The extensive edits required by Putnam left Heinlein unhappy with Stranger in a Strange Land. The author lamented the state of the novel during a late stage of the editing process in a letter to Blassingame: “The story is now as tight as a wedge in a green stump and, short of completely recasting it and rewriting it, I can’t get it much tighter. I have rewritten and cut drastically in the middle where [Putnam] felt it was slow…As it is, it is cut too much in parts—the style is rather ‘telegraphese,’ somewhat jerky—and I could very handily use a couple of thousand words of ‘lubrication,’ words put back in to make the style more graceful and readable.”
7. THE NOVEL CLAIMS A LOFTY SUPERLATIVE.
Following the terrific commercial and critical success of Stranger in a Strange Land, publishers decided to brand a batch of copies with the tag, “The most famous Science Fantasy Novel of all time."
8. BUT THE AUTHOR DISAGREED WITH THIS GENRE LABEL.
Heinlein insisted that his story was “not science fiction by any stretch of the imagination,” indicating that this genre designation was mutually exclusive with what he felt was a more accurate description of the nature of the book: a sociopolitical satire of sex and religion in contemporary culture.
9. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND WAS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND TO EARN A COVETED HONOR.
The novel was published during the 30th year of the New York Times Best Sellers list’s circulation. Despite Heinlein’s misgivings about the genre label, Stranger in a Strange Land became the very first science-fiction book to make the hallowed list.
10. THE BOOK GAVE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE A NEW WORD.
Although not exactly a mainstay of everyday speech, the word grok—first introduced to the world via Stranger in a Strange Land—has permeated the English lexicon. The particularly unattractive neologism can be found in both Webster’s Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, which identify it as a verb meaning, to understand profoundly, intuitively, or by empathy.
11. IT ALSO GAVE CALIFORNIA A NEW RELIGION.
A few years after Stranger in a Strange Land was published, St. Louis native Timothy Zell made it his life’s work to bring to life of one of Heinlein’s creations: the Church of All Worlds. Adopting the handle Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, founding father Zell established the Neo-Pagan group as a legally recognized religion in the state of California to promote philosophical tolerance, polygamy, and tenets of both socialism and libertarianism. Heinlein never joined or endorsed Zell’s Church of All Worlds, although he is said to have subscribed to the organization’s newsletter, Green Egg.
12. MORE IMPORTANTLY, IT MIGHT HAVE GIVEN THE WORLD THE WATERBED.
Also in 1968, Charles Prior Hall sought a patent on a modern mattress filled not with solid stuffing but with water. Unbeknownst to the would-be inventor, acquiring this registration would prove difficult because the concept and design of “the waterbed” could be traced to three recent novels, all written by Heinlein: Beyond the Horizon, Double Star, and Stranger in a Strange Land.
Heinlein later acknowledged his personal hospital stints had driven him to design a more comfortable sickbed, but he never pursued the project beyond illustration in his fiction. In 1971, Hall finally won legal rights to a variation on his waterbed design.
13. THE NOVEL WAS FALSELY ACCUSED OF INFLUENCING CHARLES MANSON.
Stranger in a Strange Land’s otherwise impressive legacy gained an unsightly blemish when it was associated with cult leader Charles Manson by several writers who claimed the infamous murderer was a fan of the work.
Hoping to free Heinlein of the anchor that was any association with—or worse yet, blame for—the atrocities committed by the Manson Family, novelist and journalist J. Neil Schulman contacted the incarcerated Manson in 1981 and asked him outright about his relationship with the novel. According to Schulman, Manson claimed to have never even read Stranger in a Strange Land, which would wholly negate the connection between the novel and his crimes.
14. HEINLEIN WAS IRKED BY READERS WHO LOOKED TO STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND FOR “ANSWERS.”
In the wake of his novel’s success, Heinlein endured the fate of many influential artists: Answering harebrained questions from misguided fans. Some readers viewed the text as a manifesto of sorts—an articulation of what Heinlein saw as wrong with society and, what’s more, how to overcome these follies. When probed by readers to expand on his presumed solutions for fixing the world, Heinlein had trouble disguising his frustration. On one occasion, he expressed his feelings by saying: “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers. It is an invitation to think, not to believe.”
15. IN 1991, THE UNABRIDGED VERSION OF THE BOOK WAS FINALLY PUBLISHED.
Shortly after Heinlein’s death, the author’s widow asked the University of California, Santa Cruz, to send her the original version of Stranger in a Strange Land. The university complied and sent the entire document—all 800 pages of it—to her for reading. Because of changes in copyright law, the original publication contract was cancelled, allowing Virginia Heinlein to release this early incarnation of the novel, which all parties agreed would be more agreeable, both in content and length, to a more modern audience than it would have in the early 1960s. What’s more, all parties agreed with what Heinlein himself had been saying all along: the longer version really was better.