STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

 

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is one of the most widely read and influential science fiction novels ever -and it also enjoyed a vast influence beyond the SF world. It was particularly influential in the hippie and counter-culture world of the 1960s. How many other novels have inspired whole new churches? (There really is a Church of All Worlds based on the book!). As you read it, I want you to ask yourself just why it had such an impact. Here are some guideline questions - though you may have a great many others of your own.

 

Come to class prepared with a few memorable passages you can quote to illustrate themes you think are important, or which you just enjoyed. There is a huge amount to choose from.

 

THE BOOK ITSELF

Did you enjoy the book? Were there any ideas or passages that interested you especially?

What is satire? Is this a satire?

Does the book work?

Why is the book written in the form of science fiction? What does that genre allow him to do that he could not in other ways?

How does the book fit in with other works of American literature? What other authors might you compare him to?

How does the book fit in the context of other world literature? What other books portray a society from the point of view of an alien outsider?

Look at the names of the parts - "His maculate origin" etc. What kind of literature is being parodied or mimicked here?

How successfully does Heinlein imagine a totally alien mind-set?

 

WHAT DID HEINLEIN BELIEVE? WHAT DID HEINLEIN WANT?

How would you describe Heinlein's political views?

Can we reasonably assume that characters in this book are expressing Heinlein's own personal beliefs? Which characters?

Which characters does he hate?

Where and what is the STRANGE LAND?

What are the main targets he aims at or criticizes in the book?

What does he think about the institution of marriage?

What does he think about religion? Tell me about the Fosterites.

How does he satirize other institutions like law, the media, advertising, the tabloids….?

Tell me about the mystical and occult ideas of the book. Where is Heinlein getting these ideas from?

Describe the counter-culture that forms around Smith. What are its institutions, ideas, catch-phrases?

How is Valentine Michael Smith presented as a Christ figure?

What does Heinlein think about politics?

Why was the book so controversial, then and since?

For Heinlein, what are the most important social and personal values? How would he like to see society changed?

How does the book fit in with other Heinlein works like PUPPET MASTERS and STARSHIP TROOPERS?

 

CRITIQUING THE BOOK

Does the book become preachy?

Are the characters plausible? Are they cardboard?

Does the dialogue work?

Are there portrayals or stereotypes that an author would not include in the same way if the book was written today?

How might modern readers react to the portrayals of women?

Does the book seem outmoded today or does it still have ideas to offer? What things was Heinlein satirizing that still deserve mocking today?

In what ways might the book be actively dangerous? Are there modern examples of real-world movements who have followed ideas like these to outrageous extremes? Which and when?

 

THE CONTEXT OF THE TIME

Place the book in the context of 1961: how does it fit in with other ideas and events of this age? What else is happening at this time in terms of politics, sex or religion that might have opened the way for such a remarkable treatment?

At the time the book was published, Heinlein was 54, old enough to be the grandfather of the hippie generation. Why then did the book have such an impact in the 1960s?

What happened later in the 1960s to make the book seem ever more relevant? What new institutions emerged? What happened politically to make people read this with ever greater interest as the decade progressed?

Based on what you read in this book, what side do you think Heinlein would have come down in major issues of the 1960s, especially debates over the US involvement in Vietnam?

 

HEINLEIN QUOTES:

 

"One man's religion is another man's belly laugh."

 

"The most ridiculous concept ever perpetrated by H. Sapiens is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of his creations, that he can be persuaded by their prayers, and becomes petulant if he does not receive this flattery. Yet this ridiculous notion, without one real shred of evidence to bolster it, has gone on to found one of the oldest, largest and least productive industries in history."