Analysis

Stranger in a Strange Land is many things at once: a science fiction epic, a tale of spiritual awakening, a bold satire, and a polemical treatment of politics, religion, and media. Robert A. Heinlein suggests the scope of the work with the title he gives Part I of the book: "His Maculate Conception." This is a reference to the Biblical concept of the Immaculate Conception, the premise that the Virgin Mary was impregnated by God without ever having had sex. The word "immaculate" means spotless, without blemish, while the extremely uncommon word "maculate" then, means spotted, blemished. By invoking the Immaculate Conception before the story even begins, Heinlein draws a parallel between Valentine Michael Smith and Jesus Christ—but whereas Christ's entry into the world was pure, Heinlein implies that Smith's conception was flawed, the product of human beings and not any deity.

The story begins at a pace so fast as to seem narrated from a God's-eye-view. Twenty-five years pass within the space of the first few pages of the novel, and World War III, an event of massive global importance, is mentioned only as an aside. From a human perspective, the omission of discussion about World War III might seem like glib and frivolous storytelling, but this humorously dry narration implies that we are instead seeing things from a vast, cosmic perspective. In Chapter III the narration shifts to a more traditional scale, where we are shown the minutiae of conversations and interactions between individuals. After establishing this cosmic perspective, Heinlein will return to it many times throughout the novel.

Heinlein's science fiction is rooted in new ways of looking at our own world, rather than speculation about the unknown. This is demonstrated by the details that are omitted when in Chapter III he telescopes from the cosmic perspective to the human details that will form most of his tale. We are shown nothing about the Champion crew's discovery of Valentine Michael Smith, we do not see how they figured out who he was or what his name was, and although there is reference to communication with a native Martian race, we are told almost nothing about them. Heinlein establishes that, though this is a science fiction novel in which a Martian race forms a pivotal part of the background of the story, this ultimately will be a story about interactions between human beings and the nature of humankind.

The third chapter also introduces the media satire that will permeate the novel, when the film executive disguised as an orderly tries to get Smith to sell his life story and call it "I Was a Prisoner on Mars." This title is evocative of similar titles of films and dime store novels in the 1950s, such as the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf, implying that the sleazy orderly-impersonator is intending to make the basest kind of exploitation film out of Smith's extraordinary and unique story. His pitch is made sillier by the fact that Smith was not a prisoner on Mars—it is just a catchy title. Though Heinlein's tone is generally a form of heightened realism, sometimes in the novel he will lapse into broad satire, particularly when it comes to mass cultural issues like the media and organized religion.

Ben Caxton's exposition regarding Smith's political importance and titanic financial worth establishes suspense. We learn that a number of powerful people would want to control Smith, and we know that Smith is neither knowledgeable enough of Earth customs nor physically strong enough to hold his own against aggressors. As the titular stranger in a strange land, Smith would seem to be entirely helpless; except that we see he is capable of things that Earth people cannot understand, such as a mastery of his own bodily processes. As for allies, in classic adventure story fashion, the only people we know that look out for Smith's interests are normal citizens. In this case, it is Caxton, the streetwise reporter, and Jill, the sexually confident young nurse.

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