I've just re-read Stranger in a Strange Land for the umpty-fifth time

So I’ve just finished re-reading Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel I have read many times over the course of my life. Stranger is by no means my favorite Heinlein, but I come back to it from time to time.

The novel has a curious history. According to notes published after Heinlein’s death, the concept of a “Martian Named Smith” was suggested by Heinlein’s wife Ginny in a brainstorming session to come up with a story to submit for the famous 1948 gag issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Heinlein liked the idea, but thought it would be too long a story for the magazine, and would take too long to complete. He was right on both counts.

Heinlein worked on Stranger, then known as The Heretic, for much of the 1950’s. Apparently he abandoned at least one version, starting the whole project over from page 1. It was clear to him that the final version could not be published under the moral constraints of the period. When it was finally published in 1962, it enjoyed only modest success among science fiction fans.

By the late '60s, however, the changing mores of society made the book much more acceptable, and it found a wide audience, achieving a cult status that has lasted unto the present day.

The book contains a small core of standard science fiction adventure, but is otherwise composed of equal parts moral philosophy, free-wheeling Heinleinian sex, and an odd parody of televangelist-style religions.

It’s the last part that caused me to bring this up to the Dope. What exactly was Heinlein up to in creating the oddball Fosterite church? Today, it reads like a diabolical sendup of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and the rest of the fundamentalist TV preachers, with an in-your-face style and amassing political influence if not power.

But none of this existed in the 1950s when the novel was being composed, nor in 1962 when it was published. Where did he get it from?

Some of it undoubtedly was from the Mormons, then seen as a weird bunch with charismatic prophets, odd personal lives, and imposing architecture. Some of it was probably from the revival meetings common in his native Midwestern United States.

However, the Fosterites, with their party-hearty services, gambling, loose sexual strictures, etc., are so over-the-top that I wonder where it all came from. Was it just extrapolating how the more flamboyant churches of the day might interact with mass communications? Or did he have something more in mind?

I grew up in a not particularly religious family in the late '60s and early '70s. Perhaps I have difficulty understanding the inspiration for the Fosterites because I really knew little of American churches in the period.

Does anyone have more insight into this question?

I had the sense that he was spoofing/criticizing what he saw as the hypocrisy of some conservative American Christians of that era, with piety, hellfire and brimstone from the pulpit but loose living otherwise. He may have been extrapolating (as he was wont to do) what kind of a hold very big Christian churches could establish on American society in the near future. If This Goes On— was a more extreme example, and the worst case scenario, of what he saw as potentially happening.

Tent revivals, particularly the Pentacostalist flavor, were common in the Midwest from the Depression onward, and Heinlein may have been exposed to this then. They certainly had a lot of influence in local and state politics–more than acknowledged on a national stage until the Moral Majority propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency. (Curiously enough, reading Stranger In A Strange Land casts Heinlein as quite the seer, not only in predicting a surge of religious influence in national politics, but also in how his Secretary Joseph Douglas resembled the personality and career of Ronald Reagan, right down to controlling Douglas’ wife consulting an astrologer just as Nancy Reagan did.) Heinlein actually presents the Fosterites not as evil in and of themselves but just kind of half-baked and poorly led.

I’d have to disagree the Heinlein was satirizing the Mormons in any of his writings. A reading of Heinlein indicates that he was knowledgeable of the history of Mormonism (IIRC there is even a reference to Joe Smith in Stranger) and was overtly sympathetic to the Mormons. Although Heinlein’s personal beliefs, at least, as expressed through his writings, can charitably be called gnostic (certainly the case in Stranger), he was generally tolerant of benign religion as a socially beneficial organizing principle, and only critical of dogmatic organized religion used in a persecutive or fascist manner. The most generally objectionable practices of Mormanism–polygyny and carnal relationships between older men and young women–are hardly topics Heinlein would criticize in general form.

If This Goes On– is actually a retooling of the expansion of the influence of the Catholic Church after adoption as the state religion of Rome through Clunaic reform, combined with the isolationism of the sakoku period in Japan prior to Meiji restoration.


Where do you get the idea that Stranger in a Strange Land wasn’t extremely popular among science fiction fans when it was published? It won a Hugo award:


When it was published in 1961, it was actually quite typical of adult novels of a racier sort - a lot of acknowledgement of sex without any explicit descriptions. Sometimes people today have the idea that the idea that the changes of the late 1960’s came out of nowhere. Not true. The 1950’s and the early 1960’s had a lot of literature and such that proposed the sorts of changes that would come later. All the late 1960’s did was to popularize these trends and get them on the news every night. In a way, Stranger in a Strange Land was one of the things that created the late 1960’s. It’s hard to tell how much young people in the late 1960’s were influenced by it or just picked it up after already deciding that that’s how they wanted to live their lives.

I’ve long suspected that some of Heinlein’s inspiration for his thoughts on religion were suggested by fellow-writer L. Ron Hubbard. Nothing in particular screams “Dianetics” or “Scientology”, but I notice that writers that were associated with John Campbell certainly looked at religion and in particular about using religion to further one’s ends. This seems to have escaped Hubbard’s biographers. But look at the use of religion in Asimov’s Foundation series (especially the earlier stories), at Campbell’s own All, and at the All-inspired story that Heinlein wrote for Campbell, Sixth Column/The Day After Tomorrow.

Add to this that Heinlein the Politrician was certainly looking at ways that groups of people worked together and filled needs and at their social dynamics. After proposing lots of different ways of deciding polity in various books (He already had in Tunnel in the Sky and *Starship Troopers, andwould in the future in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Expanded Universe), I’m not surprised that he’d look at different modes of worship. Why not have an American Dionysian religion? is exactly the sort of question a speculative writer of that background would ask, I’d think.

While agreeing with the rest of **Stanger’s **post I don’t see this. Nehemiah Scudder’s rise and the rule of the Prophets does not have many parallels to significant period of Catholic history that I can think of. Stranger: can you expand on this?

On the OP, were there nationally known radio evangelists in the '50s? I seem to remember there were and from there it is not too long a step to combine TV, radio evangelists, and revivalist meetings into a politcally powerful force. Heinlein had grown up before and during Prohibition when a religiously inspired temperance movement led to a radical change in US politics and law.

Curious - I’ve never read it, but the other day I was heading to the library and my wife asked me to pick up a book she had on hold. You guessed it …

Maybe I’ll give it a gander once she’s done with it.

Let us know how you get on. I find it hard to imagine what I would think if I read it now. I probably read it in around 1970 when I was a teenager. In fact I read most of Heinlein’s existing works around that age and I suspect it had more of an influence on my views and values than I realised at the time :dubious:

Will do. I’ve been reading mostly NF lately, and have only dabbled in SF. My son, tho is a huge SF and Heinlein fan.

Roger that. Looking back, I owe RAH an enormous debt. He was the author that taught me to think.

Aimee Semple McPherson, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aimee_Semple_McPherson, Father Coughlin, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Coughlin, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulton_J._Sheen, were all relatively influential in their day.

I’d have to advise you not to start with Stranger. There are better and more accessible Heinleins. Try his mid-50s grown-up novels: Double Star, The Puppet Masters, and Door Into Tomorrow. Or his so-called “juveniles”, which are classics and perfectly appropriate for adults.

I’ve read it several times. I loved it the first time. Disliked it the second and then enjoyed it again later in life. I find Jubal Harshaw to be too pompous and a lot of scenes set up just for him to expound on his pomposity.

But it *has *shaped the way I look at some things and made a lasting impression on me.

Heinlein knew L. Ron Hubbard quite well, and Hubbard formed Scientology in 1954. Heinlein was probably keenly aware of what Hubbard was doing. There was famously a conversation between Hubbard and Heinlein in the 1940’s, in which Hubbard said something like, “Do you know how to make a fortune? Start your own religion.”

So I wouldn’t be surprised if Hubbard’s shenanigans were a major influence in the book. This was also the period of the McCarthy hearings, and the Hollywood black lists. Heinlein also disparaged the “Mrs. Grundy’s” of the world, who had a lot of power then to compel moral behavior.

So there were a lot of societal influences he could draw on and extrapolate from to create his future history.

Expounding pomposity in a Heinlein novel? Say it ain’t so!

Oh look, a post about science fiction and per usual every comment in it is wrong. You’ve made my day! :stuck_out_tongue:

You answered your own question when you mentioned Oral Roberts. Look at this obituary of him.

Elendil’s Heir already stole my thunder by mentioning some famous names of the past, and I can add Rex Humbard, Billy Sunday and Henry Ward Beecher who were probably better known to the majority of Americans in their day than Pat Robertson is today. Add to them hundreds of others who are equally forgotten today. Heinlein grew up in mid-America where these influences would be omnipresent. Any examination of his life - something he hated - shows that he put enormous amounts of his pre-sf life into his writing, more than most readers understand since that era of popular history is mostly forgotten.

Science fiction wasn’t as much a world as a tiny club in 1962. The Worldcon at which Heinlein won the Hugo boasted a total attendance of 550. In that tiny club Heinlein was worshiped. He had already won Hugos in 1960 and 1956 and been Guest of Honor in 1961 (and in 1941). *Stranger *got immediate acceptance in that world. The late 60s popularity you’re referring to is from *Stranger *being discovered outside the world of science fiction, on colleges and among young readers generally, when it became a bestseller in paperback.

When Heinlein first started writing novels, no mainstream commercial publisher would touch sf. His first novels were published by small presses like Shasta and Gnome, run by sf fans for the small audience. A sale of 2500 copies was a big deal. A second printing was almost unheard of. Almost no paperback reprints exist from the 1940s. It wasn’t until Ian and Betty Ballantine (fans who were also commercial) started Ballantine Books in 1953 and demonstrated that sf titles could sell that other publishers stepped in.

Even so, Heinlein did not make money from adult novels in the 1950s. He made money from his YA titles, a far more lucrative field at the time. By the end of the 50s, though, he was tiring of the restrictions (and of the editing), and his continuing battles with Scribners finally blew up when they rejected Starship Troopers. After that, Heinlein went back to *Stranger *and finished it, although, ironically, he couldn’t publish it until a hunk as big as a YA novel got edited out.

By then the whole market had changed. Many writers, notably Theodore Sturgeon and Philip Jose Farmer, were using adult (sexual) themes in their stories and the two previous non-Heinlein novel winners, A Case of Conscience, by James Blish, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., were serious and religious-themed. *Stranger *was part of the progression of sf away from gosh-wow stories of spaceships, but not either the first or the best of the group.

I also agree with this. I still use Anne, the Fair Witness from “Stranger In A Strange Land” as an example of precise thinking (and precise language). I first encountered her and the idea of trying to think clearly as a teenager, and 30 years later it still stays with me.

Hey, I said I was operating from near-total ignorance of American religion of that period, so no wonder!

I used grok in a post on another board just yesterday. Most people had no idea what it meant.

That is because they are stupid.