Considered a groundbreaking novel in science fiction literature, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ constantly challenges reader expectations for the “alien living on Earth” story. The book was written by Robert Heinlein and first published in 1961. In the following year, it won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

The main character is Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians who arrives on Earth as a young man. He is different enough from other humans for the word “alien” to apply. In the beginning of his time on Earth, Smith is fairly helpless while he adapts to Earth’s higher gravity. Later he reveals extraordinary mental powers. The Martian way of thinking is very intelligent, but so far removed from human intelligence that it gives Smith unique views on Earth society that begin to revolutionize the society as his ideas spread.

Unlike the predominant religious beliefs of the day, Smith sees every human as having the ability to be God. His version of biblical language includes the phrase “Thou art God.” The powers that be among Earth’s governments do not appreciate these radical new ideas and begin to persecute him.

Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ is one of the few major SF novels from that time that I consider to be for adults only. It is not highly explicit or graphic (by today’s standards, anyway), but the sociological themes within the novel are unlikely to be understood fully by persons under the age of 18. The best time to read it for the first time would be during or after college, or a few years after high school when additional life experience can place some themes in a better perspective.

The novel explores the concept of nature vs. nurture. How many of our abilities are derived from our genetics and which ones are learned? Heinlein would lead us to believe that the majority of our skills are taught. Modern science has mostly supported this view. Babies are now known to start advanced learning by the time they reach their first year, and neuroscientists are constantly amazed by the young brain’s ability to adapt and improve. That being said, scientists have also uncovered genetic behavior traits that are hard-coded and difficult to adjust.