Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (Folio Society Edition)

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A classic that feels on the forefront of its genre, it’s not hard to understand why Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land has been hailed as one of the novels which set the tone for popular science-fiction. Yet, in addition to the Martian lands and futuristic practices, Heinlein also offers up his powerful comments on the progression of modern society. All this, alongside a distinct humour thanks to the superb character personalities, making for a consuming read that is well worthy of its epic length.

The plot of Stranger in a Strange Land is a rather straightforward one – a human raised as Martian (Mike) returns to Earth, shaking the foundations of our future society, attempting to adopt and adapt to our way of life. However, Heinlein expands on this narrative to an impressive and intelligent level.

© Donato Giancola 2020 from The Folio Society edition of Stranger in a Strange Land

From the beginning we’re treated to insightful discussions, including the purpose of our existence and, as Mike’s education into human society progresses, debates surrounding religion, love, and politics. Often, these are entire chapters dedicated mostly to a conversation between a handful of characters, but their simplicity reels in the reader and involves them with an intriguing debate.

I loved how Heinlein used this method of teaching an outsider how to understand our world, to engage with a deeper analysis of society. While the novel is set in a future environment, the attitudes are timely and current, and still relevant today despite the novel’s age. Heinlein explores themes of ownership, hierarchies and control, and often left me feeling very reflective. It felt like it was achieving much more than a traditional sci-fi novel, reaching far beyond what I first expected. Heinlein’s insights were detailed and nuanced, complimenting the ethereal artwork that we’re treated to throughout this beautiful Folio Society edition.

Mike learns more about Earth as he spends more time with his fellow humans, and his evolution is absolutely fascinating. Starting off as a quiet observator, speaking almost in riddles and misunderstanding most, it was enjoyable to see Mike find his voice as the novel progresses. He develops into this intelligent and witty persona, most reflective of his ‘Father’, Jubals. He captivates the other characters and exudes his strong personality, until he signifies the very thing we feared most at the start – a product of too much power and responsibility.

© Donato Giancola 2020 from The Folio Society edition of Stranger in a Strange Land

I loved Mike as a character, and thought it was very clever of Heinlein to have him change in this way. The alteration was gradual – large sections of the book are set in one place, so we’re not actually aware of Mike’s altering state until the pacing jumps again. Then, we understand much of his behaviours and what he’s picked up from his ‘crash course’ on humanity. He seems to go through a handful of distinct stages in his education, and I read the finality of his existence being the result of what happens when this knowledge is pushed too far.

Stranger in a Strange Land makes us question just how much we should understand, and the lengths we will go to for this knowledge. Mike is at the epicenter of all this, moving forward in a dramatic but not necessarily unexpected way.

One character that seemingly remains outside of the bizarreness of the modern world though, is Jubals. Jubals is by far one of my favourite characters I’ve encountered in a science-fiction novel, and certainly the funniest. His distinct dry sense of humour immediately appealed to me, and gave Stranger in a Strange Land a refreshing ‘slap in the face’ reality check that the book benefited from.

A stoic voice that remained consistently cynical of his surroundings, Jubals is undeniably lovable. Some of his mannerisms and views – particularly concerning women – were somewhat outdated, but they also felt honest and true to his character. Despite his old timey approach, he is always willing to learn, and is one of the first to advocate for the study and education of Mike. As the narrative continues and he watches the chaos unfold, the reader can’t help but relate most strongly to him, remaining as mere intrigued onlookers to the novel’s intense storyline.

This edition of Stranger in a Strange Land also contains some fascinating additions regarding the book’s creation and evolution over the years, the most notable being that, on first publication, the novel was much shorter. Now, I’m not afraid to admit that I find a book of this size and scope intimidating (it weighs in at almost 600 pages), however after finishing it, I can’t think of a single section or even chapter that I would omit.

© Donato Giancola 2020 from The Folio Society edition of Stranger in a Strange Land

The level of detail and the character progression justified the depth of the book, and we got to know each of the characters, the workings of this future Earth, and the politics of Mars, on a deeper level. Nothing felt skimmed over, and I fear a shorter version would have given this.

A Stranger in a Strange Land is a mighty achievement and I definitely understand the impact it would have had at initial publication; Heinlein tackles the theme of ‘otherness’ and couples it with the then-popular fascination with outer space. By making humans the more ‘alien’ species, he manages a considered analysis of society – a daring and dynamic feat from a clearly skilled and ambitious writer.

The Folio Society edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, introduced by Michael Dirda and illustrated by Donato Giancola, is available exclusively from

Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein was a prolific American science-fiction writer. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1907. Having served in the US Navy for five years he went on to study mathematics and physics at the University of California, which greatly influenced the technical nature of his writing. His first work, ‘Life Line’ (1939), was published in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction and its success motivated Heinlein to start writing full time. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Heinlein decided to frame his writing in a more political fashion, coining the term ‘speculative fiction’. His short story ‘The Green Hills of Earth’ was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947. He went on to write several successful novels and cultivated a wide readership. His most influential works include Starship Troopers (1959) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Heinlein’s science fiction transformed the genre and took it from the pulp era to the forefront of popular culture. He won several awards for his work, including the Hugo Award. Heinlein died in 1988 and is now widely remembered as the ‘dean of science-fiction writers’.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria


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