Banned Books That Shaped America: Stranger in a Strange Land

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein, 1961

The book was actually retained after a 2003 challenge in Mercedes, TX to the book’s adult themes. However, parents were subsequently given more control over what their child was assigned to read in class, a common school board response to a challenge.

stranger in a strange land

Robert A. Heinlein was one of the most famed and respected writers of science fiction’s “Golden Age,” which occurred from the 1940s to the 1950s. He began writing stories for John W. Campbell Jr.‘s periodicals, Astounding and Unknown, in 1939 and quickly made a career of his fiction writing. Although he tried his hand at a number of other genres, like his alter ego, Jubal Harshaw, in Stranger in a Strange Land who writes for a vast array of magazines, Heinlein soon found that he was best suited to and most successful at science fiction. Many of his stories took place in a continuum Heinlein called “Future History”—these stories cross-referenced each other and Heinlein’s alternate universe became more and more elaborate over the years.

In 1947, Heinlein published his first novel, Rocket Ship Galileo. It was a simple sci-fi adventure, intended for the lucrative adolescent market; such books were known as “juveniles.” Heinlein prolifically produced these juveniles, and a number of short stories throughout the end of the 1940s and through the 1950s. Though all of the novels were intended to be compelling and comprehensible for adolescents, some of them touched upon mature subject matter, such as the handling of militarism and politics in Starship Troopers. Heinlein enjoyed writing for the juvenile market, but he longed to write a novel that could deal with truly adult, controversial subject matter. Throughout the 1950s he worked on the story that would become Stranger in a Strange Land. Early working titles included The Man from Mars and A Martian Named Smith—the title that Jubal Harshaw gives to the “stereoplay” he begins composing at the end of Stranger. Heinlein had several false starts on writing the novel, between other works, but in 1960 was finally able to complete a draft to his own satisfaction. With its challenging, eccentric, and occasionally bizarre philosophies about human sexuality and organized religion, Heinlein was uncertain if he would ever be able to find a publisher for Stranger.

G. P. Putnam boldly took on the book, which was more complex and brazenly satirical than any mainstream science fiction novel to date. The sales were not immediately impressive, but as the years progressed, the paperback edition of the novel slowly accumulated word of mouth advertising from a dedicated core group of admirers, and the novel blossomed into a sensation. Stranger found a place alongside such books as Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as a touchstone of the 1960s counterculture. Because of its broad themes and ambiguous moral stance, one could easily interpret the novel’s philosophies to appease many different viewpoints. Stranger appealed to many far flung subcultures: it was a novel equally well-suited to conservative, hardcore science fiction fans and to radical members of the 1960s hippie movement, since the free love and communal living of Valentine Michael Smith‘s church anticipated many hippie tenets. Some avid fans of the novel went so far as to found cults of their own based on Heinlein’s “teachings.” Heinlein kept as much distance as possible between himself and these fans, whom he felt had emotionally overinvested in what, for whatever wisdom it may have contained, was still only a work of fiction. After Charles Manson and his “family” committed multiple murders in 1969, it was widely rumored that Manson had been inspired by Stranger, though those rumors proved to be unfounded.

Until his death in 1988, Heinlein went on to write several more adult novels, many of which continued to grapple with the controversial themes of Stranger. Although many of those novels, such as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast were quite popular, none ever repeated the tremendous cultural impact of Stranger.

Fight all forms of censorship.
Fight all forms of censorship.

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