james warhola
james warhola

15 Things You Might Not Know About Stranger in a Strange Land

james warhola
james warhola

While Robert A. Heinlein had put together a healthy bibliography throughout the 1940s and ’50s, he broke new ground with the publication of his 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. The apex of Heinlein’s career and a cornerstone of its genre, the sociopolitical allegory is now recognized as a landmark of American literature. Despite the novel’s prominence, there are a few facts about its conception, writing, and extensive rewriting that might have eluded you.

1. THE BOOK’S ORIGINAL TITLE WAS NOT AS BIBLICAL.

The novel takes its title from the scriptural verse Exodus 2:22 and Moses’s reflections on fleeing Egypt and producing a son with his wife Zipporah: “For he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Before adopting the passage as the name of his book, Heinlein considered the decidedly less religious title The Heretic. The author also tinkered with working titles including A Martian Named Smith and The Man from Mars.

2. THE AUTHOR’S WIFE CAME UP WITH THE IDEA THAT INSPIRED STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. 

While Heinlein brought the interplanetary exploits of Valentine Michael Smith to life, his third wife, Virginia, provided the basic idea from which the novel sprang. What’s more, Ginny Heinlein—an accomplished biochemist and engineer—drew inspiration for the concept that would become Stranger in a Strange Land from the works of author Rudyard Kipling. She summarized the idea as a variation on The Jungle Book with the Mowgli character raised by Martians rather than animals.

3. THE STORY’S DEVELOPMENT TOOK 13 YEARS. 

The idea first came to the Heinlein household in 1948, but Robert Heinlein shelved the concept in favor of projects that promised quicker turnarounds. Throughout the early 1950s, Heinlein accumulated bits and pieces of the overall “boy from Mars” story before finally starting to assemble a coherent manuscript in 1955—albeit one he quickly abandoned.

The late 1950s saw Heinlein devoting his focus to projects like running ads in favor of nuclear testing and the novel Starship Troopers, with occasional returns to what would ultimately become Stranger in a Strange Land. He completed the novel by 1960 before spending a year answering his publishers’ demands for revision.

4. HEINLEIN FOUGHT TO KEEP THE MORE “CONTROVERSIAL” MATERIAL IN THE NOVEL. 

Publishing group G.P. Putnam’s Sons initially urged Heinlein to ditch some of the book’s more controversial passages, particularly content that touched on sexual or religious themes. Heinlein remained unconvinced that his story could survive without these elements. The author famously remarked in a letter to longtime friend and literary agent Lurton Blassingame, “If I cut out religion and sex, I am very much afraid that I will end with a nonalcoholic martini.” 

Heinlein continued, “This story is supposed to be a completely free-wheeling look at contemporary human culture from the nonhuman viewpoint of the Man from Mars (in the sense of the philosophical cliche)…No sacred cows of any sort…But, in addition to a double dozen of minor satirical slants, the two major things which I am attacking are the two biggest, fattest sacred cows of all, the two that every writer is supposed to give at least lip service to: the implicit assumptions of our Western culture concerning religion and concerning sex.” 

Summing up his stance, Heinlein proclaimed, “I don't see how to take out the sex and religion. If I do, there isn't any story left.” 

5. EDITORS SUCCEEDED IN GETTING HEINLEIN TO TRIM THE NOVEL’S SPRAWLING LENGTH 

The initial draft that Heinlein turned in to Putnam tipped the scales at a whopping 220,000 words and 800 pages, far too long for the publisher’s tastes. While Heinlein was ultimately permitted to keep the sexual and religious content, he did agree to cut over a quarter—approximately 60,000 words—of his text. 

6. HEINLEIN WAS DISAPPOINTED BY THE PRINTED VERSION. 

The extensive edits required by Putnam left Heinlein unhappy with Stranger in a Strange Land. The author lamented the state of the novel during a late stage of the editing process in a letter to Blassingame: “The story is now as tight as a wedge in a green stump and, short of completely recasting it and rewriting it, I can’t get it much tighter. I have rewritten and cut drastically in the middle where [Putnam] felt it was slow…As it is, it is cut too much in parts—the style is rather ‘telegraphese,’ somewhat jerky—and I could very handily use a couple of thousand words of ‘lubrication,’ words put back in to make the style more graceful and readable.” 

7. THE NOVEL CLAIMS A LOFTY SUPERLATIVE. 

Following the terrific commercial and critical success of Stranger in a Strange Land, publishers decided to brand a batch of copies with the tag, “The most famous Science Fantasy Novel of all time."

8. BUT THE AUTHOR DISAGREED WITH THIS GENRE LABEL.

Heinlein insisted that his story was “not science fiction by any stretch of the imagination,” indicating that this genre designation was mutually exclusive with what he felt was a more accurate description of the nature of the book: a sociopolitical satire of sex and religion in contemporary culture.

9. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND WAS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND TO EARN A COVETED HONOR. 

The novel was published during the 30th year of the New York Times Best Sellers list’s circulation. Despite Heinlein’s misgivings about the genre label, Stranger in a Strange Land became the very first science-fiction book to make the hallowed list. 

10. THE BOOK GAVE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE A NEW WORD.

Although not exactly a mainstay of everyday speech, the word grok—first introduced to the world via Stranger in a Strange Land—has permeated the English lexicon. The particularly unattractive neologism can be found in both Webster’s Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, which identify it as a verb meaning, to understand profoundly, intuitively, or by empathy. 

11. IT ALSO GAVE CALIFORNIA A NEW RELIGION. 

A few years after Stranger in a Strange Land was published, St. Louis native Timothy Zell made it his life’s work to bring to life of one of Heinlein’s creations: the Church of All Worlds. Adopting the handle Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, founding father Zell established the Neo-Pagan group as a legally recognized religion in the state of California to promote philosophical tolerance, polygamy, and tenets of both socialism and libertarianism. Heinlein never joined or endorsed Zell’s Church of All Worlds, although he is said to have subscribed to the organization’s newsletter, Green Egg

12. MORE IMPORTANTLY, IT MIGHT HAVE GIVEN THE WORLD THE WATERBED. 

Also in 1968, Charles Prior Hall sought a patent on a modern mattress filled not with solid stuffing but with water. Unbeknownst to the would-be inventor, acquiring this registration would prove difficult because the concept and design of “the waterbed” could be traced to three recent novels, all written by Heinlein: Beyond the Horizon, Double Star, and Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein later acknowledged his personal hospital stints had driven him to design a more comfortable sickbed, but he never pursued the project beyond illustration in his fiction. In 1971, Hall finally won legal rights to a variation on his waterbed design. 

13. THE NOVEL WAS FALSELY ACCUSED OF INFLUENCING CHARLES MANSON. 

Stranger in a Strange Land’s otherwise impressive legacy gained an unsightly blemish when it was associated with cult leader Charles Manson by several writers who claimed the infamous murderer was a fan of the work. 

Hoping to free Heinlein of the anchor that was any association with—or worse yet, blame for—the atrocities committed by the Manson Family, novelist and journalist J. Neil Schulman contacted the incarcerated Manson in 1981 and asked him outright about his relationship with the novel. According to Schulman, Manson claimed to have never even read Stranger in a Strange Land, which would wholly negate the connection between the novel and his crimes. 

14. HEINLEIN WAS IRKED BY READERS WHO LOOKED TO STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND FOR “ANSWERS.” 

In the wake of his novel’s success, Heinlein endured the fate of many influential artists: Answering harebrained questions from misguided fans. Some readers viewed the text as a manifesto of sorts—an articulation of what Heinlein saw as wrong with society and, what’s more, how to overcome these follies. When probed by readers to expand on his presumed solutions for fixing the world, Heinlein had trouble disguising his frustration. On one occasion, he expressed his feelings by saying: “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers. It is an invitation to think, not to believe.” 

15. IN 1991, THE UNABRIDGED VERSION OF THE BOOK WAS FINALLY PUBLISHED.

Shortly after Heinlein’s death, the author’s widow asked the University of California, Santa Cruz, to send her the original version of Stranger in a Strange Land. The university complied and sent the entire document—all 800 pages of it—to her for reading. Because of changes in copyright law, the original publication contract was cancelled, allowing Virginia Heinlein to release this early incarnation of the novel, which all parties agreed would be more agreeable, both in content and length, to a more modern audience than it would have in the early 1960s. What’s more, all parties agreed with what Heinlein himself had been saying all along: the longer version really was better.

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Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

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Hulton Archive, Getty Images
15 Things You Might Not Know About Jules Verne
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Jules Verne, widely regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction, wrote some of literature's most famous adventure novels, including seminal works like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in 80 Days. In addition to helping pioneer a new genre of writing, the French author also sailed the world, had a career as a stockbroker, fell in love with his cousin, and was shot by his nephew. Here are 15 facts you probably didn't know about him.

1. HE GREW UP SURROUNDED BY SHIPS.

On February 8, 1828, Pierre and Sophie Verne welcomed their first child, Jules Gabriel, at Sophie's mother's home in Nantes, a city in western France. Verne's birthplace had a profound impact on his writing. In the 19th century, Nantes was a busy port city that served as a major hub for French shipbuilders and traders, and Verne's family lived on Ile Feydeau, a small, man-made island in a tributary of the Loire River. Verne spent his childhood watching ships sail down the Loire and imagining what it would be like to climb aboard them [PDF]. He would later work these early memories of maritime life into his writing.

2. HE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS COUSIN.

Verne began writing poetry at just 12 years old. As a teenager, he used poetry as an outlet for his burgeoning romantic feelings. Verne fell in love with his cousin, Caroline Tronson, who was a year and a half older than him. He wrote and dedicated poems to Tronson, gave her presents, and attended dances with her. Unfortunately, Tronson didn't reciprocate her younger cousin's feelings. In 1847, when Verne was 19 and Tronson was 20, she married a man two decades her senior. Verne was heartbroken.

3. HIS FATHER PRESSURED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

While Verne had been passionate about writing since his early teens, his father strongly encouraged young Jules to follow in his footsteps and enter the legal profession. Soon after Tronson's marriage, Verne's father capitalized on his son's depression, convincing him to move to Paris to study law.

Verne graduated with a law degree in 1851. But he kept writing fiction during this period, and continued to clash with his father over his career path. In 1852, Verne's father arranged for him to practice law in Nantes, but Verne decided to pursue life as a writer instead.

4. HE LIVED IN PARIS DURING A TUMULTUOUS TIME.

Verne's time in Paris coincided with a period of intense political instability. The French Revolution of 1848 broke out soon after Verne moved to the city to study law. Though he didn't participate, he was strikingly close to the conflict and its turbulent aftermath, including the coup d'état that ended France's Second Republic. "On Thursday the fighting was intense; at the end of my street, houses were knocked down by cannon fire," he wrote to his mother during the fighting that followed the coup in December 1851. Verne managed to stay out of the political upheaval during those years, but his writing later explored themes of governmental strife. In his 1864 novella The Count of Chanteleine: A Tale of the French Revolution, Verne wrote about the struggles of ordinary and noble French people during the French Revolutionary Wars, while his novel The Flight to France recounted the wartime adventures of an army captain in 1792.

5. HE BECAME A STOCKBROKER TO PAY THE BILLS.

In May 1856, Verne was the best man at his best friend's wedding in Amiens, a city in northern France. During the wedding festivities, Verne lodged with the bride's family and met Honorine de Viane Morel, the bride's sister. He developed a crush on Morel, a 26-year-old widow with two kids, and in January 1857, with the permission of her family, the two married.

There was one big problem. Verne had been writing plays for Paris theaters, but being a playwright didn't pay the bills. Verne needed a respectable income to support Morel and her daughters. Morel's brother offered Verne a job at a brokerage, and he accepted, quitting his theater job to become a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse. Writing was never too far from Verne's mind, though. He woke up early each day to write and research for several hours before heading to his day job.

6. HIS ADVENTURE NOVELS WERE PART OF A SERIES …

A caricature of Jules Verne on the sea floor with fantastic sea creatures on the cover of a magazine.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Modern readers probably think of Verne's most famous books as distinct entities, but his adventure novels were actually part of a series. In the early 1860s, Verne met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, an established publisher and magazine editor who helped Verne publish his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon. This novel served as the beginning of Voyages Extraordinaires, a series of dozens of books written by Verne and published by Hetzel. Most of these novels—including famous titles like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—appeared in installments in Hetzel's magazine before being published in book form.

7. … THAT PROVIDED HIM WITH A STEADY STREAM OF INCOME.

Starting in 1863, Verne agreed to write two volumes per year for Hetzel, a contract that provided him with a steady source of income for decades. Between 1863 and 1905, Verne published 54 novels about travel, adventure, history, science, and technology for the Voyages Extraordinaires series. He worked closely with Hetzel on characters, structure, and plot until the publisher's death in 1886. Verne's writing wasn't limited to this series, however; in total, he wrote 65 novels over the course of his life, though some would not be published until long after his death.

8. HE DREW INSPIRATION FROM HIS OWN SAILING ADVENTURES.

During the 1860s, Verne's career was taking off, and he was making good money. So in 1867, he bought a small yacht, which he named the Saint Michel, after his son, Michel. When he wasn't living in Amiens, he spent time sailing around Europe to the Channel Islands, along the English Coast, and across the Bay of Biscay. Besides enjoying the peace and quiet at sea, he also worked during these sailing trips, writing most of the manuscripts for Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea on his yacht. As he earned more money, he replaced the Saint Michel with a larger boat that he called the Saint Michel II. A few years later, he bought a third vessel, the Saint Michel III, a steam yacht that he hired a crew of 10 to man on long voyages to Scotland and through the Mediterranean.

9. HE'S ONE OF THE MOST TRANSLATED AUTHORS IN THE WORLD …

Verne wrote in French, but his works have always had an international appeal. Since the 1850s, his writing has been translated into approximately 150 languages—making him the second most translated author ever. He has appeared in translation even more often than William Shakespeare. He is second only to Agatha Christie, who holds the world record.

10. … BUT NOT ALL OF THOSE TRANSLATIONS ARE ACCURATE.

Although Verne wrote primarily for adults, many English-language publishers considered his science fiction writing to be juvenile and marketed his books to children. Translators dumbed down his work, simplifying stories, cutting heavily researched passages, summarizing dialogue, and in some cases, nixing anything that might be construed as a critique of the British Empire. Many translations even contain outright errors, such as measurements converted incorrectly.

Some literary historians now bemoan the shoddy translations of many of Verne's works, arguing that almost all of these early English translations feature significant changes to both plot and tone. Even today, these poor translations make up much of Verne's available work in English. But anglophone readers hoping to read more authentic versions of his stories are in luck. Thanks to scholarly interest, there has been a recent surge in new Verne translations that aim to be more faithful to the original texts.

11. HE HAD MAJOR HEALTH PROBLEMS.

Starting in his twenties, Verne began experiencing sudden bouts of extreme stomach pain. He wrote about his agonizing stomach cramps in letters to family members, but he failed to get a proper diagnosis from doctors. To try to ease his pain, he experimented with different diets, including one in which he ate only eggs and dairy. Historians believe that Verne may have had colitis or a related digestion disorder.

Even more unsettling than the stomach pain, Verne suffered from five episodes of facial paralysis over the course of his life. During these painful episodes, one side of his face suddenly became immobile. After the first attack, doctors treated his facial nerve with electric stimulation, but he had another attack five years later, and several more after that. Recently, researchers have concluded that he had Bell's palsy, a temporary form of one-sided facial paralysis caused by damage to the facial nerve. Doctors have hypothesized that it was the result of ear infections or inflammation, but no one knows for sure why he experienced this.

Verne developed type-2 diabetes in his fifties, and his health declined significantly in the last decade of his life. He suffered from high blood pressure, chronic dizziness, tinnitus, and other maladies, and eventually went partially blind.

12. HIS MENTALLY ILL NEPHEW SHOT HIM IN THE LEG …

In March 1886, a traumatic incident left the 58-year-old Verne disabled for the rest of his life. Verne's nephew Gaston, who was then in his twenties and suffering from mental illness, suddenly became violent, to Verne's detriment. The writer was arriving home one day when, out of the blue, Gaston shot him twice with a pistol. Thankfully, Verne survived, but the second bullet that Gaston fired struck the author's left leg.

13. … LEAVING HIM WITH A PERMANENT LIMP.

After the incident, Gaston was sent to a mental asylum. He wasn't diagnosed with a specific disorder, but most historians believe he suffered from paranoia or schizophrenia.

Verne never fully recovered from the attack. The bullet damaged his left leg badly, and his diabetes complicated the healing process. A secondary infection left him with a noticeable limp that persisted until his death in 1905.

14. HIS WORK CONTRIBUTED TO THE RISE OF STEAMPUNK.

Verne's body of work heavily influenced steampunk, the science fiction subgenre that takes inspiration from 19th century industrial technology. Some of Verne's characters, as well as the fictional machines he wrote about, have appeared in prominent steampunk works. For example, the TV show The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne explored the idea that Verne actually experienced the fantastic things he wrote about, and Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea appeared as a character in the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

15. MANY OF HIS PREDICTIONS WERE SURPRISINGLY SPOT-ON.

Some of the technology Verne imagined in his fiction later became reality. One of the machines that Verne dreamed up, Nautilus—the electric submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—came to life years after he first wrote about it. The first installment of the serialized Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published in 1869, and the first battery-powered submarines were launched in the 1880s. (Similar submarine designs are still in use today.)

In addition, Verne's Paris In The Twentieth Century contains several surprisingly accurate technological predictions. Written in 1863, the dystopian novel imagines a tech-obsessed Parisian society in 1960. Verne wrote about skyscrapers, elevators, cars with internal combustion engines, trains, electric city lights, and suburbs. He was massively ahead of his time. He even wrote about a group of mechanical calculators (as in, computers) that could communicate with one another over a network (like the Internet). Pretty impressive for a guy born in 1828.

But Verne's influence goes beyond science fiction, steampunk, or real-world technology. His writing has inspired countless authors in genres ranging from poetry to travel to adventure. As Ray Bradbury wrote, "We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne."

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