The Robert A. Heinlein Novel that Inspired So Many Coming-of-Age Sci-Fi Stories

Stranger in a Strange Land is truly quite strange. The storyline of the original 1961 novel by Robert A. Heinlein (author of Starship Troopers) is based around a human character raised by Martians. This main character, Valentine Michael Smith, returns to the planet of his own people: Earth. The title is taken from the Biblical quote from Exodus 2:22 which in some renditions reads, “And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.”

One has to have a strong stomach in reading Stranger in a Strange Land for once he returns, Smith begins to explore various religions. Practices in the various ridiculous rites and cults he examines involve sex and cannibalization. So I would not include it on any top 10 recommended reading lists, even for the sci-fi genre.

The most important aspects to be aware of in the book’s plot is Smith’s youthful age, his alien upbringing and orientation, and his later reunion with his own kind, humanity. This intriguing yet slightly generic storyline shares some of its main themes with such classic literature as Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Spring Running,” included in The Second Jungle Book (1895), and even Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (1953), the sequel to which was even called A Country of Strangers (1966).

The recurring component present in most of these stories is a main character who belongs to one race, is raised and educated by another, and then is reintroduced into his original, true society. In The Light in the Forest for instance, John Butler (known to his Indian family as True Son) struggles to start living in white “civilized” society after being raised by Native Americans. The two lifestyles are drastically different and in some ays incompatible with each other.

Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land similarly shows humanity’s cultural activities from the perspective of an outsider, an outsider who is as human as human can be yet is unversed in his people’s customs, ordinary and abnormal alike. Valentine Michael Smith explores how people live out their lives in their natural environment, namely his homeland Earth.

Heinlein’s classic mindboggling tale has inspired quite a few other sci-fi stories which followed after it, particularly screenplays produced as films or TV shows. One story was simply a proposal for a sci-fi show; its main character had a number of similarities to Heinlein’s Valentine Smith. The concept was for a series which would have been entitled, The Man from the 25th Century. You can see the proposal reel on Youtube; I embedded it below:

This late sixties series proposal was put together by none other than Hollywood producer, writer, and director Irwin Allen, the man responsible for producing such fantastic sixties sci-fi series as Lost in Space as well as three others. The concept behind this particular reel was a man being raised (and trained) by an alien race who is then sent back to Earth for a special mission of infiltration.

A little like Mission Impossible, Independence Day, and Blade Runnerall combined, the pilot reel of The Man from the 25th Century had quite a bit going for it. Unfortunately, the audience it was screened in front of didn’t feel the same. Thus, few sci-fi geeks are even aware of its existence.

I’d say it’s worth the watch even though it’s not as long as Allen’s other unaired series pilots. It also employs a good deal of stock footage and sound effects and reuses props seen in several of Allen’s other shows. Nonetheless, it remains an intriguing beginning to a story that deserved telling.

This is not the only story which shows signs of inspiration from Stranger in a Strange Land. The plot of the 2017 film The Space Between Us also has some similarities. The movie’s chief teenage character, Gardner Elliot, is even born on the planet Mars. Though raised by his own kind, Gardner has only come in contact with fewer than two dozen human beings in his entire life. Eventually, he too returns to Earth where he pursues love interests kind of like Smith’s character.

Once again, like The Man from the 25th Century, The Space Between Us is not well-remembered among sci-fi fans. Doubtlessly, these are not the only stories affected by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. There has even been talk about adapting his book into a SyFy series for the past few years. The man’s work has not only inspired and indulged his readers, but it’s inspired many more creatives working in the sci-fi genre.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on OIAI’s home site here.