If for no other reason, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would hold a place in the history of literature as the first science fiction novel to ever make it onto the New York Times Bestseller List. Published at just the right time in 1961, the book’s content became a perfect match for the counter-cultural revolution waiting just over the cusp. By the time the 1960’s ended, actual real-life versions of the novel’s Church of All Worlds had been formed, the most notorious American criminal of the decade—Charles Manson—was alleged to have been inspired by the book and the word “grok” entered into such common usage that eventually it would make its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.
What is perhaps most interesting about the timeline of Heinlein’s breakthrough into the mainstream for science fiction is that the book was simultaneously was hailed as one of the unofficial bibles of the Hippie movement while also attacked by critics for an underlying fascist ideology; an accusation against Heinlein’s writing most certainly not limited only to this novel.
Manson, the Hippies and the rest of those who found inspiration in Stranger in a Strange Land primarily found that inspiration in the character of Mike, better known as the Man from Mars. Mike belongs to that tradition which most notably includes Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and like that little guy, this man from space also serves as a Christ-figure whose mission of peace creates disciples as well those more than willing to take the chance on making him a martyr. The fictional Church of All Words prefigured the free love movement, immodest displays of public nudity and rejection of traditional religious morality and thus became not just a bible the counterculture movement in terms of laying out a philosophy, but as a book of prophecy of things which came to pass as well.
Stranger in a Strange Land earned Heinlein the 1962 Hugo Award for the best novel and the year and remains his all-time biggest selling book.