Can You Grok This? Stories of Strangers in a Strange Land, Part 1
July 7 would have been the 98th birthday of Robert Heinlein, the consummate science-fiction author best known for 1961 classic, Stranger in a Strange Land. In that story, a human man raised on Mars comes to Earth for the first time and sees the planet with completely new eyes.
To add another layer of fresh experiences, Heinlein coined several new words in the book, including “grok” (“understand,” in his imagined Martian dialect).
In Heinlein’s honor, we asked our NYPL librarians: What are some other books that speak to displacement—of being a stranger in a strange land?
Sci-Fi and Planetary Exploration
Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and the sequel Children of God tell the tale of a 21st-century Jesuit-led scientific mission to a far off planet with signs of intelligent life. Results are disastrous as innocent misunderstanding creates destructive change to a world and its two peoples and transforms the one scientist/priest who returns home a stranger in his own land. These haunt me. —Danita Nichols, Inwood
Sheri Tepper’s Grass is another book in this genre that I thoroughly enjoyed. The characters are human, and they use the same language that we do today, but they live on a planet that is not the Earth so that their “horses” are not horses; their “grass” is not grass. The reader is the stranger in a strange land. Tepper is a master of the written word so the story unfolds at her pace. No spoiler alert is necessary, but read it if you dare! —Virginia Bartow, Special Collections
Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood is a great companion piece to Stranger in a Strange Land, in which humans hope to re-populate a war-devastated earth with the help of mysterious aliens. —Judd Karlman, City Island
My favorite series in this genre is C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. It is about two cultures, a group of human “colonists,” and the Atevi who live on the planet that they “colonized.” Some have commented that the Atevi were the inspiration for the Na’vi in Avatar. The chance encounter with a third species, the Kyo, brings them together in an uneasy alliance. The premise, told primarily from the perspective of the stranger in a strange land, is about the assumptions that we make and the understanding that might result from persistent attempts to communicate and interact. —Virginia Bartow, Special Collections
The recent science-fiction novel (and soon to be a movie), The Martian by Andy Weir, is a nice companion to Heinlein’s classic. In the book, an astronaut becomes stranded on Mars and has to work with NASA, using science to survive. —Judd Karlman, City Island
“I lost my arm on my last trip home. My left arm. And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone.” Butler’s Kindred tells the harrowing story of Dana Franklin, a young African-American woman writer who is transported from 1970s Los Angeles to a slave community in antebellum Maryland. (P.S. Additional copies of this high-demand classic for the circulating collection are on order). —Miriam Tuliao, Selection Team
Jhumpa Lahiri is a master at capturing the stranger in a strange land experience. All of her books deal with the alienation and isolation new immigrants’ experiences—specifically Indians in American culture. Her first book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, is one of my favorites. —Susan Tucker Heimbach, Mulberry Street
Buchi Emechita’s Second-Class Citizen is a wonderful example of the hardships many immigrants face in moving to new countries. Adah, the book’s main character, feels compelled to move to Britain because of the promise of freedom that it represents to her young mind stuck in Nigeria. Once there, she realizes that any power or agency she thought she might have because she was in the “West” is nonexistant, and she’ll have to learn many hard truths to become a part of this new society. —Katrina Ortega, Hamilton Grange
I am midway through Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire). This sprawling and immersive tale of 19th-century India and Asia, in which every character flees or is taken from his or her home through indenture, crime, tragedy, poverty, adventure, and more. These characters, each caught up in the machinations of the East India Company and its opium trade with China, seek the safety of new homes and new friends, far from the country, caste, and customs in which they grew up. —Jessica Pigza, Rare Books
Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train follows the stories of two women, connected by similar pasts. Vivian Daly, an Irish immigrant, first finds herself in New York City before being shuttled to the Midwest on an orphan train. Decades later, foster child Molly Ayer moves from home to home, never settling in. When the two women cross paths, their experiences help them forge an unusual friendship. —Alexandria Abenshon, Countee Cullen
Travelogues to Real Places
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost doesn’t have much to do with sex lives or cannibals (unless you count the chapter on the life of dogs on the island of Tarawa) but it was an interesting anecdote about life on a tiny independent island in the Pacific. It is a really fun travelogue which humorously dispels the myths of paradise in the south Pacific. —Carmen Nigro, Milstein Division of United States History
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell. A lyrical and heartfelt historical fiction narrative of Willhemina (“Will”) Silver, who grew up half-wild on her father’s farm in Africa. Now she’s being shipped off to an English boarding school, far away from the land she loves, the people she loves, and the freedoms she's used to. The author pulls imagery and experience from her own childhood memories to create a story of longing and loneliness and a character who ultimately finds a way to be herself, even far from home. —Stephanie Whelan, Seward Park
I’d suggest the graphic novels of Lucy Knisley. Her travelogues: Displacement, about a cruise taken with her parents, and An Age of License, about a tour of Europe and Scandinavia, both fit the bill of being a stranger in a strange land. In addition, her memoir: Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, shows that she can grok a recipe. —Jenny Baum, Jefferson Market
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon is the story of an American writer in Eastern Europe chasing the story of an immigrant’s death over a century ago. Hemon had me hooked with this parallel story of an event in the past and the writer who was researching it. It’s the story of immigration in America, now and then; of post-Soviet Eastern Europe; and of the classic quest for the meaning of love, life, and home. —Carmen Nigro, Milstein Division of United States History
Stay tuned for Part 2, which features fantasy books, true stories of displacement, and more.
Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your picks! Leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend.