Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein, book of a lifetime

Scientist and author Jim Al-Khalili reveals how Heinlein's 1961 sci-fi novel influenced him

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The Independent Culture

I have etched into my psyche an obsession with books that began in my childhood growing up in Iraq in the 60s and 70s. For an obsessive reader like me it was hard to get hold of enough English books, so one of my favourite places in all the world was the small library at the British Council in Baghdad where I'd go with my mother and siblings as often as possible to borrow books, hoping that a new shipment had come in so that I might find a new world to immerse myself in.

By my mid-teens I had discovered science fiction. While I had enjoyed fantasies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogies, what I was looking for was something more "real", more "profound", to feed my growing fascination with science in general and physics and astronomy in particular. That's when one day – it must have been around the summer of 1978 – I found Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

This 1961 sci-fi novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars by Martians, who comes to Earth. Set in a post-third world war America where organized religions are far more politically powerful than today, the story explores Smith's interaction with, understanding of, and eventual transformation of culture on Earth. Apparently, it was based on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894), but with Martians instead of wolves bringing up a boy who is then immersed in what is to him an alien world.

Like many people who read it, I was profoundly influenced by this book. It forces the reader to reassess human emotions and the way we act on them through the spreading of ideas and ideologies, whether through wars or political power. Heinlein uses his character's childlike innocence to re-evaluate many of human society's most fundamental ideas, such as religion, money, monogamy, and the fear of death.

The story is of course escapist fun – with the hero having both psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence – and I am sure if I reread it today, I'd find it naïve and silly. But to a 16-year-old boy it was profound. Heinlein had of course meant to be deliberately provocative and the book did at the time generate considerable controversy.

Oh, it also introduced the world to such new words as "grok", meaning to "comprehend" or "love".

Jim Al-Khalili's latest book, co-written with Johnjoe McFadden, is 'Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology', published by Bantam Press (£20)