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Stranger in a Strange Land

A book by Robert A. Heinlein

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"Grok This, Earthbound Wastrels!"

  • Jul 9, 2010
The book shown in the picture on this product page is possibly a first paper edition, printed in 1961. No, it's not the one I've just read; I had to trot to a bookstore and buy a fresh copy. But there are 500-plus reviews posted on that new edition. Most promisingly bookish young people these days have read "Stranger in a Strange Land" by age 15 or 16. I didn't have that opportunity; I was already 20 in 1961, when it was published, but I read it soon after. I hadn't looked at it since that initial reading, until I found myself "sharing water" (actually red wine) with a college mate I hadn't seen in an equally long time. He caught me using the "Martian" word GROK -- a regular item in my vocabulary -- and knew its source, and that set us talking about science-fiction in general, this book in particular.

And now I've re-read Robert Heinlein's enduring 'classic' about a H. sapiens male raised by Martians (rather as Tarzan was raised by apes) and thus equipped with extraordinary powers, who returns to Earth utterly unprepared to think or act like a human. It's a great read, as people say nowadays, packed with imaginings and speculations. Some of the epiphanies almost convince me that the author had the blood of prophets. For instance, the Secretary General of the World Federation, a power-hungry but almost honorable politician of mediocre mind, is an absolute prototype of Ronald Reagan, complete with a wife who manages his decisions by consulting an astrologer, but Reagan hadn't even run for office when Heinlein wrote "SiSL". There are also scores of tech prophesies that have 'come true', but such things don't impress me as much; after all, Dick Tracy had his wrist radio in the 1940s. Heinlein does handle words very artfully; in fact, his writing style isn't a selling point, but his sentences crackle with almost hormonal excitement. It's easy to 'grok' why the book has sold a gazillion or two copies worldwide.

On the other hand, there's a lot of hokey-pokey in "Stranger in a Strange Land". The sexual escapades of Valentine Michael Smith are awfully pokey by our latter-day norms, neither sensuous nor graphic. Sexual freedom is one of the Martian's lessons for humanity, as propounded by Heinlein of course, but this jolly promiscuity (strictly hetero, by the way) is soooo 1960s! Oh well, I was in and of the '60s when I was in my twenties ... but now that I'm in my sixties, Heinlein's libidinous optimism seems mildly embarrassing. Sophomoric. Passé.

Heinlein's theological/metaphysical expatiations, which amount to more than half of the book, are also hokey/naive and his satire of religious cultism, his Fosterites, is pokey/slow. I have no idea whether Heinlein was knowledgeable about the original Giordano Bruno, but his notions of the plenitude of Life throughout the Cosmos are simplified Bruno, and his basic pantheism is much like an undisciplined extract from the thoughts of Baruch Spinoza. The Martian wisdom that Valentine Michael Smith hopes to teach Earthlings amounts to the realization that "God" is a synonym for Life, and that Life is God. But I don't want to sound too judgemental here; for a 15-year-old reader with normally uncomfortable doubts about the religious doctrines in which he's been raised, the humbug expressed in this sci-fi novel might be powerfully liberating.

The chief thing I remembered from my first reading -- the only thing I remembered, really -- was the notion of "grokking." And that notion is truly potent. GROK is a verb in Martian, for which no English verb is an adequate translation. Heinlein shilly-shallies at defining it; the first translator of Martian to English, Dr. Mahmoud, says: "Grok is the most important word in the language - and I expect to spend years trying to understand it.... You need to think in martian to grok the word 'grok." But in actual fact, even the dullest reader almost immediately grasps the simplest meaning, 'to perceive' or 'to comprehend'. It's 2010 now, and English has absorbed much of the conceptual vocabulary of modern physics, and I brashly think I can define GROK a little more clearly. Yes, it means 'perceive', but also to 'be perceived' reciprocally, empathetically, in a kind of quantum simultaneity, a timeless and total entanglement. So... does the word have a 'real' meaning? Does it represent a real occurrence? Sometimes, when I look at a full moon or a paper clip on my desk, I do have a moment of awareness that I sense to be close to grokking. I've always had a certain sense of "vocation" (I was raised as a Lutheran, and my grandmothers told me I had a vocation to become a pastor). My own first vocation, around age 16, was 'poet'. Then I felt called to be 'historian', and later to be 'social activist', and still later 'musician'. I was fooled by the latter; music became my career but if it had been really a 'vocation' I'd have written nine symphonies by now. A few years ago, for various reasons, I started to disengage from my career, to retire, to tend my garden like a rational Epicurean. That was when I discovered, at long last, my true vocation. I am a Grokker. I am called to Grokking, as some are called to preaching or martyrdom. Reading "Stranger in a Strange Land" again, after almost 50 years, has forced me to acknowledge that this pop sci-fi kid's book has probably been a formative influence on my life.

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More Stranger in a Strange Land reviews
review by . July 31, 2011
posted in Ubergizmo
In the 60s everyone wanted to
  In retrospect, Robert A. Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND seems quaintly sub-adult in its message, not much of a story, a very average "didactic" novel. In its decade, be it admitted, the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, STRANGER was on everyone's lips. Even today, in 2011, it is selling more strongly than probably 90% of the books still in print. What was its astonishing appeal 30 and 40 years ago? What gives it staying power, even if fading?   From what I …
Quick Tip by . February 23, 2011
posted in SF Signal
   I've only read this book oh, about 30 times - but I've been slacking of late;  I don't think I've re-read in the past five years or so.      For someone not familiar with Heinlein or his works, this novel is one of the must-reads for any SF fan who wants to seriously acquire the label.  It's considered to be a major contributor to 60's counter-culture and provides some interesting insights into our own society
review by . September 18, 2010
This was the first book by Robert Heinlein that I read and from reading the first paragraph I was sucked into the genius that is this author.      Heinlein's books are thought provoking, enigmatic and sometimes a bit wacky. They make you think then turn everything upside down and shake it around. Stranger in a Strange Land was a roller coaster of new discoveries and to this day remains one of my favorite books of all time.      Heinlein's writing …
Quick Tip by . November 06, 2010
Not for me. I had a hard time connecting with it. What did you like about it?
Quick Tip by . October 08, 2010
I told my children that they were not fully my children until they read this. They are all grateful.
Quick Tip by . October 05, 2010
What can I say? This is one of the all-time classics of all time, with pointed commentary on politics, society, religion and human sexuality.
Quick Tip by . September 29, 2010
This one was oddly addictive, embarrassingly unputdownable.
Quick Tip by . June 11, 2010
Worth reading every year or so, not just for the import of Heinlein's message, but also for the absolute FUN and joy of reading it. Never gets old. A must for any Heinlein reader - or sci-fi anti-establishment reader. ENJOY!
Quick Tip by . July 05, 2010
very interesting notion of a human minority raised by aliens and trying to adapt
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
Every person searching for himself would get a lot of help from this book. Imagine being a human on Mars, raised by Martians, then returning to Earth to see our culture (of the not-to-distant future). You'll get a completely new take on what it means to be human -- or, more accurately, "Thou art God." Read it to understand. Wonderful!
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Göran ()
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Stranger in a Strange Land, winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent: he has never seen a woman and has no knowledge of Earth's cultures or religions. But he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mentionde factoowner of the planet Mars. With the irascible popular author Jubal Harshaw to protect him, Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians. Ultimately, he confronts the fate reserved for all messiahs.

The impact of Stranger in a Strange Land was considerable, leading many children of the 60's to set up households based on Michael's water-brother nests. Heinlein loved to pontificate through the mouths of his characters, so modern readers must be willing to overlook the occasional sour note ("Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault."). That aside, Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the master's best entertainments, provocative as he always loved to be. Can you grok it? --Brooks Peck --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.

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ISBN-10: 0441788386
ISBN-13: 978-0441788385
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Publisher: Ace Trade
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